Category Archives: South & Central Asia

Realizing the Bigger Picture

You could tell I was the only one on my flight back to the United States who was not prepared for the winter chill. As we all boarded the airport shuttle, I saw people wearing winter parkas, boots, sweaters, and hats. I then proceeded to look at myself. I was wearing cropped leggings, a t-shirt, and flip-flops. Ha! Can you tell I had just returned from a semester abroad?

The change in climate was definitely my first experience of reverse culture shock. The voice of my host mother came to mind. “Indians would freeze in America; I know I would.” My inability to adjust to the cold climate made me feel more attached to India than I had in a long time. Without even realizing it, my body had adjusted to India’s climate, culture, and customs. For example, I hesitated handing the TSA officer my passport with my left hand because in India I would only use my right hand in social settings, for hygienic purposes.

The biggest reverse culture shock came during the holiday season. For the most part, people in Madurai were happy with what they had. The friends and host families I interacted with did not shop every weekend or buy an unnecessary amount of toys, food, etc. Indians are content. I returned to the United States and found the exact opposite. There were cars lined outside the mall’s parking lots. Cars had to park on the 5th and 6th floor of the parking garage because the lower levels were full. The traffic was insane; it was organized compared to the streets in India, but I could not believe the number of people out shopping. Suddenly I felt like America was materialistic. And we don’t have any shame in denying that we are! I simply wanted to crawl back to India where I was disconnected with certain parts of the world.

When I was India, I wanted to be back in the comfort of my home. Now that I am home, I miss the days when I could not do anything on the Internet because I would use up the monthly data; the days when I would take a 20-cent auto-rickshaw to Naina Sweet and order a plain dosa to eat by the street.

 

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As much as I miss India, it’s nice to be home where I can enjoy views like this!

 

During my semester abroad, I wasn’t all too concerned about the “bigger picture.” I assumed that I would have an epiphany when I returned back to the United States. It may not have been an epiphany, but it did occur to me that living in India had a bigger impact than I thought it would. I felt a greater connection to India only after I returned home.

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Independent Study Project

For my study abroad program’s independent study project, I created a podcast where I interviewed Indian women about the inaccessibility to public bathrooms and how that translates into other social issues. Check it out!

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The Inevitable Question: ‘So how is/was India?’

It is early in the morning, but everyone is awake. Cling! Clang! I hear my ammaa making breakfast downstairs. She is probably making idli (steamed rice cake) or dosa (thin pancake made with lentils and rice), with coconut chutney on the side. After getting dressed and eating breakfast, I walk to the bus stand where I always see the same three men sitting in front of Kings Department Store. Turning my back to them, I hail down a shared-auto rickshaw and climb in. The auto starts to move before I can sit down. Once I situate myself on the upper seat I realize I chose a bad auto. It was a private auto that had been converted into a shared-auto, which means that I had to hunch my shoulders and lean forward in order to prevent my head from hitting the ceiling. The other women seated next to me look perfectly comfortable. Their heads are not grazing the ceiling like mine. Standing at 5 feet 2 inches I do not consider myself a tall person; however, I felt like a giant in this cramped auto. Four women, including me, were in the upper seat and four women were sitting on the lower step. There was also a man sitting in the front seat with the auto driver. In total, there were 10 adults in the auto that was originally built for 3 people. Talk about a clown car. I cannot say this was my favorite auto-rickshaw memory.

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My last share-auto ride home from the SITA (South India Term Abroad) center. The cheap and quick mode of transportation that a share-auto provides will be missed.

I have been in India for the past 3.5 months now and it has been quite the adventure. Looking back at my first blog post I sound very naïve and somewhat innocent. In the beginning, the noise and the smell and the interactions with people were exciting. Now, it is tiresome. The loud and continuous honks push at my buttons. Trying to avoid stepping into cow poop, goat poop, dog poop, or even elephant poop is annoying. Everyday I get hounded with the question of whether I like India from strangers…and I do not know what to say. If I am honest, I run the risk of offending locals; if I lie by saying that I love India, I am belittling my time in India. India is hard to describe. It is difficult to explain the experiences I have had. It is frustrating that my friends, who are either studying abroad in Europe or back in the States, will never completely understand what India is like for a foreigner.

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Cow eating garbage for breakfast, and probably for lunch and dinner. Cows can be seen on every corner lounging, sleeping, or eating garbage/cardboard. I didn’t know cows could consume cardboard…until I came to India…

Since studying abroad, I have been able to better dissect my status as a foreigner and as an American. This is a skill I did not expect to gain. Because I am visibly a foreigner, I will never fit in with the locals, however, that does not mean Indians consider me to be American. According to many Indians, I do not fit the description of a typical American. I’ve had random people yell ‘Chinese’ or ‘Japanese’ while I walk past them on the road. (I’m Korean, a Korean-American to be exact.)

It happened while I was on a tour in Mysore. We hiked up to a Jain temple where I broke from the group and wandered by myself for some time. I walked past a group of Indians who belligerently shouted ‘Nepalese, Kathmandu, Bhutan, Thai’ at me. Rather than asking me where I was from, these people wanted to put labels on me that they deemed appropriate.

My status as a foreigner affecting my interactions with people does not end there. Every so often, I will get into a shared-auto and the people sitting around me will, very eagerly, ask me where I am from. Before I can answer the first question, a lot of people will ask ‘China?’ I tell them ‘No, I’m from the US.’ Their faces drop; they thought they had guessed right when they identified me as Chinese. The reactions I get from saying ‘I’m American’ shows me that they are disappointed. I was angry and still am angry. Was this a form of racism? When did being Asian mean I could only exist as Chinese in other people’s eyes? How do I react? Was it my place to teach people about the diversity of America? I was stuck. My program has a total of 10 students: 8 of the students are white; 1 of the students is multiracial; 2 of the students, including myself, are Asian. The other Asian student happened to be one of my best friends from Bowdoin and she had the same daily encounters. At the end of the day, our hands were tied; we had to put up with it.

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The SITA program celebrating Thanksgiving by enjoying a dinner buffet at Hotel Supreme. It’s not a home-cooked meal, but at least we have each other!

India was not wonderful or exceptionally amazing. The staring from both men and women never stopped. High school students, who would shout at me and sometimes even follow me, constantly harassed me. Every time someone tried to start a conversation with me, I was concerned they would try to label me with an ethnicity rather than asking me where I was from. Should I have spoken up against the men who stared, the immature students who did not know how to properly interact with me, or those who did not care how I identified myself? I know I should have, but my peers and my program told me that it was best not to attract attention to myself. ‘Since you’re a foreigner, try not to do anything or say anything that will attract attention to yourself’ is the best and worst advice I have received. I do not want to do anything that will put my safety at risk however that does not mean I have to put up with everything that makes me feel uncomfortable simply because I am a foreigner.

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Maligai Sweets, a tea and sweets shop where the space is primarily occupied by men at all times of the day.

I do not regret studying abroad in India. It was a period of time that I will never forget. Studying and living in India taught me to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. India opened my eyes to the unique diversity of the United States that I had taken for granted. I learned different methods of self-care that worked for me. I know India has helped me personally grow as a student, a person, and a traveler however I do not think I will be able to fully comprehend the growth I have experienced until I return to the United States where I will have the time and space to process everything.

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What Constitutes a Home?

Last week my study abroad program, made up of 10 students, went on a tour to Kerala. Kerala neighbors Tamil Nadu and a lot of Indians call the state by its nickname, ‘God’s Own Country.’ If I had to compare Kerala to a specific location in the United States I would say it’s similar to the Outer Banks because it seems to be where a lot of Indians and foreigners flock to for their vacation. Kerala was beautiful! The temperatures were much cooler (about 85 degrees Fahrenheit) and there was very little humidity.

Our first stop was Thekkady, a very popular tourist destination. Trees and greenery surrounded Thekkady; I felt like I was in the jungle. One of the highlights of my stay in Thekkady was visiting an organic spice farm, which was also a mini animal farm. On the spice farm tour I learned that almost 78 percent of the world’s pepper is grown in Kerala! Crazy! I’ll never look at black pepper the same. Another highlight of Thekkady was being able to run outside. I woke up early in the morning to take a long jog up the mountain and it was beyond fantastic! The morning fog was still lingering amongst the trees and the sun had yet to fully rise. The air was cool against my face and I could actually see my breath when I exhaled. The best part about my run in Thekkady was the peace and quiet that surrounded me. It had been a very long time since I was provided with a space and time to be consumed in my thoughts.

 

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I saw an emu for the first time in my life…at the spice farm….

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All of us were able to take a leisurely walk in the tranquil tea plantation.

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My friend Nora and I befriended an elephant!

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We were terrified of getting on an elephant (as you can tell from our facial expressions). Never again will I get on the back of an elephant.

 

Thekkady was filled with luscious greenery and calming, cool air. The visit to the spice farm was a stark realization of where my food came from. The visit to the tea farm helped me understand why my friend Hunter is in love and obsessed with tea. Tealeaves are planted in a way that it looks visually appealing. All the shrubs are evenly spaced out and grow along the side of the mountain; therefore, from afar the tea farm looks like a wall of green. In Thekkady I was one with nature (which is hard to come by in Madurai); however, in Cochin my experience was the complete opposite. We visited Cochin for the last 2 days of our tour. It was a bustling, hustling city. It felt like Madurai but on a greater scale. The streets were filled with automobiles, the nightlife was exciting, there was a humongous mall. I visited the Centre Square Mall a couple of times and for a split second it felt like I was back in the United States. The mall had stores that I was familiar with: Nike, Puma, The Body Shop, Levi, and so many more; however, I wasn’t interested in shopping. The real reason I visited the mall? It had a Baskin Robbins! Finally, an ice cream shop that I recognized! To be fair, I’ve had my fair share of ice cream in Madurai. Ice cream at iBaco is mediocre; they always have waffle cones, which helps make up for the lack of depth to the flavor of the ice creams. The mall around the corner from where I study has Coldstone ice cream but I find that they mash the ice cream one too many times. Therefore, finding a Baskin Robbins stand on the first floor of Centre Square Mall was a sign from the world that I needed to consume as much ice cream as possible. What are vacations for if you can’t eat whatever you want in huge quantities? I estimate that I had at least 7 scoops of ice cream during my 2-day stay in Cochin. In other words, the Baskin Robbins employee got to know me very well.

Although the existence of a Baskin Robbins could have probably convinced me to set up camp at the mall for the rest of my time in South India, I wanted to return to Madurai. I remember saying to myself, “I want to go back home now.” Regardless of Madurai being drastically different than my home in the United States, I have made Madurai my home. For the past couple of weeks I have struggled with establishing personal space and finding my niche in Madurai. Regardless, I call it home.

 

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Chocolate exotica from Puppy’s Bakery. It definitely satisfies my chocolate craving.

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Dark chocolate dessert jar from Puppy’s Bakery. I’ve bought so many I now have a growing jar collection in my closet.

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My mango milkshake from Zaitoon, an Arabian restaurant. Sometimes I wonder if I’m eating my stress away via sugar….

 

What constitutes a home? For me, home is closely related to familiarity. In Madurai, I can hop onto any ‘share auto’ at the end of my street because the drivers always go the same route. I can walk to Nila, a local grocery store, and pick up a carton of curd to eat with my oatmeal. Every evening my patti (grandmother) greets me with a huge smile as she hands over the house key. While it can be relaxing to get away from the city of Madurai, being able to come home to a welcoming host family at the end of the day is much more satisfying. After 2 months of being in India I feel like I’m settling in; I’m finally starting to call Madurai my home. With only 30 days left in Madurai (I have a short study abroad program) I hope to make the most of my time by spending more evenings watching movies with my ammaa (mother), getting to know the employees at Puppy’s Bakery, and whatever else Madurai has to offer.

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Roses and Thorns

Traveling to different places and different countries has taught me that there are always highs and lows. I could be in Vienna eating Viennese cakes for a week but that doesn’t mean it’s all rainbows and flowers. India is the same. Let’s start with the Thorns. It’s always better to end on a high note, right?

Thorns…

-First and foremost, it was finals week. I had a Tamil exam and 3 papers to submit. I can’t say it was the most fun or exciting week; it was stressful and tedious. I sat on my butt for so long writing my final papers that by the end of the day it felt like my butt was flat as a pancake.

-The weather in Madurai has not cooled down. The high is always 102 degrees Fahrenheit. If we’re lucky, the temperature will dip right below 100 degrees. According to my host mother, it is unusually hot for this time of the year. To make it worse, the rainy season has not started. I asked my host mother about the rainy season that I had heard so much about from previous students who had studied abroad through SITA (South India Term Abroad). My host mother looked at me with an amused expression.

“There is no such thing as monsoon season in Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu is a very dry state. Our rainy season means that it will rain two times a week, if we’re lucky maybe three times a week.”

I was shocked! Prior to coming to India people described the rainy season as the “skies opening up to let the rain pour down on you.” It was all a lie. After being corrected by my host mother, I was in denial. I wanted to be caught in a rainstorm. I wanted to wear my raincoat. I wanted to bathe my Chacos in some fresh rainwater by jumping into huge puddles. Most of all, I wanted the temperature to drop. It’s the beginning of October and rainy season should have started here in Madurai. I assure you it has yet to begin. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the rain will pick up!

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-Classes are over! Enough said!

-From the 9th to 15th I will go on a week-long excursion with my study abroad program. We’re traveling to Kerala, a bordering state, where we will be exploring tea plantations, spice farms, and so much more! I am VERY excited! After 8 straight weeks of class, all I want to do is find a quiet outdoor space and read my eBooks for hours on hours. An additional perk to going to Kerala is the fresh seafood! Stay tuned for some awesome food pictures in my next blog post.

-As I mentioned above, I took my last Tamil language exam. During the speaking portion I was speaking one-on-one with my Tamil professor, Dr. Arun. I am proud to say that I can actually speak Tamil. I can say complete sentences and understand questions directed towards me. I’ve only been learning Tamil for 8 weeks but I can have conversations with auto-rickshaw drivers and locals. This is the difference between learning a language in an American classroom and being fully immersed in the country it is spoken in. I’ve never been exceptionally good at learning languages but being forced to speak it and hear it all the time paid off!

-I locked myself into my own room…on the day of my Tamil exam. It was 8:30 on that sunny Wednesday morning and I had my backpack packed up and my gym bag ready to go. I knew I had to leave soon if I wanted to catch a shared auto and make it to class on time. I put on all of my stuff and went to my room door. I unlatched the lock at the top and turned the handle to open it. The door wouldn’t budge. I thought to myself, “maybe you’re doing it wrong Michelle.” The door was a little finicky beforehand and I just thought turning the handle a little bit more would unlatch it from its lock. It didn’t work. Third time was not a charm, neither was the fourth time nor the fifth time. My mind blanked. I didn’t know what to do. I banged on the door, hoping to attract my host mother’s attention. She slept on the first floor so I pounded on the door. I paused and tried to listen for footsteps. The house was dead quiet. For twenty minutes I beat on the door. Still nothing. Finally, I came to my senses and went to call my host mother on my cell phone. The problem? I had 2 rupees left for phone credit and she wasn’t picking up her cell phone. I should have added phone credit the day before. Why was I so dumb?! At this point, it was 8:50 and I knew I wouldn’t make it in time for my Tamil exam. I called my friend and told her that I was stuck in my room and there was no way of getting out. She was confused. I mean it’s not everyday where your friend is stuck in her room, right? I hung up and tried to think of ways I could leave the room. I could try to climb out through the window. I was desperate. I went to the window and soon came to the realization that there was NO way of getting out through the window. The window had metal bars, which my arm barely fit through. I tried to think of anyone else I could call. With the slightest bit of hope I called my host family’s home phone. After 5 or 6 rings my host mother picked up! Turns out she had gone out in the morning to run some errands. When I told her I was locked in my room I could hear the panic in her voice. She ran up to my room and fiddled with the door. No luck. She told me to remain calm and called a serviceman who could hopefully open the door. I sat at the foot of my bed and started laughing. The frustration had passed. Now, the whole situation was funny. Of course this would happen to me on the day of my exam. It was too good to be true. Being stuck in my own room would make one heck of a journal entry, I thought to myself. Eventually, the serviceman had to break the doorknob to get me out. I didn’t make it to my Tamil exam on time but I got to ride on the back of my host mother’s two-wheeler, which was SO much fun. So who really won here, the door or me? I’m leaning towards me.

-I saw an elephant! My friend and I were taking an auto-rickshaw to the fitness center when my friend shouted at the driver to stop. I look outside my window and sure enough there was an elephant 5 feet away from me. Sitting on the elephant was a man, who I assumed was its owner. The elephant was beautiful and SO big. I knew they were large but seeing one in-person and so close showed me the vast size of these animals. It’s too bad I couldn’t take a picture of it. Later that day I told my host mother that I had seen my first elephant and she informed me that it was the neighborhood elephant! Of course India has neighborhood elephants, so casual. She said the elephant’s owner takes it on short excursions to say hello to neighbors. How awesome is that?

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Where is My Space?

I no longer feel the everyday high. Ups and downs are constant. One day I feel ecstatic being in the back of an auto-rickshaw, sticking my head out looking at the city traffic. The next day, I am frustrated with the constant noise and air pollution that I cannot seem to escape from. Although I am taking a Tamil language class, I still struggle to communicate with locals. Regardless of how many times I repeat my statement or question in Tamil, the locals do not understand my American accent. Everyday, auto-drivers charge me twice or triple the actual fare. I have been in India for a month and a half now but everyday I face a challenge.

 

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The view of the morning traffic from an auto rickshaw. There are no lanes or traffic laws that anyone abides by; therefore, traffic is very scary.

 

Here in India, nothing is within my control. I’m required to go to the SITA (South India Term Abroad) Center everyday for class. At the SITA Center, I’m always on. I’m constantly interacting with the other students, making lunch plans, or engaging in conversation with professors. As an introvert, this is the biggest challenge I face everyday. Sometimes I simply want to eat lunch alone or escape the “American bubble” that we seem to create wherever we go. When I return home after a long day at school, I still have to be on. In no way am I required or forced to interact with my host family, but I pressure myself to be engaged with my host mother and host grandparents. Although my homestay house is my designated space for the next semester, it’s not really my space. If it were my space I would walk around wearing shorts and a tank top, eat whenever and whatever I felt like eating, and probably shut all the doors and windows so that mosquitoes don’t get into the house. Instead, I always wear a long skirt or pants with a t-shirt that covers my butt. I always eat at 7:30 PM (which is considered an early time to eat dinner, by Indian standards) when my host family decides to eat dinner. And I always sit in the living room, armed with my mosquito bat, hesitant to close the front door and window because I know my host mother finds the outside air to be cooling. At the end of the day I look forward to the moment I go upstairs to my room and sprawl myself out on the floor, looking up at the ceiling with a burnt out brain.

 

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Locals casually burn trash wherever they can find space. I cannot walk past a pile of burning trash without covering my entire face with my handkerchief.

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That split second when you almost get hit by a bus. (Buses don’t stop for anyone. I learned it the hard way.)

 

My time in India has been an interesting one. I have been forced to step out of my comfort zone. Maybe I’ll never find my comfort zone in India. I have yet to find or create a space that is completely mine. I may not sound chipper in this blog post but I’ve learned a lot from my frustrating, stressful, uncontrollable experiences. I have a greater appreciation for personal space. I will never take for granted a routinely Bowdoin breakfast where I sit by myself, read the newspaper, and eat in peace. Here in Madurai, nothing is mine. My status of being a “study abroad student living in a foreign host country” automatically makes me an outsider. I’ve acknowledged that I will never be an insider in the country of India or even in the city of Madurai. I don’t look the part, I don’t speak the language. It is challenging to make a country and a city my home when I clearly do not fit in. Maybe this is the subtle purpose of study abroad: students need to experience being an outsider constantly in search for a place they can call their own.

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The Meaning of (Indian) Food

I’m originally from Northern Virginia and in my opinion it’s fairly diverse. There are tons of Indian restaurants and a significant number of Indian people. Every time I walk into my Lotte International grocery store I see Indian women in their saris and Indian children running around without a care in the world. Although I have been surrounded by Indian culture and Indian friends, I have never tasted authentic South Indian food. It was not accessible and even if it was, I was afraid of how and what to order. Being in Tamil Nadu for the past month has completely changed my perspective on Indian food.

 

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Lunch cooked by the SITA (South India Term Abroad study abroad program) staff. Pictured is rice, gravy, vegetable side dishes, chapati, papaya, and curd to eat with the white rice.

 

South Indian food is rice-based and there is a ton of variety. There’s so much variety that I could eat something different every single day for at least 3 weeks. If I had to list everything I have eaten so far I would have to dedicate a separate paragraph. Idli, a steamed rice bun, is frequently eaten for both breakfast and dinner. Dosa, a thin crepe made from rice-batter, is another entree eaten at breakfast and dinner. Both idli and dosa are eaten with chutneys. My favorite meal is dosa with coconut chutney. It’s very simple but SO delicious! The secret to South Indian food being delicious is making it fresh and using a ton of spices. For example, the coconut chutney is prepared and made right before dinner. My host mother breaks open a coconut, grinds the coconut meat in the food processor, adds some water to the chutney, and then adds a pinch of different spices. While idli and dosa are commonly eaten for breakfast, lunch is always white rice with various side dishes. South Indians usually eat a heavy lunch because dinner is not until 8 or 9 in the evening.

 

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White Idli with coconut chutney (white) and peanut chutney (orange) eaten for dinner.

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Another variety of idli served with freshly made peanut chutney.

 

In my host family, dinner is always eaten together with my host grandparents who conveniently live 3 feet away from our house. It’s nice to have a family meal every night because it’s time dedicated to talking about our respective days and catching up with one another. Oftentimes my host parents and host grandparents try to overfeed me. Even though I ate 6 idlis, they still insist upon me eating another idli. I’ve realized the act of overfeeding is common throughout Southern India. It’s the South Indian hospitality and generosity. Gaining weight and being “fat” is considered to be good and very much encouraged. A fat person embodies wealth and can physically show society that they can afford to eat. While American culture and media define healthy as being fit and exercising regularly, the South Indian definition of being fit is being chubby and maybe a little overweight. It’s been interesting and somewhat challenging to navigate the attitude towards food in South India because of this difference in expectation. Other American students here in India have told me that their host mother’s goal is to fatten them up before they return to the United States. I’ve interacted with my host father’s nephew who expressed his dislike of attending family functions because they never fail to mention how thin he is and advise he “fattens up.” The difference in food culture has made me appreciate the freedom I have had in the United States to reject food when I wanted to or eat a simple yogurt parfait for breakfast. It’s definitely a privilege I was not aware of until I came to South India.

 

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A Thali meal which consists of a variety of side dishes. A thin wafer and a chapati is offered first. Once those have been eaten, white rice is served.

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