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THE ACCIDENTAL EXPAT: Globetrotting between overseas assignments

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

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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).

ENGLAND VS NEW ENGLAND: The arcane laws of taxing and tipping

Libby New EnglandFor just over two years, readers of the Displaced Nation have had the treat of following a novel-in-progress by Kate Allison called Libby’s Life. It’s the running diary of Libby Patrick, an Englishwoman who has trailed her spouse to a town just outside Boston. Libby’s Life is rich in Kate’s observations about life in New England vs. England. In the weeks when she doesn’t publish an episode (she is now up to #75!), we plan to feature posts by writers who are sensitive to the often-subtle differences between new and old worlds. First up: James Murray, a young Brit now living in Boston.

–ML Awanohara

Hey, where did all my money go?

Apparently it’s all to do with my upbringing — I remember with almost preternatural clarity, learning how to shop in an English supermarket. You had a list. You found the things on the list. Where there was an element of choice — this brand of toothpaste or that one — you looked for the special offers.

Only people with money to throw away would ever buy the branded cereal, unless they were on holiday, because really, how much difference is there in taste?

I learned the arts of thrift in Tesco of a Wednesday morning. My guiding words were “2 for 1” and “Special Offer” — and a treat was especially permitted if it was drawn from the holy well of the Reduced section.

Prices — written numbers — were important in those innocent days. They told you clearly and precisely how much you could expect to pay for the things you put in your trolley. You could even add it up as you went around the shop.

Taxed by state taxes

Not so in New England. Here in Massachusetts a quick turn around the supermarket for say $56.59 worth of groceries will actually cost you $60.12 –and unless you happen to be quick with your percentages, you more than likely won’t know how much you’re spending until it’s totaled on the cash register.

This isn’t new to anyone who’s been to pretty much anywhere in the States. Most states have a sales tax, with varying rates, and it’s hardly ever included on the price tag for whatever you’re buying. So if (God forbid) you only have so much cash and you’ve been carefully estimating the total in your head as you go shopping, you might find that you need to leave an item behind when you check out.

I have a healthy fear of being ripped off or paying over the odds. It took me some time to let go of the expectation that I would know exactly how much I was spending — and as soon as I did, I discovered the much larger grey area: tipping.

Price is not only contingent on the face value of an item; it’s also contingent on culture. In the States, as most people know, there is a culture of not paying bar and restaurant staff a living wage, which means that they rely on tips.

The tipping point

When I was tipped as a barman in the UK, it was a perk — a small one. I would have been floored if anyone had tipped me 20 percent and especially floored if they’d insisted on tipping me an extra 60 pence (or a dollar) for each drink I served them — but such is the expectation in New England.

Okay, there are differences to the working culture of bar staff — table service, for one — which mean that the staff actually earn their tips. But it’s often expected even if you order at the bar and do the walking to fetch the food yourself. In terms of hidden costs, a meal out is pretty pricey, especially when there’s that 6.25 percent tax on meals added in there. You basically pay over 125% of the menu price if you’re being a good citizen.

And if you’re coming from the UK, all that this tipping will buy you is a lot of extra attention that you don’t want. The Brits are a private people when it comes to eating out. In our part of the world, good service is characterized by quiet diligence. If we get asked three times in the course of a meal “How is everything?” it just starts to rub us up the wrong way. We begin to ask ourselves: “Why are you asking? Should there be something wrong with it?” They’re just “earning” that tip, but it can initially feel like solicitation.

Tipping also creates unintended outcomes, one being that if you enter smaller bars at peak times and sit down at a table, you will be expected to eat. If you then reveal that you’re actually just after a drink, you might see some of the rudest service you’ve ever experienced. Tables are prime real-estate, where you can cram in the eating customers, which means higher order value, which means more tips.

I’m generalizing of course, but I never used to even think about buying food in most UK pubs, whereas in Boston it’s sometimes hard not to.

Hey, it’s only money!

With the financial anxiety of living on savings (the default position of a new immigrant), I’ve fought the urge to resent the little extra slices of cash that get siphoned off on a daily basis.

My new mantra is not “2 for 1” or “Look for the offers.” Instead I say to myself:

Just let it go — it’s just the way they do things here.

* * *

So, readers, are you surprised as Murray’s sense of displacedness on money matters? Perhaps some repats to the U.S. can also relate? Please leave your thoughts in the comments…

James Murray is a self-described “itinerant Brit.” After a stint in New Zealand, and some travel in Southeast Asia, he and his American girlfriend — now wife — are practicing “staying put” in Boston, where James is pursing a career as a wordsmith for marketing and fiction, and as a non-professional theatre director. He is also a Utopian idealist and SingStar enthusiast. You can find more about his views by reading his blog, Quaint James, and/or following him on Twitter: @quaintjames.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fabulous posts, including a new giveaway!

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Images from MorgueFile

I’m an explorer — not a traveler

This week, the Displaced Nation is drifting away from March’s initial theme of beauty/fashion tips picked up from world travels. Hardly surprising, given that all of this week’s writers are males! Today’s guest poster, James Murray, a displaced Brit in Boston, is a prime example. The only new fashion he’d like to start would be replacing the word “travel” with “explore.” Sounds pedantic, right? Well, see what you think!

— ML Awanohara

I was never really one for traveling. When all the kids went on their gap years before college, I called them on it: I knew it was a waste of money; a way to delay the inevitable intrusion of the Real World into their lives — in short, I didn’t see the point.

Receiving emails from abroad about how wonderful these experiences were and how life-affirming and eye-opening and incredible the world was, I simply smiled to myself.

How naïve they were, I thought.

Whereas I would be a year ahead; a year closer to a job; a year closer to money, and a year closer to actual freedom.

I did not see work as some black hole into which you pour all of your efforts with no hope of ever getting anything back. On the contrary, I thought it would be pretty good to have a job and a flat and friends and the cash to support a lifestyle I could be comfortable with.

Travel for travel’s sake

I still think that. In fact, I’m not entirely sure I was ever wrong on this point. Sorry to disappoint. And particular apologies to Jeff Jung, whose book on career-break travel was favorably reviewed on this site at the end of last month.

Don’t get me wrong. Yes, I’ve traveled and, yes, I love being “elsewhere,” doing things differently, as much as the next displaced nation resident. In fact I’m a bit of a neophile when it comes to food and culture…

But being enamored of the new doesn’t mean you have to travel.

Travel provides a set of obvious novelties: new tastes; new currencies; new transport; climate; a different view from the window.

But just being somewhere different doesn’t make you an explorer; in order to get that badge, you need to set foot outside your comfort zone, step away from the hotel, the package tour, the guidebook — and look with your own eyes.

Cross that one off the list!

That Facebook app that challenges you to prove you’re a world traveler by listing all the countries you’ve visited irrespective of how long you were there or where exactly you were: what does it really show? It makes a three-day hotel stay in Shanghai look as though you’ve conquered the entirety of mainland China, and it reduces that beautiful holiday in Wales — you know, the one that reminded you what it was like when shops closed on a Sunday — to a complete non-event.

The way we think of travel is all wrong: the political boundaries on the map say that I now live in the USA, but that doesn’t really say anything about where I actually live or the aspects of American culture that I’ve actually experienced.

My life would be completely different if, say, I lived in the desert or the mountains — it would even be different if I lived in New York instead of Boston.

I don’t anticipate ever being able to say that I’ve seen it all.

Explore, for heaven’s sake!

Exploring as opposed to traveling is a question of quality against quantity. I did a lot of exploring in London and Edinburgh that opened my eyes just as much as wandering around Thailand and Romania.

A few curiously exploratory examples:

  • Getting a haircut at a weird little barber’s in Shepherd’s Bush. It was an all-male barber’s, where men could “come along and say what they like in whatever language they like,” as the proprietor put it. I remember being very quiet amid a torrent of very macho conversation. Not a totally unpleasant experience, but I never went back.
  • With my flatmate, laying Russian roulette with the pastries at Vanna Patisserie, a Chinese bakery in Shepherd’s Bush. They were either sugary and delicious or curiously tough with a peculiar secret ingredient. There was no way of telling from the outside.
  • Spotting a Portobello (Edinburgh) art exhibition displayed outside people’s homes that featured, amongst other things, a fat-and-seed bird feeder in the shape of the artist’s head, hung from a tree, where it was gradually and gruesomely pecked to pieces.

These bizarre titbits are the wages of the explorer but not necessarily the traveler, who might see only those accepted “landmarks” to which his eyes are directed.

Avenues for exploration are everywhere. In fact, when I first moved to London, I was so inspired by the tube stops that I wanted to develop a guide to each one.

My idea was that I would use some algorithm to pick a different tube stop each weekend, go there and simply wander around in a roughly spiral shape from that stop, looking carefully at architectural details, stopping in parks and perhaps interviewing the proprietors of particularly interesting local businesses.

I would document these things not so much as a guide for others to visit exactly the same places, but in hopes of inspiring them to look at their own neighborhoods with new eyes.

Exploring the New World

I try to do the same kind of thing in Boston, although I confess I find it a bit harder — there’s the sheer fact that London is 1) massive and 2) very, very old that makes it rather easier to find the gems at the ends of the nooks and crannies.

But I’m not discouraged — I’ve still barely explored the North End with its windy little streets and ample opportunities for getting lost (I don’t have one of those phones that tells me where I’m going).

And just the other day we were introduced to a bar not five minutes down the road, which will make a superb local, with its walls plastered in kitschy tut. I’m sure I’ve passed it before, but, like all the best things, it’s a bit hard to spot.

In amongst these streets are histories, idiosyncrasies and mythologies — of that I have little doubt. Finding them is just a matter of retiring my traveler’s shoes and donning an explorer’s hat.

* * *

So, world travelers — sorry, I meant to say “explorers” — what do you think? Is James right in saying that all of this obsession with the quantity of travel (how many countries, etc.) is misguided? And what do you think of his assertion that Edinburgh can be as fascinating as Bangkok, if you take an explorer’s approach? Please leave your thoughts in the comments…

James Murray is a self-described “itinerant Brit.” After a stint in New Zealand, and some travel in Southeast Asia, he and his American girlfriend — now wife — are practicing “staying put” in Boston, where James is pursing a career as a wordsmith for marketing and fiction, and as a non-professional theatre director. He is also a Utopian idealist and SingStar enthusiast. You can find more about his views by reading his blog, Quaint James, and/or following him on Twitter: @quaintjames.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post by Andy Martin, about a unusual source of beauty in his new home town of São Paulo.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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img: MorgueFile

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