Week one and done – in Pune, India!

Today (Friday), is our one-week mark here in India, on one hand it seems to have flown by, and on the other, it feels like we’ve been here longer.  I have to admit, when we first got off the plane in Delhi and were met with a seriously crappy administration faff (due to the fault of the booking agent) and, when we further discovered that the employees from the ‘best airport in the world’ were a) all military, b) none of them spoke English, and c) none of them had any desire to help, my heart sunk a little.  I wasn’t sure what I was expecting to find, but the lack of warm, fuzzy, hospitality and helpful natured staff at the airport was a little jarring.
We got off the plane and followed the sign for connecting flights.  We had a six-hour layover and were hoping to grab a ‘by the hour’ room for us all to decompress, shower and nap before we boarded our third, and final flight to Pune.  However, none of the armed forces along the way were helpful, friendly or approachable, yet, their entire job was to deal with people.  Travellers, tourists, people who don’t know where they are, where they need to be, nor who speak the language.
When we got to the entrance of the ‘connecting flights’, the military presence said ‘ticket?’, which, we didn’t have.  He repeated, ‘you need ticket’ and that was that, he turned his attention to the people behind us and it was as though we no longer existed.
Confused, Col left Lewis and I to go find some help, while Lewis and I sat and kept ourselves entertained awaiting his return.  An hour later, I see him trying to negotiate with another military presence, his way BACK in to the departure area of the hotel, through an exit door.  Thankfully upon recognising he really WAS with us, he let him back in.  But, to get our ‘ticket’, Col had to go public-side of the airport, and leave us air-side.  The booking agent had booked the last leg of our flight on a separate itinerary altogether and we didn’t have boarding cards for it, nor, could we get them airside.  It was a nightmare.
Add to that, the fact that we got to the check in desk and were told that due to it being an entirely separate itinerary? That our baggage allowance was 15kg per person – for a family total of 45kg.  Us? Well, we had 115kg of luggage, plus Lewis’ car seat.  And it was here that my hope for a warm and friendly India returned.  The lady at the desk was originally supposed to charge us 41,000 rupees for our ‘excess baggage’ that had only been checked through to Delhi.  Col asked if Lewis got a ‘cute discount’ and she laughed, asked an only too compliant Lewis for a hi-five and reduced our fee to 19,000 rupees – thank you, lady, you made me think that things weren’t gonna be so bad afterall.
Once we got to security, I was greeted by another cultural difference – male and female security scanners.  Once you get through the scanners, there’s a *secondary* scanning done by a TSA-similar-agent – the women get to go behind a curtain for this – but to do this, you need your boarding card.  In every airport I’ve ever been to, there’s been a passport and boarding card check as you approach security.  You’ve never needed your boarding card *through* security, so I got to the curtained area and she abruptly and rudely demands to know why I don’t have my boarding card.  Back to the boys-line I go and get my boarding card and re-join the girls line to go back through the security scanner and get scanned by Ms Congeniality.
I think what I’m trying to say is that my first impression of this place was an almost hostile one, high security, multiple checks, an overwhelmingly visible armed presence – Northern Ireland is a war-torn country, with much more recent terrorist attacks than here in India, with a highly visible police force, but you’ll at least get a smile, a nod, help if you need it.  These dudes (and one girl) seemed intent on their work, no help, no deviation from their script, no compassion or guidance.  Just security.  It was a little intimidating, and frustrating.  No ‘protect and to serve’ here.
As soon as we got through security? All of that changed.
I needed to pee, walked in and the cleaning lady said ‘Namaste’, she asked me to wait a second, grabbed toilet paper, cleaned the toilet, flushed and held the door open for me to enter.  Not only that, but when I went to tell her I’d no money for a tip? No jar was to be found, it was just cause she was helpful and kind.
After that, the little had fallen asleep on his dad’s shoulder as we sat at the gate waiting for boarding (I may or may not have fallen asleep on the chairs too).  We managed to wrangle him in to his chair without waking him, strap him in and I took off my hoody to fold up and use as his pillow.  Before long, the air hostess came by with a blanket and pillow for him, she gave Col a cookie for him during the flight, she brought us water, and they actually woke me when it was time for the meal we didn’t know we were having.  Like, hey, do you guys want fed? I kinda blinked at them in confusion as to why I was being woken up, and they were pretty nice about my grumbling at them.  The crew were very sweet.
When we disembarked and got our luggage, the hotel ambassador who was waiting outside the airport, was very sweet and insisted on moving our trolleys of luggage etc, and was very apologetic that they didn’t send a bigger car to accommodate all of our luggage.  It was nice, warm, friendly and eager to please.  They all ask how your day is, they all insist on carrying your bags and to let them know if you need anything at all.
The drive to the hotel was interesting, Lewis sat in the back seat between Col and I like a big boy – no car seat, just a seatbelt.  He was excited.  He kept pointing out the many scooters, mopeds and motorbikes and waved out the window at some of their drivers.  The number of stray dogs stood out right away.  There’s graffiti writing on almost every visible wall.  There’s no lanes painted on the roads and seemingly some kind of ordered chaos as you’re driving, there’s a lot of car horns (a lot).
At the hotel? The car gets to a barrier, and is subject to a search by the guard, under the hood, under the car, with a mirror – searching for what? Not sure.  I’m guessing explosives.  Your bags are taken away off to the side and put through a scanner and you are subject to a metal detector screening to get in to the hotel.  See what I mean about high security?
Upon check in though? We got chocolate truffles on sticks and they couldn’t do enough for us.  They comped our dinner, sent fresh juice to the room, no one ever let us carry our own baggage and the cleaning crew – the one time I met them – were so sweet to Lewis (one of them even took a selfie with him!)
I thought, for just a second, that I’d left the security presence at the airport, until, however, we went to the shopping mall, same security checks.  Pop your boot/trunk, pop your bonet/hood and get a quick mirror underneath – anywhere with big crowds or anywhere that could potentially be a target for an attack has this level of checks.  The road to Lewis’ school and the other schools in the area, has a barrier and security manning it, the guy asks where you’re going before you are allowed to pass.  It’s all a little paranoid if you ask me, but, as Col said, perhaps the rest of us are just way too lax.  Indians also have the added benefit of labour being cheap.
We finished our stay at the hotel, Friday through Monday.  We took possession of our bigger-than-our-house-in-Texas apartment on Monday, in spite of it not being anywhere near ready to be lived in just yet.  No toaster, no kettle, no other appliances, no utensils, like six pieces of cutlery and crockery, we’re using Lewis’ plastic Lightening McQueen cups left over from his birthday party as glassware, our rental furniture isn’t the best – Lewis’ bed and the guest beds are decent enough, but I’m pretty sure the sofa will give us haemorrhoids, so I opt to sit at the rented dining room table – which is also decent enough.
So far, since we moved in to the apartment, I’ve walked face-first in to a glass door, Lewis has had dirtier feet than I’ve ever seen, I’ve interviewed two maids (file this under ‘things you never thought you’d do’), I’ve ordered a fifty-three item Amazon order, that took days to piece together (and subsequent smaller orders) – (I’m frustrated with the Amazon here, but as people keep reminding me, I need to be grateful that I still have Amazon).
During the week, we placed our first ‘Big Basket’ home delivery order for groceries – let’s see what we can find.  I’ve been to one grocery store, Col has been to two, and I’m hoping to make that a third soon.  I really do need *stuff*.  I’ve received a number of social invitations (I’m just not sure what to do about the 3.5-year-old horror just yet) and I cooked eggs with a metal spoon ‘cause I have no spatula and toasted bread in my Le Creuset pan because our toaster didn’t arrive from Amazon.
The AC unit in the bedroom is leaking, the TINY freezer door doesn’t close, the maids door can be forcibly opened when locked, Lewis’ tap keeps coming apart and the drawer in the bathroom is banjacksed.  Amazon doesn’t leave packages at the door, or with the concierge – and will refund over doing redelivery, so someone has to be home the entire day you’re expecting a package (yes, yes, I know, be grateful I have Amazon).
So far I’ve seen pigs, goats and any amount of stray dogs in the street, I’m horrified no one wears leathers or a helmet on their bikes and I can’t find cheese or diet coke (I think this ones been remedied) and not to mention, everyone wants to touch my son.  He’s blue eyed, blonde haired and everyone wants to put their hand on his head, cheeks, give hi fives, fist bumps – one hotel worker even grabbed him for a hug.  Lewis was not thrilled at his boundaries being compromised.  He’s jet-lagged, he’s in a new place, with new people, everything is different and he’s just a little overwhelmed right now.
But, it’s all good in the hood.  Just taking each moment in my stride and hoping to climb out of the expat transfer-fog soon.
Sunday, we went to Seasons Mall to pick up some groceries from the first of many grocery stores, Star Bazaar – where we happened upon a huge group of ladies doing Bollywood dancing in the mall.  It was pretty impressive to watch and hundreds of people crowded round the balcony on each floor to watch.
Tuesday, I did something I don’t think I ever had on my ‘to-do’ list before.  I interviewed for a maid.  That was interesting.  She came by way of another SSA lady, who got the recommendation from the relocation company, her name was Mary and she was late to the house.  Not a great first impression, I thought, that was, until our driver took her back home after the interview, and Col was there to witness just how far she had walked to get to our apartment.  Born and raised here in Pune, Mary had never been to this side of town before.  She came recommended by an employee .  I didn’t hire her, for a number of reasons, but primarily because of the daily trek she’d have to make, even in a TukTuk or cab it would have been a decent journey and I’d have feared she’d leave for a closer gig if one came up.
Wednesday, (day 5 of our time in India) was a landmark day for Master Lewis.  Day 1 at nursery.  It’s only a two-and-a-half-hour curriculum, 8.45am – 11.15am, but he took it like a boss.  I stayed with him until 10.15am and then headed home.  They said he was very good and didn’t cry or try to come after me at all – and when Col went to pick him up from school, he was having so much fun that he needed physically picked up and taken home!
Maid #2 interview also happened on Wednesday.  A lady and her daughter (?) came by when Col moved in, and again during the week to offer the daughters services for cleaning.  They clean in various apartments around these parts and although she wanted to haggle on salary (despite my offering *more* than she requested) I opted to hire her and see how things go.  (I’ll write a separate post about maids and drivers and bears – oh my! At some point in the near future).
Wednesday night, we had our first grocery home delivery experience.  We went with a store called ‘Big Basket’, and it went much better than we expected.  It was quick, painless, free delivery and we got a variety of things that I hadn’t seen in Star Bazaar the previous week that we were there.  It will definitely be a repeatable experience for sure.
Thursday morning, I ran in to my first ‘major’ Las-needs-to-clip-her-wings moment, and it stung. I had, while in the US, picked up few packages of cartoon themed pencils for Lewis’ class, in the UK I’d picked up a multipack of Milky Ways and was going to give each of the nine kids in his class a treat for Lewis joining his new school.  The principal, very diplomatically, informed me that while Lewis could eat it, he wasn’t allowed to share, even if they were individually portioned.  Some kids have chocolate allergies (yet we weren’t told not to send chocolate, or nuts, or eggs or any of the common allergens) so she couldn’t permit it.  Then I brought out the pencils and she said no, that it’s not fair on other parents for me to give out gifts and treats to the kids who would maybe feel obliged to ‘keep up with the Jones’.
I wasn’t expecting this at all and, admittedly, I think it hit my ‘Pinterest Mom’ self, harder than it perhaps should have done, but expats fresh from transfer, can tend to be somewhat sensitive souls.  This hit me in my sensitive soul.  I tried not to let it bug me, but it did.  No holiday treats, no baked goods, no parties, no birthday celebrations other than a small, modest cake – I’m not sure I can work under these conditions.  Maybe I’ll pick up some SSA volunteering and sort some kids events or something, cause otherwise every trip to the US will have to cover some kind of holiday for me to get my kids party fix somehow.
Thursday, was my ‘home fixin’ day’ -ok, otherwise known as shopping.  Fine.  I went shopping.  Firstly, I went to @ Home, a home furnishing store and picked up things we need, everything from crockery (60% off), to glasses, cooking and baking utensils, bath mats, toiletries organisers and even a comforter for Lewis, since duvet covers aren’t quite the ‘done thing’ here.  True to form, I went over my cash on hand, I don’t have an Indian bank account yet, no Indian cards, so I found myself standing crossing my fingers and toes that my US Mastercard would work – thankfully it did, there was no international incident because Las couldn’t get her bath mats and could finally stop using a towel on the floor – crisis averted!
After @Home, I went to my second grocery store of the week, (third if you count online shopping) Dorabjees, it was pitched as being a more international-friendly grocery shop, and I wasn’t disappointed.  My third, full trolley of the day came home from here.  I got everything from babybel cheese and Hot Wheel cars for Lewis, to baking supplies and a tin opener for me!
Aaaaaand that’s pretty much our first week in review.  Overall though, it’s been a good week.  Those I’d spoken to had warned me that it was an assault on the senses, and, in many ways, it is.  It will take some getting used to.  My hair hates the water and is constantly greasy, my skin feels clogged and dirty, I’m not drinking enough water, despite sloshing every time I move.  It’s loud – all the time – Indians don’t typically do quiet.  There’s always hustle and bustle, horns honking, dogs barking, to-ing and fro-ing.  Our driver, Harish says it’s because Indians don’t have any patience.  He’s right, you only need to look out the window and watch the traffic for ten seconds to see that everyone always has somewhere to be, and it’s more important and urgent than where *you* need to be, so they’ll be trying to pass you, make you go faster and inching over the traffic control line at lights so they can get away from the red light fast.  He also says ‘This is India, ma’am, anything is possible’, and, while I’d like to believe that, it’s hard when you look around and see the overwhelming poverty, the trash strewn around the streets, the stray dogs (and goats and pig).
It’s colourful, vibrant, (especially the women and children’s clothing) and busy, always busy I truly don’t think I’ve ever seen more hard-working people.  From women carrying all manner of things on top of their heads, to men selling fruit or building furniture at the road side or pulling carts of various ‘stuff’.  Even TukTuk drivers busying about the city – they sit in hour long (or more) lines for the gas station to fill their tiny tanks, daily, and they all hate standing still.  They always want to be moving, and doing things.
They are typically polite, especially those in the service industry, our driver, Harish, insists on opening the doors for us, carrying our bags and calling all of us sir/ma’am – including the little.  This morning he even walked me down to Lewis’ school (there’s a little bit of a walk from where the cars must stop as it’s all private property and the residents get mad at people driving down past their houses).  Our maid, Rani, is incredibly patient and kind with Lewis, who stood for a full five minutes this morning quizzing her on how she got to his room.  She also let him help her wheel the laundry to the laundry room.  She’s keen and eager to learn and to please, she asks for direction on what I’d like her to do every day and made suggestions today about where I could find things that I needed.  Downstairs? At the main door to the apartment block, we have a security guard, every time I walk past him, he stands up and says hello or nods.
At the same time? They seem to also be a somewhat paranoid race, they have security
everywhere to ‘scare’ terrorists in to not attempting to place bombs.  Harish told me it’s to give the appearance of force.  Everything here is so built up, and they have a lot of big-businesses around and if they were to have a ‘bomb blast’, it could take out a lot in one fell-swoop.  They also fear germs and sickness, upon entry to Lewis’ school you must use hand sanitizer, and the principal chases the kids around the playground with a thermometer to take their temperature – every day.
You can have just about anything delivered to your house.  Groceries, Subway or McDonalds, donuts – whatever you need, they’ll deliver, often for no delivery charge.
The roads are a crazy, yet, beautiful kind of chaos, I guess the same could be said for the country as a whole, but, to watch the traffic?  You find yourself wondering how anyone could ever survive navigating even the simplest of intersections.  Bikes laden with three, often four people, or supplies, pedestrians walking out in to busy traffic, no lanes and, as Harish says daily, the only rule of the road is that there are no rules.  It’s both fascinating and terrifying to watch.
It’s Friday and I think that it bears noting that all of the issues I mentioned at the beginning of this post (the freezer door, the AC unit etc) are currently being fixed by the fixer-dude who showed up to fix it all, and Col managed to get someone to come clear the heaped pile of cardboard and trash bags in our entrance area that have been gathering cause our trash area was full!
Next week is going to be interesting, on Monday I have an appointment with the relocation company to go and get myself registered and get my ID card (which will take a couple hours) at the Police High Commission, our new car is fully registered, so as of Monday it will be the first day in ten months that we do not have a hire car in our name – we are excited to get going in our new motor – plus? I have committed to attending my first SSA ladies event – dinner out on Thursday evening.  I’m excited to meet the local chapter – it’s in its infancy, but seems to be a very busy group of ladies indeed! My goal for next week is to register with the doctor and book appointments for shots for Col and I, and to register all of us with a dentist.
  If I don’t get it done, though, I won’t crucify myself – just taking it day by day here in the near East, that is about as far from resembling ‘near’ to my Western self, but, we’ll see what this place has to offer, and go from there.

‘Na na why don’t you get a job?’

“The expat wife trades luxury for her self-identity, a drastic increase in stress, and a great deal of emotional work.” 

imagesIt’s probably the most common question asked to me as an un-working expat spouse.  I, personally, have found it the most insulting, the most degrading and the most tiresome.

At least that is, until I stumbled across this article, 10 things expat women should stop doing, and saw this;

Stop explaining yourself to others.  Yes, you may have been a professional woman back home, but now you’ve chosen not to work.  And you may have decided to indulge in a history class at a local university while a nanny watches your kids.  You don’t owe any explanations to your friends back home who have been expecting you to start working as soon as you land.  And you don’t have to explain to your family why you are not spending every waking moment with your kids.  What YOU do with YOUR time and resources is no one else’s business.”

It’s hard, I admit.  It’s like an explanation is expected from you when someone confronts you with a question.  Let’s try and break it down!

Contrary to popular opinion, or maybe it’s just a little-known fact, many expat wives tend not to work – often they can’t.  They are more likely to have children and be more concerned about things like finding friends, raising children abroad, keeping marriages together, dealing with culture shock when you’re not here as per your own life plan, leaving work behind and sacrificing for your spouse’s career.

Most people don’t understand the expat way of life, many, don’t even try, they just make sweeping assumptions that we’re all married to rich oil barons – add to that fact that many of us largely choose not to work, and people automatically assume you’re a sponger, a bum, or even a desperate housewife – sitting at home by the pool, sipping mimosas while the gardener, the pool boy and the cleaner work around you.  I’ve been called all of the above at some stage or another over the last four years – not exactly my favourite labels as an expat wife.

Often, our family and friends can often be quick to point out how ‘lucky’ we are without the worries of working, cleaning and driving whilst shopping, lunching and living in a holiday hot-spot that most people dream of visiting one day.

The reality, however, can be much different. Husbands working (in many cases much more than the ‘regular’ 39 hr week), learning the language, organising schools for children and making sure they are settled, building a network of friends whilst also dealing with the daily challenges of living in a country where the language and culture are a constant demand – not to mention the obvious, being so dreadfully far away from family and friends and lets also not forget, many of the expat women leave a successful career behind them too.

Expat wives find themselves dependent on their husbands financially, emotionally, and socially.

If we think about mentioning any of this to family and friends we face concerns that we will be perceived as ‘ungrateful’ for not fully realising how ‘lucky’ we are.  Again, over the last four years as being an expat wife, I have been subject to this too, ‘sure you live in Houston, what worries could you possibly have?’

Why don’t you get a job? It’ll help your husband out!

Why don’t you get a job? It’ll get you out of the house more!

Why don’t you work? Is that not what everyone does?

So, why are so many expat women ‘trailing spouses’?  and more specifically why do I not ‘work’ or make a living in the more traditional way that many of you assume is the only way to live?

1. Fresh out of grad school

When we moved to Texas, I was a recent graduate of Queens, I hadn’t started looking for a job in my field and I had no experience in my field, or, for that matter, any other.

For me to work here, I’d have to go in to retail, or the service industry and I really didn’t want to do that (mostly for reasons no.2 and 3 below).

2. Pay/Taxes

The jobs mentioned above, would not only be relatively low-paying, but I’d also be taxed at my husbands tax bracket.  So, once ‘Uncle Sam’ got done with any pay check I DID bring home, there wouldn’t be much left to speak of – certainly not worth doing the hard work to have gotten the pay check in the first place!

3. Holiday/Vacation time

Finally, the largest factor for me, personally, is the lack of vacation time given by most US employers.

In a study conducted by the WorldatWork Association in May, 2010, the average number of Paid time off (PTO) days offered by employers was:

    • Less than one year of service: 15 days
    • 1-2 years of service: 19 days
    • 3-4 years of service: 20 days

Most of the assignments from Col’s company, range from 18 months to 5 years in any one place, so with a potential maximum of 2-3 weeks of vacation every year, I doubt our friends and family at home would see us very often as I’d probably want to spend those 2-3 weeks sleeping or drinking cocktails by a pool somewhere tropical and spending time with my husband!

4. Happiness

Probably the least important for many people, but, expat spouses will understand it’s importance.  I’m much happier doing what I currently do than I would be working in the retail or service industries!

What do I do instead?

I don’t ‘work’ in the conventional sense of the word out here, I volunteer, and have done so since we were here about 4 months. My first 2-year position was welcome coordinator for Col’s company’s spouses association. Because there’s so much movement, most of the women don’t work, so his company has put together a ‘wives group’ to help people settle in to their new environment. My job as welcome coordinator was to help them find houses, driving lessons, English lessons, schools for their kids and help them assimilate into Houston life.

Last year, I was elected as president of the spouses association and have done that for 13 months out of a total of 2 year term. I have a team of 15 ladies who report to me and we are responsible for over 500 wives of people in Col’s company. I have a substantial operating budget and it’s my job to make all of the cogs keep turning, in the day to day running of the local chapter of this organisation.

When I first moved here I hated it and cried every day for 6 months, so I decided that I would volunteer and work my ass off to make sure no one else felt that way!  I help people, real life people who struggle, suffer from anxiety, feeling lonely, depressed, removed from reality – I have helped people in the last four years, and for that, no pay check could replace that satisfaction or sense of self worth that I have gotten from doing what I do.

By the time I leave Houston, I’ll have over four years volunteer experience, at manager level.  There will be no gaps on my CV and I’ve picked up a lot of translatable skills and have made some fantastic contacts (and references) around the globe.

I’d not have traded my volunteer experience here for any 9-5 job you can list!