Through the lens of young Indian diaspora

Lifestyle, culture & perspectives of Indian students studying abroad


February 15, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Through the lens of young Indian diaspora

India is the second largest source of international students after China, according to UNESCO Institute of Statistics

From extreme weather to addressing lecturers by their first name & from dealing with an unfamiliar culture to missing Indian food, there are many things that Indian students have to acclimatise themselves to while studying at their dream destinations.

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“When I entered London for the first time, I was nervous and excited; ready, albeit a little apprehensive, to begin my time at university. I expected that the coming years would be full of new people and experiences, some slightly bland British food, a little bit of culture shock, and a lot of good old college fun. What I didn’t expect was how much living abroad alone would teach me about who I am, where I am from, and my relationship with my Indian identity,” Rashmi Bharadwaj, a 23-year-old, final-year industrial engineering student at the University of Toronto in Canada, tells Media India Group.

Originally from Mumbai, Bharadwaj moved to Toronto in 2017, to peruse higher education. One of her primary reasons for choosing the University of Toronto was because it promised a ‘holistic education’ and offered access to some of the best professors in the field that Bharadwaj had chosen. While Bhardwaj got successfully assimilated into an all-new foreign culture, she says that her Indian identity has become stronger than ever, now that she lives outside India.

“I remember feeling extremely alienated during the first few months of my college. From food to conversations, everything was unfamiliar to me here. I even suffered a lot because of the weather,” she adds, “Thankfully, my college administration was very sensitive about these issues and made sure that the local students made me comfortable and not to burden me and other foreign students with a lot of work initially.”

Similar is the case of 25-year-old Sumeet Sikri. New Delhi-based Sikri had moved to I.E. Business School in Madrid, Spain in 2019 for pursuing his masters’ degree. Sikri also speaks of how difficult it was for him to adjust to a new lifestyle and live in a country he had never even visited once before.

“When the time came for me to start applying to universities, studying in Spain felt like a no-brainer. More than anything, I had been attracted by gorgeous college websites, their photos of multi-ethnic students and the life of freedom and intellectualism that they promised. While I have been experiencing all good things here now, the assimilation into a new culture sure was not effortless,” says Sikri.

Sikri and Bhardwaj are but only two of the nearly 1.9 million Indian students pursuing higher education abroad as of December 2019, according to the ministry of external affairs’ data. India is the second-largest source of international students after China, reveals the UNESCO Institute of Statistics. While most universities abroad promise a healthy environment and specially dedicated committee to make the students’ transition from ‘east to west’-as Sikri calls it, easier and comfortable, the young Indian population, now a part of the 32 million-strong Indian diaspora, the second largest in the world; had their share of struggles and adjustments in the new country.

Culture shock

“Many institutions provide resources to help international students transition from one education system to the other. However, the cultural shock often manifests in subtle ways that can be overlooked by the universities, such as with peer relations,” says Bharadwaj who is studying in Toronto.

She says that the informality and friendliness of the interaction between students and teachers appeared strange to her a few other students from India in her college. “In India, owing to the age-old concept of the teacher-student relationship, students are expected to refer to their teachers as ‘sir’ and ‘madam’. Additionally, according to Indian cultural norms, it is considered disrespectful to address your seniors – in terms of age or stature – by their first name. However, in Canada, it is very normal to address teachers or professors by their first names,” she points out.

In the beginning, addressing supervisors and other faculty members by their first names felt quite awkward to Sikri, too. “I gradually understood that the professors were treating us as equals and colleagues. Informal interactions with professors over dinners and other social events were particularly helpful in this regard,” he adds.

“This is another significant but less talked about issue. In many western universities, there is an open and healthy discourse around gender and sexuality,” says Rishabh Mundhra, another student from Delhi who moved to Lille, France to pursue MBA from a private university.

However, for international students from conservative cultures, where these issues are often shrouded in silence, this discourse can be quite perplexing and disorienting, says Mundhra. He recalls being surprised by the casual use of words about sexual identities, such as LGBTQ+, non-binary gender or gender fluid.

Given that France attracts a significant number of international students from India and other south Asian countries, universities and colleges, mostly, engage such students in discussions around topics such as gender and sexuality. “This initiative would also allow the students to get acclimatised to the university environment more quickly,” he adds.

Reception in a foreign land

“I have had to grapple with the idea of what India really is when faced with these different aspects of the country. I kind of had to understand my privilege and that I am not the everyday Indian and really understand the kind of inequality we have in India in a way that I had never done before,” says Kaashif Hajee, a PhD student in Architecture who has been studying in UAE since past four years.

Hajee was realising the differences between himself and the majority of Indians in the UAE during the initial months of his stay. At the same time, he says that he also was realising the similarities between himself and other South Asians. “I was startled by just how similar I was to the Pakistani or Bangladeshi students. The people who I have gotten along with the best on-campus are not necessarily Indians but are South Asians. We’ve all gotten along based on a shared history and shared cultural identity that we all have – we all speak Hindi or Urdu or similar languages, we all have a similar palate, we all have a familiarity with the same music and film, we all have similar cultural values,” says Hajee.

With regards to the impressions of India he has encountered, he says, “In college, most people are very socially and politically aware, and so I have not encountered much ignorance about Indian culture. However, our campus is not representative of all of Abu Dhabi or the UAE. While I have never directly encountered this myself, I know that there are some Indians who have been made to feel inferior because they get automatically associated with the labour force, a part of the country’s population that is often considered inferior. But students like myself are treated so well,” he explains.

Reconnecting to the roots

Ananya Sootha, a 24-year-old student at the Faculty of Medicines, at Charles University in Prague, the capital of Czech Republic, says that among the people she met at university, most were fascinated by India but had little to no knowledge about it. “During my first few weeks, the absurd range of questions I had to answer, or people’s surprise at my fluency in English was something that will always stay with me,” Sootha says.

“Having finally moved to Prague, I have realised that not only was I unaware of how much my Indian identity and culture meant to me, but that I was ignoring so much history, art, and culture, both old and new, in India. Or rather, I realised that the history, art and culture that I had taken for granted, was a much more essential part of my identity than I ever knew,” says Sootha.

She goes on to say that after being removed from the familiarity of Indian culture, and thrust into the world of the Indian diaspora, she was forced to understand and reckon with ideas of race, class, and colonial history in a way that she had never been able to while at home.

“I made and lost friends and was influenced by many of the people I met – they changed my style of conversation, my sense of humour, and my tastes. However, they also made me realise how much I missed Indian cultural values and priorities. I also did not realise how much I valued Indian food, especially street food and the variety of Indian cuisines until I encountered an inaccurate perception of a singular Indian cuisine that begins and ends with chicken tikka masala,” she adds.

As for the Indian diaspora, she says, “I found that Indians who have been raised abroad have a very idealised view of Indian culture and only associate themselves with the rich heritage. Living here during these years of protest and increasing racial, social and political conversation, I was able to associate myself with anything happening in India. So I began to make a more conscious effort to keep up with Indian news.”

What Sootha says resonates with Bharadwaj, Sikri, Mudhra and Hajee, all of whom are the part of the young Indian diaspora who have gone to different parts of the world and are pursuing their higher education and hope to live, work and travel. All of them feel more connected and aware of their Indian roots after moving abroad. “I might not be speaking for all 32 million people of the Indian diaspora, but I can say that at least the young ones, especially the students who have moved out of India just a few years ago, feel that our life has come to a full circle; from learning about the Indian culture as children to re-learning them as adults in a foreign land,” says Hajee.



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