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.
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.