Gulf Indian students, far from adopted home, find life tough in mother country

As universities begin the academic year, non-resident Indians reveal the culture shock of settling in a country many barely know, even though their families hail from the sub-continent.

Sanah Chauhan, center, and her friend Navsheen Kaul, both are first year students of Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication in Pune, India, ride rickshaw on July 30, 2011. Chauhan and Navsheen moved to India from UAE about a month ago to study at the university. 
Photo by Kuni Takahashi
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NEW DELHI // It did not take long for the 18-year-old Sanah Chauhan to experience the downside of living on her own.

Less than a week after leaving the comforts of home in Abu Dhabi to attend college in India, a bout of food poisoning put her flat on her back in a city that she only vaguely knew. She could have caught the bug from a coffee shop, a fast-food chain or "just the water". "My parents kind of expected it," said Ms Chauhan, a first-year student at the Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication in Pune.

Life was much more protected in the UAE and "everything was easily available", she said. "Now I have to go out to get every little thing. I have to wash my own clothes. I miss home-cooked food."

Ms Chauhan is not alone in her nostalgia. Colleges and universities across India opened for the new school year last week, and passing through their doors for the first time were thousands of Indian students from the Gulf.

As non-resident Indians, they face a two-fold challenge. Not only must they come to terms with living away from their families for the first time, they must also adjust to a country that most only know from brief trips.

For many, the result is culture shock, even though India is their mother country.

Using a public bus or auto-rickshaw, the dirt and grime, and even the high cost of petrol - staples of Indian life - often come as a rude awakening.

For the first six months after she arrived in India from Muscat, Khushboo Khanna shied away from venturing into the city.

"I was excited about riding an auto-rickshaw, but I was terrified of doing it alone," recalled Ms Khanna, now a third-year law student at Amity University in Noida.

"The Indian students would laugh at me because they have been doing this since they were kids."

A car was not necessarily an option.

"Petrol prices here are sky high. You can't just get in a car and go anywhere you like, as you would do at home. I have to manage my finances by myself and this is part of it," she said.

However, in some ways, how to get around turned out to be among the least of Ms Khanna's problems in moving from what she described as the "very closed and protected environment" of Muscat.

She had to learn to cook and tackle big school projects without her mother's help.

Then there was behaviour of men. Some simply stared, while others attempted to snatch a purse or start a fight, she observed.

"Men? I have no word for it," she sighs. "These guys are really different. I am not really fond of it, but we don't have a choice because it teaches you to behave in different ways in front of different people."

For all the inevitable difficulties of dealing with members of the opposite sex, they pale next to struggling with what students from the Gulf describe as the stigma of being non-resident Indians.

Ms Khanna said that upon first arriving at college in Noida, she had no idea why other students viewed her as "different" and why she became an object of both curiosity and ridicule.

She remembers walking into a room and seeing other students nudge each other and say, "Muscatwali aa gayi [The Muscat-girl is here]".

"It was very annoying, this NRI thing," recalled Ms Khanna. "They knew Dubai, but they didn't know where Muscat was.

"They thought, 'Let's mess around with her because she is from outside India and has lived abroad her entire life'."

Students who had grown up in India assumed that Arjun Nandakumar, another non-resident Indian, was rich and expected him to pay for what they called "treats", including food and movie tickets.

"They tried to loot me," said Mr Nandakumar, who grew up in Muscat and attends St Thomas College in Thrissur, Kerala. "They asked for treats every day. They said, 'You are an NRI, so you must have more money.' I would just try to get away from them."

Despite the difficulties of getting used to campus life, the flow of Indian students from the Gulf to India shows no signs of ebbing.

There are no official statistics on how many Indian students arrive from the Gulf each year to study in India, but there are thought to be thousands, with the number increasing every year, according to Shaikh Suleman, the deputy general manager of the Educational Consultants India Limited.

Most students from overseas attend university in Pune, Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad or Delhi.

They come to study in private institutions that offer courses such as medicine, engineering and computer science, the first choices of Indians who score well in high school examinations.

Manipal University in Karnataka attracts one of the largest number of overseas students.

Of the 12,000 students on campus, nearly half are registered as international students, according to GK Prabhu, the registrar at Manipal University.

Mr Prabhu estimates that after the city of Pune, Manipal attracts the highest number of students from the Gulf to courses such as nursing, pharmacology, management and mass communication, followed by medicine and engineering.

Manipal's infrastructure was built to attract students from abroad, who are looking for campuses that are more like the ones in the West rather than the rambling structures of Indian colleges.

The university has also made a concerted attempt to cater to Gulf students, including a food court with non-Indian options and accommodation for two students to a room that ease parents' worries about safety, he said.

The priorities, of course, were air-conditioning followed by rooms that were "neat and clean", he added.

For Indian students from the Gulf, however, cool and tidy rooms are not enough to ease the transition from home and demystify the country from which their families comes.

Three years after entering university in Noida, near Delhi, Ms Khanna said she always travelled in a group, especially after dark. She also had learnt, she proudly said, to "think on her feet". Still, India remains foreign to her.

"Things are completely different here," she said. "There are things that I am still getting used to. There has been an adjustment to everything, from scratch."