PART 1: Discovering India

by:  Our friend, Charlene

Meet Charlene. An American with a heart for Jesus, missions and the country of India. She and her husband have spent the last 7 years in the Himalayan Mountains of North India. In a four-part series, Charlene uncovers a bit of her experience living and loving in a new land.

Stepping off the bus into the desperate crowd of men hoping to be chosen as our coolies (porters) or rickshaw drivers felt just as normal this morning as it ever has. Even after being away for a six month sabbatical there are aspects of life in Northern India that are not easily shaken off. Melting into this complex, beautiful culture has been the manner of our lives for the past seven years. It’s our familiar now, even our “comfortable” as my husband remarked upon our arrival in Delhi several days ago. How and when did that happen? As we prepare to spend one last month in the land we have loved and made our home for years I ponder... at what point did we become part of this wondrous place? How is it that the very things that once put us off are now endearing? 

I love that ladies waiting in line behind me press themselves against my elbows and back to close up any unneeded gaps in the line. Granted, this is still a bit difficult in sweltering Delhi, but the touch behind it stirs my affectionate heart. 

Delight rises in me when strangers speak comfortably to me in Hindi, assuming because I am in their country I must know how to speak their language, and thankfully I do. I can converse with the man washing my hair for a haircut, or the woman selling me juice and chips from her tiny shop, or the lady who cleans hospital rooms for a living and is happy to see us back in town. 

This soaking into Indian life must have happened slowly, over time, in a way that we hardly noticed. One day we were pale foreigners in a new land and another day we just…belonged. 

I remember our early days, struggling through three different Hindi tutors, acquiring skills from each of them but fighting annoyance to their seemingly impractical methods. We thought we might never be able to manage this language, that our fumbling efforts were permanent, until one day we found that we could speak. We could understand. Through practice and experience we became able to communicate well enough to travel to villages and cities where very little English is spoken. Even now it warms my heart to pick up where we left off with shopkeepers and restaurant workers, chatting away in their language. What a joyful experience! 

Learning to cook Indian food proved to be another arduous process. 

“Didi, (sister) how much of each of these spices do you use to make dal?”

“Oh, I don’t know, a little of this yellow powder, and this green one, and some of this.”

“What is that green powder called?”

“I don’t know in English.”

“How do you know how much water to add in the pressure cooker?”

“About two fingers above the beans.”

“Auntie, how do you know when the chai is ready?”

“You should see a nice color.”

I soon discovered that watching Indian women cook was much more helpful than listening to their explanations. Before long I picked it up, and by the second or third year I cooked Indian food more often than American. It’s much easier to feed unannounced guests from a pot of stewed lentils and rice than it is to have portions of meat and sides available. And we have had lots of unannounced guests. It’s our way rather than an exceptional occurrence. We lived with a revolving door only knocked on by strangers. Chai and food had to be readily available, and it produced the most wonderful atmosphere for rich conversation and life to be had. 

(By the way, if you ask me today how to tell when the chai is ready, I’ll say, “It should have a nice color.”)

There are endless more examples of ways we adapted to this culture, but the crux of our belonging is found in relationships. On the first evening that we found ourselves alone here seven years ago, following a tearful goodbye to our two dear friends, we were invited to dinner by the local pastor and his family.  Upon arriving at their house, their youngest daughter crawled onto my lap. Their three children called us Auntie and Uncle from the start, and to this day they are close to us. Over time and countless cups of tea we have witnessed young people growing into young adults, and adults moving through varying stages of life, and these same people have walked beside us through our own struggles and growth. Our lives have been gently woven together in community and love, and our belonging is lasting, deep and sweet.

About the Author:  Charlene and her husband have spent the past seven years serving in South Asia, most of their 11 years of marriage. With God's grace they will be transitioning back to America this Fall. Charlene loves singing, hiking, and spending time with people, and there is nothing more beautiful to her than the Himalayas and the faces of those who live there.