Fulbright to India Guide – 2021-2022

Being a Cultural Ambassador to India

The thought of India may invoke different images for different people. Mystic music, myriad languages, joyous festivals, colorful dresses, the magic of Himalayas, stark desserts, crowded cities, technology, seemingly placid villages with undercurrents of religious politics, Bollywood and beyond. What would be tough to imagine is the warmth of the people of India if this will be your first visit. Welcoming. Curious. Helpful. And this is only the tip of a red-chilli (or the iceberg).

Your Fulbright Fellowship to India is a chance for you to discover the India of your choice. Unlike a tourist, your research/teaching fellowship gives you the purpose and avenues to connect with people in your sphere of work. Establishing a routine and a network through your colleagues and neighbors – your ‘India family’ – is imperative. Your lasting connection with the people and places in India is the soul of the Fulbright program while your professional achievements and network is the heart of the program. Both go hand-in-hand.

India’s history is an integral part of its present. You will see representation of ancient mythology and Vedic texts in people’s daily life through general discussions, religious practices, and festivals. The more recent colonial legacy can be seen in historical sites, and in your professional setting in the form of strict hierarchy and bureaucracy in processes. India is living history and it is left to you to uncover the many layers that make up this ancient country.   

Your journey to India..

Prepare yourself: The first step to this would be to recognize that each state in India has a different language, customs and sentiments. As a starting point, you could read novels set in your chosen region of India. This will give you a peek into the historical or current information about the city and region. Knowing the historical context of the region will give you a greater understanding of the present culture. You should also try to watch a popular Indian films made in the region where you will live.  You could reach out to your Indian-American friends and ask for suggestions. If not, reach out to your USIEF office in India. There are film enthusiasts here! There are also several blogs written by visitors to India which will give you real-time insights. Some of these are listed at the end of this page, but you could search more widely on the internet for similar blogs.

Enjoy and embrace: Open your mind to the possibility that a different way of life maybe preferred even if it seems less comfortable to you and without what you may consider the bare necessities in the United States. This may be based on traditional customs, weather conditions or simply based on the resources available. If you do not understand something happening around you, feel free to ask. Indians enjoy explaining the cultural aspects of their life to international visitors who are here to learn about India. But be prepared for more than one explanation. As with most things about India, there are more greys than black and white. There may be more than two sides even to a coin. If you have a different viewpoint, be sensitive when you voice your opinion. Especially if you are asked about customs or religious practices in India.

Immerse: Beyond your workplace and home, look for hobby groups that you could join. You are more likely to find such groups in large cities through online networks. If you are connecting with a new group of people, try to get one or two of your Indian friends to check it out and perhaps accompany you in the first few instances for safety purpose. In smaller towns, you would find it easier to build networks as people will have the time and be inclined to chat wherever you go. While balancing your work responsibilities, find ways to be part of local events and festivals. These give you an incredible experience. Say yes to every opportunity that comes your way.

Space: The concept of physical and personal space is a wavering line in India. COVID-19 has ushered in the concept of social distancing. However, the concept of personal space is still an unknown in India. With large families living together in small spaces, there is seldom the concept of privacy that exists in the western world. What may seem intrusive or inquisitive to you, may be an ordinary question to an Indian. It may stem out of concern or it may simply be an attempt to know you better. There is also another India. An India of the well-travelled, uber rich and cosmopolitan Indian who are more aware of the western way of life. 

Managing change: After the initial euphoria of the new place, it is natural to crave for the familiar comfort of your home back in the United States. Try not to allow that to overtake you and stop you from having a fulfilling time in India. After all, it is not often that you get a chance to live in a different country. You may visit many places but living in another country allows you to experience that country like no ordinary tourist ever can.  Use this privilege well.

Share your culture: This is an important goal of the Fulbright program. As a cultural ambassador of the United States, talk about your country. You could host a Thanksgiving lunch for your ‘India family’. Or create Halloween classroom for your students. Bring a little of the U.S. into India. These would be moments that your Indian friends would remember and cherish for a lifetime. Every interaction in the host country is an opportunity to represent your culture in a positive manner. For many Indians, especially in small towns, you may be the first American that they are meeting, and their impression of the United States may be solely dependent on their interaction with you. It would also be good to highlight that the U.S. is as diverse as India.

Contentious issues: You may get asked difficult questions about the United States. You should prepare yourself for such situations and state clearly that these are your personal opinions. The reverse is also likely to happen. You may get asked for your opinion on an ongoing issue in India. So, you should be aware of current news both in India and the United States. Depending on the nature of the topic, you may use your discretion to not respond, gently change the topic, or simply remove yourself from that discussion. If you want to discuss contentious topics or questions about India, you could first speak to Fulbright staff to bounce off your ideas and issues.

If it is not Cricket, it hasn’t caught the imagination of the Indian people yet. So be prepared for that frenzied discussion centering around this one game! There are, of course, pockets of interest in other games like chess, tennis and the nascent Ultimate Frisbee tournaments.

Have patience: India works on a different time zone. Literally and figuratively too. If people and plans change, or if you are unable to function at the same pace as you would back home, do not allow that to get to you. Be flexible. Space your work. Don’t be hard on yourself.

You will also realize that “yes”, “no” and “maybe” takes on a whole new dimension in India. An affirmative response to your query may actually be negative, depending on the tone, body language and circumstances which maybe dependent on someone other than the person giving you a response.  It takes some time to understand this, so try repeating the information to double-check that you have understood correctly. You may also want to reconfirm the date and time for appointments, especially if these were set-up more than a week in advance. 

Localize: Try to learn the local language and use the language in your everyday interactions. It would endear you to people. Plus, there is a chance that you will understand the lunch conversations. Please remember that while people may be fluent in the English language, it is not their native language and so there may be an unconscious shift to vernacular language in informal communication.  It is not meant to exclude you, so do not take it to heart. You could ask one of the group members that you identify as your buddy to translate the conversations for you. But bear in mind that jokes and sense of humour is sometimes unique to each language and culture, so it may be lost in translation!

Tips from USIEF staff from around India: The USIEF team in India is passionate about the Fulbright vision and enjoy the interactions with U.S. students and scholars. Here are some tips from our collective wisdom of having managed hundreds of U.S. Fulbrighters over the years. 

Please remember that it is better to refer to the months by name rather than by season. Seasons vary from country to country.  Summer in the U.S. and summer in India could indicate different months and result in confusion unless the person is accustomed to Americans. 

It is customary to walk with your house guests to the entrance of your apartment and wait till they depart before closing your door. Shutting the door before your guests move out of your line of vision would be considered rude.

  • Other general tips:
  • Leave footwear outside while entering homes and temples.
  • Try eating with the hand as per local custom.
  • Learn the folded hands for hello (namaste or regional variant) – it is especially useful in these times of social distancing.
  • Always address Indian culture positively. 
  • Food, music, movies, sports and books are great conversation starters. If you don’t find a common thread in music, movies, sports or books, food is a great binder. Indians love food – period.
  • Carry a small gift or a box of sweets if you have been invited to someone’s home.

Please look up these weblinks about living in India:


Disclaimer: You cannot ride a motorbike without license in India. The blogs are personal opinions; experiences will vary from person to person. 

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