It's monsoon time again in Pune which, for me, means I've made the switch from my usual masala taak (spiced buttermilk) to masala chai (preferably from Diamond Queen in Camp), perfect for warming me up on these chilly days. I just love this time of year, and I especially love writing while listening to the rains pouring outside...
Our contract here is for three years so technically we're at the halfway point though that can change...you never know. I'm very happy here and as time goes on, I find myself thinking "if I stayed, I could...[x, y, z]". I've become pretty fond of this place...nah, honestly, I've fallen in love. The weather, the pace of life, and the people I've met are great and most of all I really like who I am here. I wonder how long I could stay on as a tourist after my X-visa runs out. Not that I'd actually do it, but just to know I could if I really wanted to makes me feel better.
This isn't to say that the expat experience has been without its downs. I haven't written about them on the blog, but, to be candid, I've had plenty of hardships with this move. I've watched most of my relationships with people in the US slip away in slow motion through calls and emails that became less frequent until they stopped all together, the action itself documenting how irreversibly irrelevant and un-relatable I'd become. I've grappled with my identity through an unsuccessful job hunt, failed fertility treatments, attempts to find fulfillment through hobbies and volunteering, and the feeling of being strangled by too much free time and an active mind. The loss of human connections and the darkness of losing perspective on who I am could have been enough to send us packing, but life goes on and we either adapt or we collapse under our inability to face change. Since I'm stubborn and unwilling to accept failure, you can guess what I did.
Making good on a suggestion given to me by another expat, I figured now would be a good time to write about the things I've learned so far through this experience. I hope that it's helpful, or at least entertaining. If you've been in my shoes, you'll have to let me know if you can relate to any of these!
1.) Expat life can be a lonely, lonely place. It just is.
2.) There IS such a thing as "finding one's self". I didn't believe it, but it's true. Over dinner last weekend with friends, we discussed how although expat life is sometimes difficult, in a way it is an absolute freedom that affords us a rare opportunity to discover our true identities, desires, and values. We are living in a host country, but we are exempt from the expectations the locals place upon each other. We are seen as transient, passing through like clouds do. At the same time, since we are not there, we are exempt from the expectations of our home countries. This leaves us with a once in a lifetime chance to design (or redesign) our lives as per our true nature and wishes, and to realize our authentic selves without external expectations. I'm not sure if this just applies to the first expat assignment or subsequent assignments since this is our first, so hopefully I'll be able to shed some light on this in our next country, if we are so lucky.
3.) Patience is a skill. Being an expat in India really helped me fine-tune my patience, although I'm not sure its fair to pin the blame on India. All I know is that here, sometimes (a lot of times) things don't get done on time...or even relatively on time...or things just don't get done at all and no one bothers to tell you...or you get something completely different than what you expected...or...or...or...
4.) Pay attention to what people do and treat them according to their actions, not what they say. How someone acts is the most pure form of communication out there, completely unaffected by flowery language, excuses, or placation.
5.) "No expectations are the BEST expectations" and "keep an open mind". This was a piece of advice I got from one of my clients before moving to India. She stressed that situations are not always as they seem and that things might not be done on time or in the manner I expect, for many different reasons. She also said I needed to keep my ears, eyes, and mind open to accept that there would be lots of differences. Most people don't take advice if it's free, but this one I did and it has served me well. There are many cultural customs, habits, and mannerisms that differ between India and America which appear equally strange to one another. No one culture is "correct" and its worth it to make the effort to learn about the differences instead of getting flustered and shutting down. People just want to be understood and appreciated for who they are, not held to standards that don't apply to them.
6.) Beggars are humbling. The poverty here is everywhere. After being here for a year and a half, I know that "milk for baby" is sometimes a scam, the peacefully sleeping toddler in the 40º heat might be drunk, the alms usually go to someone else at the end of the day, small children can be rented by beggars to enhance the look of desperation, and limbs are broken and rebroken for the same reason. Whether I give or don't give, something about seeing abject poverty will always make me feel like I could be doing something more. Because I could...and although I do give, I don't give all the time. I could give my entire life to help and it wouldn't be enough. This is humbling.
7.) After moving, adjusting to this lifestyle takes a loooonnnng time. How long did it take me? A year and a half. As Jerry Garcia put it best, "what a lonnnnng, strange trip it's been". Coming to India and adjusting to our first expat assignment has been a wild, wild ride. The whole of 2014 was a series of rolling crises and triumphs too plenty to count. I found myself looking up flights to the US at 3am, crying for no reason, doing things that were uncharacteristic of me, withdrawing from everyone and everything, and generally being a total spaz. Then there would be a moment when things seemed so perfect and surreal that I was waiting for the sky to fall. Here's more on the science of expat adjustment, and here is a blog post I found by another expat that describes it much better than I could :-)
***If you're reading this and going through the same thing, please don't worry, it gets better!! And if you're bad at adjusting, it won't and you'll go home. Either way, it ends. ***
8.) It's not better or worse, it's just different. In the beginning, it is easy to say, "back in [insert country here], we do it this way..." I can't tell you how many times I said that, and how often I hear it from people who are new to town. The truth is once we get here, we're here, not there, and in the present moment, it really doesn't matter how things are done there. It's best to learn the local processes for things and try to adapt as quickly as possible.
9.) Indian accented English and Hinglish is necessary from time to time for certain people to understand. I felt like such a jerk the first time had to use Indian-accented English, but the auto driver who would not understand my American English somehow had no problem at all when I switched up my words a little. The same also happened with the Domino's guy, the washer repairman, etc. It happens out of necessity sometimes. It was embarrassing at first until I realized that if I was "doing it right", no one noticed I was "doing it right" and I just sounded normal, if that makes sense.
10.) Change is constant. I was looking over old pictures from our first days here, noticing how many lovely people we've met who have already left. It reminded me that this lifestyle is all change, all the time. Being adaptable and giving in to the flow of change is an absolute necessity.
11.) Detachment from material things is beneficial. Our entire house was shoved into a steel container which was put on a boat with a bunch of other containers just like it, and sailed on the ocean across the freaking WORLD to us. In monsoon, the air gets damp and it rains a lot. Sometimes, a maid doesn't understand how to read the labels on clothing, see the value in a handblown Italian decanter, or understand that the patina on a copper pot is sometimes applied on purpose and doesn't really need to be scrubbed. What do all of these things have in common? Yes. If you really can't live without something, leave it in safekeeping somewhere else or take its well-being personally into your own hands at every turn. Things get broken, things get destroyed, and sometimes things grow little legs and just walk right out your front door.
12.) The expat social scene is like college but with better alcohol and more interesting people. This could be a blog post all on its own but I am certainly NOT going to be the one writing about that! I've got some secrets of my own, after all ;-) As the new kid in town, one may find themselves with lots of invitations to parties, friendship "first dates", coffees, clubs, groups, and cliques. This is super fun because there's so many opportunities to have a really good time and plenty of new faces to meet; it's kind of like finding a rebound after a breakup, but on the flip side of that, most rebounds don't last. Minimize losses and hurt feelings by being strategic about choosing compatible friends instead of just filling up the calendar with anything and everything.
13.) Home visits are not vacations. Not in my experience anyway. We've been to visit the US once and it was nice to see our family, but it was over-scheduled and crazy. We planned a much more low key visit home this summer and are looking forward to recreating our normal beach holiday like we would any other year.
HANOI - we flew into Hanoi and spent a day here before taking the four hour drive to Ha Long Bay for our overnight cruise. Following that we took the overnight train to Hue.
We're just getting back to our usual routine after 9 days spent in northern Vietnam. It was an impulse trip inspired partly by Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown, and also our craving for a bowl of pho, the last of which we ate well before moving here.
We found Vietnam to be a great place, with one exception: the weather. It was over 40ºC most days and by noon we had to stop whatever touristing we were doing and head indoors. Our best purchases there were a handkerchief and a paper fan; both of which got a LOT of use!
In our time, we focused primarily on the north and central highlands. Vietnam is a large country with lots of different things to do and see, and we're happy we chose to do it this way instead of reaching further south. All said and done, it was an amazing experience and worthy of a return trip so we can see the south...perhaps during a cooler season.
While we have lots of fun memories from this trip, the pictures will probably tell the story just as well, so here they are:
HA LONG BAY - we stayed on the Syrena Cruise boat, which had excellent service and great food. After returning to dock we drove back to Hanoi to catch the late afternoon overnight train to Hue.
HUE - we spent two days in Hue devouring the city. We ate everything in sight and did all we could in terms of cultural sites. We left by train for a two hour ride to Danang, which passed through beautiful scenery, some tunnels, rice fields, and cliffs overlooking blue water and sandy beaches.
DANANG - what a great location!!! We stayed at Pullman Beach Resort, a place we'd happily recommend. The service here was fantastic and they have a killer pool and bar on a private section of China Beach. Hoi An, a UNESCO world heritage site, is located about 30 minutes away by car and would also be worth a trip back on its own. It's a cute town with great shopping (the custom dresses looked adorable!), interesting history, and a lot of excellent restaurants.