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Cultural problems faced by Indian students in USA

Cultural problems faced by Indian students in USA

Indians love to boast about the cultural diversity of their land, but it is not until they arrive at a US university that they encounter the real thing. All said and done, some things are the same wherever you go in India, and there are not that many surprises.

But new Indian students who arrive in the US are never quite prepared for the cultural tidal wave that await them on campus.

However, most of them overcome the culture shock eventually and come to love their campus lives, so much so that they suffer a “reverse culture shock” when they visit home.

The initial months of adjustment are the most difficult for Indian students. Here we discuss some problem areas and how students find solutions.

Problems of Indian students in U.S. Universities & B-schools

Cultural Differences | Indian students vs American students


Communication Problems

The main difficulty that Indian students face on campus is how to interact with other international and American students and teachers.

A large majority of Indian students, even some of those who have graduated in the English medium from reputed schools in big cities in India, not to speak of small towns, struggle to converse with other students, particularly Americans.

They are unable to understand popular American expressions, including idioms (“I’ll take a rain check,” “you’re on the ball,” “I’m still finding my feet,” etc.), words/phrases (“downtown,” “okra,” “check,” etc.), and spellings (“caliber,” “program,” traveling,” etc.).

American pronunciation also confuses Indians (“semai” for “semi,” “skejule” for “schedule,” “lieu-tenant” for “lieutenant,” etc.).

Moreover, Americans find it difficult to understand their accent, and the need to repeat themselves frustrates them. However, like other international students, most of them are, before long, able to speak in a neutral accent.

Another problem is the use of Indianisms. “Made in India” phrases such as “what’s your good name?” “revert back,” “attended a function,” and “mother promise,” and words such as “prepone,” “cousin brother/sister,” and “out of station” puzzle all except others from India.

The use of “is” and “are” and “has” and “have,” and even “had,” interchangeably causes bewilderment among native speakers.

In some situations, Indian students grasp the literal meanings of words but don’t comprehend what the speaker is trying to convey.

For example, to a casual “How do you do?” from an American, the newcomer Indian student, without realizing that the question was meant only as a courtesy or greeting, may feel obliged to provide an update of how his/her day has been, only to see the American walking away briskly.

Such situations may confuse Indian students and take away some of their self-confidence. The inability to talk to and mingle with other students may negatively influence their social lives, and they may end up forming a circle of friends consisting of only Indian students. This robs them of an opportunity to experience diversity on the campus, which brings down the quality of their overall academic experience.

The difficulties associated with communicating with others also affect Indian students’ academic interactions.  Many Indian students are afraid to raise questions related to their subjects or answer teachers’ questions. They worry that their teachers might not understand them or that their inability to speak clearly might invite ridicule from their classmates.

Subtle differences in body language between Americans and Indians, too, are often cause for awkwardness. For example, while meeting someone for the first time, Indian students may offer a “cold fish” handshake or a “crusher,” while a firm handshake is what Americans expect.

Another aspect that Indian students fail to notice early enough is that Americans respect “personal space,” which is roughly an arm’s length from the next person, even a good friend. Indians, perhaps because they are used to crowded public spaces, sometimes don’t realize that they may be standing too close to the next person.

Americans may have mastered the art of listening, but Indians? Only the most sophisticated and sensitive Indians have the patience to await their turn to speak. On campus, it is considered rude to interrupt a teacher, however relevant your point, without receiving permission to speak. Many Indian students learn this lesson only from experience.

Read our related tongue-in-cheek post: MBA in USA: Mind your language

Lifestyle problems on the university campus

Of course, you need more than friends and fresh air to survive, even on the beautiful campuses, and your favorite foods likely top your list of priorities. No surprise then that “desi” food is usually what Indian students in the US appear to miss the most.

The masala noodles and snacks they pack from home deplete quickly, and newcomers go looking for Indian restaurants sooner rather than later. They find good eateries and make Indian friends who can cook—vegetarians find the going a little tougher at the beginning.

In time, at least some of them manage to mix and match various dals, vegetables, and spices into eminently edible dishes.

But all this while, the heart is heavy with homesickness, despite the gadgets that bridge distances. Memorabilia work for some but worsens the longing in others. Food is the best medicine in these troubled times.

Money management is a major issue for all but those with well-heeled folks back home. Indian students habitually convert every price-tag from dollars to rupees. Some end up leading a more frugal lifestyle than they need to; there is the other extreme, too, of course.

But generally, budget constraints hamper the social lives of most Indian students, and hopes of keeping up with rich American or Chinese kids die a quick death. This, too, results in Indian students creating their own exclusive, but insular, social circle.

The eclectic American culture is also individualistic and direct, and it pays to appreciate every person for who he or she is. Simple gestures like saying “Hello!” and acknowledging the personality and presence of others don’t cost a buck but help make a wide and varied circle of friends and improve the campus experience.

If there is no committed effort to mingle with people from other cultural backgrounds, this opportunity is lost.

Problems in Academics / Studies

Indian students, most of whom have learned by rote to score in exams, take time to appreciate the differences between the Indian and the American systems of education.

As one student comments on another website, Indian students enter US campuses as excellent test-takers, but they need to become good researchers to succeed further. Making this transformation is not easy for a majority of Indian students arriving in the US.

The requirement to learn concepts and express this understanding is a major hurdle for Indian students who are used to spoon-feeding and learning “by heart.” The idea that the campus is a place to acquire knowledge and not just a stepping stone to a great-paying career and that teachers and libraries are resources in the pursuit of learning is lost on many students. Many realize late that only they themselves are responsible for their academic performance.

Respect for rules and regulations is learned the hard way in many cases. Unfortunately, the fact that plagiarism is a serious academic offence in the US is fully appreciated only after the first punishment.

Among other bitter lessons are that using information from other published material invites suspension, that verbatim reproduction from textbooks or teachers’ notes is plagiarism, unlike in India, and that “combined study” and shared project work are not encouraged.

Time management issues

Time management is a maddening problem for Indian students on US campuses. Many Indians are not used to punctuality in their own country, and schedules for classes and meetings are frequently disrespected. They take this habit to their U.S. universities, with unfavorable consequences.

The concept of time management is much discussed in India but often remains only on paper. Failure to manage time affects academic preparations because syllabi in US schools are designed to be absorbed over a period rather than in a feverish season of last-minute cramming.

Students who adopted a laidback approach while in India find it difficult to suddenly become systematic. Naturally, they are found wanting in assessments based on attendance, assignments, tests, quizzes, and the final examination that demand consistent diligence.

But, all said, most Indian students manage their early predicaments quite well. More than a few go on to excel in their fields, making their sponsors, their parents, happy, and setting an example for other students going West.

Many top universities have support systems in place. For instance, there’s an association of Indian students at MIT called Sangam. Use the resources such as these on the university campus, be aware of the cultural differences between Indian and American students, and you’ll do just fine.
Read these:
Problems of international students in USA and how to tackle them
Problems an average student can face in an elite MBA classroom
Image credit: Sangam @ MIT

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7 thoughts on “Cultural problems faced by Indian students in USA”

  1. Hi…
    I have completed my MBA in Finance (2015-2017 batch) from DES’s IMDR Pune. But as I am totally interested in core finance job, am searching for finance job only. On other hand I also want to gain international exposure and also related further studies in abroad. I want some good suggestions which will be helpful for me.

  2. Hi,

    I have completed my MBA in 2012 Major as Finance and minor as marketing and now am working as a US IT Recruiter and i am planning to change my job and would like to do a computer course which could help me. So, please suggest me some thing which suits me and my studies and i can get the job in my field. Your response will be highly appreciated.


  3. Hi sameer. I have completed my BSC in nautical science and have been sailing in ships for the past 4 yrs. Will that be considered as a work experience if i opt for MBA in logistics and supply chain management. I am preparing for GMAT but i am in dilemma on wheather the B. Schools are gonna consider my work experience.

  4. Hi Sameer Sir,
    This is Avishek and below are my qualifiations jotted down:-
    1. 85 in 10th
    2. 85 in 12th
    3. 7 CGPA
    4. No year gap
    I am a project engineer in wipro and have 20 months of experience as of now. However I want to change my field of interest to management but maximum colleges in US, UK or Canada asks for 3 years of work ex which I will not have by the time I plan to give GMAT(Sep 2017) and I want to leave IT as soon as possible so that I can pursue management. Will MIM from top european colleges serve as same as top US colleges or should I continue in It just for the sake of making my CV impressive?

  5. Hello sir,
    if i will score well (300+/340) in gre exam…then i will eligible for any top university to apply for ms in usa…right??
    Will those top us univesities require a minimum of 60% academic background for admission??

    i had
    65% in 10th
    49% in 12th
    78% in diploma
    And 80% in btech…

    So can i get admission in the top univesities in usa??

    And if not, then according to my academic background in which universitities should i apply for ms in usa??
    Can you please give me a short list of those college’s names??

  6. @Debosmita: You are setting a tough combination for yourself. Focus on getting a good finance role in India. With experience you may be in a better position to aim for overseas opportunities.

    @OmairUllah: Check on sites like StackOverflow which have tons of good posts on the latest tech trends. Choose the area you want and build your skills before reaching out to employers.

    @Shiladitya: Yes, the experience will be considered.

    @Avishek: An MiM is not the same as an MBA. Read about the difference before you decide:

    @Ipsita: Here’s how to get into the top MBA colleges in the world:

  7. Hello Sameer,
    I am for sure in a mid-life crisis. I am just a graduate (BBA) and I started with a very basic operations profile in a captive unit of an American bank. After 16 months I left the job and started looking for a job in HR Consulting. After 5 months, I got hired as an analyst by a HR Consulting firm and worked there for 1 year and 9 months. Left the company because of disagreements with the management. Fortunately, I had an offer in hand from another management consulting firm prior to leaving my 2nd firm. My new designation was Associate Consultant. This change was a breath of fresh air as I really liked the culture of the firm. Worked very happily there for 1 year and 4 months. I regret leaving this firm but I had got an offer from a Big4 firm in HR Consulting and the offer was such that I could not refuse it. Also, it was a Consultant role. Have been in this firm for 1.5 years but I don’t feel like I am doing consulting at all. All I do is help onshore stakeholders in getting the work done. Sometimes I don’t even have work which makes my thought process very negative. Everytime I think of being stable, some or the other issue comes up that forces me to look for a new job. I am even thinking of doing a Master’s. But looking at my track record, I sometimes feel if at all doing a job is my cup of tea. What do you think I should do, any changes that I should incorporate to have a stable career.


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