Q & A With Denise Leinonen

1. Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from?

My name is Denise Leinonen.  I was raised in Marquette, Michigan and have lived here most of my life. My mother was born and raised in Klagenfurt, Austria, and my father is a Yooper. I grew up hearing German spoken at home and I am able to understand and speak the language as well. My brother and I, along with our parents, were lucky enough to be able to travel to Austria most summers before I began studying at NMU. This was the beginning of my love of traveling and my passion for learning about and attempting to immerse myself into cultures different than my own. I’m interested in linguistics, socio-cultural anthropology, and international relations and education. So far, my longest time abroad was one year living in Vienna, Austria after graduating from high school in 2007. I took intensive German courses during my stay there, though I was not enrolled at a university. My most recent adventure was my semester studying abroad in Hyderabad, India (Winter 2011). 

2. What do you study (major/minor)? What languages, etc. Has your second language benefited your study abroad? If so, how has it helped?

I am an International Studies major and have Anthropology and German minors. I began attending NMU in 2008 and I graduate this December 2011. I speak German and tutor students taking German courses in the NMU Language Lab. As previously stated, I grew up with the language being spoken at home, as well as at my grandparents’ house in Austria (they do not speak or understand English). I also attended courses throughout high school and my time at NMU.

Strangely enough, my second language did not benefit my study abroad program directly. International studies students are required to study abroad at least once. I initially thought I’d study in Austria or Germany. After much thought, however, I realized that I had already been to these places and wanted to experience something completely different. My language experience did help me in my Hindi language course, however. Once you learn how to study and acquire skills in a foreign language, I believe it is easier to learn others. I chose to study in India because I had always been interested in Indian culture: the extreme diversity, the languages, food, music, religions/spirituality, etc.  I wanted to live in a place that would push me out of my comfort zone and show me a completely different way of life and that is exactly what it did. 

3. Tell us a little about the Indian city you lived in.

My program ran from December 2010 to the beginning of May 2011. I studied at the University of Hyderabad in Hyderabad, India. It is a post-graduate university, but there is a program for undergraduate foreign students; it’s located approximately 12-13 miles from the city of Hyderabad.

Hyderabad is the capital of the state of Andhra Pradesh. Its population is now around 6 million people, making it the fourth largest city in India. Telugu and Urdu are the official languages of Hyderabad; however, Hindi is the official language of India and is also spoken there (I studied Hindi). English is also commonly used, though usually more in official settings and not as often in the streets. Hyderabad is growing quickly; it’s a hub for IT companies, so there are many new and large buildings around the city. It is also known as the City of Pearls, as Hyderabad was once a global center for pearl trade. The demographics of the city make it really unique. The population is about 55 percent Hindu and 41 percent Muslim, with Christianity, Sikhism, and Jainism (among others) making up the rest. It was interesting to see the dynamics of this, and to see mosques and Hindu temples side by side. 

4. How did you like your studying abroad experience? How was studying & living there?

I really loved my study abroad experience in India. It was challenging to get used to at first; my first impressions of the city were that there were an extreme amount of people, the women were very colorfully (and beautifully in my opinion) dressed, and poverty (quite extreme) was unconcealed, which was not something I had ever witnessed before in my life. 

I lived in the international student dorms on campus. The University of Hyderabad campus was actually very nicely laid out and quiet, as it was outside of the city. It took about an hour to get into the city because of the traffic and roads. 

I found the people on campus to be very similar to myself, which surprised me at first, though it shouldn’t have. I feel as if college students are college students no matter where you go in the world. Outside campus in the city, it was very different. I wore more traditional clothes along with a scarf (a sign of modesty), though you could see women wearing jeans as well (mostly younger women). The streets were dirty and filled with people, bikes, and automobiles. Enticing smells from food stands would mingle with smells of gasoline and trash on the roads. Women’s colorful saris (traditional dress) are seen everywhere. Every day was a sensory overload for me, which was exhausting at times, but I loved it. 

5. Is this studying abroad program geared towards your degree? How is it going to help?

Yes, the program is geared towards my degree, as I’m an International Studies major and am required to study abroad. I took 16 credits/ four classes at the University of Hyderabad and was able to transfer them all back to NMU.

Two kinds of classes were offered to the study abroad program students (the study abroad program I went through was CIEE). We could directly enroll in courses with other Indian students, and there were some courses that were only for the international students. I took Conversational Hindi, Women’s Issues in Contemporary India, Kuchipudi Dance (Theory and Practical), and Human Rights in India: the Socio-Economic Context, which was my direct enrollment course.

I found one aspect of signing up for courses interesting. There is a “shopping period” during the first week or two of the semester, where you may sit in on any classes you would like to get a feel for the class and the professor. Then you could choose your actual courses. The university courses are taught differently in India than in the U.S. They are all lecture-based, and it is not common for students to interrupt or ask questions (though this sometimes depends on the professors). We had a lot of reading but no homework, and we were tested on our knowledge in the form of written tests or research papers.

6. What were the most interesting things/cultural differences you discovered in India?

It’s difficult to decide where to begin... the first thing I noticed was the traffic. On my way from the airport to the University, I could see the lines on the road; however, my taxi was driving on the line. I have been in rickshaws that have driven into oncoming traffic just because it was more convenient. I once read a description of traffic in India as “organized chaos” and this is very accurate. It’s sometimes adrenalin pumping when you’re driving in it, but I always arrived safely at the end.  

The population is another thing that stands out. There are people everywhere, as well as automobiles and animals (many cows). Again, the city in which I lived has a population of over six million.

Another difference is the inherent presence of spirituality in everyday life. There are temples and altars everywhere (Hindu, Buddhist and Jain), as well as mosques. I visited temples often while I was living there, sometimes with Hindus who were going to temple to pray for blessings. In many, people buy flowers to put in the temple over certain deities as offerings, as well as other items such as food. You must also take off your shoes outside of the temple. In everyday life, many people have red markings (tikkas) on their forehead made of red powder/paste, which you receive after praying/ getting a blessing.

India is far more diverse than I thought before living there. Hundreds of languages are spoken in India. Each state has one or more official languages. In Hyderabad, Urdu and Telugu were the main ones, along with Hindi and English. I was taking a Hindi course and was able to ask small questions; however, I often ran into language barriers because some people did not speak Hindi or English.

Another aspect that was very different to me was the extreme poverty that exists. There are slums all over cities, with people living in makeshift tents on the sides of roads. Every day encountered beggars asking for money, even very small children. This was extremely difficult for me to deal with, and it was impossible for me not to feel guilty when I walked by anyone. There was also no efficient garbage disposal system in Hyderabad; people throw garbage anywhere.  I very rarely saw trash bins and recycling does not really exist. Usually the trash ended up in the bodies of water, whether it was a river or a lake. This was difficult and strange to me. 

The last cultural difference I’ll speak about is the caste system. Officially, caste discrimination is outlawed in India. Untouchables, or dalits are the lowest caste, and untouchability was outlawed in the constitution in 1950. However, it’s still deeply ingrained in society. I had an Indian professor who said that most Indians could still tell from which caste a person came, just by looking at them. Before living in India, I did not realize that the system was still so prevalent today, though many people are working on changing this.

7. How about the food? Is it very different from American food? Do you like it or not? What’s your favorite dish(es)?

I absolutely love the food in India. It’s very different from what I ate in the U.S. Curries are a popular dish; there are many different kinds, and spices are essential in cooking. I was in the south, where the dishes are rice based and the food is spicier. The north uses more flat bread (naan or roti are two of them).  The dorm cafeteria in which I sometimes ate reduced the amount of spices for international students at first. I enjoyed going other places to eat, and there the food was very spicy. Hyderabad is famous for its Hyderabadi biryani, which is rice, many spices, meat, and onions among other things. Some other good dishes are palak paneer (spinach and a type of cheese curry) and aloo gobi (potatoes and cauliflower). Also, I have to mention chai. Chai actually means tea in Hindi. Masala (spiced) chai is the one most Western people know of. Everyone drinks chai in India; there are stands everywhere and it’s a good social thing to do. 

8. How about the people/professors? Are they helpful or easy to get along? Is it easy to get involved with the community?

Most of the professors were very helpful. However, it was difficult getting a hold of some of them, as they do not use e-mail as frequently as we do in the States. Also, classes can be canceled with no notice at all. There is a separatist movement going on in the state of Andhra Pradesh (one part wanted to create its own state), and sometimes there would be times where we were not supposed to go into the city, as tensions could arise. During these times, some of the protestors blocked off roads, and then we had classes less often, as professors and students could not get to the University.

It was difficult to get involved with the community at first because there were no official clubs on campus, or at least not an official way to contact them. However, our program directors were very helpful in this area and gave us tips about where to go to meet people, whether it was a canteen (place to eat and hang out) on campus or dance or musical performances. I also volunteered at an ashram (a school for children of very poor families or none at all) and helped teach them some English.

Indian families are very hospitable in general.  There is one experience that stands out in particular. I was traveling with a girl and we stopped to talk to some children. Their parents came out eventually and asked us to go up the hill, so we did. At the top was a building and there was a wedding going on. They invited us in, gave us heaping plates of food, and then took us in to the actual ceremony. It was a Hindu wedding, and there are a lot of traditions that go on during the ceremony. The bride and groom poured colored rice over each other’s heads for good luck. There were many other activities going on, but I didn’t understand them well as they did not speak very much English. 

9. How about clothing? Is there anything particular you want to say about the customs there?

The clothing that they wear is made for the climate. Women are mostly covered and their clothing is always very colorful. Most women usually wear salwar kameez (a long tunic and either legging type pants or loose fitting pants) or saris (I noticed that more older women than younger women wear saris).  Younger men and women also just wear jeans and shirts like we do in the U.S. Women wear a lot of jewelry, such as nose piercings, which in some communities symbolizes marriage (in others it’s just for fashion).

10.  How about housing? Is it cheaper or more expensive than American standard? Do you have all the facilities you expect to have?

Housing is cheaper than in America. The currency they use in India is the rupee, and at the time when I was there, the exchange rate was about 46 rupees to one U.S. dollar.

In my dorm we had western style toilets; however, outside of that, mostly squat toilets are used, which are on the ground. They vary from having tiled floors to basically being a hole in the ground. This was definitely difficult to get used to. They also do not use toilet paper. Instead, they have buckets of water and hoses. 

11.  How about transportation? Can you get around the city fairly easy? How is the traffic there? Do you have the chance to get around and explore the community?

It is easy to find some way to get where you want to go. The modes of transportation I used included rickshaws (small autos without windows), for which you had to haggle with the driver, shared autos, which are larger automobiles with fixed routes and buses. You can also take taxis, though that is the most expensive option. It was also extremely cheap to travel by train all over India. I usually took the cheap option and traveled in sleeper cars, in what is equivalent to economy class perhaps. Trains are not the most comfortable, the sleeper cars had bunks, three on each side, but you had to bring your own blankets or sheets (if you were not in a higher class car), which you did need because it got surprisingly cold at night on a train. It is however a good way to meet people, as the bunks are in the open and everyone is curious about a foreigner taking the cheap train car. I enjoyed having conversations with them and exchanging ideas and opinions with people of a different culture. You do need to be careful as there are no lockers for your backpack/luggage. I usually slept with mine.

12.  Where have you traveled to in India?

I traveled down south to the state of Kerala, which is known for growing spices, tea plantations, back waters and is more tropical. I also traveled south to Hampi, in the state of Karnataka, which is home to ruins that are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I traveled a little bit north to visit the Ellora and Ajanta Caves, which are extremely ancient Buddhist, Hindu and Jain temples cut out of the rock. I did a week tour of the north and visited the cities of Jaisalmer (camped in the desert and rode a camel), Jodhpur, Jaipur, Agra (the Taj Mahal), and Varanasi (on the sacred Ganges River). I also took a trip with my study abroad program to Mysore (in Karnataka).

13.  Have you experienced any festival celebrations? Tell us more details.

Yes, I was in India for the Holi festival in March, or the Festival of Colors. Holi is celebrated at the end of the winter season on the last full moon day of the lunar month (the Hindu calendar goes by the lunar cycle). It celebrates the arrival of spring, love, and the triumph of good over evil (relating to various Hindu stories).  It is celebrated by smearing or throwing colored powders or water at each other, along with the phrase “happy Holi.” This was extremely fun, and our photos at the end with us covered in color everywhere were really funny. The powders tend to dye your skin for a few days to a week if you’re not careful.

14.  What’s the lifestyle there, with a slower or faster pace?

Life runs at a slower pace than the United States. Being on time is not as important as just being there. (Though as a student, you were expected to be punctual. If you were an individual with a higher status, time wasn’t an issue). However, if you looked at the busy streets, you would not get the impression of a slower pace. On the streets, everyone is in constant motion, or it seems to be that way because there are simply so many people. There are many more breaks between things... chai breaks are very popular.

15.  What entertainment is available? What do you usually do during spare time?

There are many dance and musical performances that take place. As I lived in Hyderabad, I studied a southern Indian dance form that actually originates from Andhra Pradesh, the state in which I lived. This form is called Kuchipudi. It involves story telling through face and eye movements/gestures, as well as the dance movements themselves. The stories mostly come from Hindu texts about the deities. There are many other forms of dance as well, as well as classical or modern music performances. I also went to the cinema a few times, which is cheap and fun, though there were never any subtitles when I went to see an Indian film. There were also many places to spend time with people on campus, including canteens that served food until late, and a few lakes on campus, which were home to peacocks, buffalo, and cows. 

16.  Do you think studying abroad an eye-opening experience? What would you say to current NMU students?

I definitely think that study abroad is an eye-opening experience.  I’d also encourage students to perhaps go to a non-Western country (not Western Europe).  This really does make you gain empathy for individuals from completely foreign (to you) places of the world. Actually interacting with the people and culture in a country is different from reading about it in a book.  After my experience in India, I feel as if I am even more conscious about what goes on in the rest of the world. I take fewer things for granted.

17.  What suggestions do you have for beginning students in terms of studying the language (German)?

Always when you begin to learn a new language, try to immerse yourself as much as possible. Since you can’t go to a specific country on a whim, instead, listen to German music and watch German films. Find websites that have audio so you can hear the pronunciation of words and phrases and repeat them. Speaking out loud (and to other people) is key. If you’re reading or watching something and come across words you don’t recognize, look them up and write them down in a notebook. Flashcards are also really helpful to memorize vocabulary. 

18.  What are your other interests/hobbies?

I love to be around interesting and engaging people, spend time with friends, read, travel, and learn about different cultures.  I also love being in nature, hiking, and swimming in Lake Superior. 

19.  Do you have a favorite quote/mantra to share with NMU students?

Be open to new ideas.  Don’t judge people’s lifestyles because they really are simply different ways of looking at things. If you attempt to see things from another individual’s perspective, even if you don’t agree with it, you will gain more knowledge than you previously had, about a culture, or perhaps about an idea that had never occurred to you before.