Olivia Chiacchia

CIEE Study Center, India

The truth is I can’t possibly describe my experience thus far in India in a short newspaper article.

I could speak about the various tourist attractions I’ve explored  — like the Taj Mahal or Charminar — and simply recount them in terms of base characteristics.

However, I feel this type of account would serve more as a superficial doxology than something that could possibly come close to encompassing the intensely personal and deeply human experience that I have been so privileged to come across.

I cannot say that I will be able to achieve such a feat, but I am going to attempt to by way of sharing some of the innumerable and often elusive thoughts that have been constantly flooding my mind.

At first I was nervous to write about my experience in India because of all of the complex tensions and controversial dynamics that surround me daily. The topics of race, politics, cultural morality, economics and social stratification are highly loaded and particularly abstruse.

Contributed Photo / Olivia Chiacchia

Contributed Photo / Olivia Chiacchia

One of the initial battles that I faced upon my arrival in India was feeling guilty for simply having the privilege of being here.

As an international student, I feel it is important to be aware of the fact that studying abroad is a privilege that is intensified when studying in a city with such stark contrast in socioeconomic status.

It isn’t out of the ordinary to see a beautiful gated property with a manicured lawn next to a small hut housing a family of eight.

The poverty in India (which is not at all the defining factor that would epitomize the entire city or country) can be overwhelming in the sense that it forces you to negotiate how to address its presence without knowing what to do about it.

The abroad program I am a part of brought a group of exchange students to volunteer at the Desire Society, which is a boarding school for children with HIV in Hyderabad.

As much as I wanted to volunteer during my stay, I started to question if showing up to “help” these children had the potential to be more harmful than beneficial. Would I be perceived as just another privileged American with the white savior industrial complex?

This is by no means the only time in which I was forced to more actively confront my identity in terms of my race and physical presence.

This being said, India has given me the opportunity to live as a part of the racial minority for the first time in my life. My identity has gone from being Olivia to “Olivia the foreigner,” which is an experience I personally believe everyone should have at least once.

Many locals from the more rural parts of India rarely encounter foreigners and may ask to take a picture with you.

I remember one time my friends and I went to Nehru Zoological Park in Hyderabad and ended up being more of an exhibit than most of the animals.

This isn’t because the locals were being rude or weird; their excitement stems from a curiosity with racial diversity and an interest in the way that foreigners perceive and immerse themselves within Indian culture.

It is common for locals to approach me and my friends and inquire about our country of origin and how we are enjoying India. Through these types of spontaneous interactions, I have had such great experiences with the locals here.

People are very warm, helpful and tolerant.

Though there isn’t much racial diversity, the culture has proven to be diverse in countless other ways.

For instance, while many women continue to wear traditional Indian clothing, others opt to don Western European clothing which is dramatically different to say the least.

Hyderabad is a city where the rich and the poor, the Muslims and the Hindus and everyone in between live together peacefully.

In the past month I’ve spent in Hyderabad, India has been overwhelming, challenging, confusing and also one of the most rewarding, unique and transformative experiences of my life.

Overall, I hope to move on in this semester with an openness and sensitivity that will allow me to continue to explore my own humanity by exploring the rich and multifarious culture that I find myself in.

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