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THE ACCIDENTAL EXPAT: Globetrotting between overseas assignments

THE ACCIDENTAL EXPAT
Columnist Indra Chopra is back. Born in India, Indra embraced the life of a trailing spouse to become a globetrotter. She also conforms to the image I have a “lovepat.” Because she is such a curious and creative person, the expat life (both the international and the domestic kind) suits her down to the ground, as I think you will see in this post. ML Awanohara

For an accidental expat like me, adventure is not so much reaching out for unknown as it is changing residences, and countries, every so often.

In my last post, I described my family’s move to Oman for my husband’s job. We returned to India at the end of 2000. Eight years later, we would have another country binge—but in this post I want to share with you what we did from 2000 to 2008, a time when our friends were constantly grumbling about needing an exclusive telephone diary for the Chopras’ constantly changing telephone numbers and area codes.

Within a year of our return to India, we were planning an extended trip to United States. My first visit had been in 1975 when, fresh out of college, I attended summer school in journalism at Stanford University, in Palo Alto. It was the era of the “Fs”: Flower power, Frisbee, Freedom…

Twenty-six years later, I headed to America again at an equally momentous time: the aftermath of the horrendous carnage of 9/11/01. My husband and I were visiting our daughter, who, having completed her undergraduate studies at UMass, Amherst, had enrolled in UMass Medical School, which is located in Worcester.

Grey and gloomy Worcester

Our port of entry was Boston’s Logan Airport. From there we made a two-hour train journey past New England landscapes to an unknown territory whose name is pronounced “Wuss-tur,” as in Worcestershire sauce (which originated in the English midlands town of Worcester).

Our brusque reception by the immigration authorities at Logan Airport had put us in a somber mood, which grey and gloomy Worcester—a “city created by and for the middle class,” as Adam Davidson put it in a recent article for the New York Times Magazine—did little to dispel.

During the late 19th century and after, Worcester had attracted fresh-off-the-boat migrants from Europe, Asia, and Africa who had left behind unwelcoming Boston to look for work in the cotton mills and steel works, some of them starting their own enterprises. The proximity to Boston helped industries to flourish, but World War II and rise of other industrial bases across the country led to the greyness we now saw all around us.

I recalled having read Daoma Winson’s novel The Fall River Line, a 90-year saga about the family of a New England matriarch who owns a Massachusetts-based steamship line running between New York and Boston in the late 19th century. But the city I saw before me was a mix of new and old three-decker rectangular homes alongside newer constructions of colleges and hospitals.

Imagine my surprise when, researching the city further, I discovered that out of its gloom had emerged something pink, lacy and romantic. Esther Howland of Worcester started up a business making valentines in 1857, the success of which earned her the epithet of “the mother of the American valentine”; you can see a large collection of her creations at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester.

Worcester can also claim the “Smiley” face, created by Worcester-born-and-bred graphic artist Harvey Ross Ball—another seeming contradiction; and there are many other firsts to the city’s credit:

  • the largest female workforce in the USA;
  • the first woman Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins (she served in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s cabinet and had grown up in Worcester);
  • the first Bible and first dictionary printed in America (by one Isaiah Thomas, in the 18th century);
  • the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence, also by Isaiah Thomas;
  • the first monkey wrench, invented by Loring and Aury Coes in 1840 (just thought I’d throw that in!);
  • the first commercially successful envelope-producing machine, invented by Russell Hawes in 1853; and
  • WORC, the first radio station to play a Beatles song in the United States.

I suppose adversity bred innovation and, as far as the Beatles went, a “thumbs-down” to the Boston Brahmins.

Once settled, we walked around Worcester Commons and past the Burnside Fountain with its Turtle Boy statue; along the crowded downtown streets including Shrewsbury Street (where can be found Little Italy) and the tree-lined avenues where there are many houses dating back to the late 19th-century; all over the “modern” UMass Medical School campus; and even out to the suburban Auburn Mall (I had to shop in Filene’s). We also ventured out to the shores of Quinsigamond and Indian Lakes.

Lake Quinsigamond (or the Long Pond) reflects the sensibilities of the city. Though a favored destination for water sports, rowing and boating regattas, it misses out on aqua “vitality”.

Worcester Mass Collage 2

Bustling Boston (& vicinity)

Worcester’s saving grace, for me, is that it’s only a step away from Boston and its famous landmarks…no, I would not be one of those people who prefers Worcester’s slower pace!

My favorite Boston spots include Faneuil Hall/Marketplace, incorporating Quincy Market, the Freedom Trail, Harvard University, and, further afield: Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket the latter two accessible by ferry and good spots for celeb watching. I liked walking down Nantucket’s cobblestoned Main Street and gawking at the tony lifestyle and the boutique shops.

Boston and beach collage

There have been other visits to Worcester since then, in various seasons, as we continue our effort to appreciate small-town living. But on this first occasion, 15 days were sufficient, and from Worcester we jetted across to San Francisco to visit family. In this sense, we were conforming to the distinctive Indian habit of tagging family and friends across the globe to ensure hassle free board and lodging. (Thankfully, at least for the people doing much of the hosting, that concept is changing with Indian tourism opening up and more people traveling on their own.)

San Francisco, here we come!

San Francisco lived up to my “Alice in Wonderland” memories. Our days were devoted dawdling on Fisherman’s Wharf, trundling down Nob Hill in the cable car, watching the sunset from Golden Gate Bridge, driving around Palo Alto.

The quintessential university town had changed: there were more residences and start-up communities, shortening the distance between University and town. The path from Escondido Village (where I lived) to the journalism department (where I studied) did not appear intimidating as when I had first cycled on it.

San Fran Collage

The re-discovery journey had been pleasant except for an interaction with immigration officer on our return to Boston’s Logan International Airport. Having been assured by the travel agent of no extra charges, we had extended our return flight from San Francisco to Boston by two days. Hence our surprise when we were asked to pay $200 and, as we attempted to explain, the airline official countered with a complete dossier of our movements, the number of times we had cancelled our arrival to USA, the change we’d made to our flight schedule from San Francisco, etc., etc.

It was a case of pay the said amount or be barred from boarding the flight back to India. The disbelief came when I told my husband, in Hindi, to ask the name of the official or demand that we speak to her senior. She caught on and told us that we are most welcome, promptly giving us her name and declaring it would not change anything.

Left with no alternative, we promptly paid the contested amount and exited the country. Talk about “parochial” and “paranoid”! I suddenly remembered my Media and Broadcasting Prof. at Stanford, who, upon seeing me sit alone on the patio (I was finishing an assignment), apologised for the “parochial” attitude of my fellow students. (I told him I was fine.)

We did not stop visiting USA but, on the next occasions, we were prepared for the pat downs, security checks and x-rays. No hair sprays, body cremes, etc., and no loose talk. So, now when I am told “You have been selected,” I know it is not for a seat upgrade but for the body scanner.

Becoming Punekars

In 2004 we made another “small city” visit and, this time, a change of residence. There is no connection between Worcester and Pune, except that both are stress busters for concrete jungles: Boston and Mumbai, respectively.

Pune is an emerging “mega-city” said to epitomize the New India. It is also the cultural capital of the state of Maharashtra, celebrating Maratha arts and crafts, music, and theatre. It has a proud history as the seat of the Peshwas, who were the ruling figures within the Maratha Empire, which was established by the legendary Shivaji, the Hindu leader who challenged the mighty Mughals. He was later held up as a hero during the rebellion against English rule and bid for Indian independence.

But returning to the Pune of today: it is very much a city on the go, with mushrooming high-rises, malls, and hotels. Its already congested labyrinth of shops, roadside stalls, and disintegrating colonial architecture is constantly expanding, with new enterprises such as education centers cropping up, and more and more “steel ants” (mopeds and two wheelers) running along its narrow lanes and arteries. (Public transport leaves something to be desired.)

The one constant between former eras and today are the majestic banyan trees, with their nebbish roots adding a spidery effect.

The city is being invaded by professionals and tourists from neighboring cities and states. A true Punekar (aka Punaite) will argue that, despite the onslaught of so many people, their city has retained its elegance and charm typified by the “dragonfly” energy and the attitude of the female residents who cover their faces with a scarf and slice through the traffic. (For me, this unique sartorial style is a silent tribute to “girl power”!)

Upon our arrival, we visited the famous landmarks including:

Pune is the city for seeing Alphonso mangoes piled high on roadside carts and market stalls. The mango mania does not stop at simply eating the fruit but has invaded thalis (food platters), desserts, ice creams and shakes, literally adding color to the local cuisine.

What I relish most is the ubiquitous Vada Pav, a vegetarian fast food consisting of a potato fritter. I often purchase one from a roadside stall that, according to my friend’s driver, is the “best Vada Pav in town.”

The mesmeric effect of life in this part of the world culminated in our purchasing a property up in the hills, on NIBM Road in Kondhwa, a fast-growing suburb of Pune.

And now here I sit on our lawn, under blue skies, a rarity in the part of India where I’m from. Later I will watch the sun descend deeper into the surrounding hills while dreaming of new places where we might be based in near future.

Pune India Collage

Not surprisingly, the seven-year itch surfaced and in summer of 2008 we jetted our way to Hong Kong, another country and another accidental expat experience. The Sultanate of Oman and Hong Kong are on different trajectories: one a traditional nation and the other a place full of glitz, glamor and restlessness. Hong Kong’s mishmash of lingering British influences and Chinese opportunism must be what lures so many visitors, us included, to its crowded streets.

We came for a year and found ourselves queuing at the Immigration office to get extensions stamped for two, three, seven years—and then permanent residency.

But more on that experience in my next post…

* * *

Thank you, Indra, for sharing this continuation of your story. It was refreshing to hear about the United States from an outsider’s perspective, and to learn all about Pune. And now I am eager to hear what you make of Hong Kong! —ML Awanohara

Indra Chopra is a writer/blogger passionate about travel and curious about cultures and people. Her present status is that of an accidental expat writing to relive moments in countries wherever she sets home with her husband. With over twenty years of writing experience Indra has contributed to Indian, Middle Eastern publications and online media. She blogs at TravTrails

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

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Photo credits: Opening visual: Airplane photo and India photo via Pixabay. Second visual: (top row) Worcester, Massachusetts, by Doug Kerr via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); photo of the Beatles and of Worcester’s buildings via Pixabay; (bottom row) Turtle Boy, by Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Harvey Ball, by Michael Carroll courtesy Worcester Historical Museum; and Daoma Winston book cover. Third visual: Nantucket – Main St, by thisisbossi via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Quincy Market, by Smart Destinations via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Boston – Freedom Trail, by David Ohmer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Cape Cod scene via Pixabay. Fourth visual: Cable car, Stanford U & Golden Gate sunset photos all via Pixabay; Fisherman’s Wharf – San Francisco, California, by Doug Kerr via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). Last visual: (top row) Mangoes for sale in Crawford Market, Mumbai, by Anuradha Sengupta via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); warrior statue via Pixabay; A Crowd Gathers – Pune, India, by Ian D. Keating via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) (same as bottom-row middle photo); Sunset at Sinhagarh, by Abhijit Kar Gupta via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); (bottom row) Sukhadia’s open vada pav, by Krista via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); [untitled – Banyan tree in Pune], by ptwo via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); and Osho Ashram, aka Osho International Meditation Resort, by fraboof via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

3 responses to “THE ACCIDENTAL EXPAT: Globetrotting between overseas assignments

  1. Pingback: The Accidental Expat —-2 – TravTrails

  2. eliang August 10, 2016 at 9:41 pm

    This was an enjoyable read. I’m so sorry about the trouble you went through at US immigration. It was inexcusable. I’m glad you continue to travel and I look forward to future posts.

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