A Look Abroad: UCG in INDIA
By Pia Tietjen
Many of the current third year students are on exchange at the moment. While we studied and lived together over the past two years, part of the UCG community is now spread all over the world, from China to South America and from India to the US. All these people experience new cultures, get confronted with different societal issues and personal challenges, while life in Groningen keeps running in the same old routine. While going with the flow of daily life, we easily forget that life is also happening in all these other places. So how does the life of people on exchange look like?
Kiek, for example, is currently studying in Kolkata, the third largest city in India. While doing a major in humanities with the specialisation in ‘culture studies’ at UCG, she is now taking Indian history and sociology courses in Kolkata. After first living with an Indian family, she now decided to move in with two French exchange students.
What’s your impression of Kolkata?
Kolkata is a relatively old city, built next to the Ganges (river). It has with many markets and beautiful little streets. The city is contrasting in many ways. While the city is very big, people are very friendly and personal in interacting with you. Sometimes the business is overwhelming, but in its chaos, the people are actually very relaxed, take time to talk with you or help you. Poverty is harsh and visible everywhere, but at the same time, it feels like the people take the chance to celebrate everything they can (meals, festivals, music, etc.).
What are the biggest differences in your daily life?
One of the things I enjoy the most is the food culture. In every street you will find people selling street food and chai (tea made with milk, sugar and lots of spices). I never buy food in the supermarkets (also because there aren’t many). Rather little shops and fruits and vegetables from the markets (delicious).
There aren’t many foreigners in Kolkata. I am the only exchange student with three other girls. So my daily interactions are always with Indian people and other Indian students, instead of with internationals from different places. This also means that I attract quite some attention in the streets. But this also has its benefits, because it’s easier to make friends.
In Kolkata, nightlife is not really present and I haven’t been to a club so far. Bars close early and the streets get empty. When I want to have a beer, there are only some cafes that sell it (you cannot drink alcohol in normal restaurants). So if I drink, I will just start drinking early. Which is also a lot of fun. As the only foreigners, people in the cafes already recognize me and the other exchange students.
The impact of the weather on my daily life is more intense than I expected. Especially the first months were superhot and I would just be super tired after a day. Also, classes were often cancelled because of the Monsoon (rainy season).
Another difference is that I have a lot of interaction with the people in the streets. People often think that I am a tourist and always want to help me or are curious where I am from. This means that I always have conversations with people - Indian people are very open and super curious. For those who watch Bollywood movies, they headnod is really a thing and it’s a lot of fun to do it.
We have many, many holidays because they celebrate a lot of religious festivals. So, I have quite some time to travel, which is great because there is so much to see. In three weeks, my semester in Kolkata will be over and I have six weeks to travel around, so I’m super excited for that.
How do you experience the political and social situation in Kolkata?
The political situation in India is, if you ask me, all over the place and very complicated, among others because of its past. As I follow courses in Indian history and sociology, I actually get to learn a lot about India, and really, if it is anything, it’s complicated. From my experience, many discussions are focussed on India before and after colonial rule, in terms of gender, religion, caste, economy, politics... Especially the diversity and complexity of its history in terms of religions is fascinating.
Something that is very striking to me is the caste system (dividing society into classes). It is visible everywhere you go. Just by standing next to the street and watching the people passing by, you can guess for a large part who belongs to which caste, just by observing what kind of activity they perform. For over 2000 years, 95% of the population has married within their caste (actually their jati, or ‘sub-caste’). This has as a consequence that for a very large part, certain castes still perform certain jobs and live in certain neighbourhood/areas.
What’s the most impactful thing that happened to you?
In my experience, the people in Kolkata are incredibly friendly and genuine. But they are also very honest and will say their say. It also is quite strange for me to experience feeling an outsider. Actually, there are many things I could answer here.
However, what has most impacted me is to see how many people live in harsh poverty. Therefore, I am confronted with it every day. It is not just some poor areas, but it is visible everywhere on the street. During the 10 minutes-walk from the metro station to the gate of my University for example, I see more than many people begging on the street. It is difficult to position myself towards it, as I see it every day and do not really know what to do. In the street where we always go to cafes to drink a beer, I always see the same mothers and kids and it feels weird to go drink beers. The wealth gap is just enormous…
Why should UCG students go to Kolkata?
Before I went to India, most people told me to be very careful and that India is not safe for a woman alone. But I’m actually experiencing the opposite; I feel very safe in the city. It feels like there’s a lot of social control and people (I mostly interact with men, as they are driving the busses/auto’s, selling food/goods etc.) are very helpful, friendly and honest.
They always have time for you and they always want to help you. I might experience it like this because I’m a foreigner, but this is my experience. And if one thing, Indian people love their celebrations and festivals, to invite you and include you, and that makes Kolkata a super happy place to be, despite its poverty.
If you want to see more pictures from Kiek’s exchange; check @morekiek