On Traveling: How India has strengthened my sense of self
There’s always something to learn in the unexpected experiences we find ourselves in while traveling.
By Nivita Sriram, Contributor
During the pandemic, we can’t help but reminisce about the places we’ve been, the places we want to go, and the places we miss. For me, I’m always reminiscing about Chennai, and India as a whole. Not only do I miss Chennai and my family, but I often think about how visiting India frequently has shaped me into who I’ve become. My childhood was shaped by summers spent in Chennai with my grandparents, cousins, and extended family members. During grade school and high school, summers were synonymous to time in India. In college, my parents and I spent time in India during the 2-3 weeks of winter break.
As I grow older, I’ve learned to take the positive aspects of Indian culture and *try* to implement the warmth in my daily life. I will say, I’ve never felt the shame that I know many other Indian-American peers have felt of their Indian identity — but I have felt ashamed, confused, and a little irritated that India has never been shown in a positive or nuanced way in western media. I wanted to share some reflections that have been on my mind about South Asian and western cultures and how my travel experiences in India have had a profound impact on my perspective on life.
photo credit: Nivita Sriram
1. Travel has helped me feel grounded and connected to my family roots, and history.
Having family members I’m close with had a positive impact on the way I experienced India while growing up. There is something about being in the country your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, ancestors were born and raised in. For me, there’s always a deep sense of connection — and peace of mind — that comes with being in India. Although it’s chaotic, I’m my happiest self when I’m in my grandparents’ home, chatting with my cousin while drinking coffee and reading the morning newspaper.
I might be sentimental, but having roots I can connect with has given me a sense of confidence and belonging as I get older.
The ability to visit family frequently in India has been an immense privilege in my life. Although I may have not seen the benefits when I was younger, I carry the memories, and connection to my roots with me.
2. In the west, there is such a lack of understanding of the richness of South Asian culture that is prevalent around the world.
With India in particular: it isn’t monolithic in the way that western media portrays it to be. Each state and region of India holds its own culture, languages, fashion, food, and more. The lack of accurate and inclusive representation impacts the way people in the west view South Asia, and South Asians, mostly negatives: often neglected, misunderstood, monolithic, dirty, poor, and corrupt. While these negatives exist (in every country, even in the west), there is so much about South Asia that people are completely unaware of.
For Indian-Americans who visit India regularly, it’s important for them to paint India in a holistic light and share their experiences, so that people see different aspects that the media doesn’t show. I’ve been trying my best in showcasing my favorite parts of India while visiting family and traveling around the country to visit new cities and states.
photo credit: Nivita Sriram
India is full of emotion, chaos, spunk, character, contradiction, deep rooted culture, history, and more.
The sights of bustling crowds, bright colors, intricately designed Kovils/Mandirs (Hindu temples) that have been standing for hundreds—if not thousands—of years, the sounds of different languages spoken at the speed of light, the evening prayer call from the Masjids, the fruit seller attempting to sell his goods on every street, the smell of spices from street food carts (honestly...I think we invented the concept of food carts!), and of course, the comforting, soul satisfying smell of my grandmothers’ cooking. My senses are always tingling in India. I could go on forever, and as I write this, I can’t help but smile.
3. I wish western culture would adopt some of the warmth of eastern culture, if anything.
There’s something I’ve found universal within India: warmth. That warmth is something I can’t find anywhere else in the world.
You find this in the embraces you experience from unknown people, their desire to help you regardless if you’re taking time out of their day, the way you’ll never leave someone’s house hungry. Mothers, aunties, and grandmothers will make sure you're uncomfortably full. I didn’t realize when I was younger, but now I know why my parents always ask visitors if they’ll have at least a glass of water, juice, or a hot cup of chai before leaving our home. Now when friends come over, I find myself forcing them (like a true aunty) to eat something or have a drink before they leave. It’s part of Desi culture.
As we know, eastern culture is rooted in community. There’s positives and negatives to both individualist and collectivist cultures. However, the sense of selflessness I’ve had experiences with in India is irreplaceable; not to say that my friends in the U.S. aren’t like that, they certainly are. Some of my closest friends are friends I’ve made out of my cousin’s college and grade school friends: these are people I see for a few days once a year, but the bond is irreplaceable. There’s always been an instant connection, and the way they care deeply for one another, and others they don’t know, is something I’ve always admired. They make Chennai feel like home. My cousin and her friends who are so close to my heart have helped me explore Chennai in a fun way — and I only wish others could see this very real side of India, too.
4. Travel teaches you many things you may not learn otherwise. You learn a lot about yourself:
You learn to be flexible. You hone in on your adaptability, street-smarts, thinking on your feet, fully trusting others, and the hardest of them all, learning to let go of things out of your control. For those living in a western society, we’re used to everything being (relatively) in our control. In places like India, it’s quite difficult to control outcomes regardless of your intentions. You may go to the small corner store thinking they’ll have stock of an item, but chances are that they’ll be out of stock — the supplier is out of town, you have to go to the next store, who doesn’t seem to have it, they’ll give different directions, etc. To put it quite frankly, sh*t won’t go your way. Just accept it, move on, and be flexible.
photo credit: Nivita Sriram
You’ll be uncomfortable, a lot. Being in a new place can be scary, and going to the Global South can be quite a culture shock. It looks very different, people speak many different languages, and the culture is not the same. While being uncomfortable is totally normal — and warranted — I think it’s important to immerse yourself in the culture. Talk to locals with respect, and learn and listen. It isn’t others’ fault that you’re uncomfortable (unless they are causing some direct harm to you). You are an outsider to the very people who look different to you. They don’t necessarily owe you anything, and the faster you accept that, the easier it is to move comfortably in unknown territory.
There’s always something to learn in these unexpected experiences we find ourselves in while traveling (unless you, your safety, or your health has been compromised, of course).
Traveling is humbling. It becomes blatant how little you actually know, compared to what you think you know about the world.
I’ve learned to admit that I don’t know ‘everything’ — which I believe is a major part of growth.
On top of this: recognize that you do not know more about someone’s country than they do. We may have our ideals, morals, and values set in stone, but that may not necessarily work in the new country you’re visiting. The rest of the world operates quite differently; and this doesn’t make eastern cultures and countries ‘less than.’
5. Sharing our stories is a wonderful way for people to learn firsthand about different ways of living and thought processes.
Writing, social media content, podcasts, photographs, film, and art can lead to more diversity, inclusion, equity, and understanding of our world. I can only hope that more individuals from non-Western countries and regions are inspired and encouraged to share their experiences. I hope that individuals whose origins lay in western countries actively seek out differing perspectives — especially those belonging to individuals originating from eastern cultures.
My all-time favorite blogger is Afshan Nasseri (@lifesforliving), who creates nuanced content on Indo-Western fashion, travel, and history. I may be slightly biased since I work with her, but I was immediately attracted to her page back in 2017 for a certain reason: she encapsulates the warmth of India’s culture and history in a thoughtful way. Afshan’s experiences relate so closely to how I experience India and approach my culture as well.
There’s value in learning, consuming, and re-informing yourself about other countries and cultures.
photo credit: Nivita Sriram
End Note: Now more than ever, I’m more confident in my skin and proud of my heritage & culture.
Travel has helped inform me of how I want to live my life, how I would try and raise a family, and how I want to interact with the world around me. Witnessing inequality, suppression, and lack of opportunity has made me more grateful, humbled, and truly appreciative of the way I was raised, where I’m living, and how I’m able to live my life.
Being in other countries, in uncomfortable and unexpected situations has helped me grow emotionally, and more tolerant and accepting of different ways of life, ways of operating, and handling things out of my control. I learned to accept at a young age that things won’t always go my way, and it’s not necessarily my fault — it’s just how the world works sometimes, and that’s okay.
The world is at your fingertips with the phone in your palm, why not take advantage of it?
About — Nivita Sriram is a freelance digital marketer based in the Pacific Northwest. She studied Marketing and Psychology in college, and fell in love with freelancing as Digital Marketing Strategist + Account Manager at LifesforSocial. Nivita re-discovered her passion for reading and writing during quarantine. Bridging the gap between America and India is something Nivita is working towards every day, and she’s constantly looking for new ways to learn more about herself, her heritage, and history —while using her knowledge of marketing and social media to tell her story.