We have been planning our trip to India these days. Which is when it suddenly struck me, it’s already more than eight months since I have been here in the US. I find it remarkable that I never realized the months go by, more so since I have a prior not-so-happy experience of living abroad and counting days till I could get back home again.
My father worked in the Philippines for over thirteen years during my childhood. The plan was for all of us to live together there. My parents rented a beautiful house in Manila, took admission for me in the International school there and all three of us shifted into our new home some weeks before the beginning of the school year. I was eleven years old then and quite excited about the move. I bid goodbye to my big gang of friends and all my favorite teachers in my old school in Bombay, eagerly looking forward to the new one. But sadly, things did not go according to plan.
I was initially very happy with the new school, the friendly teachers, the bright classrooms, the interesting subjects and the even more interesting ways in which the teachers taught them. The teachers in turn were delighted with me, a rare interested pupil. I did very well in all my classes. I was also eager to make new friends, but found myself shunned, even openly laughed at, at times. I was just not ‘cool’ enough for them.
The International school was where children of most of the expatriates in Manila went to. There were kids of many different nationalities in my class, but the distinctive cultural influence was American. There was no uniform and the kind of clothes worn in school would put any posh South-Bombay college girl to shame even today. I can now imagine how I might have stood out among them, dressed in my trademark long frocks or skirts, with my well-oiled hair tied in two tight long pigtails. But more disturbing than the sartorial differences were the cultural ones. Kids in sixth grade had ‘boyfriends’ and ‘girlfriends’, a concept which to my innocent mind seemed to belong to Hindi movies only. I found it hard to make myself accepted in this alien atmosphere.
Some people were friendly though. I made a couple of good Indian friends who took me shopping. We bought shorts and t-shirts, not figure-hugging sexy stuff like some of the other girls, but at least something in which I would fit in more easily. My French teacher took me aside once and advised me not to oil my hair since the other kids found the smell offensive. An African girl who was equally shunned by the other kids took an instant liking to me.
But on the whole, I was pretty miserable. I missed our large extended family and all my old friends. I was bewildered at the hostile reception in the new school and tired of trying to fit into a culture I barely understood and didn’t very much like. My parents saw how miserable I was and decided to take me back to Bombay at the end of the school year. For the next thirteen years I lived and studied in Bombay, my father worked in Manila, and my mother shuttled back and forth between the two places every three months.
The question in my mind is, when I was so unhappy studying in an American school in an Asian country, how am I so happy working in an American company in America today? It could be that I am more mature now, better able to adapt to the new culture around me. But I think the real reason is that the people I work with are different.
My colleagues are mature Americans in their thirties and forties, intelligent hardworking people who respect me for my knowledge and my competence. These are people who are interested in the quality of my work, rather than my dressing sense or ‘cool’ quotient. They appreciate the fact that I am from a different culture and are eager to help me fit in. But I live in dread of meeting their kids some day. I seriously doubt if I would be able to interact with them as well even today. I guess I will never be ‘cool’ enough for them!