Adulting in India

Posted on July 30, 2017

The Way of NYC

When I first moved to New York City, someone older and wiser than I gave me the following “rules” of New York City:

I found this to be extremely true in New York City. It was stressful and exhausting, and I was broke and living off an advance I’d gotten from my then-employer, living in AirBnB’s I could put on credit card, where I could maybe stay in each for a month, tops. I was continuously getting lost, having to take trains home, learning some trains don’t run as reliably as you’d like, or go to the stations claimed on the map. This was in the pre-Uber days where the way to get a car service was to go to the local bodega and ask them for the phone number of a car service.

Meanwhile, you can see my naïveté and country bumpkin-nature when I tell you I was looking for a room (in a shared apartment) for < $900 in Manhattan, south of 50th St. It turns out that this is possible but you don’t actually want it.

Now, 7 years later, I’m a real New Yorker. A friend recently told me that she is now, after achieving her 2nd Anniversary as a New York resident, a “real” New Yorker. Given that I am the one usually asking her for advice on where to go out to eat, this seems slightly suspicious. Unlike the small town where I grew up in (for a big chunk of my childhood, and where my parents grew up for their entire childhood), where it took at least 3 generations to be considered a local (I counted as one), New York integrates people quickly and somewhat harshly. You learn to swim lest you sink.

And, contrary to my 21-year old self who was terrified of living in NYC (a small slice of childhood there was not enough to calm my fears), I am now apprehensive about my ability to adult anywhere else. I don’t have a driver’s license, though I am assured it’s not hard to get one. I don’t get driving culture. A former fellow parishioner of my old church in Bay Ridge used to be bothered by the fact that her coworkers in her new town of Ithaca wouldn’t go out for drinks after work with her — until she realized it was because they would have to drive home subsequently. And, of course, I am no longer used to the extreme amounts of reputation management everyone in a small town has to continually do or else gain a poor reputation — I come off as a contempt-worthy city person to strangers back home now.

The Language of Life

Well, here I am in India. I definitely don’t know how to adult here.

I don’t speak the language, and I’ve been assured many times that I don’t have to. Reactions to my statements that I want to learn Hindi range from “That’s really sweet of you,” as if I was condescending to do everyone a favor or “Why not learn X other language?” where X ranges from the spiritual depths of Sanskrit to the purported practicality of French.

Everybody in India speaks English anyway, I’m told. I have Wikipedia. Only about a third of people in Gurgaon speak English. But yeah, that’s basically “everybody,” right?

Originally, the real reason to learn Hindi was because I’m a big nerd, which I explain to people: I’m in a place where they speak another language, which makes it an ideal time to learn as much of the langauge as possible. However, the more time I spend here, the more I realize that Hindi skills would be very practical.

See, not only do I not speak the language well enough to adult, but there are other elements of society I don’t know how to navigate. And the expectation seems to be, as far as I can tell, that I not navigate or learn to navigate those elements of society — or rather that I navigate them through service workers ready to stand as my mediators.

This makes sense for anyone travelling anywhere on business, but it can be a bit extreme here. For example, when I realized that not only had I not packed a power cord converter, but there were none to be found in the airport, I asked the front desk person at the place I’m staying where I could go to buy one. Once he determined what I was talking about, got me to wait and showed me several things that they had around that were not the thing I was looking for, assured me, very accommodatingly, “I arrange it.” When I asked for clarification, he said “I go to market and buy it.”

This is not what I was expecting! I wanted it to be the next thing I did, as my phone was about to die and my Kindle and laptop had already died and what else was I going to do with my time? And for jetlag-prevention purposes, I definitely wanted to stay awake and be active.

And furthermore, I was a bit nervous about the practical aspect. Not only had none of the things he’d hopefully shown me met my requirements, I had little confidence in my ability to communicate the actual requirements to him. I had assumed that, like most people born in India that I would meet in the US, the accent was just what English sounded like in India and he would have proficiency, if not native-level proficiency, in English. This was quickly proven false. What if he went to the market and bought something completely different from what I wanted? And in the meantime I’m still couped up with little to nothing to do.

When I’m being driven by an English speaking driver, he asks the locals for directions in Hindi. When I ask for a charger cord, someone goes and buys it at the market, speaking Hindi. When I go out to eat, I meet an English-speaking corporate employee who can translate what the waiter is saying in Hindi. When I order food in my apartment, I ask the front desk person, who relays the order on to the cooks, in Hindi. This is what was meant when I was told I didn’t need to learn Hindi – others around me would speak it for me, and translate to some relevant level of English.

For the record, no one here knows what a fritter is even if they put it on your menu. They’ll think you’re saying “fried rice.”

It’s clear that if I actually wanted to adult in Gurgaon, rather than just visit as a pampered corporate employee from the US, I would have to learn Hindi.

The Rules of India

Whether or not I speak the language, India is an interesting place. Signing up for Hindi lessons, I had originally planned on using a a company called Zabaan. Zabaan is an Urdu word, as all my colleagues were eager to point this out to me, but their worries were assuaged when I told them that the organization also taught Urdu and other languages.

I filled out the forms to book an appointment, even though the classes were all the way in Delhi, an hour’s drive away. In the process, I registered a username and password for an account, and entered my local address, what course I was interested in, who was paying the ~$20/session fee, my NYC address, my other language proficiencies, my first crush, my favorite color, and my hat size.

Oof, that was exhausting, I said to myself after having created my account and set and double-set my password. But at least now I shan’t have to enter that again… Whoops! My credit card is declined, let me go back to the previous page, no, can’t do that, where’s it take me, back to the beginning.

After a brief online detour to Chase Bank, I’m ready to try again. No worries, I just created an account, supposedly successfully; I’ll just log into that and I’m sure I can just fix the payment information… What, my account’s gone? You have to run your credit card correctly to get it to save anything?

I wrote them an e-mail, they never replied, they lost a customer. I hate websites and web design issues in the US, but this was a bit extreme.

Speaking of non-replying to e-mail situations, the priest/pastor/vicar, or achen in local terminology, never got back to me about church services after I e-mailed him on Tuesday. The website said that anyone was welcome to show up at 7:30AM, so show up I did. After getting directions to a (much more organized) Evangelical church (please I’d like to participate in a 2000 year old tradition of worshipping in Spirit and Truth, not go to a mediocre concert), we (driver Sunil and I) eventually got ourselves sorted out right and found the place.

The church looked close. Sunil had a conversation with someone in Hindi, who then informed both Sunil and myself that mass was at 8:30AM. We killed time by getting coconut water, and then returned. It was still closed. I called the achen and asked if his church was open today. “No.” I could hear the full stop after the word. Of course the church wasn’t open.

You ever heard the cliché “legal as church on Sunday” or “as common as church on Sunday”? I was a bit concerned for a minute that in India they didn’t believe in Sundays, that they had church on Tuesdays instead, in spite of the whole concept of a 7-day week being a Judeo-Christian tradition in its origin and so clearly if India had weeks at all and churches at all they would bloody well have church on Sundays unless I had accidentally fallen in with Seventh-Day Adventists who think that people who go to church on Sundays are all going to hell and are the anti-Christ in which case maybe I should just go home.

I don’t remember what exactly I said to get the achen to continue, but I remember hearing that because it was the sixth Sunday of the month (I’m sure he said fifth, but I heard sixth) everyone was at the combined service in Delhi (!).

I am never e-mailing anyone in India again. Phone is probably better and smarter. I think it was the achen’s cell phone, which I suppose makes sense. I can probably message him on WhatsApp.

Which leads me to my rules of India:

At least it’s cheap and people seem to be friendly and helpful and of good will. If I had to rewrite the rules of NYC, it would be:

The first and third of those, at least, are not true in India.