A look at the experiences of American and other Western expatriates in India
By JOANNA BUDELMAN
It was my daughter's first day at school. I found myself smiling as I made Bonnie's peanut butter and jelly sandwich, cut it and placed it neatly into her steel tiffin box. There was just enough room for a sliced apple. A kid's good ole American lunch. Soon, I was walking our six-year-old daughter to the Meghalaya Police Public School in Shillong, India.
After having lived in India for ten years, we had just moved from Bangalore to Shillong. Here we were, starting all over, in a new culture, new climate, and today the "biggie" was Bonnie's new school! The goodbyes went well. When I went to pick up Bonnie, I couldn't wait to hear what she had to say about her classmates and teacher. "How was your first day at school?" I asked. "Mommy, don't make me peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Tomorrow I want rice and tomato masala," was the reply! And so, the most important thing I learned on our daughter's first school day was she wanted to fit in and be like everyone else. But having been born in India and eaten rice and sambar her entire life, I might add that she has probably developed a taste for tomato masala!
Ten years ago, moving to India was considered exotic and perhaps even eccentric. Our adventure began when we established an Indian company with all Indian employees. Our family, business associates and friends thought we were crazy. "You're moving where?" they would ask.
What drew us to India were the people and the culture. I had fantasies of blending into the local culture. We had many Indian friends in the U.S., so we imagined we would be able to fit in just fine. I even purchased language tutorial tapes. That dream of being an insider has still not come true after ten years. We are American to the core. I still can't speak any of the Indian languages. Maybe that's because all of my Indian friends speak English better than me!
Adjusting to India has been a very interesting experience. The main difference between here and the U.S. is that in India each city is so unique. In the States, one can move across the country and still run into the familiar Wal-Marts, Subways and Home Depots. These are convenient, no doubt. But in India, each region exudes its own unique characteristics and landscapes.
My experience of living in India as an expatriate has caused me to extend my experiences to others. I contribute articles about our lives as expats to our virtual content company. Through these online articles I have met many inquisitive foreigners who send me their eager questions about moving to India. Each time I open such an email I am transported back to our early days in India and think about how much easier it has now become to adjust to this ever-globalizing place.
When we first moved to Bangalore, running into a foreigner was rare. Today the Overseas Women's Club of Bangalore is a thriving club with hundreds of members. A few years ago the club was a small group of ladies with whom I had very little in common. But even back then I knew that our family didn't come to India to fit in with a bunch of expats!
Now we live in the exotic North East of India? and I'm sending emails to Bangalore friends asking them to courier us curry leaves and MTR Sambar Masala. When we first arrived in Bangalore 10 years ago, my mother-in-law would mail us packages of Parmesan cheese and Good Seasons salad dressing! I still don't fit in but one thing is for sure ? my taste buds have grown to fit India.
Meet Bob Waldron. He is single and a recent addition to the Bangalore scene. I met Bob through my "Expat Mom" article. He wrote in asking where he could find someone to help him set up his Bangalore apartment with furnishings and interiors. It's not easy for a single male American newcomer to set up his home in Bangalore. There's no Home Depot, Wal-Mart or Mom! Bob works at LSI Logic India Private Limited and is starting a new micro electronic mask design shop. "Part of being single in Bangalore means I need to interact more with the culture as a social outlet rather than having the convenience of an American wife and kids at home," says Bob. "They would provide an escape from India each evening and a connection to my own culture. Although I long for American contacts, India is full of culture, interesting things to do, places to see, and where everything you do is an adventure? even driving an autorickshaw!"
Another fairly recent arrival is Jennifer Ketetalle, who moved to India in 2004 with her Indian-born husband Kartheek. The Ketetalles' move to Bangalore was very much a forced one caused by the outsourcing phenomenon hitting America. "We were both working for software companies and got laid off," Jennifer explained. "Kartheek decided to return to Bangalore to investigate opportunities and obtain further CISCO certification. While in Bangalore, he got a job offer with an Indian company, came back home and discussed it with me, and after the initial shock of considering bringing our one-year-old son to a land I had never seen, I agreed. Kartheek didn't paint a rosy picture. In fact he warned me about the pollution, poverty and lack of infrastructure."
Speaking about her adjustment to living in a joint family system in a two-bedroom apartment, Jennifer elaborates, "We arrived in May 2004. It was hot. I wasn't eating my normal food and everything was spicy. Even the Maggie noodles were spicy! Put Indian spice in my context where my mom didn't even know what pepper was until she was 20 years old. She grew up as farm girl in Iowa. Forget about the spice?our home life was also a big adjustment. We live with my father-in-law, mother-in-law, my father-in-law's mother, and my husband's sister. The amount of personal space is diminished quite a bit. Luckily we have our own bathroom; the rest is joint space. The first culture clash for me was the meat issue. I was raised with a family who had a freezer stocked with every kind of meat from top to bottom. My mother-in-law is extremely religious. She said I was allowed to cook meat but not beef, and no meat on Sundays. At first it was very awkward for me to do something that my mother-in-law considered a sin. I have to keep remembering that I live in a joint household, and to consider everyone. I guess you could say I've lost a little of my American independence. I do continue to struggle, as when my mother-in-law was horrified because I gave our son a head bath every day. It is so dusty here that I am constantly cleaning our place. It's hotter than I am used to and there is no A/C in our home. The trash outside, the lack of sidewalks, and the crazy traffic are things that still bother me."
When I asked Jennifer if she is ready to return to the U.S., she said, "Well, there is a possibility of going back. But even with all I've said, I'm not very eager to leave."
For Brad Beaman who runs a management consultancy business in Bangalore, breaking the news to his wife about moving to India was not easy, but it went surprising well. "Upon returning from a ten-day trip to India I had a great idea! ?Let's pick up from our red brick home in the U.S. and move to India,' I said to my wife. ?It will be exciting to live and work there!' I think Lenora took it pretty well (after a while). Once we arrived in Bangalore, we found that culture shock is a definite reality. The vendors selling their goods on pushcarts, spicy foods, cows on our neighborhood streets and the harassment from beggars were all part of a barrage of our senses. But from the beginning we liked Bangalore for its friendly people, good housing, the relaxed atmosphere and a year round mild climate."
Brad went on to describe a lifestyle change his family experienced when they moved to India ten years ago. "We had all sorts of adjustments to make. A major one was learning to drive. I think when we arrived we had too much American independence in us to hire a driver. We chose to learn to drive in India. We agree with the saying that in the U.S. we drive on the right and in England they drive on the left, but in India they drive in the middle!"���
Beverly and Dr. Prabhakar Vaidya, an American couple, have been in the city for nine years. She has a postgraduate degree in Spanish and is a writer and interpreter. She believes that there are many misconceptions here about American society. Very often she feels compelled to give a correct perspective of her country. However, according to Beverly, there are so many strengths about the country that a stay here will be a truly enriching one. "India is an exciting place to be in, for there's been a phenomenal growth of ideas here. America is going through a difficult phase and American confidence has been shaken in recent times. Here it's a more stimulating climate, for there are a lot of heated discussions on world issues." Her worldview has become broad-based and she now also has an Indian perspective on world affairs, history, art, literature, materialism and human relationships.
Yet Beverly strongly maintains that it's not possible for all Americans to live in India, even in cities like Bangalore. Only those who have the instinct and willingness to adapt, and those who can take things in the right perspective, will be able to live here. She feels that many of her fellow expats do not feel the need to interact with the locals, since their companies provide everything they need from the home country. Given that there is no compulsion to integrate, their experience in India tends to be quite superficial. She finds this very regrettable.������
Indeed, expats seem to be of two kinds ? those who choose to remain sheltered amongst their kind, and those who come to experience India in all its rich cultural diversity. Catherine and Andre Pittet of Switzerland, who came in 1980 to Bangalore, loved their two-year stint so much that they stayed on for twenty-five years! Vibrant Bangalore is home now and not beautiful Switzerland! Catherine is a nurse at St. John's Hospital and Andre is a scientist at the famed Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. They went on to adopt three Indian children who are their pride and joy. The children are Malini, a girl, and Sebastian and Nicola, two boys.
What made India so enticing for them? Catherine loved her country's mountain landscape yet she was willing to be away. Why? Catherine recalls, "My husband and I believed that a tourist's perception of a place would be a very superficial one. To know a place, a stay of at least two years is necessary. It was India's phenomenal diversity, the unpredictability of everyday events, and the colorful cultural scene that first charmed us. Back home, it was an unvarying pace, and everybody, including the immigrant, had to conform to the conventional Swiss lifestyle. There is no place there for leftist intellectuals like us. In India, there seemed to be no expectation of any kind from the foreigner. We could be unconventional and people would let us be."
Catherine reminisces about their coming twenty-five years ago. "Upon arriving we found the climate very pleasant and we could interact with many interesting people in the city. In India, being a foreigner is actually a pro. Everybody gave respect without judging the foreign national. For example, when I applied for a ration card to buy kerosene, I was able to get it much easier and quicker than the local people. Indians took pride in showing their ?good side' to outsiders." Of course I might add that a Kannada speaking foreigner would be welcomed with open arms. Catherine learnt Kannada, the regional language of the state, in eight months flat.
The Beaman family, like the Pittets, came to learn and be a part of the culture. So much so that Brad Beaman is now a frequent speaker at gatherings of the Lingayats, the largest community who speak the Kannada language! Brad explains how this came about, "We were determined that we were not merely going to survive in India and run an export business. We were going to study the Indian culture. This meant we would learn Kannada, the state language of Karnatka. This was not a necessity as one can do well with English alone, which is the trade and business language of Bangalore. It was part of a desire to really experience India. We were meeting with a tutor several hours weekly. We were practicing one phrase or another almost every day and the local people responded very favorably to our efforts."
He continued, "As we learned the language I became interested in the fascinating history of the Lingayats, Our Indian director of the business also comes from this community and he helped inspire my interest and study. I began to travel around the state and research the social belief system and history of the Lingayats. As my study progressed I began to get invited to the Lingayat gatherings to give a foreigner's view of the Lingayat community. Their founder Basava may not be as well known in the West as Gandhi is, but Basava is every bit as much of a shining star in Indian history. One time I found myself speaking at a Lingayat gathering of two thousand. I was comparing the Lingayat founder Basava to the Christian reformer Martin Luther. It was fun to see the reaction of my business contacts when they saw my picture in the Kannada language newspaper following one of the Lingayat gatherings."
Carol and Jean Jacques Braun from Toulouse in France have been in Bangalore for close to three years now. They find it a great place to be. Jean Jacques does research on water management. His work carries him to the forests of Bandipur in Karnataka and his biggest thrill is to work there, knowing very well that elephants, tiger and bison are probable bedfellows in his surroundings. This is something that is exciting and frightening, and both of them will never forget the India experience.
Carol loves the arts and crafts scene here. She has made many Indian friends in the city and enjoys their company. In Carol's words, "I am not here to integrate and know India in depth. I just want to have a happy time with the people." She finds Indians to be very curious by nature but maintains that there is no malice in that curiosity. Bangalore's abominable traffic and pollution being quite difficult to cope with, Carol loves the time she spends at home. With her collection of Indian antiques and her own artistic expressions on terracotta pots and canvases, Carol has made her Bangalore home a beautiful one.
Jean Jacques who earlier lived in Cameroon for a few years, before his sojourn in India, now believes that people world over are the same in terms of their anxieties, passions and attitudes. But he warns, "It seems that Indians seem to repress their feelings." Bangalore has been a fantastic three-year experience for this French couple too.
The Pettits, Beamans and Brauns all made determined efforts to befriend the people of Bangalore. On the other hand, there are the "middle of the road" expats who move to India for a short work term and look at the move as an experiment. Mary Hand ? busy packing for her move back to California ? is a good example. When I asked Mary how living in India has changed her, she said, "I think, as Americans, we have a very egotistical view of the world. Before coming and living in India, I had a very stereotypical view of India. I must admit, it was influenced by the "National Geographic" genre of TV. India to me was crowded, dusty, dry and dirty with too much color, too much noise, too much?everything."
"Yet, after spending time here, I find India full of contradictions. The land is rich in culture and the people are solid in knowing who they are. The Indians speak their mother tongue plus everyone can speak or understand four to five different dialects and sometimes even foreign languages. The people are friendly and sincere, yet you read about horrific murders and crimes. They love their children, especially small girls, yet they treat women poorly. They do give their young children a lot of freedom, yet when they are older they are told who to marry. ?I don't think any foreigner can fully understand or appreciate the Indian culture. ?I feel I have grown in knowledge, in tolerance and in curiosity. I would love to travel farther and see more of this wondrous world." As she pointed out, her family purposely chose to live in a flat in the heart of the city, whereas most tech immigrants tend to settle in modern subdivisions or gated communities.
I know that no culture is perfect, but the best thing about living in a country different from your own is discovering something about yourself or your culture that you didn't know existed. With the trend of outsourcing and the impact of globalization, I am not sure that the expat coming to India today will have the opportunity to "taste" India and truly "see" its unique culture.
Globalization has created a new style of living in India. Developers are creating beautiful gated communities with curbed streets, sidewalks, parks and clubhouses. This environment creates an entirely different experience for the new arrivals. Their neighbors may be Indian, but more often than not, they are returning NRI's. Their children attend international schools where they can opt for weekday boarding and have a truly international experience making friends with fellow students from all over the world. This type of lifestyle makes India more American. Thus it is more difficult for a new migrant to make the effort of digging deeper in the soil to find a few of the country's cultural gems.
In closing, I have to say that India has impacted our family greatly, even though we are still adjusting to the country and changing. If we were to point to one aspect it would be the following. The Indian extended family helped us rediscover one of the profound teachings of the Bible, "Honor your father and your mother". The Indian family system is probably what we have believed all along, yet not practiced in depth. We read over and over about God's command to respect and honor our parents and the blessing that comes with this. Yet, in Christian America, very rarely is this practiced. I believe it is because we, as a culture, have failed to apply and follow this teaching, so we shy away from it. To honor our parents goes against our American culture, which is in constant pursuit of "freedom from entanglements". Therefore we are clueless when it comes to understanding how living as an extended or involved family can be a great blessing to us.
India has taught us to respect, to seek advice from, to love and to care for our family. How we speak about our own parents and grandparents to our daughter has caused her to have a respect for them, even though they are thousands of miles away. Three years ago we chose to move back to America to live with and care for my father-in-law until he died. This was a great risk to our business, yet we know the two things that made us do it; one, the examples set by so many Indian friends who had or would do the same thing for their parents; and two, living in India opened our eyes to a profound truth revealed in our own teachings.
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