My se­mes­ter in In­dia: ex­pec­ta­tions vs. re­al­i­ty

A high workload? Delicious food? Cultural diversity? - How do you imagine life as an exchange student in India? In this blog post, I talk about the expectations I had of New Delhi, whether they were confirmed or not, and what truly surprised me.

Paula wearing traditional Indian clothes.
I came to India to study, but I also got to know a fascinating culture. In this photo I am wearing a traditional kurta. Photo: private

My decision to spend a semester in India was largely determined by my subject: I am studying art history and wanted to go to Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) because its School of Arts and Aesthetics is very renowned in the field. One of my class assignments got me very interested in learning more about the art world in India as well. Overall, my expectations were more study-related. As a result, I went into the semester with an open mind towards the country. Of course, you still have certain expectations - which are confirmed in some cases and refuted in others. Here is my report!

Studying in India

When I was preparing for my semester abroad, I strategically decided to take fewer courses than usual, as I wanted to travel a lot and get to know the country as well. This was an incredibly good decision for another reason I hadn’t anticipated: The courses at JNU come with a much heavier workload than I and my fellow international students were used to. At my institute, this meant that I had to do several presentations, take a mid-term and a final exam and hand in a term paper - for each course and all during the semester. Fortunately, there is also the option here to attend courses without taking the exams and still have them entered on your transcript without credits. I only took one graded course and sat in on two more. This way I have been able, after all, to explore India beyond the university.

Streetfood in New-Delhi.
Street food can be found on every corner in New Delhi. Photo: private

Enjoying Indian food

The food is exactly what you would expect from a semester in India. There’s almost exclusively Indian cuisine on campus, so you can eat your way through all the regional specialties - such as momos, dosa and paratha. Street food doesn't disappoint either. You should stick to cooked or fried food, though – which also means: no raw vegetables that, in the worst case, have only been briefly rinsed under tap water. Despite every precaution, stomach upsets are part and parcel of a semester in India. Fortunately, there are a doctor's surgery and a pharmacy on campus that can provide electrolytes and antibiotics. You’ll soon be able to enjoy lots of new Indian dishes again!

Dahi Puri with potatoes, chickpeas, yoghurt and pomegranate.
Delicious: Dahi Puri with potatoes, chickpeas, yoghurt and pomegranate. Photo: private

Traveling India as a woman

Even before my semester abroad I was aware that New Delhi is a dangerous city for women. However, I wasn't quite prepared for what it means to be out and about in a decidedly patriarchal society. Imagine standing on a street, looking around and seeing only men. Then, you enter a store and every single person is, still, a man. This is quite normal in India and as a woman, intense stares can quickly make you feel out of place. The JNU campus is fortunately very safe, but even here public life is dominated by men. As a female student, you are approached very often and it is important to set verbal boundaries. It will help you stay stafe and retain self-determination.

Land of diversity?

India is indeed a very diverse country. There are hundreds of languages and tribes and the cultures and the unique traditions of the different states are actively maintained and enjoyed. However, India is not very international, which is probably because it’s somewhat difficult to live here as a foreigner. For example, many things, such as accounts for online payment services that are used for most transactions here and SIM cards, can only be obtained if you are an Indian citizen. As a result, people here are not particularly accustomed to other cultures – but it is also much easier to immerse yourself in Indian culture.

The Indian states cherish their traditions. Here you can see the city of Agra in the state of Uttar Pradesh - recognisable thanks to the Taj Mahal in the distance. Photo: private

Expectation vs. reality - my conclusions

All in all, India is everything I expected it to be - the good and the bad. New Delhi is a tough city, even for Indians. Here you learn to stand up for yourself and come out of your shell. But the students are incredibly open and friendly, there is a lot of delicious and spicy food, the culture is loud and extremely energetic. JNU itself is known as one of the best universities in the country and will say this: Before I started my semester abroad, I had hoped above all to find myself in classes with intelligent, passionate, critical and creative fellow students. The reality more than exceeded my expectations.

(Published 8 January 2024)