There is one place in India that I understand perfectly: my in-laws’ humble home — the home so simple I was afraid marrying into that family might overcomplicate my life. But now, it’s the one place in this country that makes sense to me because it is so honest and uncomplicated. The daily routine revolves largely around making and preparing food, as my husband and mother-in-law are doing in that photo up there.
Most travellers come to India at a crossroads in their lives, searching for answers, meaning or wisdom. After a few short weeks of train journeys, temple visits, and long intense conversations with other travellers (most of whom are stoned) they think they’ve figured India out. They haven’t. Indians haven’t figured India out.
I’ve given up. India is a beautiful enigma that I will never figure out. I’ve been a traveller, a writer, a wife, a daughter in law, and - most recently – a corporate employee here. Yet from all these perspectives, I still find the more I try to quantify and understand India, especially from a socioeconomic and commercial perspective, the more upset I become.
Kiran and I are moving back to London this summer. And for me, it’s time to find a new way to co-exist with this confounding place. It will forever be a part of my life.
Local shopkeepers are on strike in Pune today to protest a new local tax. When I asked around, I learned that shopkeepers normally declare the receipts from their stock purchases to the government and pay tax on what they buy, not what they sell.
But this system doesn’t account for the large proportions of cash sales that take place without receipt. So there’s a large amount of goods being traded informally. The local government’s gotten wise to the tax revenue they are missing out on, so they are now requiring shopkeepers to declare their sales and pay tax on their profit.
Shopkeepers are understandably annoyed and have close their doors for two days on strike to protest this, but they have to give notice to the government first
Medical shops and milkmen can’t strike without special permission, so basic survival necessities are not disrupted.
Its easy to think this is all just about money, but it is in fact just a symptom of living in a place where you feel the government is out to exploit rather than to serve and protect.
India is famous for its corruption and that is one of the reasons why India is one of the most difficult places to live. But in a place were you can’t trust your government at all, you have to rely on yourself — figure out your own shortcuts to get ahead however you can. I’m not saying that justifies black money or tax loopholes. But I do understand that the system, if the ever really was one, is broken.
In India, this is the famously common response to nearly any question about why people are the way they are or why India is the way it is. At first, it may suggest a certain apathy or resignation to the status quo. But it also typifies a flexible go-with-the-flow attitude that brings a sense of peace amid the chaos, frustration and contradictions of daily interactions in India.
India may be a fast growing, changing society, but certain habits and attitudes remain constants in this society — so constant it is worth celebrating and smiling about.
This short film brilliantly celebrates some of those classic Indian traits and quirks. They are some of the little things that have endeared India to me over the years — far beyond the stereotypical spiritual India that we’ve all read or heard about.
What made me smile again was when I realised this is an ad film from Trueroots telecom, an international calling service aimed at Indians abroad. No surprise it’s a Tata company, a large corporation that manages to consistently remain plugged into the culture, the zeitgeist, the needs and desires of Indian society. Bravo.
“I’ve applied for two jobs in China and one in Singapore. I think Shanghai could be good,” says my friend on the phone. Neither she nor her husband or kids have ever been to China or Singapore. They have no particular interest in the language, history or culture of either place. But they are intelligent, reasonably curious and well-travelled folks, not given to rash decisions.
When I ask her what about Shanghai seems like it would be good, her reasons are typical of every American or European friend, relative or colleague who asks my advice about living and working in an emerging market. I know they shouldn’t go. Here’s why:
Generally, they are dissatisfied with their present circumstances, bored at work, scared by depressing headlines about shrinking Western market economies. They think they will find a better lifestyle, a bit of adventure, and maybe some bragging rights later on, if they move to another market now. They are on the run from their lives or from themselves. And this is the worst frame of mind to be in when making big decisions.
So if you’re thinking about moving to another part of the world for work, consider this:
1. Don’t move for money. You can expect a degree of financial gain from working on an expat contract, especially in a developing country where general cost of living is lower than Western economies. But if you think you can live an austere life and save like a squirrel while you are abroad, you are delusional. We all quickly get used to all the things our extra money can buy and adapt accordingly. Every single person who’s worked abroad on expat contract, myself included, says they saved less than they’d expected.
You will be able to enjoy a few more luxuries in Beijing or Mumbai than you would in London, and you will want to do that because you’ll be looking for comfort in a strange place. But will that bring you real satisfaction? Studies show that increased income has very little effect on overall life satisfaction.
2. Don’t expect friendships with expats. When you land on new shores and find out that the reality of the job is totally different to how it was described (and it almost always is) you are stuck for a while. Whether you love your job or you hate it, you’ll need to build a social life.
The expat scene in developing countries creates its own separate and contrived world in which few, if any, have genuine friendships with anyone who is born and raised in the country where they are presently living. It’s also a very transient group of people, coming and going on short-term contracts, so it’s hard to forge a community of meaningful friendships. Spending time with people who really know and understand you is what brings us the deepest sense of satisfaction. So consider how valuable and hard-won your network at home already is before you walk away for a while.
3. Don’t move to prove you’re independent. You might enjoy the challenge of navigating the vagaries of daily life in a completely foreign place and need to demonstrate your bravery to yourself or your family. This is an OK thing to do when you’re in your 20s. After that, it’s a sign of immaturity.
4. Don’t move because you’re bored and looking for an adventure. Yes, it’s exciting to be in a new place, but companies move you because you have a specific skill set they need, and you have to deliver. If you want an adventure, go on vacation. And if you think you will enjoy travelling in the region where your new job is, think again. Your job will leave you with time to do a fraction of the travelling you are dreaming about while reading about your new potential destination.
5. Don’t move to prove you are important. Few people will admit that this motivates them, but many like knowing that they are senior enough and special enough that a company wants to pay to relocate them to another country to do a big job. THere are hundreds of other ways you can get a pat on the back without such disruption.
There are only two reasons you should move country for work. First is because you have an undeniable career opportunity in that market that you wouldn’t have if you stayed at home. Follow a few basic tips on how to research and prepare. The second, and most important is, because you absolutely love the culture and the people who live in your destined country. If you pack an unquenchable curiosity, you will stay motivated to keep discovering.
Know that you’ll learn a lot more about life from hanging out with locals and you’ll have a richer experience that will make you able to empathise with people more readily in the future. That will make you better in any job in the future because anyone who wants to make any kind of difference in the world has to learn how to relate to people who are totally different to them.
Go, sit, be quiet, watch, and listen. You’ll be delighted at how welcomed a humble and curious foreigner is in most places. But first you have to get honest with yourself and steer clear of the expat bubble.
When we first met and decided to get married, people told me I was a fool because international marriage is more fragile and likely to fail. So we eloped, but secretly I worried they were right.
The day we got married, I told him I felt happy. He told me he felt responsible (for me, my welfare and my happiness.)
We moved to London to settle on neutral ground (neither my hometown of New York nor his Mumbai). I quit freelancing, got a corporate job and, overnight, the power balance between us shifted as I became the provider and the protector of my husband. I didn’t mind supporting us for a short time while he figured out how to launch his photography business in a new international market. He did.
As weeks turned into months and years with no strategy or direction in place, I worried.
We argued a lot and a few friends thought we’d break up. But we didn’t. So now people ask me how we continue to overcome our differences. For what it’s worth, here are a few top tips from my own experience.
Learn about Power Distance because it shapes how you both relate to authority and leadership in your marriage.
Power distance index (credited to G H Hofstede) measures the extent to which the less powerful members of society accept and expect power to be distributed unequally.India is a high power distance culture, so it is simply understood that some people have more power than others. That can make it really difficult to collaborate at work, in government or, in a family.
Even though we both said we should have an egalitarian partnership, I am the primary breadwinner in the family and where he comes from, the one with the money has all the power and makes all the decisions. So he deferred to me, resented me, and loved me all at the same time. What a fine mess.
I wanted him to have ideas and opinions about what we should do with our life, but he didn’t even have an opinion about what he wanted for dinner. Knowing theoretically about power distance didn’t help me take any new actions, though. I still had more learning to do.
Understand that Individualism is not universal
American and Britain both value and emphasise the achievements and the rights of the individual. India, by contrast, is all about the collective, at work and at home. Even the language reinforces this. In Hindi, your family calls you by the title of your family designation. My nieces call me “Mami” which means wife of mother’s brother. My husband is “Dada” (older brother) and no one ever calls him by his given name, Kiran. He exists, to a large extent, as his role in the family: the elder brother and first born son.
Deferring to the collective also means you develop a willingness to adjust, which incidentally is one of the most popular qualities sought in brides when Indian families post matrimonial ads for their son. So you can imagine that when my husband hit massive culture shock after moving to London and I called in a shrink for help, he resisted.
Even though I explained that therapy is confidential and therapists are impartial experts, at first, he thought it was airing our dirty laundry to a stranger who would later use it against us.
There are great resources to learn theoretical differences between cultures like this one aimed at a business audience. The theory gives me good context for dealing with international markets at work and an international marriage at home. But when I had to put it into practice in my personal life, I was still out of my depth.
Learn about your spouse’s culture by talking to an expert (other than your spouse.)
On my own, I recently consulted an Indian-born psychologist who practices in the United States for a deeper perspective. She taught me, in detail, the profound self-defeating beliefs that can arise from being raised with the unquestioned belief that your destiny –your place in the world, your options for career, friends and marriage — are all set from birth. And if your family happens to come from a lower caste, you quickly learn not to fly too close to the sun because you will get burned. Ambition is risky. Success equals death.
My husband wasn’t ready to talk about this, but learning about it was invaluable for me.
The most important thing the Indian therapist taught me was how not to pity him. The line between compassion and pity is very thin. “I feel for you” is compassion. “You poor thing” is pity. Pity weakens people. And my husband interprets my attempts to help him out of a rut as pity or parenting, not partnership. So I have to notice when I want to disect one of our problems and fix it. It’s what I do for a living in business as a researcher and a strategist, but I have to stop thinking of my marriage as a project to work on.
The more I learn about intercultural and international marriage, the more I realise that it’s like any other marriage, but you just have more intense challenges around language, meaning and cultural beliefs. Sometimes I just need to be curious and ask more questions of my husband than my girlfriends who married the boy next door. They can assume and infer a lot when they talk to their husbands because they share more contextual knowledge and experiences.
The most common sentence in my household is, “help me understand what you mean by that.” Why? Because chances are, I just don’t know. But finding out is what makes it interesting.
I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with the sounds of Ravi Shankar’s sitar coursing through the hallways of my home. My Mother wasn’t a hippie. She didn’t practice yoga or chant or follow a guru. Music was her meditation, records were her respite, and for many years she played few albums more often than the Concert for Bangladesh. That concert and album marked the music industry’s first public act of philanthropy at a monumental scale (with all its attendant complications.) The talent line up was a famous combination of Western rock and Hindustani classical music and was a milestone in the forging of the world music genre.
The album wasn’t the greatest recording quality, as I recall, but the Indian music section of that 3 part album gave me a tiny glimpse into a world outside my own through the tone and rhythm of the sitar and the sarod. I dreamed of discovering the land, the people, and the culture that gave birth to those beats. And here I sit in Bangalore.
Art and literature are integral to any culture, and culture is everything that comprises how we live. UNESCO’s definition of culture is perhaps a more specific and enlightened one, describing it as ”the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group, that encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs.”
One could argue Indian classical music hits many of those points. It is spiritual, as the artist performs as an offering to god, material in its creation of instruments and artefacts, intellectual perhaps in its pursuit of meaning often in the context of myths, and emotional in the way that music of any kind hits your emotions. If you want to understand a culture and a people, music is a pretty good place to start.
So, when I heard that Pt. Ravi Shankar died, I felt it was a loss not only for the world music scene that he built through his many international collaborations, but a loss specifically for India. The Prime Minister of India called Ravi Shankar a national treasure and an ambassador of India’s culture and heritage. It woke me up and inspired me to find the other great musical talents who are still around. I mean, I’m here already, right?
So I started looking up my husand’s top three favourite Indian musicians, Pt. Hari Prasad Chaurasia, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, and Ustad Zakir Hussain, hoping it would be as easy to get concert tickets in India as it is in Europe or America. (You’re laughing at me already, right?)
At first, it seemed more likely to hear Amjad Ali Khan play the sarod in Michigan than Mumbai. Why is that?
All of these great artists do play events in India, but they are not exactly easy to find and book. Look, there is no audience for Indian Classical music more proud than in India where people are more than happy to espouse the superiority of Indian culture, heritage and wisdom to anyone who will listen. So there’s an appreciation, for sure. But it’s also a place that functions almost entirely based on relationships, so I’m more likely to get tickets if I know someone who knows someone or if I’m invited.
I know the market for Indian cultural arts is completely different in India than it is abroad. The obvious answer is to say that, despite its economic growth, India is still a developing nation with a high level of poverty where most people are focused on meeting their basic needs, not paying for art. Demand for and access to the arts comes when people have the resources to enjoy them. Fair point. But that answer seems a bit too easy to stand on its own.
An Indian-born musician told me that there is an unspoken expectation in India that music concerts will be given for free, so it’s challenging for concert organisers to get a paying crowd large enough to sustain the livelihoods of the artists. (I don’t have a link for this. It’s what I’ve been told thus far.) So maybe there’s a lack of market demand.
All I really know is that finding and booking performance tickets is proving a challenge and this concerns me not just because I selfishly want to hear some music, but because I believe that we should have access to the music and the arts that define cultures and, by extension, our sense of place in the world.
I don’t want to live in a world of global vanilla where everything looks and sounds the same – where music is sanitised and synthesised in studios, where everyone wears the same jeans and reads the same magazines with slick airbrushed images of people who don’t really exist. I want to live in a world of different textures, colours and sounds that looks, feels, sounds and smells different from place to place.
The best way to find that is through music, art and craft. So if the masters are ageing and dying, what is the new generation going to carry on? This is what I’m looking for.
There’s a new wave of young Indians moving back to India that gives me hope for this place, not because they came from abroad but because they want to be here. They struggle with repatriating. Many of them come looking for financial opportunities, or to explore their roots and a deeper sense of self. Having watched this repatriation trend become a phenomenon over the last ten years, Prashant Argrawal offered a bit of advice to the New York Times earlier this year. He said, “you may come because of the opportunity, but stay because you love India.” I hope that “knowing India” comes from knowing the culture in its entirety, but especially the craft, the traditions, and the music.