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Life as an American Expat in India

An avid traveler with a life-long passion for the richness that various cultures can bring to our lives, Kitty is currently exploring India.

Temple in Yelahanka

Temple in Yelahanka

Acquiring a Taste for India

Fiery curries, pungent garlic naan, and crispy samosas filled with a spicy vegetable medley . . . Indian food is one of the world’s premier cuisines, but I didn’t much care for it.

Long before I ever dreamt I’d one day live in India, when friends wanted to go out for Indian food, I’d suggest Mexican, Thai, or Italian . . . or frankly anything else. But when that wasn’t successful, I went along grudgingly.

I once read a review by a restaurant critic who described a favorite dish as “a party in your mouth.” To keep with that analogy, as far as I was concerned, Indian food was a riot—there was just so much going on, too many flavors!

Eventually, I decided there were a few things that were actually okay. I liked butter chicken pretty well . . . and palak paneer. And then, somewhere along the line—without really realizing what had happened—I found that now I was the one suggesting dinner at the Indian restaurant.

It was a process, but I’d acquired a taste for Indian food.

acquiring-a-taste-for-india

A New Teaching Opportunity

Fast forward a few years, and I was excitedly telling friends that I had accepted a teaching position at an international school in Bangalore, India. The news was met with two distinct reactions. Those who’d never been to India were as excited as I. “What an adventure!” they’d exclaim.

But those who had actually been, or even lived there, were a little more reticent. “Have you ever been to India before?” they’d ask.

“No, but I love the food!”

“Uh-huh. Well, all the best.”

Some tried to give me a heads up on what to expect, but I really didn’t understand until I arrived myself—I couldn’t—because India is truly indescribable.

Or maybe incredible. That’s how the Indian tourism board puts it in their promotional materials. Incredible India.

As a literature teacher, I tell my students to look for the connotations of words—the feelings inherent in them. In the case of the word incredible, which at its root literally means “unbelievable,” something can be either incredibly good—or incredibly bad. India is both.

India is sensory overload—an assault on the senses, if you will. Not in a negative way necessarily, but simply that here every sense is routinely taken to its absolute limit. It’s exhilarating—and simultaneously exhausting.

Greeting the children in the nearby village is often the highlight of the day.

Greeting the children in the nearby village is often the highlight of the day.

Fresh flowers in the market

Fresh flowers in the market

acquiring-a-taste-for-india

Adjusting to a Foreign Country

A fellow expat once told me there are three stages to adjusting to life in a very foreign country:

Stage 1: You love it! The color, the music, the exotic cultural charm!

Stage 2: You hate it! The bureaucracy and inefficiency, the chaos, the filth!

Stage 3: If you last this long—acceptance. You learn to appreciate the good, and endure (mostly good-naturedly) the bad.

Unfortunately, once in India, I blew through Stage 1 pretty quickly. The weather in Bangalore is perfect, there’s no denying that. Known as the “garden city,” Bangalore is lush with vegetation and flowering trees. It is also considered the “most livable” city in India for expats, but since I had no experience anywhere else, that didn’t mean so much.

Cubbon Park in Bangalore

Cubbon Park in Bangalore

Life in India

I appreciated that I could ride my bike to school, past vineyards, and through coconut groves, spotting wild peacocks and small green parrots along the way. In fact, the bird life, in general, was amazing. My new friends and I would go walking at a nearby lake where we could count on seeing large pelicans and stately ibis, as well as the occasional brilliant kingfisher or flycatcher.

The bird life at a nearby lake was incredible.

The bird life at a nearby lake was incredible.

Bangalore is also the only major city I’ve ever lived in where traditional clothing is still worn on a daily basis, especially by the women, and I found the colorful, flowing sarees and dupattas (scarves) stunningly graceful and beautiful. Waking to the call to prayer from a nearby mosque felt exotic, and the ubiquitous Hindu temples with their bright carvings and statues were striking.

And cows wandered the streets—so charming.

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Stage 2 Sets In

Compared to the somewhat sterile modernity of Suzhou, China where I’d lived before, life in India was real—too real sometimes—and Stage 2 frustrations and irritations began surfacing early on. The noise, for one thing, was incessant—trains, planes, and automobiles, plus a regular cacophony of barking dogs. Traffic was insane. It would take two hours—or more—during rush hour to get into the city center, a 25-minute trip on the weekends. And all with horns blaring, unnecessarily, it seemed to me. (I’ve since learned that the honking is meant in a friendly “just letting you know I’m here” sort of way).

Literally, piles of rubbish lined the streets and roads, and on early walks through the neighboring village, we’d be treated to the sight of children on the side of the street doing their morning “business.” It would be nice to say that this custom is outgrown once they reach adulthood, but alas, not in all cases. Then again, without indoor plumbing, options are limited.

Power cuts are frequent, and until I got the needed surge protectors and UPS units, the accompanying surges meant replacing countless fried electronic devices. Getting anything accomplished always seemed to require multiple trips (and—always—a passport photo). Excursions for desperately needed funds too often ended at an ATM with a hand-lettered “No Cash” sign.

And cows wandered the streets, obstructing traffic and leaving their cow pies everywhere—what a pain.

It all took some serious getting used to.

acquiring-a-taste-for-india

Look for What You Wish to See

When I lived in Arizona, I spent many happy weekends rockhounding, and I learned that the trick was to train your eye to see what you were looking for. Eventually, I found that the same applies here in India.

I scarcely notice the rubbish on the side of the road anymore—except when it looks like there might be something good to scavenge from it—an original painting, decorative dumpling steamers, and a unique handmade tea cup (now well-scrubbed and bleached) are a few recently found treasures.

Once you commit to focusing on the beauty, you discover it is everywhere. The famous Holi festival alone is a testament to the fact that Indians live in technicolor. But the brilliant hues are hardly limited to that messy and vibrant spring celebration that represents, at its most basic level, the triumph of good over evil. Year-round, piles of fresh fruit glisten on carts that line the streets, mounds of florescent powdered dyes beckon from stands at the market, and flowering trees form bright canopies over the roads. Historically, too, it’s clear that the maharajas subscribed to a “more is more” philosophy, as row upon row of intricately carved columns and gleaming decorative tile floors in the grand palaces attest.

Powdered dyes in the market

Powdered dyes in the market

Mysore Palace

Mysore Palace

And while the poverty in some places is truly heartbreaking, visitors are welcomed by decorative geometric designs called rangoli (in the north) or kolam (in the south) made with colored chalk, dyed rice flour, or sometimes flowers on the doorsteps of even the humblest homes.

Rangoli designs frequently decorate doorways.

Rangoli designs frequently decorate doorways.

That stream that effectively functions as an open sewer is unpleasant, but avoidable. Instead I allow myself to be enveloped by the heady fragrance of eucalyptus in the forest where we often hike, or the sweet perfume of jasmine, which not only grows in profusion, but is frequently incorporated into elaborate fresh floral hairpieces. I slow my pace just a tad when passing by the tea shop on the corner to take in the spicy scent of cardamom, clove and cinnamon emanating from it.

Why do battle with the traffic to get to a supermarket, when I can simply duck into the organic farm just up the road? There I follow the proud young farmers into the fields where they’ll harvest whatever is currently in season for me at ridiculously low prices.

Yoga, too, has become not just a form of physical exercise, but a way of life. Virtually every morning, I stretch my muscles and calm the “monkey mind” through a series of surya namaskara (sun salutations) that ensures the day starts out on a positive note.

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And not long ago, I followed my ears—drawn by the comforting rhythmic white noise of the electric looms—to a nearby saree-making village. Friendly workers offered me chai, and welcomed me inside for a closer look. I quickly became engrossed, mesmerized at how the vibrant threads were deftly woven together.

When I finally took the last few sips of tea, waved good-bye and headed out, I realized that I’ve developed a taste for life in my new home—incongruous, incomparable, frequently infuriating, but always incredible—India. It was a process.

Colorful skeins drying in the sun at the sari weaving village

Colorful skeins drying in the sun at the sari weaving village

Electric looms are always hard at work in this village.

Electric looms are always hard at work in this village.

© 2022 Kitty Williams Fisher