Bhojn-Samay: Finding Comfort While Embracing My New Surroundings

To your average Hindi/Urdu speaker, the title of this blog might seem strange or perhaps unintelligible. It would certainly be in need of some explaining. To me, and other Hindi-learners from the U.S. however, these two words make perfect sense: “food time!” As someone who is personally passionate about cooking food and learning the historical and personal stories behind someone’s food preferences and traditions, hearing “food-time” or “dinner-time” elicits a sense of intrigue. When 1 o’clock hits and it’s time to see, taste and share the vast array of food my coworkers at the Aga Khan Foundation compiled for lunch, my Hindi-learning brain thinks, “Bhojn Samay!” But as I said, Bhojn-Samay is the most unlikely of word combinations to a native Hindi speaker.

I was extremely happy to celebrate Diwali with my friend and colleague, current AIF Fellow Shivani Sharma. Her family kindly welcomed me into their home and taught me about their traditions for the festival. In this picture I am helping to light the diyas or oil lamps to decorate their home.

Aside from the fact that this example reveals how my thoughts and attempts at speaking Hindi speech remain very much “Anglicized,” it also points to one of the many ways I merge my own upbringing and life in the states with my life in Delhi. When I first stepped foot in India in 2016, I was determined to immerse myself as much as possible. I took an online Hindi course for two months prior to my departure, I ‘googled’ the area I would be staying in and read as many books as I could by Indian authors. Upon arriving, I said yes to every new experience, I bought kurtas and I took courses in Indian classical dance. To me, staying with a host family and spending four months constantly immersing myself was the only “real” way to “experience India.” Although I think I continue to say yes to just about everything and seek out as many new learning experiences as possible, returning to India for a third time, I also find myself more accepting of and intrigued by the little ways I create familiarity and comfort.

Let’s start with a simple example: I love making rotis: I find them fun, efficient and delicious staples in many different Indian cuisines. But I also love putting globs of peanut butter, a staple in the U.S., on my fresh roti. If I’m feeling fancy, I will go and buy some herbed olive oil or goat cheese from my local videshi (foreigner) store and use that. Of course I also eat them with more traditional sabzis, but there is a feeling of comfort and nostalgia that comes from these simple homages to my childhood and food traditions in the States.

I also love visiting mandirs, masjids, dargahs and gurudwaras. I love exploring the local but often less familiar traditions of the city, neighborhood and street I live on. However, sometimes a fancy cafe with a black iced coffee can feel like a spiritual escape from the stresses of living in Delhi.

I also try to read books like India After Gandhi, listen to podcasts from the Indian Express, or  translate the local Hindi paper. However, I am not ashamed to admit that from time to time, I thoroughly enjoy sitting in my bed and reading Harry Potter: a simple but poignant reminder of home for me.

One of the Rongolis I helped create for the office Diwali Celebration

During my first trip to India, these more Western practices were ones that I rarely, if ever, indulged in. I felt a sense of fear missing out on something more “authentic.” However, as an AIF Clinton Fellow, I spend almost all of my time immersed in a community entirely different from what I am accustomed to. Working, rather than studying abroad, means that there are no other Western study abroad students sitting next to me at my desk. As a result, I am challenged to listen a lot more and try to parse out information from rapid Hindi conversations. Instead of jumping into a dialogue with my coworkers as I might in the States, I stay silent and quickly jot down unfamiliar words from a lunchtime conversation about a corruption scandal so that I can study them later. There is no study abroad “program coordinator” to throw a Thanksgiving party or fellow videshi to laugh with as you feel completely out of place in the metro.

Don’t get me wrong: I am excited by the opportunity to be uncomfortable, to learn on the fly and adapt to new challenges. This is a major reason why I applied to and ultimately accepted this Fellowship. However, there are also moments where I want to feel familiar. And, unlike my previous outlook during my studies in Pune and Jaipur, I am beginning to see that exploring ways to find familiarity in a foreign environment is not at all “inauthentic” but rather completely natural. In fact, I now find myself marveling at the fascinating new ways I merge my life in the states with my life in India. I am accepting that developing sources of comfort in the midst of unfamiliarity can be just as fascinating and thought provoking as constantly stepping outside of my comfort zone.

Prior to serving as an AIF Clinton Fellow, I interviewed a variety of individuals who traveled to the United States to pursue higher education. Each found ways prior to, and during their lives in the States, to maintain their connection with home. For example, every single one of the individuals I interviewed shared with me that they brought an Indian pressure cooker with them to the United States. They knew that in order to feel a sense of normalcy in their day-to-day lives, they needed to be able to access the same tools that guided their food traditions in India.

Of course, I continue to believe that it is important for me to adjust to my host society and culture. One of my biggest pet peeves that I try really hard to avoid, is being too much of a burden on the people I meet in India. I want to be a part of my friends and coworkers routines rather than enforce my own. However, as I journey further into this Fellowship, I also find myself learning a lot from seeking out the most familiar version of myself from time to time.

In addition to learning more, I am also finding that I can be just as, if not more successful at forging relationships when I don’t hide those very things that people in India might find bizarre and unusual. For example, I brought a homemade vegetarian chilli with cornbread to my office for lunch one day. While I expected people to politely try, but not really enjoy it, many of my coworkers found it delicious. This small gesture of sharing myself with my community led to conversations about my food traditions, my family and even my childhood spent playing in the snow. These conversations were then reciprocated as my friends shared similar or entirely different memories and traditions with me.

While you might be thinking “well duh Dan, don’t try to be someone you’re not!” balancing your authentic self with your host environment can sometimes be easier said than done. As an AIF Fellow, I am here for 10 months: a relatively long period of time to be a foreigner in India. I want to fit in, respect my surroundings and certainly not burden my friends and coworkers with my foreign presence. As the outsider, I need to try and adjust rather than expect others to adjust for me. What I am learning more this year however, is that embracing the fact that I am different from my surroundings rather than purely feeling the need to adjust is just as important.

For me, learning and exploring a new society always meant total immersion. Absolute integration was the goal and anything less defeated the purpose of studying, working or living in a foreign culture. However, I have never had the opportunity to work rather than study in a foreign environment. My whole life in Delhi is rooted in friendships, interactions and projects with people from vastly different backgrounds than my own. Rather than being able to find some semblance of comfort in a familiar, Western classroom as I have during prior experiences abroad, I am constantly pushed outside of my comfort zone. After three months in Delhi and multiple experiences in India, I finally feel like I am striking a balance between the things that ground me and the things that push me to break away from predictability.

Although striking the right balance between roti and peanut butter can be difficult, when it works, I promise that it is a delicious and liberating combination.

I was lucky enough to have a wonderful visitor from Leh for Thanksgiving. You may recognize her as the “one and only” AIF Fellow Alexandra May Barteldt. We made many Thanksgiving classics and my coworkers graciously helped me clean up the leftovers at lunch the next day.

References: 

Guha, Ramachandra. India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy. New York: Harper Perennial, 2008.

Dan graduated with his undergraduate degree in international relations and Asian studies from Saint Joseph’s University in Pennsylvania. Dan spent four months studying at the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics in Pune, India, where he conducted research on public perceptions of Pune’s LGBTQ community and pursued course work on India’s political, economic and social development in the 21st century. Dan also participated in the U.S. Department of State’s Critical Language Scholarship program, studying Hindi in Jaipur. In between semesters studying at Saint Joseph’s, Dan thoroughly enjoyed working for the International Institute of New England, where he assisted in the resettlement of refugees in the greater Boston area. In addition, he interned with the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia where he taught youth in under-resourced middle schools about international affairs and prepared them for Model United Nations conferences. In his free time, Dan especially enjoys traveling, cooking, hiking and coaching athletics for children. Through the AIF Clinton Fellowship, Dan is extremely excited to further expand his experience working with youth as well as his knowledge of South Asian languages and Indian society.

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