Once I get in a conversation with someone about my time in India, I am usually asked "where have you been in India". Up until now, I had only been able to say that I stayed within New Delhi and Gurgaon. This past weekend, I went to Agra which is famous for the Taj Mahal.
On Thursday, while driving to visit family in Ghaziabad (in Uttar Pradesh), we somehow got on the topic of where I had been and whether or not I had been to Agra before. Rather than ending where the conversation had ended in the past when I said I hadn't been, my host parents started formulating a plan to go see it this weekend or the following weekend. The only concern was getting permission for me to go from AFS since they need to know when I leave the Delhi region. Since Agra is a very popular tourist destination and AFS already plans on taking us at the end of the program, we didn't foresee any issues getting the permission. As expected, getting the permission was painless; it was obtained in a 2 minute phone call from my host mom to Vyom. The next step was getting a hotel room which we managed to do despite the whole trip being last-minute. The rest of the day went by very quickly with all the Diwali celebrations going on. By the end of it, I was pretty much falling asleep during the final rounds of the card games which lasted until 12:30 am. Muskaan and I decided to pack for Agra the same night so that we would be ready to go in the morning. As I have already told Muskaan, she is the most organized packer I have witnessed. I am used to seeing Katherine stuff all of her belongings into her duffel bag in no particular order every time we switch from my mom's house to my dad's or vice versa, but Mus had a written plan of what she would wear and when in order to match our schedule. Despite the high level of organization, it was 1:30 am by the time I finally sunk into the mattress and fell asleep. We had decided to wake up the next morning at 6:30am so we would have time to shower but it was closer to 7 by the time we actually got out of bed. We had leftover Instapizza for breakfast and were ready to get going. I saw Cherry (the neighbor's French Bulldog) that morning and couldn't resist stopping to pet her for a little before actually getting in the car.
It took about 4 hours to get from Gurgaon to Agra by way of the Yamuna Expressway. I must say that road trips are much more enjoyable/relaxing when you aren't travelling with a younger brother and sister, I actually managed to sleep for a good chunk of the trip. The time I spent awake was just as nice. The expressway was pretty much just a straight road so the inner NASCAR driver came out of my host dad a few times along the way when we couldn't see any CCTV cameras in distance. When we stopped for a break 2 hours into the trip, we had brunch and visited the gift shop. I did not buy anything because the prices clearly reflected the fact that the target consumer was a tourist who had no idea of the true value of the items. Some of the jewelry was 3 or 4 times the cost you would pay at a market like Janpath. Even though I am also a foreigner, I still couldn't help but look at the others. There was one guy who Muskaan dubbed as 'Maggi Hair' because his curly blond hair looked like a plate of masala noodles. Agra marks the other end of the Yamuna Expressway, and we arrived at around 1pm. The hotel was only about 3km from the Taj Mahal and was really nice. After all the formalities of checking in as a foreigner (passport and visa check), we made our way to the rooms on the third floor. We could see the 1st floor outdoor pool with the Taj in the background from the window in the hallway. It was such a great view and was the first time I laid my eyes on the iconic masterpiece. The pool, but not the Taj, were visible from the hotel rooms. My host mom and dad shared one room and Muskaan and I shared the other a couple doors down the hall. We settled in and waited for a plan to be made for the day. As I ate the complimentary chocolate chip cookie, Muskaan sat on the other side of the desk reading from the guest services book. I think all hotels have these books but does anyone ever really read them? Long story short, we found the kids menu items very entertaining but got even more amused by their 'Careline' service. Careline was everywhere. Have any queries? Call Careline. Before you open the door of your hotel room, what should you do? Call Careline. I am not joking when I say the first step in their fire escape plan posted on the door is...you guessed it... Call Careline. Since then, it has become one of our inside jokes and whenever it's mentioned, neither of us can help but laugh.
Soon enough a second ring of our doorbell was heard and (without calling Careline) I opened the door to my host parents. The plan for the day was to relax for a while, go swimming and then go for dinner followed by a light and sound show at Agra Fort. Originally we were going to see the Taj that day, but we decided it would be better to go early the next morning to beat the crowd and the heat. Mus and I spent some time watching sports on the TV while laying in (a very comfortable) bed. After some time, I changed into my swim suit (which is called a swim costume here) and Muskaan and I went to the pool. While I swam, she studied Indian history. The inner lifeguard in me cringed when I saw a younger boy try to get in the pool with the rescue ring but luckily someone came out and directed them to the shallow end where the water was literally only 6 inches deep. I swam laps for a while and soon realized how out of shape I am. After I found where the towels were kept, I went with Muskaan back to our room for a shower and then we headed over to my host parents' room where my host dad, Mus and I all played Trivia Crack while laying in the bed. Trivia Crack became very addictive for us - whenever the notification came saying that it was our turn to play, we would immediately sit up and play the game. I didn't contribute much to answering the questions because the questions in Entertainment, History, and Geography categories were all related mostly to Indian facts. Muskaan proved to be very knowledgeable in the areas of Entertainment and History and is also pretty good at guessing the answer when no one is confident in any response.
Soon enough, it was time to head out for lunch. On the way to the restaurant we stopped at Panchi Petha to get some petha (pumpkin) sweets. This particular shop makes the best ones, so we got quite a few. After stopping there, we drove to an area that was filled with huge red signs adverising "Mama Chicken Mama Franky House" which was quite hysterical. We did not eat there, instead we went to a sit-down restaurant very close by. We had butter naan (highly recommend you try this) and chicken which was really nice and very filling.
We got back to the hotel at around 6, so we had just under an hour before we had to leave for the light and sound show. We thought the show started at 7:45, so we wanted time to get tickets and seats. We continued our game of Trivia Crack and then left for Agra Fort at 6:50ish. Since it only took about 10 minutes to drive there, we thought we would be pretty early for the show. There was a pretty sizable crowd at the front entrance and were happy we came early because we soon realized the show's timing had been moved up by 30 minutes to 7:15. Even at night, the fort was quite the sight. It is made from red sandstone and is massive. To enter the fort, you go cross a (empty) moat and two huge gates. We passed through a stretch of the fort which would have held the market twice a week for the women that lived there and were not generally allowed to leave at their leisure. The light and sound show took place in one of the yards of the fort and told the story of Agra through the time of the Mughal Dynasty. The history behind the fort and of Agra in general is quite impressive but I won't go too much into detail since it is something you can easily Google. The show took about an hour to finish and was well put-together.
After the show, we went out to eat again. Driving to the restaurant, we passed through a busy area that was also showered with lights. It was very crowded and I joked that if I had to drive in those conditions, my car would have a million scratches by the time I made it through. In the car, Muskaan gave me a lesson on how to pronounce Taj Mahal because Americans have learned it the wrong way haha. If I don't think about what I am saying, I still tend to mess it up. Despite the crowdedness, we made it to the restaurant. This time, I ordered one of my favorite veg Indian dishes: Pav Bhaji. On the way to the restaurant, we passed by Keventers, a famous milkshake place of Delhi. I had not gone there before, so we decided to go after dinner. From the street, it looked as though Keventers had closed. Just to be sure, we walked up to the store front and found that they were closing because the supply had run out. After some talking, we managed to get three milkshakes in the only flavor left: chocolate hazelnut. My host dad drank his right away while Muskaan and I waited until we got back to the hotel, 10 minutes from then. The milkshake was very delicious. It tasted very similar to Reese's candy (which is sadly not available in India).
After playing Trivia Crack, it was time for bed and we set our alarm for 5:30am the next morning so we could get to the Taj Mahal early. As always, we hit the snooze button until 6am when my host dad rung the doorbell to our room. We slid out of bed and got ready to go to the Taj within about 30 minutes. My host mom stayed behind to sleep since she has seen the Taj before, so it was just me, my host dad and Muskaan who went. The Taj Mahal was only about 10 minutes drive from the hotel. It seemed so surreal to input "Taj Mahal" into the GPS system and get a result so close to where we were. Mr. Paintal parked the car and we made our way to buy entry tickets. The tickets are quite cheap for Indian tourists, but Rs 1000 for every foreigner. We picked up our shoe covers and my complimentary water since I was a 'high value ticket holder'. As soon as we stepped outside, we were surrounded by bhaiyas who offered us Rickshaw rides down to the entrance of the Taj Mahal. We finally gave into one of their offers and ended up taking a ride in a horse drawn cart to the entrance. It was the closest I have been to riding a horse since I came to India. Riding there was a neat experience, and not something I expected to do that day.
We still had to walk a little ways to get to the actual entrance of the Taj, but along the way we passed quite a few shops and cafes, most of which were not open that early in the morning. All three of us had to go in separate lines to enter the Taj. The line for 'high value' (aka foreign) females was the longest of all 4 lines. Muskaan's was the shortest and my host dad's wasn't too long either. In the line, there were people from all over the world. The people in front of me were from Italy and Germany and the people behind me were from Malaysia. It is amazing to see how a wonder of the world can attract people from everywhere to one location. If only there was that sort of unification of cultures outside tourism. I finally made it through the line and into the area outside the Taj Mahal. Here, there was another gate to pass through but not before a bunch of pictures were taken by my host dad and sister. A lot of pictures were taken that day, but in the long run, I would want as many pictures as possible. As the saying goes, "a picture is worth a thousand words". The most amazing thing to see is the first time you the Taj becomes visible through the outline of the gate. Even that early in the morning, there was a crowd of people shuffling through the opening, but that did not make the view any less spectacular. Right past the gate is the best overall view of the Taj Mahal because you can see everything: the garden with it's fountains and the Taj. In the morning sun, the view was breathtaking. We slowly made our way down towards the Taj. We made it to the photography region (I call it that since this is where the hired photographers make the tourists pose). It was a little hilarious to watch the types of poses people were placed in. Some sat with their legs up on the bench, some with their arms spread wide open. But I am not really an exception to this crowd. As you'll see in the photos, I got the very touristy picture of me 'holding' the Taj Mahal. After that stop, we continued towards the Taj. We didn't hire a tour guide, but we still got some information just from overhearing the others talk to the tourists. I was lucky enough to have my host family take me, and they told me everything I needed to know. Once you get to the actual building of the Taj, you have to put on shoe covers so that you do as little damage as possible. We joined a mob of people headed up the stairs and I had to interlock arms with Muskaan so that I would not get lost in the commotion. Muskaan translated what the guard said: "Why are you in such a hurry, the Taj isn't going anywhere" (or something to that effect). It didn't take long before I could literally put my hand on the Taj Mahal. Seriously, it is crazy to think that only one year ago, I was looking at a picture of the Taj for my AP World History class, and now I was there in real life. No photography is allowed inside the Taj, but it is just as spectacular inside as it is on the outside. The carvings surrounding the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal were incredibly intricate and the flower decorations were beautifully done. Looking at the craftsmanship that goes into such a piece of art makes it clear why it took 21 years to complete. When we came out the back of the Taj, I was able to see the Yamuna River. The minarets around the building gleamed in the morning sun. We made our way to the front and laughed at a tourist who was doing stretches before finally assuming the 'namaste' pose for a photo. We walked back through the garden section of the Taj after taking off our foot covers. It was surprisingly green for being visited by so many people on a daily basis. I saw many different plants including the 'Beep Tree' to which I heard the people behind me start laughing while comparing the tree to a car's horn. I took a final look at the Taj before exiting the gate and captured a mental image I hope I will never forget.
On the way out, Muskaan and I got a picture peeping from the columns of the entrance gate structure (unfortunately I don't have that picture to share). By the time we left, there were a lot more people entering the Taj itself, but the line to enter through the first gate was virtually non-existent. The stores were also open by this point in the day, so we stopped and I got a miniature snow-globe and a marble turtle (to add to my mom's collection). My host dad also got a marble mortar and pestle for my host mom. We walked back to the parking lot and my host dad jogged to go get the car. We rushed a little bit when we realized there was only 1 more hour for the breakfast at the hotel to be open. My host dad woke up my host mom by calling her to tell her we were on the way and we met up with her at the hotel restaurant. She asked me all about my experience and whether or not my host dad and Muskaan were good tour guides (they were). We had a very filling breakfast and then went to relax until 12pm when it was time to check out from the hotel and go home.
Muskaan and I decided to go to the pool and dip our feet in the water. When it became too warm outside to continue, we decided to explore other parts of the hotel. First, we went past the spa and to the kids room. There, I practiced my driving skills on one of the kid's scooter things and shot some hoops using an inflatable soccer ball. It was quite fun actually, and I bet the security guards got a kick out of seeing the footage from that room too. After that we moved onto the fitness center where I did some running on the treadmill barefoot since I was wearing sandals. Muskaan was right next to me - we both reached the level 9 speed and then she spent the rest of the time 'cooling down' at a snail's pace. Before we knew it, my host mom called me and told me to meet her in the lobby because we had to check out.
We left around 12 and I was thankful to be out of the car at 4pm to go get lunch because the last stretch of roads we took made me feel nauseous. We went to Soul and Spice for lunch and the food there was amazing. Muskaan ordered her favorite egg biryani. I had bengali fish with rice which was really tasty. The food there was so nice, that we called out the chef to personally tell him how well it was prepared.
We got home soon after that and Muskaan tried to scare me by saying we forgot my sandals in Agra, but it didn't really cause me any concern. As it turns out, it was just a joke.
I had the most amazing time going to Agra with my family. I learned so much and really enjoyed visiting another part of India.
This weekend I am going on an AFS trip to Jodhpur! It really is a time of travel for me. I should be making a post about that shortly after I come back.
I had this post ready earlier but I am posting it today as a special way of saying HAPPY 18th BIRTHDAY MUSKAAN! I know you look forward to reading my posts, and this one took an especially long waiting period considering how long I 'worked on it'. I hope this one was worth the wait!
The bright and varied colors of traditional Indian clothes, flashing of fireworks, beautifully strung lights, carefully crafted Rangolis and the glowing of a countless number of diyas and tealight candles are just some of the unforgettable sights I witnessed during Diwali, the Festival of Lights. My senses were flooded with new sounds – the laughter of the card-playing adults and bursting of hydrobomb fireworks outside the house – new smells – the burning of incense during puja and aroma of plentiful Indian dishes at the neighborhood potluck – and, of course, new tastes -authentic Indian food and sweets – as one of the most widely celebrated festivals took hold in India.
Diwali brought everyone - friends and family - together in celebration. There is no doubt in my mind that this amalgamation of the true Indian culture had an invaluable impact on my intercultural learning. Before Diwali took place, I had only just moved in with my fourth host family. The festive season was a great time for us all to connect. One thing I am extremely grateful for is my host family’s desire to not only invite me to celebrate with them but also teach me the background behind why certain rituals are practiced and the history behind the festivals. Towards the beginning of this month, October, I went to a Ram Leela which explained the story behind Dussehra and Diwali. The Ram Leela also taught me a lot about the social values of India. For example, many parts of the Ramayana emphasize the value of one’s word or honor. King Dasharatha sent his son, Rama, on exile to honor his word given to his wife. Similarly, Rama accepted his fate happily to honor the word of his father. With these examples in mind, I can say that one of the most common traits I find in the people I meet is their ability to stay true to their word. Diwali has allowed me to look deeper into the reasoning behind people’s behavior, and has given me a greater sense of cultural-awareness which, in my opinion, is imperative to intercultural learning. By deepening my understanding of the Indian culture, I have increased understanding and therefore respect for the culture.
Being completely immersed in the celebration of Diwali was without a doubt very exciting for me but it was also a time where my learning curve steepened. During the days leading up to Diwali, as I bought my suit for the festival, went to ‘Hong Kong’ market for Rangoli colors and assembled countless numbers of diyas, I not only realized the immense amount of preparation for such a big holiday but also learned about culture. What prevailed through all decorations and preparations was the concept of relationships. “India is built on relationships”. I was told this so many times and I had experienced it in the first months of my exchange, but during Diwali, I really saw this saying come to life. As my host family and I drove countless kilometers to and from family and friends’ houses, we discussed the difference between my experience in America and theirs in India. Drawing off my previous thought on a relationship-based culture here, one of the key points in our discussion was that so many of the festivals here act as a reason for people to come together. In my personal experience as an American, extended family often finds it easier to send gifts and cards through the mail, never talking in real time. What struck me also was how easy it was for my extended family to accept me in their celebrations and I always felt as though I had been there celebrating Diwali for the past 15 years. In the pre-card game discussions, I found myself mixed into a Hinglish discussion on anything and everything. There was talk of Gurgaon vs Delhi, which street food is the best, and the differences between driving in India versus the United States. Even though it was one of the first times all the neighbors had gotten together, everyone was keen to celebrate and share. Throughout the celebrations, I kept reinforcing what my program means to me, where possible, I always said “YES”. Whether it was ‘yes’ to playing ‘red letter’ with the younger kids at the neighbor’s potluck dinner or ‘yes’ to dressing up in Indian clothes, I know that all these experiences are what made Diwali an incredibly impactful experience for me. All the small activities amidst the festivities were the most enjoyable and the memories I created will be cherished for a lifetime.
As my exchange continues, Diwali will continue to have an impact on my intercultural learning. Just as I continue to hear the bursting of firecrackers in the distance in the days following Diwali, I will take what I have learned, not only about culture but also about myself, into the future of my exchange and beyond as I encounter more and more new sights, sounds, smells and tastes of life.
Today marks 2 weeks since I shifted to my host family - side note: I started this post on the 12th. Since I have reached this landmark twice before, I wanted to try a new sort of post; one that focuses less on me personally, and more on my family.
It goes without saying that host families are the most valuable part of student exchange programs. They are the ones who you spend the most time with and who show you the culture of a country as it is practiced day to day. Everyone has a role to play in the host family and each is equally important. The relationships I have formed here are worth more than words can describe. My family has taught me more in two weeks than I ever imagined possible. To try to bring you into the unique experience of becoming part of another family, I will describe how I have come to know my family in just two weeks.
Papa: Amicably referred to as Mr. Paintal around the house, my host dad or papa, is a kind and sensitive person. As the 'man of the house', he is a hard worker and spends a good part of the day at his office. He is dedicated and you can often find him continuing his work from home or even from the car. I have seen some of the flyers/posters he designed and they are done very professionally and creatively and are (obviously) much better than anything I could ever make. Muskaan and I often wish he was there to help when we are attempting something 'creative'. As much as he has to work, he always finds time for family and is a very caring person. From what I have experienced, he is not the most outgoing person, but he is very thoughtful. He is the type of person who speaks the least but says the most. When he does cook, he makes delicious food (especially omelettes and chai). I was watching him skillfully chop the veggies for the omelette and couldn't help but smile when my host mom told me "he is just showing off". Even if that's true, it takes me lightyears compared to him to chop things. One of the first things I was told (and later experienced) about my papa is that he is very passionate about his material possessions. He is materialistic not in the respect that he continuously wants more and more goods, but in the respect that he is protective and very careful with his prized possessions. One of these personal belongings is his bike. Similar to my dad in the US, Mr. Paintal cares a lot for his cycle. It is kept in pristine condition and is consistently being upgraded. The first weekend I spent with them, we had to bring his bike to a service center and before leaving he (somewhat uncharacteristically) allowed me to take it for a spin. Even though I am good at cycling, I made sure to return the bike the exact same way I found it. His cars are also kept nicely and I am reminded of one of the car's continued maintenance by the way the leather squeaks every time I shift my weight. He very recently got a new gadget - a car locator which will remind him where he parked the car. That's actually a genius invention in my opinion and I think my mom in the US is in desperate need of one. My host dad is a kid at heart, and it's hard for him to resist new things. One such example is Apple Products. When we went out for dinner last night, there was an Apple store very close by and had he not been sitting on the inside seat of the booth blocked in by my host mom, he would have been there in less than 10 seconds. He is also good at 'hands-on' tasks and helps fix things that break around the house (e.g. my backpack zipper). My host dad is not what you would call a 'macho man'. Rather, his personality translates into physical traits in that he can be very sensitive (and everyone knows it). For example, we went out for Breakfast and on the way back down to the underground parking, he ran into the elevator while the doors were closing. While doing this, he hit his shoulder on the door and once he was in, my host mom correctly predicted that 'now he will check to see if his shoulder is hurt'. We all watched as he lifted his arm up and down to be sure it was still intact. On the same topic, everyone in my host family has a different sensitivity to the temperature. My host dad is similar to my mom in the US in that he is often cold if the AC is on too long or the ceiling fan is on full blast. At home, Mr. Paintal also cares a lot for gardening (our area is the greenest of the apartments around). Similar to me, my host dad also loves dogs. It's more common in India to have a fear of dogs because there are many more street dogs than in the US; so I was happy to find a fellow animal lover. Our neighbors have 2 dogs: a fat pug and a black French Bulldog named Cherry. They are both very sweet and my day is made when I get to pet them. Back to the point, I really could not ask for a better host dad than Mr. Paintal.
Host Mom: She is a housewife, mother of two (including me), excellent chef, whatsapp enthusiast, soff ( idk the spelling - basically like fennel seeds) addict, geography whiz and, most importantly, my mom. Without my host mom, nothing around the house would get done. For example, as I write this post, my host mom is dusting off the same study table that I watched Muskaan dust about 5 minutes ago. As for the 'mother of two' statement I made, I definitely feel like part of the family. She includes me in all activities of the house and while Muskaan (jokingly) refers to some of those as instances of"child labor", I personally feel better when involved in activities rather than just sitting around. Being part of the family means taking on some responsibility - not that I do that much since I'm lazy. When she is not in the kitchen making food, my host mom is asking everyone what she should make for dinner. As she has correctly stated, our lives revolve around food. Thanks to her, I try something new almost on a daily basis and she even impressed me by making "fish in the pouch" (a dish my natural mom makes often) without my help. In addition, it is no secret that my host mom loves to talk and she is often on the phone or sending whatsapp messages especially during this festive season. There are many small things that make my host mom the character I have come to love. Within a week of living here, I came to know about her soff consumption habit. She has a larger container of it at home for daily use and carries around a small container of it when we go out. One time, we went out for dinner at Sodabottleopenerwala (that's actually the name of the restaurant) and afterwards she went to search for a restaurant that would give her some to sooth the symptoms of withdrawal. She also loves having chai and has it at least twice per day - chai is really nice though so I don't blame her. Aside from that, my host mom's feelings towards dogs sharply contrast those of my host dad and my own. She is terrified of them. When we go out and encounter some street dogs, I am sometimes used as a human shield for her to hide behind - which I don't mind since I love dogs and generally the street dogs don't cause any trouble. She also dislikes other animals and I think rats and monkeys come close to the top. We recently discovered a rat living among the drawers where the keys are kept so for the first few times after spotting the rat, I got the keys from the drawer since I don't have a fear of rats (I used to have 2 pet rats). I also like seeing the monkeys (since we obviously don't have them in Corning) but they are notorious for being little nuisances - just this morning one came outside and tipped over one of our garden pots. Speaking of nuisances, my host mom manages to put up with the laziness of Muskaan and I on a daily basis, so I applaud her for that. Opposite to my host dad, my host mom is always warm. In her eyes, it is practically a crime to sit without a ceiling fan on (haha). Sometimes when we are going somewhere, Muskaan gives a silent signal to my host dad to turn down the AC in hopes that my host mom won't notice. That always makes me laugh a little on the inside. My host mom is also quite intelligent. Despite the negative connotation of the word 'housewife'(at least in the US), my host mom could beat anyone in a game of Atlas. At the end of the day, my host mom is someone who makes me smile and laugh more often and cares for me as one of her own. For that, I will always be thankful.
Muskaan: As the best older sister I could have asked for, I could probably write a book's worth of information on Muskaan. I have heard a story from my host mom that when she was younger, Muskaan replied to the notion of getting a sibling by saying she would 'throw them in the dustbin'. Seeing as I am not in the dustbin yet (thank goodness), I now know that she enjoys having a sister. Before coming to India, I was never a younger sibling, so I am still figuring out the ins and outs of being one. The Muskaan I have come to know, helps me with everything. Even on the second day I was here, she helped me make a surprise cheer for Katherine who she barely knew anything about. Despite continuously saying how uncreative she is, Muskaan is the one who designed the board for Katherine and planned the short video along with it. As many of her friends have birthdays this month, she is working a lot on making cards and creative gifts for them (e.g. she is sitting across the room making something as I type this). All the gifts are handmade and - to me - mind-boggling. She showed me an infinity card she made and honestly I would have never thought of making one let alone been able to successfully make one. Even though Muskaan is not known for her amazing fine motor skills, she still manages to make amazing gifts. I only have 10 days left until her birthday on the 26th so my mind is racing to try to come up with something. In addition to being my older sister, Muskaan is also my personal translator and entertainer. I have learned many words and come to know the meaning of various conversations in Hindi thanks to her. Often times she is a better teacher than my actual Hindi teacher at school and I learn so much that my host mom sometimes reminds her not to teach so many words in one day - I actually prefer learning as much as possible; though sometimes I can't remember the words 5 minutes after learning them, it has definitely increased my understanding level when listening to people talk. Muskaan is also an amazing singer and I wish I could sing so that we could cover some songs but unfortunately Katherine inherited the good-singing gene and I did not. When we cleaned our room yesterday and organized her study tables I learned two more things: 1) organization is not one of her top priorities and 2) she hates to waste even the smallest thing (this is actually a good thing). Sifting through all the books and what others would call trash, I realized that I had seen this pattern before...with Katherine haha. Actually I think Katherine's and my shared room in the US is actually much worse because we have two times the amount of junk haha. Nonetheless, I now live in a diwali-ready room that has two study tables that are the most organized pieces of furniture I have had in my teenage life. Since I have told you that my host dad is always cold and my host mom is always warm, I will also tell you Muskaan also heirs on the side of being cold. Though it's never below 70 degrees even at night, she still wears a fleece sweater in the mornings. I have already advised them not to come to Corning in the winter unless they want to freeze. From making maggi and licking the flavor packets to dressing up and attending the start of an Indian marriage to judging and laughing at the fashion and pictures in an oversized Vogue magazine well past our bedtime, I have made so many good memories with Muskaan and I look forward to making even more as time moves on.
It has been said that the host family is the most valuable part of an exchange student's life and I couldn't agree more. Some of my most meaningful relationships are not only within this host family but among all the host families who have opened their homes to host me. I love my host family more than anything I truly feel that without them, my exchange year would not be complete.
Looking back over the past couple weeks, much more has happened than merely taking exams. I have also had to switch host families for the 3rd time in 3 months. Whenever I told someone I was switching they (at some point) always asked "why are you switching so much?", as if switching families is a negative thing. As you already know the reasoning behind the switch, I will elaborate on the experiences I have had from saying goodbye to my third host family and being warmly welcomed into my fourth.
I guess I should start off by saying that from the time I moved in with Kusum ma'am, I knew that I would only be with her temporarily while the school and AFS searched for a longer-term family. On September 26, just over 2 weeks from moving in with my third host family, I went to school and spent most of the day sitting in the library since it was an exam prep day for the last day of exams. The only 'task' I had to complete that day was talking with Poonam Goel ma'am (my school coordinator) about teaching Amitasha classes that Friday. On the exam prep days she is almost always in the staff room or her classroom, but when I checked both locations, she was not in either. No one else seemed to know where she went. After searching for her a little longer, I wandered around the halls for a while to pass the time and then went back to the library. Almost as soon as I sat down, I was called down to the reception to see Poonam Goel ma'am. I assumed that someone had told her I was looking for her so I went down to talk with her. She, as always, greeted me with a smile but I soon came to know that 1) she didn't know I was looking for her and 2) she was even happier than usual that day for a good reason: She had found me a new host family!! Poonam ma'am told me I would be staying with Muskaan Paintel. Since I really didn't know who that was (sorry there are just so many people at Amity) she told me that Muskaan is friends with Poorvi (who I met on the bus I rode when I lived with Kusum ma'am)(Update: Poorvi and Muskaan are not friends anymore). All that aside, she told me my host parents were there and asked if I wanted to meet them (I am not sure who would say no to that) and so suddenly on that boring exam prep day I found myself in a conference room with my new host parents. We shook hands and chatted for a little bit just about exams. I didn't know when I would actually move in, but I left very excited that my day took such an unexpected turn. As I was walking out of the reception, Poonam ma'am caught up to me and delivered a new rule to me: I was not allowed to tell anyone I was shifting. Even though there was logic behind that restriction (i.e. shifting wasn't finalized), I knew it would be hard not to talk about it.
Getting off at the bus stop and catching up with my host mom gave me a sense of relief as she told me she already knew that I would be shifting from her home soon. We didn't let that fact stop us from living normally. We still went home, ate lunch and parted ways between lunch and dinner as she went for her daily afternoon nap. Before dinner that evening, I was excited when I checked my phone and saw that I had a message from Muskaan! After establishing that her family was excited to meet me and I was excited to meet them, it was time for dinner. The emotions are so confusing when you switch host families. On the one hand you get really excited to meet and live with your next family but at the same time you know that can't happen until you leave a family you have become a part of. Fortunately for me, my host mom is a teacher at school so I am able to see her when I want to. Hopefully I will meet with Shreya before I leave India also. Despite knowing from the day I came to my third host family that I would leave within a few weeks, I did bond with another mom and sister who will be part of my life forever. The last full day I was there was the 27th and it came and passed like any other day as it was not confirmed I would shift on the 28th until around 10pm the evening before. After officially finding out and while my host mom made dinner for us, I got to making a 'thank you' card for her and Shreya. It wasn't the best card since I only had blue and black ink I use for school but I did my best. I also gave her the last "New York" mug I brought from the US as a thank-you gift. My natural mom recently went to NYC for a business trip and bought me some more gifts which she will send me soon (I hope). After giving the gifts to my host mom, we hugged and I headed to bed for the last time in my third home away from home.
Where one story leaves off, the next takes off. After managing to get all my luggage on and off the bus and into the reception area of the school, I was ready to shift. September 28 was also the first day back to 'normal classes' (I will explain why that's not true in an upcoming post) and so we had assembly in the morning. On my way out of the assembly, I met with Muskaan and Poonam Goel ma'am. It was the first time I met my (host) sister. As much as I love having an older sister, the drawback is that we are not in the same class, so I had to wait until the end of the day to meet up again. Since I did not want to store my phone with my other bags, that marked the first time I succeeded in carrying my phone with me all day at school even though it is against the rules. Actually though, I doubt anyone would really question me for having it because they tend to be more lenient on the rules towards me as the exchange student. Although my knowledge of the school's layout is extremely limited, I was able to find Muskaan mostly because she was standing and waiting for me (thanks!). We proceeded to the reception which was actually really crowded compared to what I have experienced there in the past. We met up with our mom and if not for Poonam ma'am coming to send me off, I would have forgotten to go get my laptop from the staffroom where it was kept safe during the day. Everyone took one of my bags (or more) and we managed to shuffle through the crowd. It's kind of amusing to me to walk through the crowds because it makes me feel like I need to master the art of defensive walking whereas in the US, I was able to complete a defensive driving course in 6 hours from the comfort of my living room. We met my host dad at the car and managed to fit all of my belongings inside. On the way home, after talking about school and non-veg (all except the 2nd host family who I stayed with for 9 days were veg), I learned that Muskaan reads this blog (hi!) and so she is well versed in what I have done in the 3 months before becoming part of her family.
It only took about 10 minutes to get home which is the closest I have ever lived to school here. Driving over the speed breakers into Kendriya Vihar I realized that I had been there before when I went to McKenna's host sister's birthday party. It's too bad that McKenna had shifted to another host family just 1 or 2 weekends prior to me moving in. That didn't make the occasion any less special for me because when I entered my new home, I was welcomed with a banner and a chalkboard which said "Welcome Home Anna"! I was definitely not expecting that because in my three other experiences of moving in, no decorations were hung (mostly because 2 out of 3 other times were unplanned moves).
Before unpacking anything, we washed our hands and ate lunch. I think it was one of the first times I had been given a fork and knife to eat lunch since I arrived in India. There is a mutual agreement that once I go back to the US, I will look like a crazy lady going to restaurants and eating with my hands. Looking back to the arrival orientation, a lot has changed. There, all the exchange students treated roti as a (very tasty) side dish and we always ate it separately from the vegetables (sabzi). When the five of us staying in Delhi met with Vyom for the first time and saw him eating them together it was such a foreign concept. Even though I am definitely not a pro at eating with roti (half of the time the sabzi just falls out haha), it seems normal to eat like that now. I am curious and kind of excited to go back to the one Indian Restaurant we have in Corning (Thali of India) and see if I attract any attention by eating with my hands.
After we finished with lunch, we took my bags up to my room which I share with Muskaan. Though I am allowed to share a room, AFS was still a little worried about me sharing a bed with Muskaan. They have this idea that Americans are against sharing beds. It's true that generally we have separate beds but they are almost always twin or single size whereas here the beds are double size. Anyways, I don't mind sharing- though it may be easier for me to say than most since I have always shared a room in the US with my twin sister, Katherine. It just goes to show that there are generalizations made about every group of people. One of the goals of my exchange to to go beyond these generalizations and stereotypes and merge cultures by finding traits that are common among all human beings. Though I as an American may be more accustomed to independence and individualism than the relationship-centered lifestyle of India, I continue to see the benefits of each and learn a lot from experiencing different ways of life.
Aside from settling in, my host mom, Muskaan and I took a walk around the society that evening. Because of Navratri (a 9 day celebration ), there were some lights set out that were really pretty. We somehow got on the topic of dandiya sticks which are sticks used for dancing most commonly in Gujarat (a state in India). In the section of the society where the Gujaratis live, there was a celebration going on. A lot of the people were dressed up really nicely in colorful clothes and there was a prayer going on which required the use of candles, so all the lights and colors combined to make the scene really nice. After removing our shoes, we joined the crowd and walked around seeing the prayer come to an end and watching all the people enjoy themselves. The activities stopped for a break soon after we got there and we decided to go back home after getting a couple of pictures since the music was very loud and nothing exciting was happening.
Soon after we got back home, I got ready for bed because I had school the next day -Friday- while Muskaan got the day off (she is in class XII which had the day off). Thus ended another eventful day in my life as an exchange student. I felt happy to be with a new family and felt at home even from the first day. I look forward to all the adventures I will have living here and all the memories that will be formed. With that thought I will end this post until next time where I will describe my host family as I have come to know them in just 2 weeks.
As I promised two posts back, I am writing an update now that first term exams have concluded. Since most of you who read my blog are used to the American education system, I will give a brief synopsis on what it's like to take an exam in India. Preparations for the exams here are more intense than anything I have seen people do in the US. Most obviously, CPPHS (basically) only tests students once per year, every June. Other tests throughout the year are usually created by the teachers and given at the end of a unit or chapter. Though you need to study for some of the tests if you want to score well, it doesn't generally take more than 20-30 minutes to prepare. For term exams here, exams are given every other day for just over 1 week. The days before the exams are 'exam prep days' so no students go to school. The "no students go to school on prep days" did not apply to me this term because my host mom was a teacher at my school. Since it was only me and her during work hours, I always had to go to school on the days no one else showed up. It was quite boring since you can only chat with teachers for so long before they return to correcting papers. That being said, most of my time was spent in the senior library reading to prepare for the next day's exam or (after getting tired of that) reading a fiction book. During exam week I read "Anna Karenina" which is my natural mom's favorite book.
It would be so boring to have a post only talking about exams, so I will give an intermission to talk about how I spent my Saturday before exams (my host mom being a teacher dedicated Sunday to studying). First of all, I slept in until 7:30 and then went to breakfast which was simply chapatti with jam. There we tried to come up with some plan for the day. Originally, we were going to go to do grocery shopping but then (after quite a bit of persuading) Shreya and I convinced my host mom to let us go to Ambience mall for a movie. We booked tickets for "IT" and prayed that they would not check to make sure I was 18 (which, of course, I am not) since that was one of the main reasons my host mom was cautious about letting me go. We got an Uber and though we planned to arrive 30 minutes in advance, we made it to Ambience just in time for the movie. That's because it had rained in the morning so though the temperature was nice, the roads around my community were more so small rivers than they were roads. I won't spoil the movie for anyone who hasn't seen 'it' (haha), but it was well put together for a horror movie. Shreya is not easily scared, in fact she found It to be more of a comedy than a horror movie. After that we went to exchange some clothes which (in typical girl fashion) took much longer than it should have. While Shreya shopped, I watched a talent competition that was taking place on the ground floor of the mall. There were some really great dancers and singers who performed, so I was kept entertained. After 1.5 hours Shreya emerged from the shop with one shirt. Nonetheless, we decided to get dinner and headed to the food court. I got Chinese noodles with chili paneer and she got dosa. After eating, the real adventure began as Shreya tried to find a pair of black wedges to wear to the office. She was determined not to leave before finding a pair. We went to more shoe stores than I knew could exist in one location and finally she found a pair that would work. We ended the day by going to Starbucks and (since I don't care for coffee) I got passion hibiscus lemonade which was great but the funny part was that they spelled my name as "Aana" which is so close but yet so far from correct. We rushed to our Uber which had been waiting for about 10 minutes and then made our way home. When we got there we shared the day's happenings with my host mom who loved the shirt Shreya got but was disappointed to see her shoe-a-holic daughter come home with yet another pair of shoes.
Sunday was spent with me 'studying' and my host mom correcting papers. A slow day but relaxing as I spent most of it listening to music and not actually studying.
Of course opposite the exam prep days were the actual exam days. I first took Hindi on Friday the 15th followed by Physical Education, English, Economics, and Fine Arts. Somehow my '"brief synopsis" (why did I even think I was capable of writing anything brief) has strayed a little from the path but I can finally tell you about my experience with exams in India. The exam days are different here in that students have to go for the entire school day for just one exam. There's no allotted time for you to show up and leave like at CPPHS. Of course the exam doesn't take the entire day so the first half is given for 'studying'. Again, I never really studied during that time. I just chatted with friends since I had not been able to the day before. At 10am we had to be in the exam rooms. The exam rooms are based off of your role number and section so I went to the class which had class XI-H role number 19-37 (I am 37). The exams are just given in classrooms with everyone at a separate desk. The exams themselves are separate from the answer booklets (like answer sheets in the US) so they are passed out first. I always had to ask Vriti (my friend who thankfully sat ahead of me) what the name of the Invigilator was because I could never read the names scribbled in cursive on the board (not because I can't read cursive but because I am not that familiar with Indian names so I was never confident I did it correctly). After the bell rings signalling the start of the exam, the question papers are passed out to the students and 3 hours are given for each exam. Most of the time 3 hours is barely enough time to finish these exams but I found it plenty of time for all except economics (mostly because I got a separate exam for PE and Hindi was also really short). The main difference besides the time to question ratio is the style of question. Here there are practically no multiple choice (out of 5 exams only one exam had MCQs but that one too only had 2 of them) and all the questions are short or long answer. Depending on the number of marks the question is worth you write a different amount. For example, a 1 mark question should be one sentence whereas 6+ markers generally need 100-150 words. After 3 hours the exams are collected and often times the exams are not fully completed by all students because there's simply not enough time.
Overall I think I did well on the exams but luckily for me, my grades will transfer back to the US as pass/fail only so it's low stress for me. It is a chance for me to experience a different education system without worrying to much about being the perfect student.
So much more has gone on for me since exams, but that will be for the next post because I can guarantee I have too much to talk about to fit into just this one post.
Hi! My name is Anna McKane. I am 16 years old and have had a pretty ordinary life up to this point. I believe this experience will change me for the better and I will try everything I can while I am abroad.