Bollyblog: An introduction to school abroad in India

By Eyal Hanfling

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“Have you ever met Barack Obama? Do all American kids watch television for three hours a day? What is the US really like?”

The questions I answer every day from curious children in India never cease to entertain me. I’ve now lived in New Delhi, India, for two months with a host family, and while I’m here, I’m attending a traditional Indian school and participating in a cultural exchange program.

Blogger Eyal Hanfling, center, waits for the school bus every morning with his host siblings and host cousins. He is in India on a study abroad scholarship to learn Hindi. Photo courtesy Eyal Hanfling.

This year, I was one of three students in the country to win a National Security Language Initiative for Youth scholarship for a full year to study abroad in India.  The U.S. Department of State’s NSLI-Y scholarship enables students to study abroad and learn languages critical to our national security.

Leaving Whitman this past May was the hardest decision I’ve ever made. Yet, two months later, I know everything that I’m doing here is just as amazing as cross country, band, the morning announcements or the Black and White is. I am learning what it means to live life as an Indian teenager, but also as an American and Jewish person abroad.

“Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore!”

The NSLI-Y program is designed to fully immerse American students in new cultures. I am a regular student at Pushp Vihar, which is one of seven private K-12 schools for Indian students in the Amity International school system. But don’t be fooled by the name; before our group arrived, there were no international students at the school.

Hanfling helps emcee a Teacher's Day assembly at his school in India, continuing his hobby even after leaving his post on the morning announcements. Assemblies are very common at the school and feature performances from each grade level. Photo courtesy Eyal Hanfling.

I am taking Hindi with the two other Americans on the program, Indian history with a class full of 41 sophomores and a very patient teacher, and physics and maths in small groups of 10 or 15 students following the British system of A-levels. Our schedule also has a mix of Indian classical music, Bollywood dance and yoga. Yes, this arrangement is quite different from the hectic AP filled schedule that I would’ve taken at Whitman — and at times it’s even harder to manage.

One of the most difficult concepts to explain to the teachers here is the way American high schools function. “Every student in the school has a different timetable?” a Hindi teacher, Pooja Ma’am, asked me. “It’s impossible.” Here, each grade is divided into sections and the teacher for each subject comes to the classroom during her period. I say her and not his because it’s very rare to have a male teacher in India.

School is a bit like Hogwarts

It’s not quite Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff, but we do have our own houses: Bhaagirati, Alakananda, Mandakini, Paavini. These are the four houses at all of the Amity International schools. Every student wears their house dress on Fridays, which includes a house scarf in the winter, and there are friendly competitions and other events weekly between the houses.

Prefects and members of the student council roam the halls, assisting teachers and principals in their duties. These positions are appointed, not elected, and supposedly create divisions among the students, which are very interesting to observe.

The distinction between houses is really seen in this video, which shows junior students watching the flag unfurling during Independence Day ceremonies. Students were divided into their houses for this school-wide assembly and watched on the lower patio, auditorium, and balcony.

School isn’t all about doing well in maths and sciences

Indian schools place a strong emphasis on assemblies, which are a lot of fun for everyone involved. From what I’ve seen, students usually spend two to three days preparing for all sorts of assemblies — we’ve been part of a teacher’s day assembly, an assembly on the Indian state of Gujarat, a mental math competition and a poetry competition.

Students spend all day in the auditorium choreographing elaborate dances and making banners. Each assembly features all the grade levels, so the whole school might watch a group of kindergartners perform a skit, some third graders sing a song, and then some 11th grade boys dance. Below is an example of a Bollywood dance on display during an event.

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