Indian student Devendra gets a feel for how his country is perceived in Switzerland and sheds a few misconceptions of his own.
Stereotyping is bound to happen when two cultures rarely meet. In my case, I had never met anyone from Switzerland before coming here. The only exposure I had to western culture was through Hollywood movies and TV Series. Occasionally I came across foreign tourists in places like Goa or Manali, but that was it.
For a country like Switzerland, which is infamous in India as a secret banking destination for corrupt politicians, I was expecting profligate residents. This image was destroyed when I met the locals, especially students, who were working very hard to make ends meet.
On the other hand, I was the first Indian acquaintance for many people in Switzerland. Does that mean that they do not know much about India? Absolutely not. I met a religious Egyptian Muslim who was familiar with Hindu religious texts. He had not only read the Gita but was also eager to discuss the Upanishads. I also encountered a Turkish man who was using Ayurvedic products and studying meditation prescribed by the Indian spiritual guru Osho. Osho’s “ashram” is in my hometown of Pune and I had become aware of its existence only a couple of years ago. My French roommate cooks better “non-vegetarian” Indian dishes than I do. In fact, she taught me how to cook “Chicken Tikka Masala”. The most astonishing fact is that none of these people had ever met an Indian before.
So, does everyone have a favourable opinion of India? Probably not. “India is unsafe” is something a lot of people think. While I cannot comment about the entire country, my city isn’t unsafe. As a teenager, I used to return after midnight from hikes and the scariest thing on the street was an occasional stray dog. A lot of people are aware of “caste system and oppression”. Although it has still not been completely remedied, we have almost a 50% quota (even more in some states) in education and public posts reserved for lower castes. For quite a few people, the film “Slumdog Millionaire” was their introduction to Indian culture. Although it is based on reality, certain elements were cherry-picked to show only the dark and unfortunate side of Indian life.
Coming to prejudices or ignorance, some people presumed that I was a refugee. During an interview for a flat share (WG casting), I was explaining the reasons behind my decision to avoid parties (mostly financial). I was asked “But doesn’t the state pay for you?”. I also had to explain to the person that by law I am not allowed to work during the first six months of my university studies. Not because I don’t want to.
When I was discussing about WG casting with a friend, he told me that because of his previous experiences, he would have avoided selecting Indians as flatmates. That made me realise that the way I behave could reflect on an entire community of over a billion people. My conduct becomes even more important when there is little interaction between the cultures.
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