Overlooked Practical Tips for Visiting India: from the perspective of a young American

I visited India for a week this past holiday season, an experience that was beautiful and touching in many ways but also surprised the unprepared me—especially the me from “America”. This is an important distinction: a lot of the situations that I will describe here may be the norm or quite common in other places, but from the place of privilege I’ve been brought up in, I found it hard to adjust in the space of seven days. From this perspective, I’d like to share some of the less discussed tips you should be prepared for that I did not come across when I prepared for my visit.

  1. Bring wet wipes and tissues. Think about bringing about 10 wet wipes and one to-go pack of tissues per day you are in India. Indians typically do not use toilet paper when they go to the bathroom, instead they have a shower nozzle next to the toilet which they use to clean themselves. If you’re not used to that, it is awkward to use, especially if your first time is in a public bathroom. Moreover, India can be extremely dusty, so you can also use the wet wipes to clean your face and other body parts such as your feet (there are special facial wet wipes you can also buy if you have sensitive skin).
  2. Bring allergy medicine if you’re allergic to dust. Bring face masks. I did not do this, and I spent a few days with my eyes watering and miserable in bed. Though locals generally do not seem to wear face masks (perhaps they’re used to the air quality?), many tourists do, so don’t worry about standing out wearing your face mask.
  3. Spend the extra money to stay in a global hotel chain. I cannot stress this enough, especially since the global hotels usually cost the same as in America or in most cases, less. Despite my misgivings, I stayed in slightly more middle-of-the-road Indian hotels because they were often cheaper by $40-60 which my companion preferred. The rooms varied in cleanliness, especially in the bathroom. They would always only give one towel per guest, had spotty hot water, had minimal noise blocking, did not give slippers (bring plastic flip-flops!), the showers would often leak into the general bathroom floor, etc. In two hotels, if we wanted our room cleaned, we would have to leave our room key out in the hallway, which felt patently unsafe given that it would be very easy for another guest or random stranger to access our room. I would notice on Google Reviews and TripAdvisor that Indians would generally applaud the Indian hotels for their high standards, but Westerners generally would give the hotel a lower rating. Moreover, I would also notice that the photos provided by the hotel were usually over-exposed and washed out and the rooms were always darker and dirtier than the photos. Thus, do not be fooled by “high ratings” or good-looking photos. Instead, try to look at the reviews that come from your home country so you can form proper expectations.
  4. For a short trip or a trip with many stops, hire a driver. Even our friend who grew up in India admitted he wouldn’t take the bus now, as it’s crowded and slow. This same friend also advised us to book train tickets a few months in advance because they fill up fast. However, taking the train would have left us with a lot less flexibility on how much time we took at each place. Unless you have a lot of time to navigate the complex transportation system in India, it’s faster and more efficient to hire a driver.
  5. Don’t take it for granted that people speak or understand English well. I naively expected that in the capital city of New Delhi that most residents would be able to speak basic English, but when I asked a young man where the train station was, he did not recognize the word “train”.
  6. Be prepared for wildly varying degrees of cleanliness in cities. Even large cities will have raw sewage exposed in the street, especially in the older parts of the cities. You have to be careful about not stepping in it, and related puddles of pee and feces from human and animal sources.
  7. Bring a scarf everywhere. This applies to everyone, regardless of gender. There may be situations that you must cover your head, especially when entering a sacred space.
  8. Be prepared for slow and spotty internet. The only times I ever had fast internet was the 45 minutes free allotment in the New Delhi airport as I was leaving. I used Google Fi while I was traveling, and while generally it connected to 4G networks in the large cities I travelled to, network speeds were extremely slow, more akin to a slow 3G (not even HSPA+). When I was in small-town India, 4G was non-existent, only even slower 3G. Thus, download movies, books, whatever to keep you entertained before traveling to India. Download maps and guides as well beforehand. The free wifi in hotels was often doable but definitely not fast either, waiting for a YouTube video to load even at 244p could leave you hanging for a minute (!).

[Musing] Evolution of Starbucks orders

I still remember the first time I drank coffee. I was at a nerdy summer camp at age 14 and we were going to watch Citizen Kane (famed for being long, among other things). Before the movie, we stopped to get some coffee to help us through the movie. Being clueless, I ordered what I thought to be most foolproof: an iced coffee, but was horrified to discover it was so bitter. I then drowned the coffee in syrup and sugar… but surprise, it still tasted horrible.

Since then, I’ve frequented my share of neighborhood cafes and Starbucks. I went through phases, in chronological order:

  1. Green tea frappuccino (fraps are where we all ignominiously started)
  2. Iced coffee with extra shots of espresso and sweetener and milk
  3. Iced coffee with coconut milk
  4. Cold brew iced coffee with coconut milk
  5. Iced black tea with a pump of sweetener, when feeling adventurous: iced black tea with lemonade
  6. Iced water with two scoops of matcha

Of course, interspersed with forays in lattes and cappuccinos for those cold days. At first, cow milk, but now it’s coconut/oat milk and never looking back. Looking back, I feel like I’ve just been whittling down from the complicated drinks to what I actually enjoy: matcha. It’s fascinating to even think that my receipts from Starbucks and other places could tell a story about me.

[classical] Sophie Anne-Mutter and the birth of no stars

This was written in 2014 and never published.

As I was walking to the metro stop after the concert, I reflected how distinctive Mutter’s sound is. Even in the tenderest of moments, Mutter projects rock-solid confidence. Her violin is crying? But no, if I look closer, her mascara isn’t running– at all. She still looks perfectly coiffed and oddly composed despite all the tears. Mutter’s violin is aggressive.


Anne-Sophie Mutter performed with The Mutter Virtuosi at the Kennedy Center on Sunday, November 23, 2014. The Mutter Virtuosi is a 14-member string ensemble that is comprised of talented young string players who are fellows in the eponymous Mutter Foundation.

First up was a dandy of a piece for violin and double bass: Ringtone Variations by Sebastian Currier, a recent composition dedicated to Ms. Mutter. On a technical level, Mutter and the double bass player, Roman Patkoló, were evenly matched; perhaps Mutter was a little more dominant due to her overwhelming stage presence, instilled by years of making amazing music and being recognized for it. The piece itself took its inspiration quite literally from a cellphone. Thus, it had annoying, repetitive motifs with many pauses and stops; at times, the violin and bass seemed to be playing completely different pieces. As such it was difficult for me to enjoy this piece no matter how many arpeggios and double stops Mutter and Patkoló could amaze us with.

Next was Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat major, in which Mutter naturally played first violin. It was a stereotypical “nice” Mendelssohn piece, but Mutter spicily drove along the tempo. I have seen my fair share of chamber music, but never have I seen one so driven by one performer. Rather than an octet, it could have been more aptly named soloist plus seven accompanists. Of course, the first violin does have the melody most of the time, but many instruments still could not get in a note in edgewise, even when they briefly had the melody. The violas especially were barely heard. In my musician gut, I felt that if The Mutter Virtuosi had mustered the verve and aggression to be Mutter’s counterpart, the octet would not have been as lopsided.

The capstone of the night was Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, which incidentally is a violin concerto– giving Mutter at last the space to be an actual soloist. Finally, one player responded to Mutter’s verve and matched her energy– ironically it was the harpsichord player, who is not a Mutter fellow. Turning his head almost 45 degrees to the right, ignoring the sheet music in front of him, Knut Johannessen frequently had long periods of eye contact with Ms. Mutter, while still deftly playing his own part from memory. The first violin and the first cello also tried and played confidently but still, somehow, they both could not parlay with Mutter on equal terms. The cello had a hard time overpowering the harpsichord, despite the impassioned movements of the instrumentalist, more rock cello than classic cello style. Overall, it was a breathless and starry-eyed performance, yet I would not characterize it as particularly moving. While Mutter’s delivery and phrasing are always a work of art, I suspect her group intrinsically did not want to upstage her, and so they remained, in the background.

The encore included a rehash of Summer and a Bach in G major.

[review] SHINee’s DxDxD

You know you’re behind when the mini-album was released on January 1, 2016 and you’re starting the review on January 2, 2018.

1/ DxDxD

This is a typical Japanese release for SHINee, very busy sonically, very upbeat both in tempo and vibe. The bass is quite notable, as it really lays the foundation for the song and its infectious mood; one can notice this during the bridge, when the bass is really pared down, the song all of a sudden feels too empty and lost. Besides the bass, I find it quite straightforward, not that much interesting harmonies or vocal lines, a kind of lead song that’s chosen somewhat because it’d pair well with visuals.

A style of rap interlude that I do not like begins at 1.15s. There is little variation in rhythm and the rhyming is rather weak, though Minho, Onew, and Key try to hide that by varying their tones and delivery. Unfortunately, this type of “straight rap-speak” has become more and more common in SHINee songs.

2/ Wishful Thinking

Funk and jazz-influenced, Wishful Thinking recalls the Sherlock and Dream Girl eras. However, the instrumentation recalls a more “refined” TVXQ than SHINee’s youthful exuberance during then.  Continue reading


Dear Jonghyun

Dear Jonghyun,

The first time I ever heard your voice was on a Last.fm station in 2008, which played Love Like Oxygen. I remember thinking about your breathy intonations. I followed SHINee loosely afterwards, though I really lost interest in the Ring Ding Dong era since it was a terrible song. I admit, I did admire your bleached orange hairdo (but looking back, it was not a good look after all). But Lucifer changed it all for me in July 2010. I started this blog shortly afterwards in August.

I was first an Onew fan. I watched Hello Baby and thought Onew was so funny. You were really funny too, but Onew’s humor just stuck with me then. But slowly, you started to capture my attention. Your journey of musical maturation struck a chord with me, someone who was also beginning to find her way as a musician. We moved beyond the rote–what we had been taught–and tried to find our own unique style and become more involved in what we perform. We both desired to perfect our craft, in a holistic and thoughtful manner. You were so beautifully emotive as a performer, and looking back, you probably couldn’t express everything that you ever wanted in words. But in music, you could.

We were kindred spirits, in a way.

When you committed suicide, my first raw emotion was disappointment. We would never get to see you again perform anything live, or new. What we had was all you had left us. So many possibilities were instantly gone forever. You were something rare in the kpop industry. We all know there are idols you could swap out and you wouldn’t notice the difference. They are content to do what the company asks, and stay within the lines. But you pushed the envelope, you did your best to create, and you succeeded. You were so good, you were so willing to learn, you were so humble…

You did well, Jonghyun, so much more than I can ever express in words.

Love, Michelle


Thoughts on SHINee World V in Dallas

Only a week ago- but it almost seems forever ago. In the frenzy of randomized ticket-buying, my friend and I were lucky enough to score (slightly off center) front row tickets to SHINee World V in Dallas, happening on March 24, 2017.


Some thoughts (things may be added as I think of more)-

  1. SHINee really looks as good up close as they do on the screen. That’s surreal.
  2. Sitting on the sides isn’t bad actually- when members are doing their solos or want to show a little extra love to people who aren’t in the good seats, they’ll do it on the sides. I got to see a lot of up-close Jonghyun.
  3. Minho is an incredibly happy character, and he was continually making eye contact with fans and acknowledging it (he made eye contact with me twice). I may have forgiven Minho a little for being the useless member- at least he loves concerts and literally basks in the cheers.
  4. Key hasn’t aged a day.
  5. Key’s English is getting better and better, and the most entertaining talking moments were his. Everyone else said what was proper- Taemin was the most dour-mouthed. They all stood awkwardly around a few times after they exhausted Key’s funny talking bits and the bits they rehearsed when they were trainees in SM. Unfortunately, it’s all too apparently that they’re still not really comfortable with energetic and enthusiastic audiences like you’ll see in America.
  6. Jonghyun (and SHINee) was all right live, but I wasn’t really paying attention to the singing at all, even in such a small venue as the Verizon Theatre. It’s really the vibe of the concert and the visual (of which there is a lot to be sated by!). Also, American fans tend to be quite raucous even during ballads, so it’s not really possible to concentrate so much on the sound. I am not knocking on American fans- I’m one of them- but it definitely would be a nice experience to be able to go a Japanese concert and listen to the ballads in earnest.
  7. SHINee are undoubtedly veterans, but I felt that especially Onew and Taemin are getting tired of the grind. No doubt they’re all disillusioned to different degrees, but that night wasn’t their night. Onew’s only real spontaneous spark of emotion was when they sang the encore song and the entire audience held up signs containing lyrics that Onew had penned. A dead fish had more personality than Taemin.
  8. Apparently Jonghyun read my sign about economics PhDs loving him.
  9. It’s disappointing that the show was shortened for the tour in America. It was blamed on the venues, but it just feels cheated to me. I’d happily pay for the difference ($30 per person?) to hear the entire SHINee World V setlist- SHINee never comes to the US so having higher ticket prices won’t price out many people.
  10. The show was not completely full. There were a good 100 seats in the upper balcony on the sides that were not filled- with good reason- I have seen photos taken from the sides, and the stage can be up to 1/3 obstructed. SHINee chose the right venue for the area, but I feel that if SHINee had done a stop on the East Coast, they would have been able to fill a larger venue with a larger number of people. The amount of people who would casually buy a SHINee ticket to attend are more concentrated in the East Coast and West Coast. There were very few locals around this concert- most had driven their cars, taken buses, flights (like me) to be there.
  11. I had the biggest, stupidest grin for 90% of the show, and I had this low-key horrified refrain running through my mind: “Oh my god, I hope it’s not a creepy one.”
  12. Other nagging thoughts I had-  “Wow. This is capitalism. Paying $230 to stare at five men’s faces. And they’re okay with that.” I had to remind myself that it was okay to stare, because that is the career that they chose.
  13. It was simply beautiful to be in a concert venue with all the lightsticks alight.

SHINee World V in Dallas

If any of you will be around, would be happy to meet you! You can write me at theinnocentlam (at) gmail (dot) com to set up details. I’m still around, but sadly my PhD program has taken up my free time so I haven’t been active on the blog. I’m hoping that the summer will give me some time to clear up my massive backlog.