My parents are headed to the Maldives. No, they’re not scampering off to renew their wedding vows against the backdrop of what is possibly the definition of aquamarine. They’re not starting their lives afresh on an untouched island, fleeing the rat race/humdrum/other cliché about the hectic cycle of the everyday. They’re not even planning for a destination retirement; starry-eyed about a languorous old age spent gorging on tuna, feeding stingrays at dusk, and fanning away pesky mosquitoes while lounging by the ocean.
They’re just fulfilling a professional obligation - to move overseas every couple of years. A new diplomatic assignment will plunge my dad into the role of India’s ambassador to the Maldives, with my mom playing enthusiastic travel partner, PADI certified scuba diver, budding painter, practising yogi, and avid reader. In this next phase, my parents will be busy with work and life and miscellaneous in-betweens. That’s a given. Because for them — forget change — being busy is the only constant in life.
I’m not going with them, but I’ve been doing what I can to help them prepare for their move. To start with, I’m doing more than justice to my Wunderlist app. I’ve made elaborate lists to organize their shopping, packing, repairing, selling, donating, socialising… the meta-list goes on and on. I’m dropping off and picking up art pieces that need framing and clothes that need tailoring. I’m keeping track of the contents of each of their 264 shipping boxes in a tidy Excel doc and in my phone - for access anytime, anywhere. I’m also sprinkling unsolicited, clichéd advice into car rides and mealtimes as if my pre-quarter-life crises qualify me to advise 50-somethings who’ve done this seven times before. (“Remember to carve out some me-time in the midst of your busy schedule!” “Reading just a few minutes a day will change your life!” “Goal-setting is the name of the game!”)
I do this because I want to minimize my parents’ stress and maximize their preparedness for the move. And because filial piety is woven into my brown-person DNA like gold and silver threads in a Banarasi dupatta. But if I’m honest, I might also be going into overdrive preparing for a move I’m not even part of because of where I’m at in my life. A few months ago, I found out that my U.S. work authorization didn’t quite make it through the pipeline. Of course, it was by no means the worst thing to have happened to me. It didn’t directly hurt my health, safety, or family. It wasn’t a situation unique to me. But I was gutted.
In the months that followed, I said my goodbyes to the U.S. I visited my favorite sunset spots and coffee shops in San Francisco and squeezed in moments with the incredible people I had come to know and love. I skipped across the border to Mexico for a family vacation, where I hoped to chip away at my dismay and dejection with visual, musical, and gastronomical delights. Then I came home to India, where I traveled some more and stocked up on the family-and-friend time I’d craved when I was away.
I took a lot of flights during these months. And before every flight came the same challenge - having to downsize my stuff so it was within the weight limit. (Okay, two challenges; I’m forever struggling to keep my nerves in check in a unpredictably shaky metal box with absolute strangers at 35k feet above the ground - crazy, I know.) At every point, I eventually managed to dispose of the physical objects I couldn’t carry and didn’t need. But the emotional baggage? You guessed it. That shit sat on my shoulders throughout it all – it didn’t discriminate against geography or time.
I’m not even referring to the understandable shock, disappointment, and pain that misted up the days following my visa denial notice. I knew those clouds would take time to dissipate. It was the other, unexpected feelings that surprised me with how long they lingered. I felt naïve at once being so confident that the world was my oyster (no really, I’ve literally used this phrase to talk about my future). I used to think that once I found this elusive thing called my “true passion,” I just had to point to a region on a map. And then if I worked hard and just believed I could, I’d move there, easy peasy. I’d country-hopped my entire life and figured that as a real adult making my own choices, mobility was only going to get easier. Plus, my geographical home base was always shifting. My diplomat parents weren’t tied to any one place - so why did I have to be? But now I’d found that there was a tad more to my being in a country than just my willingness.
I also felt regretful. I wondered if I should have forced myself to study a STEM subject knowing that’d make it easier to get a visa down the line. It didn’t help that I had decided to graduate a year early — and both my major and minor ended up being declared STEM the year after I graduated. Maybe there was a life lesson hidden in this, something inspired by Zen Buddhism about going with the flow and not disturbing the natural course of things? *Sigh*
Less pertinent but still persistent was the annoyance of having to explain this strange speed bump in my otherwise seemingly linear life/career trajectory. I’d done “the right things” at school, college, and work. I’d graduated with honours and picked a career with flexibility and options. I’d built up professional experience in college internships and started my first real job with a prestigious multinational. I was lucky enough to be sitting in a country that people not only clamour to get to, but fight tooth and nail to remain in once they’re there. But that was now disrupted. When you tell people you’ve left a job and life in the States, you open a Pandora’s box of questions; some preying, some pitying, all irritating. And you can’t slide past “Didn’t you use to live abroad?” Or “When are you heading back there?” with a breezy “Well, I used to work in San Francisco but now I’m back and looking for opportunities, but enough about me, you tell me what you’re up to!” (Trust me. I try every single time.) Raised eyebrows, agape mouths, and elaborate interrogations always ensue.
Since I got the news about my visa, I’ve been focusing on staying buoyant and being thoughtful about how I mould this next phase of my life. But I won’t lie. It’s been a challenge to shake off these feelings. It’s very likely they’re responsible for propelling my anxious energy into the preparation for my parents’ move. It’s as if strategising for that part of their future will guarantee that mine goes smoothly too. I can look at the situation metaphorically. With every box of junk I’m throwing away, I part with some negative energy that is just going to hold me back. Wrapping and packing an item to be carried helps me acknowledge the precious cargo in my own life that I can bravely move forward with. And when I think about it, maybe that is the starting point in how I deal with this. By controlling what I can (in the form of planning and preparing), I’m at least on some path to recovery.
And anyway, I’m starting to think I might owe something to the feelings that have been following me lately. Like, what’s so wrong being naïve about your future? After all, the flip side of naïveté is optimism. And in the past, I've gotten over some of my life’s hardest hurdles by shutting out the negative and clinging to a positive, even idealistic version of what the end result could be. If a small degree of naïveté has helped me overcome shit in the past, I don’t want to rid myself of it completely. I’d rather keep my focus on the best-case scenario and err on the positive, than let pessimism and mistrust flatten my spirit.
And when it comes to my regrets about how things unfolded, those should be a lesson in letting go and trusting the universe. Sure, if I hadn’t made certain academic decisions at one point, things may have looked different for my visa application. But I took the call that made sense at the time. And there’s so many ways things could have actually gone worse than they did, in ways I can’t even visualise. Unfortunately, I can’t travel to infinite parallel dimensions to see how a different choice would have led to a different outcome. So it’s in my best interest to assume that everything came together in the best way possible. As for feeling irritated by people’s extensive questioning… well, that one is probably justified. People can really suck sometimes.
For the moment, I think it’s enough to keep my arms open to the future and my hands warm with what I have in the present. Because I really, truly have so much.
I thought it’d be hard to make friends as a “real adult.” But I came away from my first year in the real world with more people I cherish than I had time to say goodbye to before I left. [Or to simplify it for my fellow millennials — more people than I could feature in an Instagram carousel.]
I have the kindest, most supportive family. And one that relocates so often that my move barely felt out of place in our collective roster of cross-continental travel.
I have at least one country where I can live and work without worrying about work authorisation. And luckily, it’s one I love to bits.
I have an intact record of never having lived in a country for more than four consecutive years. Thanks, Trump!
I also now have the invaluable first-hand knowledge of what happens when you tell your credit card company you’ve moved overseas. They're convinced you’re BS-ing them, and never stop sending snail mail to your old address. Never. Ever. Ever.
As I make my way towards a lighter and happier space, I want to try to remember all of these things. My parents are moving to the Maldives, but I know that, pretty soon, I too will have sunny skies and smooth sailing ahead.