When I first went to Mysore in 2007 it was a huge culture shock. So many things in India are different to the way they are in Ireland; the noise, the food, the weather, the smells, the wildlife, the language, religion, sport, and socialising were all very different to home. Even the way Indian people drive was a shock!
I’d been to different European countries and I’d been, once, to the Middle East, but India was the most ‘foreign’ place I’d ever visited. There were, of course, some similarities. Ireland and India have a shared heritage as British colonies of course. And without doubt, no matter where you go in the world, you realise that, in reality, people are fundamentally the same.
Although the details of our lives may feel very different, at heart we share common hopes, dreams and aspirations. Everyone, at the end of the day, wants to be happy and to do what’s best for their family. The fundamental universality of our dreams, hopes and aspirations are what bind us together, despite the culture we find ourselves born into. We all want to live a life of purpose and meaning, with a healthy dose of love and laughter along the way.
When visiting another country, especially one whose culture is significantly different from one’s own, we expect to experience that culture shock. In fact, that’s often the reason we travel to other countries; to experience something new and interesting. So I was ready to be amazed and even discombobulated by my visit to India.
What I wasn’t ready for was that having spent a couple of months in Mysore, I would experience an even bigger culture shock on returning home to Dublin. Two months isn’t a very long time but when we experience new things our perception of time slows down (that’s why a few days holiday in the countryside can feel like two weeks). So when I got home I felt like I had been away for a long time.
I experienced everyday things at home very differently; the power shower in my apartment, brushing my teeth with tap water, the much stricter driving rules, the Irish drizzle versus the Indian monsoon.
I saw someone driving a Ferrari while I was walking up near Dalkey one afternoon and it blew my mind. How could somebody spend that amount of money on a vehicle when there were people living in slums in India?
Of course, after just a few weeks, my newfound wonder at our cultural and societal norms started to wear off and I went back taking it all for granted again. I stopped fully appreciating the clean water coming from my tap, or the year-round produce in the supermarket.
But every time I went to India I experienced the same thing. The novelty of being in India was always so interesting but I felt the shock of coming home more keenly. And I know that many of my friends who travelled to Mysore over the years experienced the same thing. I suppose that’s one of the reasons that they say travel broadens the mind. We see our homes with different eyes when we return.
I’m reminded of all of this because (in this part of the world at least) we are on the verge of a return to normality. We’ll start to live our everyday lives again soon as our society reopens after the latest (and hopefully the last) lockdown. It feels different this time; like we might actually see the end of this pandemic sometime in the not-too-distant future.
But we have to be cognisant of the fact that we are all going to experience a shock when we do get back to normal. Yes, there will be an outpouring of relief and joy, and we will certainly not be sad to see the back of this whole thing, but it will take us time to adjust, and maybe it won’t all be as straightforward as we think.
The greatest culture shock is always when we see our own lives through the prism of lived experience. The old will seem new again and we might not be fully ready. But we will get there and we’ll be doing it together.
We’re absolutely dying to see you all again in the shala, whenever that may be.
Tears of joy will be shed.