differences in culture

Culture Shock, Part 2

This isn’t my first time visiting India, but a few days ago I had a bit of a breakdown due to culture shock. This is Part 2 of a series about things that are different in India as compared to the US. Homes in India are much different than homes in the US. At first, it takes conscious thought to do seemingly simple tasks.

Heating and Cooling While newer middle and upper class homes in big cities might have central AC, the first thing you’ll notice about homes in towns and small cities is that they don’t have central AC. The windows and doors are left open most of the time so that a breeze can come through the house. A few places in north India do get cold in the winter, but in south India it’s pretty much always hot and humid.

There are two seasons - Summer and Monsoon. Right now is the “cool” monsoon season in my parents-in-law’s town of Courtallam (pronounced Koo-tra-lam), and it’s in the high 80s - low 90s with high humidity. Wearing jeans is totally unbearable, so I went and bought some light cotton Indian clothes so I could cope with the heat.

A few key rooms in the house may have what they call split AC units. It’s called a split AC unit because there is an outside component and an inside component. The inside component is mounted on a wall, up near the ceiling, and can be switched on by remote control. We’re lucky that my in-laws have AC units in the bedrooms and the living room.

Electricity The electricity (“current”) is subject to rolling blackouts due to high demand. Businesses and some homes may have inverters (to store current) or generators (diesel powered) to maintain some current during blackouts. We have a blackout for about 5-10 minutes pretty much every day. It’s normal and no one freaks out when the power goes out.

Security Houses are usually surrounded by a concrete wall and the enclosed area makes a nice courtyard for a garden and parking the car. It also feels secure; pets are safe within the walls and children can run and play without parents worrying about them getting hit by a car.

For extra security, my in-laws have decorative wrought iron bars inside all the windows, at least two large slide locks and regular key locks on all the external doors, a watchman, and dogs.

They also have to be careful about the wild monkeys, which will come into the house to steal food if no one is paying attention. They have a wrought iron screen door to keep monkeys from coming in through the rooftop terrace. Yesterday a monkey got into the sun room behind the living room. Luckily it didn’t come into the living room through the open door!

Household Help In Indian homes it’s common to have household help.

The watchman watches the property and tends the garden.

The maid comes for a couple of hours each day to wash dishes, sweep, and do the laundry. She washes the laundry by hand on a concrete platform in the back yard, and she hangs it to dry.

The driver drives the family wherever they need to go. He might also run errands and perform other duties around the home.

The dobi comes to take clothes that need ironing.

The cook is responsible for most or all of the cooking.

Furnishings Some of the furnishings of the house are also different than what we’re used to in the US. The floors and stairs are granite or marble. Kitchen countertops are granite, just like in some homes in the US. Granite is so abundant that it’s even used for fence posts everywhere.

Beds and mattresses are different than what we’re used to. At home in the US, we have thick mattresses with varying degrees of firmness and extra padding in the form of a pillowtop. Our mattresses are typically covered in white fabric.

In India, mattresses are thinner and more dense. Box springs are not used. Beds are much lower, like the height of the seat of a dining chair or a bit lower than that. The cover of the mattress is tapestry fabric, resembling what you’d see on a sofa.

Kitchen Kitchens in India are pretty similar to kitchens in the US, with a couple of key differences.

Refrigerators are smaller. This is not much of a surprise, given the US mentality of buying everything supersized. In India groceries are purchased more frequently and in smaller amounts. Fruits and vegetables are bought fresh rather than frozen or canned.

The range (stove) is gas and the gas is sourced from a canister that is stored under the countertop. The dial on the stove turns on the gas to the burner, then the stove lighter (a small tool that makes a spark) is used to light the gas.

Stainless steel is a very popular material for kitchen vessels (containers). The vessels are used for cooking and also for food storage.

Indian cuisine has no need for an oven, so kitchens typically do not have ovens.

The electricity for small appliances, like microwaves, grinders, and blenders, is switched off when the appliance is not in use.

Bathroom Bathrooms are totally different than at home in the US. Unbelievably different. The countertop and sink are similar to home, but the toilet and shower are not.

The toilet might be one of two options. It could be similar to a western toilet, or it might be a squat toilet. A squat toilet is a kind of porcelain basin set in the floor. There’s a large rectangular hole on the top that is flush with the level of the floor. To use it, you step one foot on each side of the hole, squat down, and go. I was surprised to find one in a fancy clothing store the other day.

Toilet paper is not typically used in India. Instead, they have a bidet-like system which may consist of a water sprayer or a water faucet, a bucket, and a cup that is used to scoop the water. I’m not exactly sure how these are used. The water part seems pretty straightforward, but I’m not sure about the drying.

Bath tubs are not common in India and the shower is also very different than what we’re used to. Shower heads and hand sprayers are becoming more common, but a typical Indian shower is an interesting endeavor.

First, you have to flip a switch to turn on the geyser (water heater, pronounced ghee-zer). The water needs to heat for about 5-10 minutes before you bathe.

When the water’s ready, you turn on the faucet that is sticking out of the wall under the geyser and let the water collect in a big bucket that’s positioned below it. Yes, you understood that correctly. You bathe while standing on the floor of the bathroom. The floor has drains in it.

The bucket below the faucet helps reduce water waste. You let the water run and use a scooping cup to catch the water and pour it on yourself. During the time when you’re pouring or lathering, the running water collects in the bucket. You can turn the water off when the bucket contains enough water for the rest of your shower.

You might wonder if it’s not too cold to shower this way. It’s actually quite comfortable. My kids love it. Remember that there’s no central AC, and slatted windows in the bathroom let in warm air.

After the shower you have to remember to turn off the geyser.

Life at home does take some getting used to, but once you get used to the differences it’s very comfortable. If you think about it from a yogic perspective, the Indian way of living gives you opportunities to be present in every aspect of your home life.

Thank you for letting me share all this with you! I’d love to hear your comments and questions about homes in India.