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Zaubi tells tales from study abroad in India

September 9, 2011

Photo courtesy of Sarah Zaubi - Junior Sarah Zaubi poses in front of one of the many examples of Indian architecture seen during her trip, wearing quarter-length sleeves and long pants despite temperatures averaging 90 degrees. Zaubi is currently participating in the fall semester study abroad program in India, through Monmouth College and the Associated Colleges of the Midwest.

Dead puppies are a grim start to anything, and not wholly indicative of my experience here thankfully, but it’s a good place to start. Really, any long term stay in a foreign country is going to have its highs and lows, but India seems to have its own extra grim set of lows. This is probably why, when four cute little puppies showed up at my school a few days ago, I immediately (and unsuccessfully) tried to distance myself from them. India is a cruel place for animals, and for dogs especially if the half starved mongrels that limp through the streets are any indication, so I kind of assumed at least one of those puppies would die a gruesome death. While this ended up being true (I won’t depress you with the details) India is, if anything, a place of contrast. The same day I found one of the puppies dead by my school was also probably one of the best days I’d had before hand. I had a great yoga class (I know, I know, yoga in India), cooked my own Indian food, had a great conversation with my Ai, and went to a festival. Highs and lows, life goes on. In just four short (but very long) weeks, I’ve seen some of the most breath-taking natural and man-made beauty I’ve every seen, and some of the most disturbing natural and man-made poverty and illness.

On my way to lunch I pass a homeless woman wrapped in rags sleeping on a tarp in the street. It’s a strange feeling, walking to my deliciously hot and spicy lunch (for which I pay about a dollar for), and passing this woman who probably doesn’t have even that. She eats the same rice everyday, but I suppose she’s lucky in that. Most of the children don’t seem to have that. A few days ago I was followed for almost two blocks by a little girl (probably seven or eight), tugging and pulling on my clothes, begging for food. She took one look at my pearly white face and knew that money was nearby. I relented and bought her some food (I was sick of ignoring them like we’ve been told to), but I had to use a 500 rupee note to buy it, which could probably feed her for a month. Naturally all of this was happening during Ganpati, one of the most fun and foreign festivals I’ve been to so far. Contrast remember?

It really is everywhere: In the architecture, in the people, in the atmosphere. Women who live in corrugated tin huts (with satellite TV) wear some of the most beautiful saris I’ve seen here. And they may not have clothes for their children, but I guarantee you they have gold around their necks. The roads make absolutely no sense, and charity is scarce, but three times already I’ve asked for directions from a complete stranger and seen them go completely out of there way to physically lead me where I need to go. This is the most independent I’ve ever been, but the first few weeks I was utterly dependent on my school staff and host family to teach me how to eat, speak, walk, and travel. Most notably, during the weeks I spent wading through Indian bureaucracy, at one point I was just sitting in a police station while my host mom spoke in Marathi the entire time trying to fix everything. All I did was sit and smile while my Ai made sure I could remain in the country. It’s been the most frustrating time of my life — but also the most elating, fun, challenging, and interesting part of my life.

Still, dead puppies don’t really attest to the fun side of my experience, so I’ll leave you with a story that won’t surprise anyone who knows me (probably) but should be entertaining at least.

I may have to change the title of this article to “Sarah Zaubi: an exercise in cultural sensitivity.” I say this because I seem to be making a lot of blunders in my efforts to integrate into the culture yet still enjoy touristy things. That is the only introduction I need to give.

Let me qualify my story with a few clarifications. My Ai is a lovely woman, and she has been very sensitive to my slow and painful transition to Indian food and weather, especially the first few days when I was eating plain white rice like an African refugee and chewing Pepto tablets like they were their own food group. None of this, I’m sure, made for pleasant company, but she cheerfully took me around town and put me on a food plan where she will steadily increase the spiciness of my food so I don’t die.

What a wonderful lady.

On that note, there are some cultural aspects that don’t really translate. For one, despite the fact that Indians throw their garbage EVERYWHERE, regardless of whether that place is a priceless historical landmark or the garden next to their house, they don’t waste a drop of food (read: Contrast). They always clean their plates (including using their hands to wipe up and lick their plates), and save every drop of tea or coffee that they don’t drink. Which is why, when I saw that about 300 small ants had found their way into my Ai’s chapatti tin, I thought, “Oh no! I know how much they don’t like to waste food, what a shame they have to throw it all out.” I wasn’t prepared then, when my Ai picked the chapatti out of the dish and began to dust the ants off onto the kitchen floor. When there were only about five or six ants on the chipatti, she tossed about three onto my plate.

To eat.

Not wanting to seem ungrateful or offend my hostess, I gamely picked up a piece, dusted the ants off, and took a bite. No problem, I thought, I’m not going to let a little extra protein get to me. But it did. It really really did. I sat there, a lump of chapatti sitting in my mouth, ants crawling over the kitchen table frantically searching for their mother lode of food, and I just couldn’t do it. But I’d taken a piece already, and I couldn’t just put it back. DILEMMA.

Just then, the phone rang, forcing my Ai to leave the kitchen to answer it, and leaving me with an unknown amount of time to try and solve the dilemma. I couldn’t throw it in our trashcan, she’d find it. I couldn’t put it in my pocket, my jeans were too tight. So I did the only thing I could think of: I shoved it into the waistband of my jeans.

“I’m done with dinner anyway, I can just get up when my Ai comes back in, then throw it into my trashcan, which I empty.”

What I didn’t count on was my Ai making more food, wanting to chat, or the ants in my pants being biters. Which led to me spending almost twenty minutes trying not appear in pain or fidgety. Needless to say, I was able to sprint back to my room and rid myself of ants, but that should give you a pretty good idea of how much I didn’t want to offend my lovely hostess.

Sarah Zaubi
Contributing Wrtier

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2 Responses to Zaubi tells tales from study abroad in India

  1. Ruby

    September 12, 2011 at 10:53 pm

    I just read this article and was very dissapointed and upset. I feel that she just looked upon the bad things and didnt state anything good. She knew what she signed up for. And frankly this just seems ingnorant to me that all she wrote was bad stuff about the country. Majority of the same stuff happens here in the states and nobody publishes those facts. There are plenty of homeless people here in America. As the sole indian student of the monmouth community I was just offended by this. Im wondering what kind of people would even publish this. Is it okay for me to write and article about how crappy I think american Is…NO. So why is it okay for something like this to be published.

  2. Sarah Zaubi

    September 15, 2011 at 2:42 am


    I’m very sorry you feel that way about the article. I wrote about predominantly negative experiences (predominantly, not solely) because they are the experiences that have stood out the most starkly to me. I did have good things to say about India, but I’m sorry if you felt the negative comments overwhelmed them. You are correct, I did know what I signed up for, to experience a culture different from my own and be challenged, and I got that.

    At no point did I ever indicate in my article (which is an opinion piece I might add) that I thought that the United States was in any way superior to India, that India was “crappy,” or that there weren’t homeless people in the United States. On the contrary, I think India is way more upfront with the problem, while in the U.S. the problem is largely ignored. I’m also very sorry that you feel you cannot express your discontent with the United States as a foreign student. On the contrary, I think your position as a foreign student provides you with a unique lens through which to see the United States. I encourage you to try and write for the Courier, as I believe your opinions and view point would be a valuable resource for Monmouth College. Also, to answer your final comment: Newspapers frequently publish critical pieces on culture and politics in America, by both foreign and domestic authors.