Monday, February 25, 2008

The Haphazard Postings of a Mad Expat at Midnight...

Otherwise known as..."catching up the blog and exposing you to much more of my inner life than you ever imagined." Don't say you weren't warned...

So, it's been a while since I've posted a new blog. Not that I haven't written one... It is a true fact that I spent a good hour last week on a new post. And then I read it. Some writing serves so-o-o-o-o well as catharsis but remains best left unpublished. The delete button being the saving grace that it is; I will spare you the details of my crabbiness... Suffice it to say that 2 weeks with my dear husband off in the U.S. for work, coupled with sick children, a fun bout of family headlice (undoubtedly the result of all that chilled water) and the mildy sucky wine at my disposal was enough to have me cursing...

The expat life is a studied one. It's been said with fair regularity that there is a "w-curve of cultural adjustment" outlining the peaks and valleys of expat adjustment and culture shock. A little euphoria to start things off, followed nicely by a long fall off a short pier...the first dive, reportedly (by my unscientific sources) occuring somewhere along the 6 month mark. I am sure that much of this depends upon variable whether the afflicted person was starting from a place of "euphoric" horror at the relocation versus the euphoria that might accompany a very willing spouse, such as my self. Metaphorically speaking (I'm a little fond of those metaphors) it appears that the curve presents additional opportunities to "travel" peak and valley...presumably in a shiny Innova moving 2km per hour over the Marthahalli Bridge.

Not that *I* would ever fall victim to said affliction. Really. It's not my fault that nobody seems to know what the HE-double hockey stick is going on around here! I really don't know WHY the water purifier won't purify (again) but I have noticed the steady drip on my head from the leaking (AGAIN!) bathroom Geyser, the black mold thriving in the rotting wall behind the kitchen sink and the giant cockroach happily relaxing in my shoe. My friend has Tuberculosis. The substitute driver only nods in English as he deposits me at the flower market after 20 minutes searching for the meat shop located 4 minutes from my house. An email about deadly Scorpions in Palm Meadows is making the rounds. There are approximately 12 stray cats, 1 humongous rat and a long black snake fighting for the territory surrounding my house. One of those "friendly pets" left me a large, tasty rodent claw and half a tail on the doormat. Depending on the day it seems likely that giant mosquitoes are either going to carry one of us off or that we'll all die of chemical poisoning from the pesticide-fogging boy on his intrepid bicycle. Strangely enough, the garbage piles are riper, the polluted air more polluted and I swear to God that if ONE more thing is put away in a strangely obvious place that I can't possibly find and would never have chosen, I'll start throwing chappatis out the front door... To top it off, the paper, proudly pronounced the end result of the multi-month, media frenzied, "Lead India" contest/initiative in which they soundly assure..." Lead India starts with India!" (Huh?) Nope, no W-curve for ME.
(After all that, Imagine one of your worst days exponentially magnified and feel free to let your imagination run wild regarding the deleted post).

So it stands, folks: I am not all sweetness and light (not sure why Bob is rolling around on the floor chortling...) The day he came home from the U.S. he smiled at me malevolently (ok, not really. I just wanted to use that word,) "hey, honey...alot of people asked me what it was you DID over here...and wondered about your *life of luxury*" He swears he was just passing on the conversations but I'm pretty sure I saw a smirk, (I wonder, is paranoia a part of the W-curve?)

But the question remains: Is this, in fact, a luxurious life? Initially, I felt a strong eye-ball popping, homicidal-like urge....Luxury? WHAT? "Luxury" not being the first word I associate with our life here. Defensiveness and ill will aside, I started to think about that a bit more. There are few simple answers to simple questions in India and the concept of luxury is no different. Luxury is relative and dependent on what you are comparing it to. I am not living down the street in a slum. My children are healthy, clothed nicely and well fed. I have the comparative luxuries of running water and a toilet. When it rains heavily I do not have to concern myself with standing water contaminated with an overflown sewage in my living room. We do not worry about our next meal, spend at least one Sunday a month at one of the 5-star hotel champagne brunches and occasionally buy over-priced imported foodstuffs. For what it's worth, it's not just expats who this is true of. There are enough moneyed Indian Bangaloreans to support a "society" page in the "Times of India" and big business is alive and well. Compared to a majority of people living and working here, however, our lives, even at their simplest, are over run with luxuries. It is impossible not to confront your own ego and privilege, driving your son to his private preschool on a village road as you watch someone else's underfed baby playing at his mother's feet, on the precarious road, as she hauls load after load of crushed rock on her head. By all means, we ARE living the luxurious life.

I suspect, though, that questions from back home pertaining to luxury are less about the lessons we learn and the interactions we have with poverty and loss in our adopted country than they are about things like employing a maid, cook and driver and having the opportunity for travel. When viewed through a simplistic does sound plenty luxurious. Were we living in the U.S (and upon our return) would (and will) be a luxury we could not afford. It would be pointless for me to argue that there are not luxurious elements to this equation. There are. I will argue, that the trade-offs for these are often significant (and at a minimum, beyond frustrating). Sometimes the good life prevails and other times it seems we careen from one startling moment to another. As with anything, unless you are living it, it is difficult to fully know. Perhaps, rather than debating the luxurious it would be more helpful to share both the pleasures and frustrations that shape our lives here.

What is it like to have a maid, a cook and a driver? Each of our staff works six days a week. I would love to report that the experience is entirely delightful. In reality, it is a love/hate proposition; most like a crash course in mediation and arm chair psychology. The maid doesn't like the cook's food. The cook insists on giving our maid "tips" on how to properly clean. Our driver (traditionally first in the hierarchy of household help here) tries to step in to help resolve the issue...however, he's not too fond of our cook's food, either, which somehow comes across quite poorly. There are arguments in Hindi or Kannada which I can never fully understand. I have figured out that when our maid stacks the breakfast dishes by the sink it means they are not getting along. These are also the days she comes to work with food for me to try. On other days, the breakfast dishes are washed by our maid and our cook offers to help with the ironing and all is well. We have avoided other common complaints: constant requests for loans or gifts, employees who fail to come to work. Employees who steal. We have actually managed to hire and keep the same honest and reliable employees for 6 month straight. It is odd to have people moving your stuff. It can be uncomfortable to always have people in your house. Privacy is a non-notion. The loveseat arranged by you one Sunday afternoon is returned to its previous place by Tuesday. The bathroom floor is mopped and the rugs put down on a wet floor. The cook decides to go on a "western" food kick and you find yourself eating cheese on graham crackers or prawns with kraft macaroni and cheese or lasagna noodles with meat and ketchup. Good relationships with staff are worth a lot but they also mean staff who feel quite free to share their differing opinions regarding just about everything. It is usual for staff to do what ever the children request of them..."because they asked, madame"...and I am generally thought of as overwrought for suggesting that my children pick up their own toys, sit in their booster seats in the BACK seat, with a seat belt on, not eat candy on a daily basis and go to bed when they are obviously tired. It leads to some interesting moments... "Mom, can I have a cookie"...."Not right now it's almost time for lunch"....minutes later, said child emerges from the kitchen chomping on a cookie. "Umm, I said you couldn't have a cookie." An amused expression, "Lokesh said I could." Well Then. As Vimala frequently states, "What to Do?" The "village raising the child" is not all it's cracked up to be!

The upsides are...a pretty clean house without handling a mop. Food that is often quite delicious...cooked by someone else who cleans it all up. Time to spend playing. A maid who babysits a couple of weekend nights a month...and who can reliably be left with the kids for mom outings or errands during the day. Extra people showering your children with affection. People you can really ask about Indian customs you don't understand and who delight in sharing their traditions with you and in hearing more about your traditions. I know that this may not be the case for every expat, but it's true for us and it goes along way toward both general cultural understanding and just having FUN. There are discordant moments...locking our money and valuables up daily. Unsettled feelings about the things you have and the things they do not. The reciepts for purchases you don't want them to see simply because you've just spent half their monthly salary on a pair of shoes. Done right, you come to care about their lives and their families lives. Finding ways to help them to improve their lives in tangible, lasting ways is challenging and disconcerting. Balancing being a caring person and a nice employer with fair expectations of the work they've been hired for...which means frequently pointing out that you really meant the refrigerator should be cleaned every month, the dishes need to be washed in hot water but to please, please, please never again put the dry-clean only silk pillow covers in a hot wash. Sometimes it is a question of training them in Western expectations and being willing to patiently repeat yourself. Other times, it's a question that can't seemed to be answered...reminding about not washing the pillow covers doesn't automatically transfer to not washing the throw rug. It is possible to remain all-business and it is possible to be constantly irritated but it doesn't seem to serve a real purpose. Like all relationships...there is a learning curve which both parties need to traverse. I'm unwilling to work with dishonesty, cruelty, true laziness and theft but include normal human error or frailty, common misundertanding or the premise of an off day, in that and you've got the makings of a really un-fun revolving door.

What of the rest of life? I won't speak as much for Bob except to say that the opportunity (and in our case, better cash-flow for) travel is something we will always be grateful for. I am incredibly partial to pedicures, waxing, head oil massage and facials for cheap. Yoga and meditation, 3 days a week, for about $40 per month. Not having to work. Living at (mostly clean and orderly) Palm Meadows. Weekends hanging out at the PM pool and clubhouse. Great brunch. Traveling to amazing places. Great bargains on silver, silk and traditional Indian wares. Delicious, fragrant tropical fruits and vegetables...most for less than a dollar. Immersing ourselves in another culture. The color and beauty of India. The generosity and warmth of most Indian people. New friendships with interesting and engaging fellow expats and Indians alike. Being able to work on my Midwifery curriculum without juggling a jillion things and finding like minds in the Bangalore Birth Network. Adopting the "head bobble" without even thinking about it. Festivals! Expanding our children's (and our own) worldview in otherwise unattainable ways. Phrases such as "I'll be here only," and "We'll do the Needful." Abundant and delicious Indian food. Salwar Kameez. The focused excitement brought on by finds such as, Belgian Beer! Kettle Chips! Maple Syrup! (for a price higher than God and a limited time and place only...but nevertheless, a source of real joy).

And then there is the other part: Living half a world away from family, friends, support systems. Not feeling at home in your own house. A spouse who works late and long. Rats, cockroaches, snakes and other creepy or dangerous creatures. Health risks....Malaria, Dengue Fever, Japanese Encephalitis, Tuberculosis, Dysentery. Questionable health services including ambulance personnel who just drive (and are of no other help to you in an emergency). Not be allowed (or able) to safely drive yourself anywhere, ever. Contaminated water. Food and restaurant roulette. Intestinal Parasites. Horrible air pollution. Feeling trapped in Palm Meadows. Piles of Garbage. Street dogs (and the associated risks of rabies). Undescribably filthy or unavailable public bathrooms. Unrelenting, often scary traffic and the unending time it takes to go anywhere. Adapting to a entirely different culture. Rampant bribery and corruption (in even the most basic services, such as recieving a package). Filling out forms in quadruplicate, 6 times and with no record that you did so with a request to return "tomorrow" which just happens to be the day they are closed. The statement..."we'll be there tomorrow, madame."

Today's paper had a quote I like that sums it up nicely...
" If you cleave the heart of one drop of water, there will issue from it a hundred oceans." ~Shabistari

That pretty much sums it all up... India is "a hundred oceans." Which one you'll be swimming it, depends on the hour.

The Fischers
Exploring the Peaks and Valleys,
In India

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi, Chandra,

I just stumbled on your blog.
Unfortunately I don't have time to read all your entries now so pheraphs you've already been there, but since you live in Bangalore, I could not help wondering if you've visited Nrityagram Village, outside Hessaraghatta. Here's the link to their homepage:
I'm sure you'd enjoy a visit to the dance village, and pheraps you could even arrange for a lecture-demontstration to be held for your family. It would really be a treat, let me assure you!
If you do decide to go, would you please mention to the people there that I pointed you in your direction? Just tell them you got the information from Barbara, from Varese in Italy, they'll know who I am! :-)
Thank you for your attention!