Things to Know Before Studying Abroad in India

by Bridget Zapata

How do you prepare for the undefinable experience of studying abroad in India? Anyone can check off a simple packing list, but taking time to mentally prepare for traveling, living, and studying in India is maybe even more important than remembering your extra toothbrush. Make sure you’re not just packed, but packed right and mentally ready!

Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal

How To Pack For India

You will have opportunities to buy anything you would ever find in a Western supermarket or mall if you visit a large Indian city. However, if you are on a budget and unwilling to spend precious rupees buying jeans like the ones you could have brought from home, make sure to pack some of your modest staples that you wear at home.

Merge Wardrobes. The key is to pack items that you will be able to pair with your new kurtas and harem pants that will soon become indispensable parts of your wardrobe, but only pack enough clothing that will fit in your backpack—unless you plan on lugging a suitcase through crowded Indian streets and into tiny rickshaws in ungodly heat.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking you won’t need or want to look like the Westerner that you are—you will likely end up at a bar or club at some point where every local in the room is dressed the same way you would dress at home, so your traditional and culturally appropriate Indian garb will end up out of place. In short, don’t bring your entire wardrobe from home, but bring a pair of jeans.

Unexpected Peers

India has hundreds of different languages, religions, and customs. This should be apparent if you have done any research on the country prior to your trip. However, there is very little information around the types of people who travel to India. You may be surprised by the variation between the people who choose to travel or live in India, and you will likely even see this within your own study abroad program. It is a mistake to think that the type of people who want to go to India will have similar interests, backgrounds, and motives. It is important to realize this prior to leaving for India so you can best prepare yourself, both for the person you want to be in India and for how you will react and work with those who are unlike you.

Everyone has their own reasons for choosing to study abroad in India, and certainly not everyone loves the country and dotes on it the way many will. There will always be people who are in over their heads and can only point out everything that they find horrifying and uncomfortable about their experience. Then there are others who will seize every opportunity to discuss their time in India and are hit with a wave of loving nostalgia every time they smell stale urine at subway stations when they are back home. There will be those who will roll their eyes and try to block out the discomfort they felt while in India, contrasted with the people who will find the greatest comfort in a cup of tea loaded with milk and sugar when they return home, even though it can’t compare to the chai served on the streets of India. There will be those who simply say that India just wasn’t for them, while others begin to define themselves and all future travel experiences to their time in India.

The Ganges
The Ganges

The people who feel that they were let in on a glorious secret, which only those who have been to India or are Indian themselves can understand, unfortunately do not make up the entire population of people who travel to India. 

People are different, so don’t expect every study abroad student you meet along the way to feel the same way you do about studying in India. Whether you are the one that ends up feeling overwhelmed and unhappy or the one blissfully going from one overnight bus ride to another, enchanted by everything you see, smell, and hear along the way, others will not have the same experience or even the same motives going into the trip.

Expect Challenges & Rewards 

Even if you do fall in love with India the way so many have before you, it is safe to say that if you are there for a significant amount of time, you will find yourself hating something about your experience in one way or another. You may even end up being the crazy foreigner yelling at a bus driver in the middle of the night when the bus breaks down and you’re told you have to buy another ticket. Although you can certainly avoid letting frustrating situations get the best of you, it is likely that you will have these feelings of anger and frustration. India will test your patience, but let these challenges make you a better person rather than hinder your experience. 

Your Relationship With India

Consider your time in India as a relationship that you are cultivating. You can’t really call it love until you see the best and the worst sides. You will be uncomfortable—hot, dirty, mosquito bitten, sleep deprived. You will feel taken advantage of—people will cheat you, inflate prices by 800 percent (Check out this Article: Avoid Money Mishaps in India), all with a kind and childish smile. You will feel violated—people will stare you up and down, make rude and disgusting gestures, kids may swear at you; swerving down the streets packed like a sardine in a local bus might be enough to make you feel sick. There is indeed quite a bit that you could hate, but there is also so much to adore and cherish.

Stay focused on the good and more will come. More spontaneous conversations and friendships with strangers on the street or train. More people running to your aid when you look lost and confused at a bus terminal. More tips for local restaurants with the most memorable dosas that won’t be marked up to the foreigner price. More warm and genuine smiles over tea that somehow cools you down on the hottest of days. More connections, more shared experiences, more meaningful conversations. More people and events that will stay with you years after you return home.

Rani Sipri's Mosque Tomb
Rani Sipri's Mosque Tomb

Let India Do The Talking

Take some time to dwell on the idea that this will, indeed, be a life changing experience, and open yourself to letting your travels in India affect you in a way that you cannot predict prior to your trip. As you research this incredibly varied, culturally rich, sometimes tragic, yet magnificent country, take note of what you are expecting and want out of your time studying abroad in India. Make yourself conscious of what may at first be unconscious assumptions about what the country holds for you and what you hold for it. 

Let yourself treasure these hopes and preconceptions, write them down or discuss them with friends and family if you choose.Before you get on that plane bound for a nation known for its wonder, beauty, and harsh juxtaposition, completely drop your expectations and desires—let India show you what it needs to show you during your time there and be ready to adapt and appreciate whatever story it wishes to tell.