Culture Shock v2.0

I’m quickly approaching a month back in the States. Culture shock continues, but in a much subtler and more drawn out way than the initial jolt. Mundane activities like grocery shopping, walking to a park, and meeting a friend for coffee have stopped blowing my mind. I’m slowly making less eye contact. But a seed of disorientation persists.

A big part of my confusion is the enormous disconnect between life the States/Vermont/Seattle and life in India. There’s basically nothing in my life here that reminds me of my life over there. The trip is starting to feel like a weird dream that happened a long time ago that I can’t quite describe to anyone. The comfort I acquired in bouncing between extremes has been replaced by wondering why things are so easy and straight-forward here. People make plans? Get places on time? Expect this from others? Days float by.

I continue to be struck by the wealth and assumption of comfort here. We all have relatively so much, but it’s not enough. We allow ourselves to get worked up over little things and problems we’ve created just for the sake of having problems. Traffic, slow service, soup that is too hot. At the same time, we hoard our wealth instead of using it to fix the inequality, injustice, and exploitation all around us. This is the downside of the adaptability of humans: when things are good or great, we get complacent and form expectations.

This is all starting to sound like a major downer. It isn’t meant to be. Life is amazing here. We have green spaces and potable water from the tap and clean bathrooms and time and space to exercise and pretty much do anything we want. The country is fantastic and beautiful. It’s just a lot to process.

I’m sure all this will calm down as I settle back into Seattle, but part of me doesn’t want to let it go. During my travels I developed a healthy sense of urgency to make something of my life and my privilege. If you’re reading this blog, there’s a good chance you’re well-off, well-educated, and empowered. We need to remember and appreciate this, and acknowledge that these are gifts that we can use to help others achieve the same freedoms that we enjoy. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama comes to mind again:

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.

If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

Train Yoga

I recently discovered that the road to the place I love is, in fact, not a road at all. It’s a pair of iron beams, running parallel in perfect unison for miles and miles and hundreds of miles more. And when I say perfect unison, I mean close but with all sorts of bumps and divots, because this ride is not exactly “smooth.” But in India, the train is by far the cheapest and best way to get from Point A to Point B.

This time Point A is a bustling city in the South Indian region of Tamil Nadu: Chennai, formerly known as Madras. Point A is also a place of seeking, of curiosity, of wondering what the world has in store for me, of imagining all the strange creatures that could be living in my water, or worse, already in my stomach. Point A is an American who thinks he loves yoga, but isn’t sure what’s up with all the dots and lines on peoples’ foreheads.

Point B is harder to define. You could call it New Delhi, or probably Rishikesh shortly thereafter, but it would be more accurate to just label it as “Unknown.” I have some ideas of what Point B might look like, but train rides in India have taught me that Point B is never what you expect. It’s better not to speculate, but of course I can’t resist. Point B is a spiritual place, one with a deep understanding of yoga, of the self (if there is such a thing), of meditation, the mind, humanity. At Point B, I am not going to get sick. There will be naan.

The route from Chennai to Delhi is 2,200 km, but because this is a “Super Fast Express” train, takes a mere 34 hours instead of the 50-60 it would take on the regular “Express” train. For those who haven’t visited the subcontinent, here’s a quick primer on seating classes for Indian trains:

Second Class: Bench seats are completely unreserved and they let as many people on as want to go. This can be chaos and is strongly NOT recommended for trips longer than an hour or two.

Sleeper Class: Each six-foot section of the train is broken into eight bunks. Three tiers on each side of the main compartment, two tiers on the opposite side of the walkway, slightly shorter in length.

3A/C: Same as sleeper class, with air conditioning, sheets, and curtains provided for slightly more privacy.

2A/C: Same as 3A/C, with two bunks per side rather than three.

1A/C, EC, CC, Beyond: Various nicer methods of travel which I haven’t explored, some in seats rather than benches, and possibly some in which you practically have a whole cabin to yourself.

Based on a few other medium-length (5-16 hours) train rides I’ve had here, I decided that for the long one I would splurge for the additional comfort of 3A/C. April in India is hot, and although I haven’t seen an actual thermometer in months, I’d say the average temperature has been getting well into the 90’s.

Fate (and my propensity for last-minute planning), however, plays a large role in these decisions, and by the time I booked only Sleeper class was available. No problem, at least it’s cheaper. And by cheaper, I mean dirt cheap. We’re talking $11 for a 34-hour, 2200 km ride. Hence my lack of guilt at the idea of “splurging” for the 3A/C ticket, which would have been about $20.

I should add that I’m traveling with a small statue of the Indian god Ganesha in my bag. It is important to have some divine intervention here. He’s the one with the elephant head, famous for his ability to remove obstacles. So he basically hooks me up on this one: my overnight bus to Chennai drops me directly at the train station two hours before my scheduled departure, leaving me plenty of time for a leisurely breakfast of puri (puffy fried dough) with the typical sides of potato and coconut curries.

The train is not especially late – the rail system is the largest employer in India, and one of the most organized and reliable institutions in the country. Sleeper class is as expected, but the car is older than most I’ve been on: the power is spotty, the paint job flaked, the dirt slightly more caked than on the newer cars. There are bars on the windows, which from photos my mom thinks makes the car look like a prison. But it means the windows open all the way, letting in plenty of fresh, fast-moving air to combat the heat. (Except that fresh air in India is usually hazy with smoke from fires in the fields, and more commonly, piles of burning trash and plastic. This is a whole other story, but basically it’s a huge bummer.)

I get comfortable and immediately take a nap in my upper berth to recover from the poor night sleep I got on the overnight bus. I came prepared for this journey: fully-charged iPod, a journal with plenty of ideas to hash out, War and Peace. Somehow I always end up reading epic Russian novels in tropical places. The train car is hot and the seats are the kind of fake-leather-polyester that gets sticky and releases layers of stored dirt when you sweat on it. Despite my smiles and brief exchanges in halted English/sign language, my compartment-mates seem firmly bent on strewing their belongings far and wide across the benches. This feels like a subtle claiming of territory, a gentle push-back against the white privilege they know I experience throughout the country. I have no way to test this theory. It doesn’t matter – yoga has opened my hips and legs in the last few months. I can squeeze into small spaces for long periods of time.

The trip continues: six, ten, fourteen hours. A decent night sleep, twenty-four, thirty hours. The situation doesn’t exactly get more comfortable. But I start to realize something. Despite whatever difficulties or confusions arise, I still feel calm, relaxed. I’ve adjusted to the discomforts to the point that they don’t feel like discomforts. I am being here with myself, smiling. Occasionally I’ll engage in brief conversation with a curious Indian. At one point a young guy sees I have a ukulele and pulls down his tabla from the upper berth. We jam out for a half-hour and draw a crowd from the surrounding compartments. Even with the layer of grime that has slowly coated my travel clothes and exposed body parts, this trip is really cool. Life is good.

And then it hits me. I’ve been telling myself that yoga, Rishikesh, some vague Point B, is my destination. But I’m doing yoga right here. I am where I am, right now. This is what yoga is all about. I’m exploring the present moment, sitting with discomfort without letting my mind go down the drain. That’s straight from the Yoga Sutras. I’m doing Train Yoga. I would market this back in the States, if only we had a functional rail system.

This trip will give me an opportunity to practice all sorts of more “traditional” forms of yoga, ones with asanas and pranayama and downward-facing dog and (I hope) happy-baby pose, but for now I am glad to be able to sit on a train and just be. To feel the wind on my face, to watch the corn and wheat and cotton fields pass by, to sit comfortably, to breathe. They say India will change you. I’d have to say they’re right.

Survived India!

Wow. I just went from a city of 22,000,000 to a town of 1,600 on the other side of the world in 36 hours. Wow. I made it. I’m in one piece, healthy and happy. I barely got sick. And I managed to trick jet lag by staying up until 5 am my last few nights in Delhi. After a taxi to a plane to a bus to a plane to a shuttle to a plane to a train to a train to a train to a car, I arrived home to Vermont last night around 8 pm. I had a salad (!!!) with my mom, went to bed at 9:30 pm, and woke up at 7 am feeling surprisingly well-rested and alert.

So there’s a thing called reverse culture shock. It seems to be bigger and faster than regular culture shock because all the differences hit you at once, instead of slowly revealing themselves as you get to know a place. You’re back in a place that’s familiar, except nothing works as you’ve grown accustomed. A lot of my experiences in the past (long hikes, meditations, etc) have given me the sensation of a crust being cleaned off my brain, allowing me to see things with new eyes. Right now is the strongest I’ve ever had this sensation. My brain is entirely crust-free.

Here’s what is different:

Clean air. I just went for a three mile run and my lungs feel wrecked from four months of the pollution. We’re so lucky here.

Clean water. From the tap. Amazing. It tastes like unicorns and rainbows. Clean ones.

Trash. Where is all the trash? Not burning in a pile next to the street?

Empty space. There is so much space here, and so few people to fill it. But they do manage to fill it, because

Personal space. You don’t get any in India. People here expand to fill the space they’ve got. Touching suddenly feels weird. I probably touched (inadvertently, shaking hands, etc) more strangers in the last four months than the rest of my life in the states.

Bare legs. Whoa. You’re wearing a miniskirt on a train?

Phones. Most people in India have phones, but they don’t stare at them as much. They’re usually in a group of real-life people instead. It felt like all the New Yorkers on the train had their heads down.

Quiet. It’s so quiet my ears hurt. I didn’t know this was a real thing.

Lawns. Houses. Cars. All so big.

No people. Even Penn Station felt like a tidy little community gathering. Nothing like a ‘crowd’ anywhere. But still people seemed to be in a big rush. I didn’t see a lot of rushing in India, or at least not a lot of stressful rushing. You’ll get there when you get there, and that’s mostly out of your control. Which relates to

Stress in general. People here have it, a lot. In India, there is non-stop honking in the streets, everyone is constantly cutting everyone else off, dipping in and out of lanes. But nobody takes it personally. It’s just how things work, and there’s a sense of “we’re all in it together”. Here it feels a lot more like a competition. And big trucks.

Trucks. And people driving them. If you had enough money to have a truck in India, you’d probably be using it to ship goods and you almost definitely would not be the one driving it.

Highways. They pretty much don’t exist in India.

White people. Black people. India is mostly all the shades in between.

Communication. I can understand everyone. I kind of wish I couldn’t. But mostly people don’t seem to be communicating, they’re in their own bubble.

Dogs. Someone had a dog with them at the grocery store. I was not afraid of it biting me and sending me to a hospital for a rabies shot. Also no scary monkeys.

Trains. Here they’re late and clean.

Bathrooms. They’re everywhere! No more pee anxiety!

Recreation. People are doing things for fun all over the place, and a lot of it involves exercise. I didn’t see much exercise for health or recreation in India, and what little there is mainly consisted of getting huge at the gym.

Bare feet. Without fear of hookworm.

Did I mention the clean air? I also have a strange desire to take pictures of people sleeping in awkward positions on the train. This might not have to do with culture shock.

I can already feel my brain adjusting to the vibrations of life here. We’re such adaptable creatures. I feel really lucky to live in such a healthy place full of so much opportunity. Now I want to do something with it.

What is Happening to Tibet?

This is not a fun topic. It is not uplifting like the talks given by the Dalai Lama. There aren’t many bright points to speak of. But it’s really important and devastating, so I hope you’ll read on.

The basics are that the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1949, and for the past 60 years have been persecuting the population, destroying monasteries and artifacts, and basically waging a slow cultural genocide against the 6 million or so Tibetans still alive today. There are “re-education” campaigns, which means they only teach Chinese in schools, and that the schools are prohibitively expensive for Tibetans to attend. There is active wage discrimination, with Chinese workers explicitly paid more than Tibetans for the same work. Tibetans are not free to practice their religion, and any mention or image of the Dalai Lama is dangerous. China has positioned a large portion of its nuclear arsenal in Tibet and dumps nuclear waste there. China has promoted immigration into Tibet to the point that the Tibetans are a minority in their own land. 70% of business owners in Lhasa, the capitol of Tibet, are Chinese-owned. Thousands of Tibetans flee, or attempt to flee, into neighboring countries each year. This number has decreased in recent years due to a Chinese clamp-down on borders to the south in response to civil unrest. You can find a much more complete description of what’s happening in Tibet here.

Still, it’s a complicated issue which I don’t pretend to have all that clear an understanding of. Tibet is too valuable strategically and economically (there is extensive mining there) for China to think of ever giving it up, and it’s doubtful they would admit to having been wrong for so long. China is also persecuting dozens of other minority groups in their country, so it’s a part of a much bigger human rights issue. Not to mention the restriction of information to, and the lack of rights for, the Chinese population as a whole. The situation reminds me of the line in the Tao Te Ching: “Therefore the sage, in the exercise of his government, empties their minds, fills their bellies, weakens their wills, and strengthens their bones.” Except that in this case, they aren’t necessarily keeping the Tibetans’ bellies full or bones strong.

I’ve been helping some Tibetans learn English at an NGO in Mcleod Ganj, LHA (which I found via Omprakash – check them out!), meanwhile trying to piece together some stories for an idea of what it’s like to be going through all this. I don’t know a lot about what happens on a policy-level, but here are some of the impressions I’ve gathered.


Despite the hardships, a lot of the Tibetans in exile want to go back to Tibet. They miss their families, and some have promised to return after seeing the Dalai Lama and learning some English. Most of them have risked their lives escaping through the mountains to get here. The journey usually takes about 30 days of trekking through high mountain passes, traveling in the dark of night, and basically being hunted by Chinese guards the whole way. Returning to Tibet almost certainly means never leaving again. Many Tibetans come from nomadic families and stay here in order to be close to the Dalai Lama. Nobody knows what will happen when the Dalai Lama dies, but it will certainly be a huge blow for the Tibetan community and their cause. He turns 79 in July. It is possible to contact friends and family in Tibet via certain phone apps, but they are closely monitored by the Chinese, and any mention of politics or religion is highly dangerous. The community as a whole is amazingly positive, peaceful, and resilient. Tibetan children are adorable.

I came to Mcleod Ganj with the naive goal of finding out what I (and the world) can do to help make this situation better. I’ve discovered that there is no simple answer to this question (duh). The beautiful idea of a free and independent Tibet, the return of the Dalai Lama, the restoration of the defiled monasteries and temples, the preservation of the environment, is highly unrealistic. The most pragmatic view I’ve heard is that this is primarily an issue between the Tibetans and the Chinese. Tibet won’t be an independent country again without some major global changes. But things within the country could be so much better than they are now. The more the Chinese people know about the issues in their own country, the more pressure there will be to provide basic human rights to Tibetans and other minority groups. As foreigners, it’s great if we can provide for the refugees the education and language skills which they have largely been denied in their own country. We can raise awareness of the issue. Our governments probably won’t step up and hold the Chinese accountable for the human rights violations going on there, as our own economic well-being is too tied up in the exploitation of Chinese workers. But we can be informed citizens and consumers. We can spread the word, and we can keep asking for change.

For more information about Tibet, check out:


Meeting the Dalai Lama

I’ve been staying in Mcleod Ganj for two weeks now, the home of the TIbetan government in exile and the Dalai Lama. It’s just up the hill from Dharamsala in the Himachal Pradesh region of northern India. Like most places I’ve been in India, this place is completely different from every other place I’ve been in India. Only the difference is more extreme. The Tibetan community and culture changes the vibe completely. There are also a lot of westerners here, but they tend to be socially-conscious volunteering types rather than travelers looking for the cheapest bed. It’s just about the calmest, cleanest, most
coffee-filled city I’ve visited in India.

I’ve been into Buddhism since I was a teenager, so part of my idea coming here was the hope that I’d get to see the His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. Based on his official website (he also has Twitter), it seemed like he might be in town for a few days between trips to Japan and Norway, but that he wouldn’t be holding any public audiences. Then last week while returning from a hike, a man recognized our new friend and Pacific Northwest yoga teacher, Paul, and stopped us. This guy had done an acroyoga workshop with Paul four years ago in Mysore. Who knows how he recognized him, but he told us that the Dalai Lama would be holding a receiving line for foreigners on Saturday, and that you had to register at the Tibetan security office. We booked it down the hill to the office, got there 45 minutes after they were supposed to close but just as they were getting ready to actually close. It turns out we would have been able to register the next day as well, but registering that afternoon saved us a multiple-hour wait in the line.

Saturday came and it turned out about four times as many people as they expected had registered for the event (1600 foreigners and 400 Indians – I could have told them this would be popular), so the Dalai Lama would be standing with small groups for photos and giving a talk instead of receiving everyone individually. This rarely happens for westerners, so we basically got super lucky to have this opportunity while already in town. We arrived around 6:30 AM, slowly got shuffled into the courtyard in his residence, and stood around for a few hours. Eventually we were instructed to organize by country and break up into groups of 40-50.

Sometime after 10 AM, His Holiness appeared from his residence, grinning and wearing those awesome tinted glasses he wears in all his photos. I’ve heard people talk about how the energy in the room changes when certain great people are around. I had some feeling of this when visiting Amma’s ashram, but it was not as tangible as this. When the Dalai Lama appeared, everyone immediately buoyed up out of the haze of hours of waiting around. I could feel a sensation of opening in my heart, and a huge smile immediately formed on my face. Part of this is due to expectation being satisfied. A bigger part, I think, is the collective energy of the group. And a third part, which I can’t explain but may be the real reason, is the energy and aura of the person. I don’t know what to think about auras, but you can tell when someone has good energy, and this guy has great energy. Supposedly you could feel the Buddha’s aura from three kilometers away.

As the Dalai Lama walked from group to group, every movement seemed to be filled with joy and kindness. He joked around naturally with everyone, received their greetings with grace, and transmitted an amazing sense of compassion. It was all a little bit rushed because of the size of the group, but he took the time to connect with people who felt compelled to ask or tell him something. The photo itself wasn’t such a big deal. It was a lot more fun to watch this 78 year old man navigate a crowd of 2,000 adoring fans.

Dalai Lama

Posing with His Holiness the Dalai Lama at his residence in Mcleod Ganj

After all the photos were taken, the Dalai Lama made his way to the stage to give his talk. It was great to hear his voice, and his laugh is unbeatable. I took two main points away from the talk, though the whole thing was powerful. First, that all the struggles created between groups of people are based on secondary (or tertiary, or lower) characteristics. Skin color, religion, ethnicity, nationality, economic status, politics. All are secondary to the fact of our common humanity. It can be so difficult to see beyond these apparent differences, but the fact is that each of us is one of seven billion people on this planet. We’re all striving for pretty much the same thing: a happy, secure life. He also gave a shout out to India for being the largest democracy in the world, and for having such a strong cultural attitude of nonviolence and tolerance. There are always exceptions, but it is remarkable how many different kinds of people live so densely here, yet in such peace.

My second major take-away was on the secular education of compassion. Formal education systems around the world focus on facts and analytic thinking in the maths and sciences, and leave ideas of kindness and compassion to religious and community organizations. It turns out compassion is not religion, and there’s no need for it to be confined to a segment of life with so much other baggage, and which is absent from so many people’s lives. Cultivating compassion is crucial for living a joyful and happy life, even for atheists. The more I read about neuroscience, the more I understand that this is a quality of the human brain, and has nothing to do with God or saints or what-have-you. It’s science. “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion” – HHTDL. I have a lot more thinking to do about this, but I’m pretty sure I want to make it a big part of my life.

The main piece I’ve left out of this story of meeting the Dalai Lama is plight of the Tibetan people, and the fact that all of this joy and kindness comes from one of the most persecuted and repressed populations in the world today. I’ve been finding out much more about the issue since I’ve been in town, and I hope I can relate some sense of what’s happening in my next post. To be continued…