Grief: 5 Stages of Moving to India

Grief: 5 Stages of Moving to India

The five stage phenomenon is not limited to grief.  Expats the world over experience a variety of intense, sometimes suffocating, occasionally debilitating emotions on their journey from denial to acceptance.  Understanding those emotional stages is an important step toward a healthy, humorous expat experience.

Although the five stages of moving to any new country are largely governed by a positive attitude and a good sense of humour, there are definite physical and physiological components to the adjustment.  In India, smells, sights, sounds, and tastes play with perceptions Yo-Yo Ma-style, creating deep, personal, lasting memories of each moment in-country.  A journey through those five stages is both inevitable and enlightening.

Stage I: Denial

Denial is a warm blanket of protection for the psyche.

Denial sets in as soon as you touch down.  It is the backbone of survival in the early stages of any trauma.  Strong and solid, it is like a sea wall your psyche constructs to hold back the storm building miles offshore on the expat ocean.  During denial’s beginning, the world around is new and strange, seen through the colorful Hollywood lens of Eat, Pray, Love, and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, where characters basked in spiritual, healthy, natural Indian light. 

  • MantraThis is really happening.  This is really happening.  This is really happening.
  • LanguageThe hotel staff speak perfect english and are extremely polite; obviously communication won’t be a problem.
  • CowsThere are cows in the middle of the road!  How cool is that!
  • StaringEveryone seems so nice; several people even asked to have their picture taken with me.
  • IceProbably best to skip the ice in my mojito for now.
  • FoodWow, Indian food is great!  I love chana masala!
  • Power OutagesOh, hey, the power just went out; that’s interesting.

Denial is a great companion.

Stage II: Anger

Anger is control in an otherwise uncontrollable world.

Anger is strength; it empowers the expat, providing a false sense of control in an otherwise uncontrollable environment.  It arrives as a Category One hurricane, initially manageable but increasingly menacing.  At first the problems crash lightly against denial’s sea wall, turning the ocean of expat life into a cold spray.  The semi-calm doesn’t last and before long you’re watching the waves crash violently against the wall, sending water a hundred feet in the air.  You’re starting to resent Hollywood, the Marigold Hotel is turning into the worst scenes from Slum Dog Millionaire

  • MantraWTF? WTF? WTF?.
  • LanguageWhy can’t I communicate with anyone?  It sounds like they’re speaking english but I don’t understand a word of it!
  • CowsThey venerate these things?  For Pete’s sake, get the heck out of the road!  You’re blocking traffic!
  • StaringIf one more person asks to take their photo with me I’m seriously going to go ape shit crazy on them!
  • IceI knew I shouldn’t have let them put ice in my mojito.  Darn loose motions.
  • FoodI love chana masala, but do they have to serve Indian food at every work event?
  • Power OutagesNot so cute in the middle of watching a movie on Netflix.

Anger is energizing.

Stage III: Bargaining

Bargaining for one’s sanity takes a great deal of effort.

Bargaining means compromise: what can I do to get back to the old life, the old self.  If only I compromise, everything will return to normal.  The Category Five hurricane returns to a Category Three.  Winds are consistently blowing, but the seas are calming and you can see the remnants of denial’s sea wall.  Much to your chagrin, it is all but useless.  You want to accept the storm for what it is and walk along the beach with confidence, but you know you’ll be blown away like one of the 1.2 billion grains of Indian sand.  Hollywood is a huge disappointment, you just want to see the Indian version of Clueless.

  • MantraI will not lose my dignity. I will not lose my dignity. I will not lose my dignity.
  • LanguageI don’t understand.  Can you send me an email?
  • CowsThey’re not all cows, sir.  Some are buffalo.
  • StaringI’ve walked through this community every day for the last three months and you still need to stare?  I’ll give you each 20 rupees if you can keep from staring for five minutes.
  • IceBack to drinking warm mojito’s.  Hopefully that will take care of the loose motions.
  • FoodGod, please no more chana masala.
  • Power OutagesCan we put India on a UPS?

Bargaining is therapeutic.

Stage 4: Depression

Depression is a tough but necessary component of adjustment.

Depression is a focus on emptiness and grief.  The winds die down enough to see the devastation caused by Hurricane India; it looks like a total loss.  Denial’s sea wall is completely destroyed, anger’s strength is a distant memory, and bargaining’s attempts at compromise were laughable.  There is nothing to be done about Hollywood; you feel as out of place as The Namesake’s Gogal.

  • MantraWhat did I sign up for?  What did I sign up for?  What did I sign up for?
  • LanguageObviously I don’t understand what you’re saying.
  • CowsReally?
  • StaringAt least with my head down I can’t see anyone staring.
  • IceI’m already dead and the loose motions didn’t go away; I’m going back to cold mojitos?
  • FoodIf I never eat chana masala again it will be too soon.
  • Power OutagesSix times a day this house feels like me—powerless.

Depression is painful.

Stage V: Acceptance

Acceptance shines the light of possibility on expat life.

Acceptance means reestablishing relationships; making new, meaningful connections; and recognizing that there are more good days than bad.  There is no such thing as a never-ending hurricane; even Noah’s only lasted forty days.  You tore down obstacles; found healthy, fresh food to cook at home; and made some friends.  Life isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty good, a little like the Indian version of It’s a Wonderful Life.

  • MantraI got this, I got this, I got this.
  • LanguageKrpaya and shukriyaa are my favorite words.
  • CowsWhoa!  Almost stepped in that one!  Must be a cow with loose motions.
  • StaringI’m so glad I learned the head bobble, now everyone just smiles and bobbles back.
  • IceOf course I want my mojito with ice!
  • FoodI’m going to see if our housekeeper will make home-style Indian meals for lunch on Wednesdays.
  • Power OutagesWe didn’t even break from talking during the last one.

Acceptance is easy. 

Let’s go watch some Netflix and chill.

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Unless otherwise noted, I drew or took the photographs in the article—as lame as they may look.  Sometimes drawings come from my head, other times they’re from something I saw somewhere.  Any resemblance to persons living or dead is probably planned.  Copyright can be found here for my original work.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Drew me in with your article. Felt each stage as though I were going through it with each expat. Many trips to Mexico and other countries and islands over the years gave me just a taste of other cultures. But insight into what expats feel in their relocating is something I could not imagine. Just moving across the U.S. from coast to coast twice in my lifetime gave me a little of the expats experience. Someone told me it takes about two years to adjust. That,for me, is about right. They also said most people move back within those two years and if you can make the two year mark you have adjusted to the new area. Excellent article and looking forward to more. Thank you for the insight.

    1. It may be different for everyone, but two years sounds like as good an estimate as any. Any move is challenging–making new friends, learning the traffic patterns, finding your way around town, figuring out where to buy groceries–there is a commonality to relocation. Glad you were moved by the article. The full version will be in the book.

  2. I’m a long time “listener/reader”, but first time “caller/replier”. Great article and message delivery. I’m an accountant not an editor but this is a winner!

    1. Great to get some feedback from a professional…even a professional accountant!

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