By Hannah Jones
Mumbai airport has the strange effect of making you feel like a superstar as soon as you set foot in International Arrivals. You’ve been traveling for 48 hours, your hair is now standing up without the assistance of any product, and your clothing emanates the stale scent particular to a cabin after an overnight flight. All of this being as it is and yet the meticulous cosmopolitan atmosphere of the empty terminal makes you feel as if it is the deep breath before the storm of photographers awaiting your arrival in the blinding white of the sandstone courtyard. You have approximately thirty minutes to savor this illusion of glamour before you are through customs, have collected your bags, your driver has collected you, and you ascend the ramp to the Mumbai highway. Five more minutes and you are now driving through the outskirts of the world’s largest slum. The way your stomach drops when the little girl with no hand knocks on your window in deadlock traffic and asks for change is unprecedented, but it is not yet a symptom of culture shock.
You have been in India for nearly a week and are visiting a leprosy colony. Here, a man whose fifteen-year-old son recently died of polio invites you and your companions into the front room of his two room home with great sincerity. His wife prepares chai, she is smiling, always smiling and you cannot find the sadness in her eyes because she is so glad that you have come to visit, but you know it will be there once you have gone. Neither of them speak any English, but they listen with rapt attention as you find some paltry words of sympathy for their loss and equally limp words of thanks for their hospitality. You are secretly glad that they do not speak your language and try to give them greater honesty with your eyes as you slip on your sandals and depart. A hand on your shoulder, the translator explains that the father wants the young woman from the West to encourage his thirteen year old daughter to stay in school. Her parents will never be accepted- touched by a disease that has long since left them, they will never be contagious again, and yet their isolation is complete. They cannot read their own language. They want more for this pretty girl than the life that often waits for a pretty girl in the third world. She is still a child, not so good at hiding the sadness in her eyes- her brother was supposed to carry the hopes of this family on his shoulders. She does not feel ready. She does not feel she will ever be ready. The exhaustion that sets in after you have departed is as visceral, if less violent, than the horror of your first day driving through the slum, but this bone-tired feeling is culture shock.
You have been in India for three weeks and your students are so bright, there is so much in them – they are still young enough that their only asset is love. They bully and make peace and tumble and stand up again and again. They learn so quickly, they grasp what many children back home do not – education is a game, an ever-present and thrilling state of play. Many of them eat their only meal of the day in the school. They serve each other. No one eats until someone else has begun to be made full. In watching them at this routine, you are made full. During the day, the bruises and cigarette burns, the half-attendance, are a part of the day. Underneath the Indian sun, the days have no pale hours, no shadows complete enough for imagination to escape into. But in going back to the apartment, where you dream on their smiles and tears with equal weight, you wake up in the middle of the night and are the emptiest you have ever been. You are angry and guilty and sorry, so sorry. This too is culture shock.
You have been in India in month and just now has it begun to be a part of you, instead of apart from you. Up until now, the dogs warring outside your window, the complete sonic confusion at all hours, the scents and sights have driven you to swim against the current. It is contrary, all contrary, to what you know, but now you have begun to know. You pick up a word here and there. The colors are as bright as the nights are dark. The heat does not so willfully invade because you have begun to notice the breeze. You do not come home from the school with the sneaking sensation that you cannot bear it, you cannot bear the current of sadness, the completeness of the poverty. You have begun to realize it is just life and that it hurts and elates in its own time and that it unfolds to reveal that it is much the same at its core, no matter where you are. You sleep through entire nights. This is adjustment.
Hannah Jones is a certified Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) instructor currently working to improve English literacy among slum children in a community in India. People can follow her adventures and mishaps on her travel blog at: http://bookingpassage.wordpress.com