Today, I want to talk about another book by a fellow blogger and expatriate.
Before India, Danielle Barkhouse was a trailing spouse in the US and in the UK. Upon hearing the news that her husband’s work was taking them to Chennai, formerly known as Madras, in Southern India, she started writing a blog which she refers to as her “free therapy” outlet. It begins before she leaves the US, and continues throughout the whole first year of the family’s life in India (and the family includes a much-loved golden retriever,) allowing the reader a glimpse into the various stages of culture shock. She has now published the blog content, after some editing, and the book is titled: The Expat Arc. An expat’s journey over culture shock.
Danielle Barkhouse is a Canadian with a no-non-sense, down-to-earth approach to life – now that I think about it, I realize that most Canadians I know seem to share that quality. She has a good, often very funny voice, spunky and full of personality, and most of all, I found her to be unwaveringly and refreshingly honest, and that is the thing that impresses me the most about her blog, and now, her book.
As an expat who’s lived outside of her birth country practically half her life -yuck, imagine being old enough to be able to say something like that! – I’m quite familiar with said stages of culture shock (they have been assimilated to the stages of grief), even though I only recently acquired the vocabulary and knowledge to recognize the symptoms for what they are. I’ve also witnessed other people experiencing them. I don’t believe it is ever easy to analyze one’s emotions with the clarity and honesty that Danie Barkhouse displays throughout her book. It is often more convenient to either shut out the world just outside the door and become totally negative about it, or to fall into the other extreme, which is to make the conscious decision that you will like it, whether you really do or not. Danie candidly admits to having fallen into the first negative category while living in England, and recognizes what a waste of time and energy it is and decides she will not experience India in the same way. And she doesn’t.
“The difference between me and most other people is that I say the stuff most people think but don’t say aloud,” she declares, at some stage. To illustrate that point, here is her undiluted take about the way political correctness is transforming Christmas in the US:
“The day that we left Chennai, JB walked through the factory and about 60 people wished him a Merry Christmas. Or, as they say, Happy Christmas. We’ve received cards and gifts from many non-Christmas-celebrating people. We’re talking about Indian Hindus. As we journeyed through the Dubai airport, we were in awe of the Christmas decorations. It was so beautiful. When we were there in November, several people had wished us a Merry Christmas. We’re talking about Middle Eastern Muslims.” She goes on to describe their arrival in New York, a primarily Christian country, where only two people wish them “Happy holidays.” And she adds: “What the heck is our problem? We’re so concerned about being “politically correct” that we’ve become anti-Christmas. […] I’ve got to tell you, in case you’re missing the tone here, I’m beyond appalled. I resent America placing a big fat censorship on Christmas. […] I have every respect for other cultures and faiths. We can have it all. I wonder what Hindus in Asia and Muslims in the Middle East would think if they knew the controversy over Christmas in America.”
How is that for going straight to the point? It is entirely true that most people, in India, acknowledge, and even celebrate each other’s religious holidays with a true spirit of tolerance. And there should indeed be room for everyone to freely celebrate their faith.
Another post is aptly titled “Miss Communications,” and I could have written it myself.
“You can’t stick a girl in India with no way of communicating with the outside world. […] People have been relocating to and living in other countries all around the world for many years. How on earth did they survive before the Internet?”
Well, they survived the way we all do when we have to – and of course, they couldn’t pine after our ultra fast ways of doing things, nowadays, since these didn’t exist. But for having experienced it, I can tell you that it’s enough to drive any girl outside of the boundaries of sanity.
Now, one may argue that Danie’s experience is that of the corporate expatriate, and not all expats work for corporations which provide their staff and their family with cultural trainings, shipment entitlements every three or four months, etc, etc. So, when she touches the potentially sensitive subject of the differences between expats (“There seems to be a growing attitude among expats of whether you’re ‘expat enough.’ Twelve years as an expat is ‘less expat’ than 25 years with the kids being born all around the world. You might also be ‘more expat’ than someone else if your posts have been tougher. A post in India would make us ‘more expat’ than our England or US posts? Seriously. Expat is expat. You’re still away from home”) she might find that some people want to push the discussion a little further. And “some people” is going to be me, for now.
First of all, there are those who don’t even know what “home” means, anymore. They may belong to a family with the father being from one place, the mother from another – or even two, as in my own case – with kids born in yet another place, or more, and so, where is home? For me, home is where my bubble, containing my daughters, my husband, and my books are. It’s not a country. I’m tremendously helped in that by the fact that my mother, who left Franco’s Spain in her mid-twenties to go in search of a better, freer future in France, always told us kids as we grew up: “My country is the country that feeds me, the country that allows me to work and where I can eat and not starve.”
Secondly, being an expatriate in a place where you find practically everything, where there are no power supply or communication problems to speak of is not the same as being in a place where you have to deal with this kind of problem practically on a daily basis; there may be power cuts, and the Internet may not work from time to time in India, especially when it rains, but as someone who spent over three years in Nigeria, where I routinely had to go entire weeks without phone or the Internet, I have found India to be quite all right in that regard. And I’m not even mentioning security problems, again like the ones we had in Nigeria, where the UNICEF office could be attacked by men holding Kalashnikovs, one of them beating an office driver so he would hand over the 4×4 car keys, and my husband, who was the primary target of one of the mentioned Kalashnikovs shouting at them to just take the bloody car and leave the driver alone (which they did, thank Goodness!), and yours truly only a few feet behind said husband. Now, this may be a rather dramatic example, but I’ve gathered so many others from other expats having lived in difficult places, not always that spectacular, yet harrowing enough to render life very difficult indeed. Of course, some might respond that UN people know what they’re getting themselves into when they choose such career. Maybe. Their families don’t always, though. And so, I would argue (gently) with Danie that in light of all that, well, perhaps it is easier to understand why some people may feel that they’re “a little more expats” than others. I don’t believe it is ever done in a spirit of spiteful competition, but rather coming from a place of experience where you can’t help but compare situations and draw obvious conclusions. The reason I mention this is that I do, at times, get a bit annoyed at some expats when I hear them complaining endlessly about not finding a particular brand of cereals, or some such.
That said, I want to add that going through the stages of culture shock means that people may find their buttons pushed where, in any other circumstances – like back home where they don’t have to adjust to so many new things and ways of doing them – they would have remained pretty much unruffled. Expats recently landed in a new place need to keep that reality in mind, and cut themselves some slack. It takes time – anywhere from a few months to a whole year. And this is where having a book like Danie’s can prove invaluable, if only to provide reassurance that it is all normal.
In another insightful post, the author ponders the opinion that “living in India reveals your true character.” And she goes on to say, with her usual honesty, that she’s not so sure she likes what India is revealing about her own character. I would venture to add that getting out of one’s comfort zone to go and live in another country, whether that new country is a hard duty station or not, is likely to help a person build their character, as long as they’re willing to take a hard look at their own self. And Danie certainly is.
I totally recommend this book to any expatriate preparing to move to India, but not only. Anyone about to relocate in a new country, especially for the first time, anyone interested in the subjects of life in India, life abroad and culture shock, will find it instructive and interesting. Not to mention that you’ll get to laugh very often.