When I was a student in Chennai, my classmates and I visited a small village in Tamil Nadu. I remember the village girls giggling at us and passing comments on how weak city girls were. My classmate and I were carrying a bucket full of water back to our camp together. Each girl from the village carried three. I quickly understood why they thought we were weak. I was the only foreigner of my class, but I was not the only one experiencing the cultural differences of this village. My fellow Indian classmates could also feel it.
Fast forward many years ahead. I am again living in India, but in an urban environment. I married an Indian who grew up in India, and who is originally from the city where we currently live. I have family in India, as well. However, I still realize how much about India makes me feel weak, like I’m a toddler building up strength. Expats all around the globe can probably relate to this feeling. Once upon a time, in a land more familiar, we were at ease. At the very least, we could talk to others in a language we understood. But, in our adopted land, even the most basic requirements are not so easy, sometimes after years of living there. Help is always required to understand and even undertake basic, everyday interactions.
I asked an Indian friend in the US what the biggest difference between the two countries was. She responded, “In India, there is always someone or something to bother you.” Anyone or anything can unexpectedly throw you off course. Flexibility is paramount. For instance, one fine day, we were getting ready to bathe, only to find our water tank was completely empty. We ran from pillar to post and finally found out that we could call a water truck to deliver the water. When the tanker came, some six to eight hours later, we found out that the pump had a switch in the house that was accidentally turned off by one of the guests! We felt like total idiots, but because we’d already paid for the tanker, we added the leftover water to our neighbor’s tank.
This was the start of many incidents of hours or days without water, or without clean water. There were several days at one stretch when we had completely muddy water enter all of our taps because the tank was not cleaned properly. We also have had many sporadic power cuts. These are unplanned. The paper “announces” them, but they very rarely happen as predicted in the paper. These outages are usually reported in the Malayalam paper, which neither my husband or I can read fluently. Of course, we have an inverter and UPS which kicks in when the power goes out. However, they have aged to a great extent and the battery back up fails. I have learned ways to continue doing things even if the power goes out. I realized if I didn’t, I wouldn’t ever accomplish anything. I continue working, the training program progresses, and I have discussions with my clients, even when all the lights are out. They can see a train of UPS backups behind me, like a string of train cars. A back up for the back up for the back up and even then . . . it’s not foolproof. That’s the thing in India: nothing is foolproof.
Then, there was the time we heard a weird howling noise from the engine of our car while driving. It was coming from the passenger side of the engine. We had no idea what it could be. When we pulled over the first time, it stopped. When we started driving again, it became louder. The second time we pulled over, we opened the trunk. Something was stuck in the engine. A shop owner saw us looking into our engine and came to help us. He worked his hand inside the engine and pulled out a kitten!
"We just pulled a cat out of our engine, that’s why we will be late meeting you for breakfast!"
A typical day in the life of Kerala is hard to identify. Though we have a routine, routines are so out of place in India. Anything, everything and nothing can disrupt your otherwise well-intentioned plans. The boundaries of personal and professional life are blurred. I run my own business, and I often get calls at all kinds of odd times. I am not really sure anymore what “typical” business hours are. My husband works from about two to ten at night. We will sometimes eat a brunch, then go into the office about one or two o’clock. In the evenings from about six or six thirty, we have tea followed by a late dinner, anytime between eight and ten. It is just not possible to have an earlier dinner, due to our crazy work schedules.
It is refreshing to realize that a human can pick up and start over, day after day, and keep learning with new eyes and a fresh mind. Is it easy? No, it’s exhausting. Sometimes, you just want to give up and go back to something more familiar or easy or automatic. For all the frustrations and insane, hair-pulling moments where I feel I have lost my mind, there are many more moments that I wouldn’t trade for anything. A great example is the highlight of my working life. When I meet with new clients, I introduce myself to the group in typical Indian fashion. I take about fifteen minutes discussing my long relationship with India, my college experience here, and my professional life. Then I say, “I am married to an Indian and have settled in India.” I get a range of feedback; some people are shocked, some smile, and some are touched by the sentiment. In my most memorable meeting, the audience rose for a standing ovation! That’s a great part of my everyday life.
Jennifer Kumar, an American expat living in India, runs her own business, Authentic Journeys Consultancy. The firm specializes in working with distributed, offshore, and onsite India-based US facing teams to provide cross-cultural business strategy sessions for more productive and enriching working relationships across diverse global boundaries. Learn more at the Authentic Journey's website AuthenticJourneys.info. Or follow her on Facebook or LinkedIn.