First time in India: Observations by Peter Nixon

Note: A group of students and researcher are touring cities in India and China this month as part of a National Science Foundation Partnership in International Research and Education (PIRE) grant that focuses on “Developing Low-Carbon Cities in the USA, China & India through Inter-Disciplinary Integration Across Engineering, Environmental Sciences, Social Sciences & Public Health,” led by the University of Minnesota.  Learn more about their trip.

Observations of India by Peter Nixon

Spotting the patterns
From the Western perspective, Delhi is a complete mess.  There is an immediate lack of clear rhyme or reason when it comes to the traffic, waste management, regulation, and many systems that allocate resources. The second day I was here, I was standing next to a telephone pole observing a plastic lid blowing down a street full of other waste when a man came up with a tiny trash bin and emptied it right next to me.  There was a dumpster down the block 200 feet or so, but right here at the base of the pole was deemed an appropriate place to dump.  Then I looked around and suddenly noticed all the streetlight poles and trees of the street had trash at the base.  The pattern became clear.

Things I am no longer terrified of after living in Delhi for a week

  • Getting lost – Google Maps works well enough within the city to get around.  Also, enough people speak English to never be completely isolated by a language barrier.
  • Breathing in pollution – While the pollution is absolutely the worst anyone in this group has ever experienced (equivalent to smoking ten cigarettes a day), I thought I would suffer more immediate effects.  The chronic effects of pollution are where it gets bad.
  • Traveler’s diarrhea – I thought it would be worse.
  • Vendors – I thought the vendors would be meaner but they are just terse and want to haggle.  Also, shouting is just a part of communicating here.  It’s a loud city.
  • The food – I haven’t had a bad meal since I got here.  Everything is absolutely delicious and cheap.  I love all the fruit and especially the cauliflower recipes.
  • Being constantly overstimulated and completely overwhelmed by everyone and everything all the time – The great hotels we are staying in have helped a lot in this regard by simply providing a quiet and dark place to sleep but overall I think I underestimated my ability to adapt.

Foreign research symbiosis
What appears to be the most prevalent stereotype about Caucasians in India is that we are all smart and rich.  This stereotype, combined with the perceived lack of bias by scientists and by those who have no close ties to India itself, creates an extremely unique opportunity (and moral responsibility?) for foreign researchers.  Scientific studies by western institutions are regarded with an abnormal sense of trust in the accuracy of their conclusions and recommendations.  Multiple organizations who have rolled out the red carpet, offering full cooperation and complete access to data, draw attention to needed topics through scientific studies.  Now, discussions about schmoozing and ethics are for another time, but let it be known that it is incredibly relieving to have such warm offers involving rich data sources and it is nice to share a cup of tea and talk openly and honestly about important issues with experts in the field.

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