Adjusting to India (After a Childhood Abroad)

Updated: Mar 11, 2019

View from a houseboat in Kerala, a southern Indian state that's affectionately (and justifiably) dubbed "God's own country."

I’m at an afternoon tea on a sunny Sunday. The room is alight with steaming tea, bubbling chocolate fondue, and warm conversations. I’m telling someone about how I’m Indian and how my family moved around different countries while I was growing up, when I’m asked a question I’ve heard many times. “Now that you’ve lived in so many countries, would you ever be able to adjust to living in India?”

*Sigh.* This question always freezes me for a moment. Not because I don’t know what the answer is, not because I’m needing a response and don’t have one; but because I have too many thoughts on this and don’t know where to start.

My first thought is always, “What underdeveloped conception of India is this person clinging to?” Cocking their head to the side, furrowing their brows in sympathy, and asking if I can adjust to living in India after living in other countries is like asking if I can adjust to drinking H2SO4 after drinking H20. If they’re not from India – and *spoiler alert* they usually aren’t – they’re probably imagining it as a dirty, dangerous, depraved place that no one could ever want to visit.

One of the only bad things about being Indian is having to explain to people how complex India is. Yes, there is poverty, discrimination, corruption, pollution, and some of the other evils people associate with the country. But really, where don’t they exist? And Indians for the most part abhor those things and are working towards changing them. More importantly, there’s also a lot that’s great about India.

After all, there has to be a reason our official tourism tagline is “Incredible India.” In India, you see cultural, intellectual, and even material wealth; a sense of community and patriotism that’s pretty incredible after what the subcontinent has been through (colonisationpartition, and the likes); an immovable grit and an inimitable purity of spirit, and so much else.

India is like an entire family. It’s a grandparent because it’s rich with wisdom, tradition, and culture. It’s a parent because it disciplines and takes care of you – it puts you through polluted, frustrating days but rewards you with gorgeous sunsets. It’s an aunt/uncle because it pampers you with breathtaking sights, arts, festivals, foods, and so much more. And India is also a child. It’s always buzzing, always growing, and always yearning to be better – even if it stumbles along the way. So to insist on seeing a country of 1.3 billion people in terms of a few negative stereotypes is irresponsible. There’s no reason why living in India would be inherently worse than living anywhere else.

I have to be clear that I hold a position of immense privilege. As a middle-class Indian from a progressive, supportive, and educated family living in a metropolitan city, I have access to basically everything that's available outside India – except Pandora Radio, of course. But if I had to experience life back home like the many who are less fortunate, it would likely change my perspective on if there’s a clear winner between life in India and abroad. For the majority of Indians – whether in rural or urban areas – money, sanitation, education, and healthcare are simply unattainable. But in India I'm fortunate to have all the same resources I'd have in the States or any other country I’ve lived in. There isn’t as stark a difference between my standards of living in the two scenarios.

So I don't find that there's anything about India that's particularly impossible to adjust to. In fact, I always found it difficult to re-adjust to my life abroad after a trip back home. In India, I wake up to my family chatting loudly over tea, pots and pans clanging away happily in the kitchen, car engines revving in the street, and dogs barking in the neighborhood. But it wouldn’t be the same when I’d return to the West. Whenever we returned to Geneva after a vacation back home when I was in middle school, I’d wake up in the morning and feel like something was off – like I’d temporarily lost my hearing. I’d immediately think of the Hindi word sannata – an absolute silence – to label my feeling of odd unsettlement. When I’d return to college in Western Massachusetts after being back home for the summer, I hated the feeling of being untethered and unstimulated. In my college environment, there were too many moments where I felt unengaged by the world around me. The moment I stepped out of class or the dining hall, it was quiet, empty, and isolating – just me, me, and me. But in India, I’d be in social interactions basically every minute. It’s overwhelming a lot of the time, yes. But it also made me feel awake and alive and involved.

And even as a “real adult” with a job in San Francisco, not much had changed. Following an insanely busy yet absolutely glorious two weeks in Delhi last year, being back in the Bay Area was hard. This time, I did come back to a bustling, noisy city and to a constant stream of social interactions. But I realized that not being at home and a part of my family’s everyday life still filled me with emptiness. Of course, there were many things that kept me happy in San Francisco, and I loved my life there as it was. But India would always be home.

I love that I’m from India. I love its minor inconveniences – and can accept its major issues as temporary obstacles in an otherwise smooth course to a bright future. I love the frustrations and elations of being a part of this incredible and diverse community of thinkers and doers. I love that no matter how much I try to be in tune with its politics and news, there’s so much I still have to learn. I love that, although I’ve only spent a third of my life there, it always feels like my home base. And of course, I love it for – and because of – my family. My parents have kept my sister and I connected to India at every point. Whether it was that they painstakingly cooked “healthy Indian food” at home, forced us to massage our scalps with coconut oil on Sundays, or taught us Hindi by any means possible – cue the endless loops of Bollywood VCRs – it was never an option for my sister and I to be confused about our cultural identity.

So it’s not difficult to adjust to life in India. If anything, it’s a little difficult to adjust to anything else.

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