A Decade of Expat Adventures

January 2018

This week marked a day of significance for me and my family. The anniversary of a day that changed the course of our lives in ways both good and bad. It’s always that way, the good and the bad, right? So yes, at the start of January in 2008, my husband and I left our suburban home in the SF Bay Area and moved to India. That means we have been living outside of the United States for ten years. A decade. A large chunk of my life. I remember being at the airport in San Francisco, surrounded by suitcases, cats in carriers, and family. The youngest daughter was coming with us to India, our first expat destination, but the rest of the family were staying, including my then 16 year old son who I wasn’t quite ready to let go of, a tough decision that I’ve never quite recuperated from. But we felt the move was the right thing to do and so, through excitement and tears we waved goodbye and started our journey.

  Kolkata Kids - Kolkata, India  2011

Kolkata Kids - Kolkata, India  2011

Landing in India was overwhelming, the airport was a loud, chaotic, unorganized confusion to me. I remember getting to our temporary housing in the middle of the night. It was spare and lit by florescent bulbs that made it feel cold and grey. While unpacking and getting settled I kept finding little sea shells in the corners and counters of the apartment. India was so fantastical, so exotic, what did these shells mean? Surely they were some sort of a blessing or offering? A good luck charm or something? I tucked one into my pocket and asked our relocation agent about it. He looked at me funny and said it was probably just some shells that the housekeeper had found and didn’t think they should throw away. I didn’t believe him and was convinced they held some deeper meaning. How could shells be so specifically placed, as if with intention, and not hold meaning? Yes, later I realized that they looked very like the shells that are cheaply strung and placed over your neck when you arrive at the coastal resorts of India, but at the time I was convinced that these shells had deep significance.

Living in India required me to get used to all sorts of things. I got used to living in a bigger house than I had ever lived in before. I got used to having a driver to chauffeur us from place to place. I got used to having a housekeeper who cleaned our marble floors daily and cooked delicious Indian food for us. I got used to a gardener who “mowed” the lawn with a glorified pair of scissors. I also got used to meeting and associating with other expatriates from all over the world. We would stand next to each other at events, smiling through our confusion as we were photographed by the local paparazzi - feeling amused the next day when our staff pointed out the photos on “Page 3” - the local society pages. It was wild and a bit exciting, but like I said, both good and bad.

But I met some amazing people from all walks of life while in India. The start of many deep friendships - people I still stay in contact with to this day. One friendship even led to my eldest daughter meeting her future husband!

Following our time in India we went on to live in the Philippines, China and of course now in Poland. Each place has presented us with amazing opportunities and challenges. Learning to navigate these new and different cultures is never easy and managing it has taught me much. It’s not just learning some of the local language so that I can convince shopkeepers and employees not to run away from me, it’s also learning things like where to find light bulbs? Where can I get post-it notes? Where can I find cheese and wine and peanut butter? Things that were once basic necessities can be non-existent or remarkably different in other countries.

  Inside Outside - Hangzhou, China 2015

Inside Outside - Hangzhou, China 2015

So, this expat life. How has it changed me? I think a direct result of living outside of your home country is that it opens up your mind to other ways of understanding the world. I have learned to reserve judgment, to listen first, to speak softly (loud Americans are definitely a thing) and to strive to learn from the perspectives of others. Living as an expat has allowed me to see many different countries and cultures. Traveling extensively, often with my camera on my shoulder, is something that has opened the door to situations that my suburban self might have balked at. But, I’ve never been one to shy away from new experiences, and so I have embraced the discomfort and have become a different, more global, person.

  Tangqizhen, China 2016

Tangqizhen, China 2016

I know that this sojourn won’t last forever. At some point we will head back to the US and start a new life there. It both terrifies and excites me. Will my new self be able to settle back in to a life I no longer know? Will I get itchy feet and need to travel often to make me feel sane? I really don’t know. But I do know that this new person I’ve become is one I feel comfortable with. I have learned, as we moved from place to place, how to remake myself and how to adjust to different surroundings. Whatever the future brings, thanks to this expat life of mine, I know that I can call on a sense of humor and a tolerance for any discomfort that life might throw my way. And if I find any small shells hiding in the corners I will tuck them into my pocket for good luck.

  Auto View - Bangalore, India  2016

Auto View - Bangalore, India  2016

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To be Thankful

Perhaps you've seen it, the "30 days of Gratitude" thing. I couldn't do it. Too much. First, you really don't want to see 30 posts from me about little things that I'm thankful for. I'm "loquacious" and would have had a hard time keeping it short and sweet. I have a lot of respect for those who can carry off such a thing (both the 30 days posts and the non-loquacious thing), but I guess, it's just not me. But GRATITUDE, dude (can I say dude? Yes, yes I can), honestly, that's a big deal in my life. It's something that I can't live without and is a part of my daily reality.

My life hasn't always been easy. I know, none of us necessarily has it easy. But I've been put through the ringer in life. I've been knocked down, I've been put in my place (often rightfully so), and I've struggled to get through those days when there is no hope and little happiness. And the thing that helped me to get through it all - gratitude. Every night, before I went to sleep, I would think of something, one LITTLE thing that I was grateful for. There's always something. And it doesn't have to be big, as a matter of fact, I think it's better if it's not big. Because it's when we pay attention to the little things in life that we are really and truly present.

When I was a girl, I used to have a bookmark, I probably still have it in a box somewhere. I got this bookmark at a stationary and gift store in my home town. I remember they had cards and gifts with beautifully written slogans on them along with artwork that was of the cute and sentimental variety, kind of like "Precious Memories" before there was such a thing. Anyway, the bookmark. I remember finding it on a rack, white satin attached to a firm plastic back and had the words of a poem embroidered on it in blue. There were lots of bookmarks there, all of which had inspirational quotes, pictures and poems on them, but it was this one that spoke to me and I purchased it. Of course I used the bookmark, a lot because I was a reader, and that poem has stuck with me to this day. Today, in honor of Thanksgiving, I offer it here to you, as a reminder of the little gratitudes in life that are important.

Little things

Oh, it’s just the little, homely things,
The unobtrusive, friendly things,
The “Won’t-you-let-me-help-you” things
That make the pathway light.
And it’s just the jolly, joking things,
The “Laugh-with-me-it’s-funny” things,
The “Never-mind-the-trouble” things
That make our world seem bright.

For all the countless, famous things,
The wondrous, record-breaking things,
Those never-can-be-equaled things
That all the papers cite,
Can’t match the little, human things,
The “Just-because-I-like-you” things,
Those “Oh-it’s-simply-nothing” things,
That make us happy, quite.

So here’s to all the little things,
The everyday encountered things,
The “Smile-and-face-your-trouble” things,
“Trust God to put it right,”
The done-and-then-forgotten things,
The “Can’t-you-see-I-love-you!” things,
The hearty “I-am-with-you!” things
That make life worth the fight.—Grace Haines

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

-Cindy

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1000 Words | 1. Coorgi Girl

1000 words. A picture is worth a thousand words "they" say.
Whoever they are, I think what they meant was is that behind every picture, there is a story, and that at least is true. For almost a decade I have been traveling the world taking photos with a camera or a phone. You may have seen some of the images, but there is so much more to tell of the places I have been, the things I have seen and people I have met. What I want to do is select images and tell their story with my thousand-ish words about why the image is memorable to me. What is the story? Will it be true? Sometimes there is greater truth in fiction so we shall see what the image reveals…

We were living in India, in Bangalore. A mostly lovely city whose streets are filled with buses, trucks, and minivans, "autos" (the buzzing 3-wheeled vehicles known elsewhere as auto rickshaws or tuk-tuks), two-wheelers (motorcycles), and yes - the cows, goats, and occasional donkey carts that make the city both lively and overwhelming. The streets, every square inch of them, are filled with all of this; an undulating slow-motion, dance drama of chaos that drains the senses. A lovely city. But sometimes, it is necessary, you have to get away.

So, we planned a long weekend in Coorg. An area west of Bangalore, it is filled with coffee plantations, rich red soil and deep shades of green as far as the eye can see. It is a place one goes to to breathe, to relax and to enjoy the gracious offerings of the environment. While there, we decided to take a walk in the local area. We began by passing through the coffee plantation among the blooming bushes. (Have you ever smelled coffee flowers? The scent is beyond description. It reaches into your soul and caresses you in places you are shy to reveal. Even today, as I am sipping on an espresso, I long for that scent!) After this we continued on and came to a village. As fairly new expats from the “modern” world, village life was fascinating to us. It represented a romanticized view of India, an India that was still quaint to us. Perhaps it was a naive view, but my experience has been that the villages of India are filled with incredibly gracious and friendly people. This village was no exception and even today when I am asked what I thought of living in India, I always say that I loved it because of the lovely, warm-hearted nature of the people.

Anyway, back to the village - most of the homes were laid out along one lane, I believe there was a small river behind the houses to the west and fields behind the houses to the east. We walked to the end of this narrow dirt road and saw a school, and when the children spotted us through the barred windows (no glass being necessary), their attention was quickly diverted and distracted by these foreigners in their midst. They called to us and waved hello. We returned the greeting but didn’t stop for long, not wanting to disturb them. Since this was near the end of the village, we turned around and started walking the reverse direction, returning the way we had come.

We were most of the way through the village, almost at the other end, when I heard this voice calling to us. If we had been speaking to each other I probably wouldn’t have heard it, but I turned my head, and there was this young girl. She seemed curious about us, as she moved slowly out from between two buildings, taking a few steps towards us. She shared the barest glimpse of a smile before turning her head and glancing over her shoulder. When she turned back towards us the smile was gone and instead there was… something else. A gaze that flickered from amusement to fear to intensity. I raised my camera and asked the question with my eyes, can I take your picture? She nodded ascent and looked directly at me while I snapped a few images. Her gaze bored into mine without hesitation or reserve.  Then she turned and was gone.

We called goodbye to her already vanished back and continued on towards our lodging. Later, I was excited to review the images, hoping in my gut that I had managed to capture her powerful gaze. (Seeing it with your eye and capturing it with your camera are not always one and the same.) Well, there is something about anticipation that sometimes makes destiny want to mess with you. So, as I was reviewing the images I caught a brief glimpse of the image and then POOF, it was gone. I shut the camera on and off, but it was no use, the card was corrupted. The image of her gaze, so powerful, so fleeting, was gone.

But I didn't give up hope. I held on to that card for years, trying different image retrieval programs, and eventually, some years later, it worked. I was able to get the images off the card and I saw her eyes staring back at me.

But what about the girl. What is her story? I often wonder about her. Her gaze is so strong, there is resolve but also perhaps a touch of fear hiding behind it. Village life is hard, and can be particularly so for young girls. And actually, this is true everywhere in the world. Let’s face it, young girls are often preyed upon no matter where they are. It's possible that this may have been the case for her. Why wasn’t she in school? The other children we saw there appeared to be clean, well kept, and happy. She was a bit different. Not dirty, but a bit grubby, as if the earth were painting her with remnants of itself as a means of armor. Her hair was slightly disheveled, but that gaze. It gave me hope because it looked to me like she had strength, she was a survivor. To myself, I called her my little lion. I felt she would survive and would preserve her inner kernel of truth. She would take that truth and strength out into the world. She would make a life for herself that was free and build a future that allowed her to be happy. This is what I hoped for her.

I don’t know where this girl is today. She is likely reaching adulthood soon. But, I pray that the strength that was gazing back at me is still intact and that she is happy wherever she may be. And I will always be grateful for that little whisper that called to me. My little lion, thank you. You have taught me more than you know and I wish you well.

 

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