5 Misconceptions about India Debunked- Part 1

Five years ago, the idea of flying to India might have received a violent reaction from me. The pollution is bad, I’ll be raped, I’ll walk with cows, there will be dead animals everywhere, the spices are too strong and everyone will smell like curry.

Fast forward now, I learned that I was completely wrong. Okay, maybe except walking with cows.

I lived for a year in Delhi, the capital city, a notorious one for its rape cases, aggressive people and having the deadliest levels of air quality in the world. Even non-Delhiite Indians wouldn’t want to live there. Anyway, I’m still alive so I can tell you the 5 most common misconceptions about India, from someone with an Indian family and lived like an ordinary middle-class local in Delhi.

1. It’s an extremely poor country

Are there even buildings there? You’ll walk with cows in the city right?

While poverty is visible all over the country, like any other developing country it has the richest people, working (thought I had to emphasize that) infrastructure and of course a huge wealth gap (which I don’t have the capacity to discuss). India is a HUGE country that it is unwise to generalize. They have the crazy rich and the underserved. Real estate in the cities are getting expensive, even more expensive than the Philippines, that people cannot simply buy a single-detached house near the city anymore.

Delhi Metro, Mera Metro

Compared to where I came from, it has a pretty good and cheap metro system in the major cities that I can dare say is better than old European subways (Paris, London, Berlin and Munich can choke). Want to charge your phone or laptop? You can do that in the Metro! The Delhi Metro is very cheap, including its Airport Express line that is almost comparable to the Heathrow Express. All of the airports I have been to (Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad) are way better than the Manila one. No shade, just facts! Seriously, the only thing the Delhi Metro lacks is more dusting, I know, that’s a difficult task in dusty Delhi. But seriously if the Indian government has done something really good it is the Delhi Metro.

Make a startup for ANYTHING

Another thing I am crazy about is how tech startups thrive so well that even street vendors have credit card terminals and scan QR to pay. A lot of things are digital. For example, you can access your verified marriage certificate online, skipping the dumb fees of authenticating physical official documents. IT is really a huge industry here and the competition is very high. Private services are usually extremely fast, that will put my home country and even Germany to shame. Internet is getting more and more accessible, that recently even people from rural areas became more active on TikTok.

Not the #1 in BPO for nothing

While there is still a huge uneducated population, people from the metro cities are usually educated and can talk fluently in English. (Tip: Delhi girls would love to flaunt their English skills with you, and yes I am being shady)

Cows are Masters of Not Giving a F*ck

But yes, you will walk with cows, even in metro cities like Delhi. In the nice parts of the city, of course they are absolutely not present that you’ll wonder where the fuss came from. They will most likely be present in conservative and underdeveloped areas. In Old Delhi and East Delhi, expect all of them animals.

2. Vegetarianism = just no meat in the dish; Seafood and egg are vegetarian

This is probably my biggest shock that I’ll write another post to discuss this more.

In my country, Christian fasting means eating only vegetable dishes. If you’re like me, you’ll think that eating vegetarian is that simple. WRONG.

Vegetarian food is completely not having any product that was made by killing an animal. Milk is fine because you didn’t kill the cow, but fish sauce, seasoning made from chicken, eggs are non-vegetarian. For a strictly vegetarian family, these types of food cannot even go inside the house.

3. The dot on the forehead means the woman is married

Indian woman with green bindi on her forehead
Indian woman wearing green bindi on her forehead

This is one of the things I couldn’t accept at the beginning. I kept on nagging my friends what that dot symbolizes. I couldn’t accept their answer! It’s called bindi and literally, it’s just for fashion. Say what?

So there are many types of it. There are the plain red dots or plain various-color dots. Then there are the nicer ones that look like this.

A middle-aged Indian woman wearing a sindoor (on the hairline)
A middle-aged Indian woman wearing a sindoor (on the hairline)

There is another symbolism for a married woman though (actually there are several) which is the sindoor traditionally put on the center gap of the hair but for practical reasons is just put on the hairline.

4. The four-rank caste system

I had mixed emotions about this topic. First, I thought that the caste system ‘was’ an ancient tradition that basically discriminates people by ranking them and second, that it only has four ‘ranks’. I was shocked when I first heard from a friend that it still exists.

Wwwwwwait, what? But how do you know your caste in this era?”
“Through your surname!

Okay, first things first, this is a very sensitive topic so I wouldn’t recommend you talk about it with someone you just met while traveling in India. You don’t casually ask someone what is their caste.

Now, in recent times, caste isn’t divided by that four-rank thing we were taught about in Asian History class. Caste is the community, which is tighter in terms of blood relation (will explain why later) and has a sense of pride or shame to it. There are people who are very proud of their castes, usually those from the royalty, warrior and priest castes (some will proudly put it as a car decal, vehicle plate or worse, an Internet alias). There are people extremely discriminated, those who are the servant and untouchable castes. I have no idea how many castes are there but I won’t be surprised if there are thousands of it

Okay, so why did I mention the blood relation? Until today, people will prefer marrying someone from their own caste (read: arranged marriages below). Usually, they will go more specific and prefer someone from the same caste who has roots from the same region.

How to know if they are from the same caste? Yes, through their family names. It is very common that someone will marry someone with exactly the same surname, pretty useful in naming family reunions isn’t it?

In some regions, usually in the south, people don’t use their family names as it is used to identify your caste and consequently discriminate you.

5. Arranged marriages = bride and groom doesn’t have a say at all

The Baby Boomers might have had their old-school arranged marriages where the bride and groom just meet on the wedding day. But people who are getting married now? Boy, it’s like a family-oriented Tinder. And it’s a huge business in India.

The old way would be your parents, going to the matchmaker’s office (I like to call them wedding brokers) to see their catalogue of available mates. Guess how they do it now? Through online matchmaking sites of course! It is a HUGE business and parents would be willing to shell out money to pay for membership fees.

As I’ve said, the family will look for matches there. The basic criteria to begin with will be to look for people from the same caste. The bride/groom-to-be will shortlist people and ‘date’ them for a while. Of course, each family will do their own critique and the parents will usually ask your profession, education, income etc. It will be the bride/groom’s final say if they want to get married to each other. And the year-long series of Indian marriage tradition molded by thousands of years of patriarchal culture (with a week-long spent of the actual wedding proper) will commence. I have so much culture shock (if not bitterness) about the Indian marriage culture that I’ll probably write another blog about that soon.

That’s it for the Part 1 of my 2-part 5 Indian Misconceptions Debunked! Next I will discuss the more controversial things like dowry and probably the most common stereotype; the token Indian smell.