When I first arrived in India, I remember being shocked by the culture. I would only leave my hotel for a couple of hours at a time so I could catch my breath. There is a lot going on! Now that I’ve lived here for over 6 months, I’m getting used to it 😎
Loud, busy, dirty, scams… You’ve heard the hype and most of it is true. But there’s also a LOT more to India than that. Here are 31 culture shocks I had…
Planning a trip to India at some point? Check out my free ebook to help you save time and money, and avoid headaches. After +4 years in India, I’ve made plenty of mistakes, and this guide shares what I’ve learned so you can have a smoother trip.
1) People are Everywhere. Always.
India is the second most populated country behind China. It is projected to have more people than China by 2027.
India’s ranked 31st in the world for having the densest population. There are 416 people per square kilometer. In Mumbai, there are 21,000 people per square kilometer. For comparison, New York City has a density of 10,421 people per square kilometer.
I saw this firsthand when I arrived in India. I walked out of the airport in Chennai at 4 am and you’d think it’d be quiet and people would be sleeping. Nope.
Walking out of the airport in India, even in the dead of night, is like you’re walking down the red carpet at the Academy Awards in Hollywood.
Crowds are standing on both sides watching the doors. Families must be waiting for loved ones. Taxis are lined up and drivers are aggressively coming up to you asking if you need a ride.
Read more: Reasons To Not Visit India
2) Monkeys are A$$holes
You think the monkeys are going to be so cool and cute and chill. Nope.
My friend got bit by one on a trail as he was hiking a mountain. He saw another one jump on a spiritual tourist and the tourist was chanting and trying to get it off with the powers of his mind apparently.
I would photograph holy men on the street and they would be shooting at the monkeys with sling shots because they would poop on them from the trees.
Yeah, those little fur balls are not as cute as I thought.
3) White Skin is considered Beautiful
A friend of mine who was originally from Russia came to visit me, and people in a small village would crowd around her and want to touch her skin. They didn’t understand how it was white.
If you go into a store you can find products to lighten your skin, in the same way, that in the US you can find products to darken your skin.
4) Swastikas are Everywhere, but No Nazis
It’s actually an ancient religious symbol. The name swastika comes from Sanskrit meaning “conducive to your well being.”
In Hinduism, it has a number of meanings. When it is pointing clockwise (卐) it is called swastika, symbolizing ‘surya’ (sun), prosperity and good luck, while the counterclockwise symbol (卍) is called sauvastika, symbolizing night or tantric aspects of Kali.
5) Marriages are Arranged by Families
In a recent study of Indians age 18 – 34, they found that 84% had an arranged marriage. Only ~1% of marriages ended in divorce as well.
This doesn’t necessarily mean everything is bliss in families, it is just not common to split up.
A local female friend just shakes her head when she talks about marriage. She tells me not to do it.
Another local male friend says if I stay in town long he can find me a wife, haha.
6) So Much Honking
The traffic is insane. In Chennai, I waited for almost an hour in traffic for a short trip.
On the back of trucks there’s often a sign to HONK!
It’s polite to honk because it lets someone know you are passing. Of course, it’s not always polite and there are some real characters who are just speeding through town honking their horn the entire way.
On my first trip, I could NOT wait to get away from the honking. I lived in downtown Austin, Texas at the time and when I returned… even though I lived in the dead center of a major city, the silence was almost deafening 😴
7) Trash, Trash, Trash
If I had a work visa here and wanted to start a business, I would start a trash hauling company.
I live just a 10-minute walk from town and people burn their trash out here. Or there are a couple overflowing dumpsters nearby, so I just drive my trash bags there and dump them.
I grew up in a forest in Michigan and my family and I would walk around picking up trash on the roads.
It is shocking that there are some very beautiful places and forests near me, but there is always trash.
8) No Toilet Paper
The toilets and plumbing here can’t handle paper, so they have hoses to spray yourself after going to the bathroom.
Most people wipe with their hand and use the spray. Then they wash their hands.
9) Eat with One Hand
Everyone eats with their hands here. Well, they actually eat with one hand, since they wipe with one hand so it is rude to do anything with that one hand…
People think it’s rude to shake hands or do anything with your left hand, but that’s not the case.
There are left-handed people here and they would use their right hand for wiping.
Just pick one hand and stick to it, haha.
10) First Come, First Serve
There are generally lines where I live, but it’s also common for someone to just try to get around you.
I was getting groceries and a woman just walked ahead of me. The clerk served her first.
On the other hand, I’ve been at a local restaurant that I go to all the time and the clerk ignored the person who was next and served me instead. I think because she knew me, but I could see the other woman was not too happy.
11) No Hot Water
Well, technically there is but you have to heat it up each time. In some hotels for a shower, you put a hot piece of metal into a bucket of water.
I have a hot water tank and 10 minutes before I shower I heat it up. There isn’t hot water for washing my dishes though.
12) No Central Air
They just have a unit for each room. They run about $450 a piece. I bought one secondhand for $300.
But since it’s so hot here during summer and it only cools one room, I have my bed, desk and living room all in that room.
13) The Locals have a Staring Problem
People stare at me constantly and I’m a hideous dude, haha. When my female friend visited, it was worse.
I don’t think they mean any harm in it. I almost feel like a zoo animal and they’re just looking at me with curiosity. Who the heck is this guy?
14) Beggars are Pushy
The poverty is crushing. It’s shocking to see so many people on the street sleeping or looking rough.
Whenever I leave the house beggars will approach me and ask for money. If I go sit at the chai shop, they will come up. If I walk to the grocery store, there’s a woman who sits out there and she says ‘hey’ in my direction.
On the roads, there is a guy who has a makeshift wheelchair. Another guy doesn’t have legs and rides around on a small board with wheels and waves at me. There are more and you can tell they’ve been doing this for a bit.
I hear some tourists talk about how they will never give money and that these people will just go spend their money on stupid stuff. Then I see others give whenever they are asked.
If you read about scams, you might hear that the local mob has these people asking for money and takes their money at night, so if you give to them, the money does NOT actually go to them.
Or worse that the mob may injure them or take out an eye or cut off a limb to get more money. Or worse still, put a woman with a baby near a hotel so she can get more money… I know, just terrible dark stuff.
I don’t really know what is the full story. I feel like these people are my neighbors and I do try to help some of them. I also don’t give if I don’t feel like it, like if I’m enjoying a chai and someone sticks their hand in my face and won’t leave me alone.
On one hand it weighs on me. On the other hand, I’ve gotten used to it so it’s less shocking and I may not be moved by it.
15) Do Not Be Polite
Saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ isn’t really done as much here.
If you say that, then it seems very formal to them and just like you’re a tourist who doesn’t get it.
In a restaurant, a server wouldn’t expect a thank you because in their mind, they’re getting paid and just doing their job.
It’s worse in a friendship or with family. If a friend does something nice for you and you say thank you, it wouldn’t make sense to them. In their mind, they are happy to do it because you’re friends. It would almost be offensive because it would seem so formal.
Where I live there are a lot of tourists though so it is common for people to say it and I still feel bad if I don’t say thank you when someone brings my dinner.
16) The Men Are… um, not Asexual
It’s hard for me to weigh in on this since I’m a man and I don’t really experience it. I can say a few experiences that I’ve heard from female friends.
I recommend this post to learn more about how to protect yourself if you’re a woman.
My Russian friend who came to visit wanted to see the temples in my city and I was working a lot. I had a local Indian friend offer to give her a tour. I was hesitant but he seemed cool and friendly and social, so I thought it would be okay.
It was okay, and he did take her around on his motorcycle and show her some temples and gave her a local tour. But he also directly asked if she wanted to have sex. He is married so when she declined he kept pushing the subject and asked if she said no because he was married. Apparently, he handled the rejection respectfully but he did keep texting her 🤦♂️
Another friend was walking along a local country road where there are a number of people not too far away. This man came by on a motorbike and grabbed her. She had to punch him in the face and yell loudly to get him to back off.
She also was groped by men on a motorbike and had men catcall sometimes. She was tough too. She would carry a rock and knew the local word for “shame” and she would call out anyone who messed with her.
17) The Hotels may Not be Safe
I am hesitant to mention this one but I feel like I should. There was also an incident in the town that I live in where a woman had rented a guesthouse. But the owner of the guesthouse used his key to open the room and rape her with friends. It was and is a tragedy here.
The local government and police and community have made a number of changes since to make it safer.
One thing you can do is get a rubber door stop, so no one can enter your room once you shut it.
I don’t want to scare anyone away who wants to visit India because my experience has been great and I haven’t felt unsafe. I think if you asked my friend she would also say to visit if you are called and that she had an overall positive experience.
However, I would want someone to be aware of the potential risks so you can protect yourself.
18) The Air is Dirty
Never have I felt like air might make me sick.
But if you hike up the beautiful holy mountain where I live, you can see the smoke covering the views sometimes.
With all the people burning their trash and the black smoke pouring out of the cars and buses, it’s no wonder.
I live in a town so it’s not terribly bad. I do not wear a face mask.
I’ve never experienced the common hotel scam. It goes something like this…
You hop in a taxi and tell the driver which hotel you want to go to. Then the taxi driver starts driving and then tells you that the hotel actually doesn’t exist or isn’t open or is having repairs.
However, he knows a great hotel and he can drop you off there. Then once you book a room, the taxi driver gets a cut.
This scam works on more than just taxis and hotels. It’s basically someone looking for a finder’s fee.
20) Western Prices
Not long ago, there were official prices for locals that were different for Westerns. Sort of the India version of segregation.
This isn’t technically supposed to happen but it still does all the time. In most cases it’s not a huge deal.
If a local guy gets a chai, he’ll probably pay 7 or 8 rupees. If I get a chai it’s 10 rupees. Sometimes 12 rupees.
If a local guy gets a haircut it’s 70 rupees. If I get a haircut it’s 100 rupees.
If a local guy pays he’s electricity bill it’s 500 rupees. If I pay my electricity bill it’s 1000 rupees.
Overall we’re talking about a few dollars so it’s not a huge deal and I still feel like everything is so cheap anyways.
21) Holding Hands
It’s weird. In some ways, touching isn’t that common. Like it’d be rude for me to touch a woman here in public.
However it is common for male friends to hold hands without any romantic interest.
22) Trying to Find an Address is like Trying to Find a Needle in a Haystack
It’s not like you plug in an address in Google Maps show it to the taxi driver and he can easily find the place.
In my first Uber to my hotel, I showed the guy the address to my hotel. Then 15 minutes later, something didn’t seem right. I checked Google Maps and noticed we were heading in the opposite direction!
Once we got back on track, we went to where the address on Google Maps… but there was no hotel!
The pin must have been off by a little bit. And it’s not like the addresses are easily posted and readable. The hotel sign is just a small sign among hundreds of other small signs. It is always an adventure trying to find an address.
I didn’t even have an official address at my house at first. My landlord just made one up when I needed to order something on Amazon, haha.
23) Locals are like Detectives
- Are you married?
- Why not?
- What is your work?
- How much money do you make?
Some very nice and friendly people here have asked really personal questions about money and love.
I’ve also heard that they’re more likely to comment if you gain weight or lose weight. Whereas in the US, we’d just be polite and not mention it.
24) Are The Holy Men Holy… Or High?
Near my town there are hundreds of holy men who wear orange, have very few possessions and live along the street. They eat rice that is given and have varying degrees of rituals they follow.
A lot of them aren’t exactly holy men though… they’re men who want to use the holy thing to ask for money. Or just sit around and get high.
Some are very devout about it though. It’s like anything, people are people.
If you come looking at these people for spiritual perfection, you might as well save your time and watch Eckhart Tolle at home. Kidding, watch Salvadore Poe.
25) Choose a High-Quality Toilet
When you’re looking at a hotel or a room or house to rent, make sure you check out the toilet.
You should find a Western toilet, I’ve never had to use a squat toilet, not that there’s anything wrong with using one.
Just make sure you find a good toilet, because you’ll be spending a lot of time there 😤
26) Hotels Don’t Have HBO
I’ve never found a hotel in India that had a TV. There also isn’t usually a blanket or fitted sheets.
The people are so nice though. I’ve only stayed at places that were run by a family and they’re so proud of their culture and want to share it with you.
I’ve arrived at 4am and the dad of the hotel woke up to check me in. He gave me the bed he was sleeping in since my room wasn’t ready yet.
The mom wanted to make me chai when they were enjoying it during the mid-day.
27) Holidays Every Weekend
There’s a festival or holiday or parade almost every weekend. Feels like every other day!
Whether it’s Diwali or Pongal or whatever local festival is happening, there is always a reason to celebrate.
I live in a town that has pilgrims come very month to walk around the local mountain. The streets will be packed with people. You can’t drive a car or even a scooter through it. All night tuk-tuk taxis are driving pilgrims around the mountain right by my street. I call them the Tuk Tuk Parade, haha.
28) People Dress So Nice
The men were slacks and a light button-up dress shirt even in the dead of summer when it is 109 degrees F.
The little girls wear beautiful colored dresses and a silver anklet with bells as they are playing in the dirt outside their concrete one-room shack.
The women color-coordinate their saris. For a wedding, they don’t just go with a white dress you can choose any color.
29) I Have a Newfound Respect for Cows
They are grazing everywhere, walking in the street.
Cows here are scared in Hinduism. They also provide the milk that helps nourish a family, so they treat their cows like family.
30) Indians are the Best Photography Subjects
Walking around with a camera in here is like you’re a celebrity, people will want to stop and take selfies with you.
They’ll point at their friends and joke like ‘take a picture of that tool bag.’
Women will hold their babies and proudly pose for a picture.
Kids will do all sorts of things to get their photo taken and their eyes will light up when they see their photo.
31) Prepare to be a Celebrity
“Can we take a selfie?”
A lot of people will also want to take a photo with you. If you have blond hair and blue eyes and are a woman, even more so.
I am getting spoiled because it does make you feel important to have a family of Indians crowd around you to take a picture.
They might ask, where you are from? How your family feels about you being here. How do you like India?
What can I expect when traveling to India?
Expect to be met with a distinct smell coming off the plane, more relaxed airline security, more people waiting outside, lots of traffic, delicious exotic foods, friendly people who are genuinely interested in why you are visiting, and others who just want to find a way to make money off of you.
If you can not have any expectations that’s probably best, but not exactly possible unless you’re already a Zen monk 🙂