Cultural differences

A matter of focus

12:40 PM

Living in India in not that hard with the right kind of attitude and focus


One of the questions I get asked the most after people found out I have been living in India for a decade is: "How did you do it?" or, "How did you cope?"

Both questions implying it must have been hard to do so, and asked by Indians and other expats alike. My answer however is what surprise most:

"It wasn't that hard"

And I really mean it, it truly wasn't as hard to adapt or "cope" for me. Yes, I went through culture shock, we expats all do, there are various degrees to it but we all get it.
Yes, there have been moments of frustration, insanity that had me retreat to a safe cocoon of cup of tea, comfort food and familiar movies on TV.
Yes, there have been hard times, moments I was afraid, and others I was angry. I had my share of stress, we all do, it's normal, it is part of life.

I would have had these moments should I have stayed in Geneva. I had these I hate Switzerland back home, the same way I have them about India here. And of course, I still have my I hate Switzerland even now just reading or hearing news from the homeland.
The interesting part, is that while I was ready to scream and call it quit in Geneva, nobody asked me how I coped about living there.
You see I was a native. People expected me to be fully adjusted to the place I was born into...but are we truly adjusted to any place on this planet? Are we?

The way I see it, life's speciality is to throw you curve balls just to see how you do with them and how you learn from them.

Adapting or coping with any situation widely depends on your focus. Focus on the bad, and it will be bad and hard. Focus on the good and you will have a much easier time. This is how I went about dealing with India.
I had the choice to focus on all the differences, or focus on all the similarities. I chose to focus on what was similar to be able to tackle the differences that came my way better.

When you go to a foreign country on holidays, you look at the exotic, and all that is different, because it is fun. The French have a word for it, a word I can't really translate in English: D├ępaysment.
It is the act of being taken out of the known comfort of your country into the unfamiliar of a new country. People welcome the feeling when they holiday, but when you want to live abroad, that same feeling can become frustrating and debilitating. All expats go through that honeymoon phase during which d├ępaysment is still exiting only to hit the wall once it stops feeling fresh and new later on.

If you continue looking for what is different after that point, you will probably end up just pitting your new home country against your old. And, it only reinforce the idea that there is one of the two that is worse than the other. If you want to make it and adapt to a new country, you need to start looking at every single things that make it sound familiar to you. No matter how stupidly insignificant these similarities might be. It can be finding a comfort food item. Seeing children play tag the way you did as a kid, or nursery rhymes that sound familiar. Finding stores that are easy to navigate. Finding a park and seeing people enjoy a workout as much as you do. Finding relief into the fact that your new local friends have tales of their TV free childhood that sound exactly like your own old days...
Similarities can be anywhere, and they actually are found a plenty if you know to look for them. Of course, I myself did notice differences, we all do, it is only human to acknowledge them. However, I often, very often chose not to dwell on them.

I could have spent a decade of cribbing about hygiene, traffic, insane bureaucracy, aunties going on my nerve, and doing just that. I would probably not have made it as long as I have doing so.
Sure these things annoy me, but guess what they annoy Indians too. And, just talking to my friends is confronting enough that I am not that crazy foreign lady who doesn't get it. The fact I share the same level of frustration as many of my local friends on these issue is a comforting similarity.

Similarities, and familiarity is what all human beings look for when they feel lost and confused on a trail. Apply this mindset to your emotions and you are good to go. But first, you need to accept that you might be lost and confused, or afraid, or angry to correct it.
Living in denial never does anybody any good. And this is why in my moments of frustration I did know how to just accept it, sit down and took a breather.
Sure, that translated into making a nest on the sofa or bed while cradling a bowl of pasta with cheese with a "pick me up" movie. But, my doing so was the proof that I knew I needed to take care of myself and accepted my weakness of the moment. This helped me stand back up and go on without a fail.

In 10 years in India, I relocated a lot, faced financial issues, lost a baby to miscarriage, dealt with hateful neighbours, faced many instances of discrimination, had communication gaps with many...I just did not let these issue keep me down permanently.
Some like my miscarriage did sent me into a semi-depressive state of me not wanting to do anything except sleep and watch TV and I did not fight it. I knew pushing myself out of my comfort zone then was the most unwise thing.
Yes I was a zombie, an asocial hermit back then. I had reasons to hate the universe, and I admitted to myself I needed my own time to deal with it. I actually bounced out of that rut very quickly allowing myself that time out with the world. I knew from the start that it was temporary, but knew better not put a deadline on it. Because, there is no such thing as "you have x weeks to get over loosing a baby or be bust".

The same way that there is no "you have x amount of time to get adjusted to India or get lost". There is a whole process behind the act of coping and adapting to something, and it doesn't take the same amount of time for everybody. As long as you do not accept it, or refuse to readjust your focus, it won't happen. If you focus solely on differences, or the negative without paying attention to the positive and the familiar, you create a divide. The more you dwell on the negative, the bigger the divide will be and the harder it will become to overcome it.

So, my answer to how I adjusted to India, will always remain "It wasn't that hard". But trust me that doesn't mean I wasn't scared or frustrated or angry going about it. It is just that I admitted these things to myself and continued moving on in spite of them. Even if at time, moving on was made at a glacial pace, or with a few step backs.Anything is better than just standing still anyway.

12 comments

  1. Smriti5:31 PM

    Beautiful writing Cynthia, loved every bit! Although you wrote the post in the context of adjusting to a new place, I think the positivity of these thoughts are applicable on a higher level and on lower! What about adjusting to a new work place, or with a new family after marriage. I guess once you do resolve to "look at the positive" as you stress, few aspects of the new situation will actually turn you down, although the resolution part is the hardest! :-)

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  2. Gayatri Devi A6:02 PM

    It is not just country.Even relocating from one state to another or one city to another is big no for many.I was born and brought up in Mumbai,Relocated to Cochin after marriage for a year.Then shifted to Coimbatore(Tamilnadu) since then.Having lived 3 different cities,the only question that people haunt me with is " How could you adjust to a place other than Mumbai?"
    I believe that as long as you are happy with the people around you and happy with life,adjusting is not a big problem.
    You must know what you want to do with your time and and the kind of people you will want in your life.

    Then it is easy to deal with the difficulties.

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  3. Beatrix8:04 PM

    That's the way I think of it too. My life abroad has been different, but no better or worse than if I'd stayed in the US.

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  4. There is no perfect place on earth, if there was one, there wouldn't be the need for many religions to promise a heaven in the afterlife for the deserving souls. Once you learn to live with that, you have the right mindset to tackle life.

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  5. It is always a question of mindset, there are many things in life for which we have no choice, except the one about how we will tackle it. One doesn't even have to be happy all the time, they just need to be honest with themselves first, even if it means admitting they are confused or scared, that is the first step.

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  6. It indeed applies to every aspect of one's life. I briefly wrote about the miscarriage in that post, it happened in 2008. Back then I was grieving, I was hurt, I was angry, I was scared, and I acknowledged it immediately, because my feelings were 100000% valid at the time. I just knew from experience that it was time to cut myself some slack, and just accept that for a few weeks I would be that couch potato/hermit/zombie. I could have been harsh on myself calling myself names for doing it, feeling guilt for not being "stronger" but that would have been negative. instead I said "yes I am hurt, I am angry, and I need a break, and I will do just that until I feel like doing something better, screw those who tell me otherwise" 6 years later, I still look on those days without an ounce of regret because I did take charge of myself the way that worked. it might not look like it was a positive, but it was

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  7. When I first started reading the blog, I felt that this lady has nothing good to say about India. Indian doctors bad, Indians use too much plastic and then what you wrote in your Diwali post last year "I am not a Hindu, and I have no desire to convert" regarding your non participation in Laxmi Pooja. I thought religion is one thing but such disdain for Hinduism. I have never heard anyone getting converted to Hinduism just because he/she participarted in a pooja. You sounded like those orthodox Christians/Muslims who looked down upon other religions. Then, I realized that you perhaps associate Hinduism with those traditions which you had to follow when your at you inlaws place due to your MIL and also all that is bad in India caste system, oppression of women etc. Many people actually identify Hinduism with rituals, many Indians actually do that. Hinduism is much more than that. No offence meant, but I felt that way at that time.
    But, slowly I stated appreciating the details in your writings. How you skillfully mange your household, child, two pets and also this blog. I am also amazed by your receipes and home decorations. You have managed your stay in a difficult country like India, which is most wonderful. I hope I did not offend you, I speak from my heart. Congratulations!!!

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  8. First, this blog has 10 years of writting on it, it is pretty much the process of my adjusting to India you read here, earlier entries are no longer what I am today, but part of what I have become. Then I spend a few hours a week on it now, far less in the begining. It is also an expat blog, detailing expat experience and tribulations.

    On the Hinduism, No I dont do pujas at home, because I said I am not Hindu, but it is NOT disdain for hinduism that prevent me from doing. It is utter respect for it.

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  9. apple9:28 PM

    Yes, that makes perfect sense. Sorry for dragging you in this debate. That "pooja thing' did pinch me a bit and it was something I want to say to you for a long time. Glad I got it out of my chest. Your honestly is most refreshing.

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  10. Alexandra Madhavan2:16 AM

    What a wonderful and inspiring post. <3 LOVE LOVE LOVE.
    I really believe that life is all about the journey, and I totally get what you mean about focusing on the positive.

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  11. Padaradscha9:43 PM

    What a wise woman you are, Cyn. I wonder if your Swiss nature has something to do with your emotional balance (just kidding - Switzerland is one of my favorite places on earth). I'm so sorry to hear about your miscarriage, I had no idea. And you are so right about knowing to deal with our weaknesses...With love.

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  12. Hmmm I know a few unbalanced Swiss people ;-) so maybe my wisdom need another explanation. I think the best thing one can do is admitting to their weakness instead of living in denial.

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