Cultural differences

Living divided

12:18 PM

Recently I was reading a blog post at American Punjaban PI where she reflects on the 2 past months spent back home and how it felt, you can read it here.

I’ve been in the same position myself in 2008 when I joined DH on an assignment for 2.5 months back in my home country, and that is when a reality of expatdom hit me in the face: once you lived abroad, you never see your homeland in the same light again. In fact the longer you stay away, the more you will feel like a stranger back home, a thing an English teacher of mine tried to explain to us long time back as well.
Back in 2008 I lived in Zurich during the week because that’s where DH was posted, and my mom managed to get my a national rail pass so I could go every weekend to Geneva for free, but both cities be it my home town or Zurich were not really my home. Zurich would be understandable, this is a city in the German speaking part of the country, language which I have only basic survival skills in, but Geneva is the city I was born and grew up in, yet it felt almost as foreign to me as Zurich, and the devil was in the detail.
I had been away 5 years before coming back, 5 years during which both myself and my homeland changed in subtle ways. My first realisation was that in 5 years in India I had become far less tolerant to cold weather, and I thought stupidly that May would be much warmer and easier for me to get comfy in, I didn’t take into account the fact that at that time Switzerland was hit by a cold wave that was unusual for the season even for the locals, not that I didn’t plan this and didn’t dress accordingly, considering the temperatures I thought a pair of jeans, sneakers and a hoodie sweater over a t-shirt was fine, but I spent the first 3 days freezing in what other Swiss seemed to do fine at the time.
Then I realised that I got used to predictable weather as well, in India it runs like clockwork, you know it’s going to rain during the monsoon, and the rest of the year will be dry with not a single drop of rain falling, you know Summer is going to be consistently hot and Winter blissfully cool (at least in Bangalore), there is very little surprise in the Indian weather.
The Swiss weather is a whole different story, I grew up in it, so it should not have shocked me but it did, you can go from a cold super rainy day to a real hot day in Summer, you never really know when you will need your umbrella and you could start the day thinking it will be a nice sunny day and end it being soaked to the bone by the evening, that’s how fast things change back home.
But the meteorological factors weren’t the only one who had me feel out of it, there were all the little things, like the fact that when you go shopping in Switzerland you don’t hand over your credit card to the clerk, especially not in Supermarkets, nope you swipe it yourself and then the clerk will hand you the paper to sign and verify the signature if they are conscientious, I can’t tell you how many times in these two months did I hand it to the cashier only to have them politely show me where to swipe it, which inevitably put the label “tourist” on my face, not that the credit card in question would not have given me away, some machine show you what amount it makes in your country’s currency, and in one store the guy was like “Where do you come from?” Because the total on my card was 2000 rupees, when I said India he was a bit puzzled, this was in Luzern so the exchange was in English.
But in Geneva I went buying a DVD in one of my favourite store, to have the guy ask me if I wanted to be part of the loyalty program, to which I replied “No, Thanks” immediately, and him to ask why, and I said that I was not living in Switzerland, not wanting to go into details, the guy to then say “It’s ok she mail offers in France too” With my obvious lack of accent speaking French what else could he deduct from my stating I was not a resident, that’s when I told him “Well I live in India actually” and him to be puzzled by that piece of information, because a) I didn’t look Indian and b) who would want to live there?
The interesting part is that while I didn’t dress Indian back home, my choice of western wear was clearly not in alignment with the local trends anymore, not that I’ve particularly be a trend follower back home ever. But it’s only after 5 years away that I realised that people in my homeland really prefer subdued colours as far as clothing go, the neutral palette pretty much rules in all season, floral prints provided they aren’t in bold colours are around in the warm days, and the boldest you find in winter is a splash of red in a sweater, or some purple at times. Accessories are kept to a minimum too, shoes are functional, most purses black or brown in basic styles and only student in art colleges really wear bold outfits and are labelled eccentrics by most. Back in the days people even laughed at my red converse high top sneakers…just to say.
5 years in India changed my wardrobe radically, not that I shied away from colours before that, but India has practically given me a license to have things like hot pink and orange around. And to come back to my airplane outfit, the hoodie jacket was an Addidas lime green one, worn with mauve and yellow Reebok sneakers, not exactly super flashy, but enough to have people stare, and my family to find my sneakers funny with even a friend’s daughter asking if my husband approved of these because she would as a 12 year old not be caught dead in them. For 2.5 months I was wearing colours in a sea of beige, white and subdued earthy greens and floral print, pretty much feeling like an Hibiscus that found a way to grow in the harsh weather of the Swiss Alps. Definitely a tourist’s attire, a tourist who is holding a Swiss passport…
And there were all the really small things, such as suddenly being confronted to the fact some of the big tea brand found a way to turn a tea bag into some high tech fashion thing while I was gone, bye bye paper square, hello weird pyramidal shaped plastic net…I felt like they messed up with one of the few constant in my world: TEA. I also came face to face with Starbucks, when I left they weren’t there, they were not even planning to be there, and here I come back to see some in every big cities! Not that I mind a fancy coffee, that is the only way I would drink coffee as I am not a fan of the good old cafe’s double espresso with cream and sugar on the side. They also found time to colour code the nutrition facts on all packaged food stuff, and even add the calories and nutritional value on every package in Mc D, not that it is bad far from it, but the life as I knew it had monochrome labels on supermarket goods, and Mc D didn’t tell you your Big Mac alone was over 500 calories worth of junk…we knew it was junk food without that printed info on the box. Geneva also found a way to revamp the whole public transport system, and add lots of new tramway lines, change the routes of some busses, and update all their automatic ticket machines so that when I first arrived and had to take a ticket I was super puzzled on how to operate the new machine…in my home town! The price of a movie ticket went up, and i no longer had the frequent movie goer program card to make it cheap again, people at the ticket booth warned me that the movie was in English with subtitles and asked me if I was sure I did want to go for that show then…they never did back in the days when I was anyway going to the original version shows to spare my ears from poor dubbing, but they did then, maybe because I didn’t look like a local who would understand that every alternate show in most theatres was in original version?
And of course there were the good addresses as far as shops went that closed in the 5 years I was gone.

And this is when I realised that long term expats end up having a better chance becoming citizen of the world rather than try to identify with either the culture in their new country or the one they left in their homeland. It’s not a bad thing at all, but yes the feeling of standing out and look like a foreigner in your own native town is unsettling at first.

8 comments

  1. 'once you lived abroad, you never see your homeland in the same light again. In fact the longer you stay away, the more you will feel like a stranger back home,'
    Isn't that the truth!
    I went back to the US in 2011 after 5 yrs of living in India, the 'technology' changes were a bit much. I couldn't get used to the flat screen televisions EVERYWHERE (the grocery stores, department stores, the airport, clothing stores, coffee shops, the dentist, etc) BLARING out constant advertisements. And like everything had some advertisement for mobile phone services or something emblazoned upon it- bus stop benches, taxis, the pump at the gas station- the constant bombardment with advertisement was just annoying.

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  2. Oh wow I would have found constant advertising annoying, fortunately last time I was in Switzerland it didn't change much, it was still the good old billboard thing, junk in your mailbox and some busses painted differently to promote something. I have no idea if things have changed now though I haven't been there since 2008. Now I remember TV back home irritated me, I never realised how crappy language people on French channels used in talk show before, and how they feel the need to laugh like idiots at their own jokes, I never kept the TV on long enough to see if there were more commercials than before, truth be told the commercial breaks on TV in India already annoy the crap out of me with their frequency, so I don't watch much TV even here.

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  3. A Merican Punjaban PI10:51 AM

    I wear Indian clothes here now but with a much different attitude. I love the unpredictable weather. Ours is like the Swiss weather...unpredictable. It has rained a lot since I've gotten home and we're having some pretty rough thunderstorms too. I love it. I really missed thunderstorms. It is different to be back home. I wasn't gone as long as you though and I also haven't yet discovered all the thoughts and feelings I have about life here now but I am glad to be here. I have a lot of personality exploring left to do. I know being in India changed me a lot and in some unexpected ways just like it did for you.

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  4. I love thunderstorms too! But I got to enjoy them more in Bangalore than in my studio apartment in Geneva because the view from my windows back home wasn't so good. My rooftop terrace apartment in Bangalore offered a spectacular view during storms. In Mumbai there isn't as much thunder storm as there was in Bangalore, I miss that a lot

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  5. Nima Laud10:36 PM

    This post resonated with me so much. I was living in the US for 20-odd years (makes me feel my age when I actually calculate how long ago it was!), and now for the past 3 am in Norway. I come back home (for me it is home, just like the US is) to Bombay every year, sometimes more than once a year, and everytime I find the city changed and new (not always for the better). It seems like in many ways it is becoming more like the west, and in some, the past is still in the present, if that isn´t too confusing!
    I think you are right, once you live abroad, you adjust to a lot of things, and then you need to re-adjust when you are back in your original hometown. But it is not such a bad thing, you can accept the best of both the worlds, though sometimes you want to change things faster than they are actually changing.
    We will eventually head back to the US, and I am again going to have to readjust after getting used to living in Scandinavia. I know I will miss it very much when I leave here!

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  6. Yes exactly! Better accept the best of both world indeed. I read somewhere that repatriation actually feels like being an expat in your own country for a while.

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  7. Observations are good . The same thing happens, when you are born and brought up in small town, and you have to migrate to some Big city for Job .
    During vacations, When you go to your own small town, where you have spend your child hood, every thing looks like changed. Even the People !! :( they dont have time for you..

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  8. Oh yes! we noticed that going to visit my in-laws in Lucknow over the years, the last trip last July really made us realise how much we changed living in metros, and even DH that grew up all his childhood in Lucknow finds it more and more difficult to go there and realise that with his parents that's not just the generation gap at play but the city life gap too.

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