All alone in India

A few months ago, intimidated by competitive chat about Goldman and BAML and online maths tests, I decided I wanted to do an internship in India.  I set about finding something CV-worthy and out-of-the-box, lucrative and cultural. The best of both worlds, I thought. And so I found myself an internship at a well-regarded international publishing company with offices just outside Delhi. They would send me to one of their luxury eco-lodges in the Himalayas for a long weekend, and then give me the project of writing and designing a website to market their properties to western holiday-makers. The dream, I thought smugly, a free mountain holiday and a few weeks in Delhi while my friends are all working in banks. #Winning!

As it turned out, things have been a little different than what I expected. Working in India, needless to say, is not a normal internship ‘experience’. Every morning, the all-male work force of my ‘family-run’ guesthouse makes me sweet, spicy chai and aloo paratha, an amazing sort of deep-fried potato cake served with curd. Then, at some point between 8.30 and 10, with no warning, I’ll hear a series of crazy honks as my driver, the office secretary, comes to pick me up for work. In the car, we chat about the ridiculous traffic, Bollywood movies, and how she doesn’t agree with her family’s obsession with arranged marriage. In our air-conditioned car, we weave around cows and tuk-tuks, and try to ignore the street children’s faces in the window as they offer us flowers or bubble-guns. When we get to the office, everyone jumps up to shake my hand. At lunch, instead of a trip to Prêt A Manger, a delicious feast of thalis and idlis, dosas and chapatti, invariably cooked by aunts or sisters, is unwrapped and shared out. In the evenings, rather than heading to a funky bar in Shoreditch, I wander round a temple or write my diary. 

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One of the most important things to know about interning abroad is that it can be incredibly lonely. That’s not to say the people I’ve met in India aren’t crazily friendly; They’ve gone out of their way to let me join in with their family worship, teach me how to make chapattis in the kitchen and laugh when I set them on fire, and take me on terrifying helmetless motorbike rides to buy mangoes. It’s easy to make friends in India, and from the first day I knew all the office gossip, had invitations to dinner, and loved chatting to people in the colourful markets. Being the only foreign girl automatically made me the centre of attention; I was constantly offered chai, subjected to questions like ‘why aren’t you married?’, and the target of random hair stroking. Speaking English is also an automatic commodity in the office, and reduces your chances of being given pointless, mundane tasks. In this way, it’s incredibly sociable and rewarding working abroad.

But I’d underestimated how far from home, in both in amazing and daunting ways, living and working in India would make me feel. The loneliness comes from a total lack of familiarity, something I had been warned about but to which I thought I would be immune. When you know you’ve been massively ripped off by a tuk-tuk driver, when groups of men glare at you in the street, when you see a dead dog on the pavement, or when the cook thinks you’re a superfreak because you don’t know what ‘poha’ is, you start to realize you’re all alone in a subcontinent where, despite your best efforts, you really don’t belong. Last night, as I was lying in bed in the middle of the rainy Himalayas with no phone signal, no air-con, and a massive cockroach hiding somewhere in my room ready to pounce (I didn’t realize they don’t bite!), it was was easy to question what the hell I was doing here.

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But then I remembered, being in India is actually an amazing adventure. As I go about my day-to-day life, it is impossible not to appreciate what an amazing place this is. Today, I picked the juiciest mangos I’ve ever tasted from a tree in the garden. Yesterday, I had the meaning of life explained to me while I waited for a train, and the day before, I stared straight at the glowing red sun without hurting my eyes because the smog is so thick in Delhi. Last Tuesday, the guy who sits opposite me in the office told me he wasn’t allowed to marry the love of his life because her parents had threatened to disown her, and I suddenly realized how incredibly lucky I am to choose who I end up marrying. I may not have found what I was looking for in India, but maybe that’s not what it’s all about.

Whilst doing an internship abroad has its low moments, I would completely recommend it if you want to throw yourself out of your comfort zone and learn about yourself. The experiences you do gain, beyond the cockroaches, calories and the reluctant realization that you might have culture shock, are, as corny as it sounds, invaluable and life-changing in their own way.