Albert Lawundeh, TSE photographer

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Relectant Expat

The Reluctant Expat

Thanks Laura for asking me to guest post - it's a treat. Laura and I met when we were both vendors at a craft fair. We became fast friends and I often had the pleasure of sitting near her at craft fairs - we'd give each other potty breaks and quickly became each other's best customers. Our worlds overlap in many arenas and it is fun to add the blog sphere to the places we can meet.

When she asked me to guest post, I really wasn't sure what to write about. So, I just chose what I know - this crazy expat adventure we have undertaken.

My family was not looking for a move - especially not a move across oceans. We were quite comfy cozy in our very little corner of the world. In fact, when my husband came home and asked if I would be willing to move to India, I asked if it was a new street in our neighborhood.

So, I didn't exactly start immediately packing. First, I took a deep breath, then I threw up, then I started praying, then I started a blog (, and then I finally started packing after delaying our official move twice. I arrived in Delhi almost exactly one year ago and it began to change us the minute we stepped off the plane - honestly, it began changing us the minute we began to talk about stepping on the plane.

I was no stranger to living abroad. As a child, I lived in Germany for two years - and I moved within the U.S. quite a few times. Luckily travel was important to my Dad and we saw a lot of Europe and quite a bit of the United States.

But frankly, I wanted my family to stay put. We had made a home for ten years in a wonderful neighborhood. We had just renovated our house and life was rolling along quietly and uneventfully and I wanted that for my children - I wanted for them what I never had. I wanted my children to grow up with life long friends and family around the corner. I wanted the comfort of the familiar for them - elementary school, middle school, and high school all within one mile of each other. I did not want each new school year to be a new beginning. We were in the zone - the comfort zone. And it was working quite well, at least for most of us.

Except that my husband had lived within the same 20 mile-radius for as long as he could remember. And he was itching to step out of that comfort zone. He wanted for our children what he had never had. He wanted them to meet new people and see new things. He wanted them to go more than 20 miles from home for more than a week.

Then he got the phone call. A former boss asked the only question that we would have answered yes to - do you want to work for me in India? I would have said no to Alabama, New York City, Germany, Poland, anywhere else - did it have to be India?

My husband had visited India so he knew that it would be a life as different from ours as it could possibly be. He wasn’t kidding. He wanted our children to see that the quality of life for most people in the United States is not reality for most of the world. He wanted our children to appreciate that we are all lucky - damn lucky. Me? Well, I had to look up India on the map. My first question was, “You mean all the way over there?”

He did not think it was funny when I asked if there wasn’t a Sally Struthers special we could watch instead.

So we began planning and crying and planning and crying some more. For my husband, they were tears of joy - for the rest of us - not so much. The kids and I really weren’t all that interested in leaving family and friends and routines and our newly renovated kitchen with the perfect island for entertaining. It was hard. I just did not think I could bring myself to do it. I don’t think anyone believed that we would ever actually get on the plane.

And the first four months were very challenging - challenging in ways I never imagined. When you come from a developed country to a third world country, be prepared to get sick - probably nothing serious - but your stomach and your lungs and your heart will need time to adjust. We got stomach bugs and skin rashes and jet lag hit me particularly hard. And we were homesick. My husband went to work and the kids went off to school and I managed to get out of bed and at least blog. I tried to laugh and make light of some of the adventures - but I was mentally homesick and physically just sick. I was having a really hard time understanding why this was a good idea.

Some one had given me terrific advise right before I left. “Don’t have any expectations.” That was the best advice I have ever gotten. I started putting it in to practice.

I would head out the door and expect nothing. And I started enjoying it more. I found the American Women's Association and met some great people and started going out and doing things and discovering Delhi. And I found that I enjoyed the people as much as the sights. Because the monuments don’t change me - they fascinate me and I love their stories - but they do not change me. It’s the people I want to get to know.

And it was some of the people that were upsetting me. They seem so desperate and absolutely alone. Every ride down the street introduced me to more helplessness. Children selling balloons in the middle of the road. Parents begging for just a few rupees. It is heart breaking, really. And most people say that you will harden to it. That has not happened to me yet. I cannot imagine that it will.

As you drive down the road and see the poverty and the children and honestly the filth, you can try to keep it at a distance. Read the paper, pretend to talk on the phone, just ignore it. And you want to ignore it because you feel helpless. How can one person make a difference? And then you get out there and you meet people who are doing just that - making big, big differences by starting with little bit steps. Then they get others to walk those little bitty steps with them, and all of the sudden, lives are changed forever.

I met Anou from Project Why ( who is an amazing woman. Her daughter struggled in school and she came home from school one day very upset (again) and Anou decided enough was enough. The school was not meeting her daughter’s needs so she told her daughter that she did not have to go back. She created Project Why to help children in India who were not getting help. She reaches hundreds of children every day. I went to visit her schools and the reality began to sink in. The world is indeed a big place where the corners will probably never meet. There are millions and millions of children in the world who are suffering and it just takes one person who has had enough to help at least some of them.

I met Kiran Bedi ( ) who is a marvel unto herself. She has written several books and has her own television show. But she is best known for her work at Tihar jail. She tells the story that she was causing too many waves in the police force by publicly asking the tough questions so they were going to show her. She was assigned to run Tihar Jail. She immediately instituted policies like no smoking and insisted that the prisoners be given access to radios and books so that they would not be completely isolated from the outside world. Mrs. Bedi began a program called Weaving Behind Bars to teach the women prisoners a skill they can use when they were released. These women often take their children with them to prison - so Kiran established day care facilities and classroom facilities so that these children also had options. She did not want anyone rotting away in jail. So she was pushed into corner - a filthy rat infested corner - and she pushed back hard to the benefit of many.

I met Harmala Gupta who is the founder of CanSupport ( ). She is a cancer survivor herself and saw a tremendous need in India, and particularly in Delhi, for education and early detection. Through her work with hospitals, Mrs. Gupta realized that nearly two-thirds of the cancer diagnoses in Delhi were in the advanced stages, which left too many patients with little hope of recovery. Those patients were often too weak to go to the hospitals to receive pain medicine, so Mrs. Gupta began getting the medicine to the patients. Cancer in India carries its own stigma - so beyond fighting for their lives in tremendous pain, many patients are left alone without family support or financial resources to manage their care. That is where CanSupport steps in. They provide education and coordinate treatment free of charge for patients. And two years ago, they began the Walk for Life - it is as much an attempt to raise awareness as it is a fund raiser to help those struggling with cancer. Well over 3,000 people participated in the Walk this year.

I met some of the young leaders of Salaam Baalak Trust ( ), an organization that helps find and keep safe the street children of Central Delhi. Many of its workers will navigate the train station to reach children arriving alone in Delhi before someone with less than honorable intentions finds them first. That thought will keep you awake at night - the idea that some one will snatch these children up and use them simply to make money without any concern whatsoever for their well-being.

I met April Cornell ( ) who brought her manufacturing business to India. Surely, it is cheaper to do business here but you can tell she wants to do business here because of the people. She does not hire any child laborers, she pays her employees overtime, and she follows the rules - not just the rules set out by the Indian government - but the rules of her heart. She leads by example. When her company recently won a big contract, she decided to share the gains with her employees, who in-turn, provided food to needy families. She is not only providing a safe environment for her employees, she is sharing with them the gift of generosity. She is teaching them that you can find great joy through helping others - even if you are not exactly rich.

And finally, I met His Holiness the Karmapa ( ) who simply teaches that we should live our lives peacefully. That the only changes in people we need to make are changes in ourselves. Because we frankly don’t have a lot of control over what other people do and do not do. That was good to hear and now I just have to remember it!

So, yes, the world out there is much different than we ever understood it to be. It is not the perfect bubble of comfort and convenience that we reveled in when living in the United States. It is also not home. We will return to all of those comforts and people we miss, but hopefully we will understand better that we have an obligation to this world to somehow make it a better place. To not just take from it but also contribute to it. Our corner has become less rigid - it's sides have softened and our eyes have opened.

I am also beginning to realize that when we leave, there will be things we miss about living here. And I never imagined myself saying that.

So, you can guess just how proud I am of Laura for taking another big leap across oceans to help those in Sierra Leone. Safe travels!

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