The first year of expat life is like putting to sea—initial excitement quickly turns to sea sickness, the occasional squall, and eventually smooth sailing.
As a kid, we moved to a new place every couple years. We would pack what we needed, get new rooms, learn new neighborhoods, and make new friends. Just when we were comfortable in one place, we were off to another. The experience helped prepare me for uncomfortable situations as an adult. When the world is falling down around us, we calmly consider our options and go to work, which is exactly how we dealt with our first year in India.
It’s Been a Great Year
On 18 October 2016, we hit our one-year anniversary in India—still relative newbies. On reflection, it’s been a great year. I used to tell our son, “What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.” This phrase is especially applicable when beginning expat life, especially in cities drastically different than home. The list of things to accomplish is like a skyscraper—it takes a couple months to realize at least a third of those items are unnecessary. Eventually someone asks a question and you know the answer. It’s a bright, warm, delightful feeling, like a sunrise from the deck of a sailboat—you know there is plenty left to learn in those daunting, deep waters, but you feel alive.
The first few months were busy and a bit stressful. Much like waking to see the name of our new President elect, we started off in a tornado of wonder, shock, and awe. Unlike the American’s that lost their minds after the election, we continued our practice of understanding our options and getting things done—millions of Americans fell into a deep, hate-induced soup of denial from which the only escape was to call anyone not in mourning a bigot just before unfriending them on Facebook. The move to India was simply another of life’s challenges, meant to be overcome with steadfast determination.
Our mountainous list included items like find housing; activate mobile telephones; set up a bank account; locate a driver; interview housekeepers; get cable; pry our goods away from customs; figure out where to buy groceries; locate a cooking gas supplier; find furniture; and a hundred other things that come along with moving to another country—I have the original list. Although disheartening at times, we were never dissuaded by the myriad of roadblocks.
Improvise, Adapt, Overcome
The past year was both challenging and rewarding. We took an initial look-see trip and a whirlwind tour of houses, found a decent cup of coffee—comparatively decent—and moved into our new house. Once we had a base of operations established, we ventured out on incredible trips to Nepal, Thailand, the Phillipines, Kenya, and Hong Kong; met amazing people everywhere we went—people kind enough to occasionally pose for a photograph—and saw leopards, lion, giraffe, rhino, a particularly aggressive white and black-banded snake, and monkeys—one just a few feet from house.
Another saying I often repeated while our son was growing up—stolen from Clint Eastwood in the movie Heart Break Ridge—“Improvise, adapt, overcome.” We uttered that phrase repeatedly during the first year in India. Challenges like losing access to our bank account because we weren’t home when they tried to deliver mail almost made my head pop off; grocery shopping remains a pain—I’d rather pound my head against the wall than spend three hours trying to find a decent green vegetable that doesn’t start with ‘cap’ and end with ‘sicum’—and pouring a gallon of water on my laptop caused a considerable amount of stress resulting in a 24 hour period with absolutely no conversation whatsoever—thank goodness for Apple’s crappy security and our son and DiL. These are a small, select subset of a much larger list of hurdles.
Then there were the day-to-day obstacles. Constant power blackouts, internet outages, cancerous mosquito fogging, lizards, spiders, snakes, roaches, and a rainy season that made many roads unusable all vied to climb aboard our collective last nerve, sending us running naked through the neighborhood in a pointy cap screaming, “Please make it stop.” To top it off, Jeannette worked like the Energizer Bunny, putting in more hours than is humanly possible—shout out to all the expats at Jeannette’s company for your unwavering dedication…every organization should be so lucky. Through it all we improvised, adapted, and overcame until in the end we had navigated the 5 stages of grief and ended the year with a deeper appreciation of India and her people—although we’re re-evaluating the government after their latest move to eliminate the 500 and 1,000 rupee notes.
Another common slogan repeated more than once this past year was, “WTF.” Garbage; sickly cows on the road; honking; emaciated dogs; five people on a scooter, eight people in an auto rickshaw, and ten people in a six-passenger van; an ever changing list of requirements with each trip through immigration; wasting thousands of gallons of water to celebrate a holiday in the middle of a drought; paying 70 US dollars for a five dollar bottle of wine; having eight photos framed for a fraction of what it costs in the US; seeing the same people virtually every morning for the past year—and they still stare; getting fresh coconuts from one of the grounds keepers and drinking fresh coconut milk from a roadside stand; eating dozens of mangos during mango season for pennies each; custard fruit; buying “fresh” vegetables for almost nothing; ginormous malls; the absence of a single decent IPA, locally crafted beer, or inexpensive import in the entire country; passing through six government employees to get one resident permit; seeing motorcycles disappear through over-flowing manholes during monsoon; driving around for two hours to find a scrap wood supplier; watching people work construction in flip flops; seeing cars, motorcycles, tuk tuks, trucks, and busses all driving the wrong way, in our lane, on our side of the road, often without headlights; buying up eight jars of Coleman’s mustard because it might be the last time we see it in India—these are WTF moments and we said it often.
No Thanks. We Live Here
Although we experienced plenty of stress, we never experienced depression. Stress gets a bad wrap, but it is only a problem if it is debilitating. Treated with the right attitude, stress can prompt action, build character, and empower creativity. On the other hand, depression is a cancer, eating away at an expat’s happiness, self-esteem, and will-to-live. Living near family only one of the our last 26 years of marriage makes a couple self-sufficient—but having amazing expat and Indian friends kept stress at bay and made the last year worthwhile.
Despite the challenges—or perhaps, in part, because of them—it was an amazing first year. We traveled, made new friends, met interesting people—and a few not so interesting—attended cool events, sat on discussion panels, and made a home. Jeannette took up swimming—she is incredible—I started writing, and eventually things started to seem normal. We still have our WTF moments, and continue to improvise, adapt, and occasionally, overcome what life throws our way. But it feels good to walk through the airport with dozens of people offering taxi’s and say, “No thanks, we live here.”
Getting internet installed at our house in India was a true test of patience. We paid extra for a dedicated business line and waited for the installation—days quickly turned into weeks—five weeks, to be exact—as frustration mounted. We could have yelled at ACT Fibernet, or berated our salesman, but neither seems to get much traction in India—or anywhere else, really. Instead we sent this series of texts to our ACT point of contact (good name changed):
Me: Mitesh, you should know, I am not feeling loved right now. Do you understand what that means?”
Mitesh: Yes sir. No love sir. Very sorry sir.”
Me: I want to feel the love Mitesh.
Mitesh: Yes, sir. The love is coming, sir.
Me: Okay, when is the love coming, Mitesh? Because I am not going to feel the love until I get internet. Tell me I will feel the love tomorrow with the internet, Mitesh.
Mitesh: You will feel the love tomorrow, sir.
Me: Thank you, Mitesh. I am looking forward to feeling the love.
The internet was working by close of business the following day.
Not having internet was extremely problematic. It meant Jeannette had to take calls until well after midnight from work and I had to travel to public WiFi for any research. It would have been easy, perhaps even justified to get angry and attack every ACT Fibernet representative. But expat life doesn’t work that way—we are guests in our host country. Instead, we analyzed our options and made a decision, just like we always do.
Thank You to Our Friends and Family
This week’s post is dedicated to that first year of expat life. It is a thank you to all of the people in our lives who made this experience tolerable during tough times, and downright fun the rest of the time. To our friends and family back home, our friends in India, the awesome community at Open Skies, and all the people on the Hyderabad Expat Facebook page—the best expat resource ever—thank you!
Most of all, thank you to Rawoof and Salma. This year would have been so much more difficult without you. You take care of us, offer advice, defend our interests, represent us in negotiations, and entertain sometimes off-the-wall requests. It’s not fair to call you our driver and housekeeper—you are our Ambassadors and part of our Indian family.
Click this link to see a video of our first year in India. Warning: It is 365 seconds long—not counting the end credits.
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Unless otherwise noted, I drew or took the photographs in the article—as lame as they may look. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is probably planned. Copyright can be found here for my original work.