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Circle Of Friends
Text by Roopa Barua
Published: Volume 17, Issue 6, June, 2009

At the recent lunch hosted for expat women by Verve at Grand Hyatt’s China House, conversation veered around roots, multiculturalism and more

I was back in Mumbai after having lived in the USA for the past 15 years or so. As I was adjusting to my life here, I was intrigued to find out what went through people’s minds when they decided to move from a foreign country to India. In the case of an Indian expat like myself, did they want to come back to India because they wanted to be near their families? Did they have a general sense of responsibility to society? For the non-Indians, was it economic opportunity or a curiosity to experience a different culture? For the Indian diaspora, was it a chance to explore their roots? Was the expat lifestyle more of a myth than reality? And of course, getting into the nuts and bolts of their experience, were they confused, puzzled, happy or sad with what they encountered?

Verve decided to find out. An expat Circle of Friends luncheon was organised at the China House restaurant in Mumbai’s Grand Hyatt. One of the newer hotels in the city, the Grand Hyatt has become the extended family venue for expats. Parmesh Shahani, Editorial Director, Verve, and I welcomed the guests: lawyer Neelam Singh, artist Revati Sharma Singh, owner of NGO, Naya Jeevan Sharon Weil, IOS Relocations owner Lata Patel, kathak exponent Tomomi Glekin, Altamount Capital Management partner Richa Karpe and former head of the American Alumni Association, Bina Yargop. Gathering at the table over flutes of bubbly, we set out to explore the phenomena of searching for the soul, roots and rootlessness, multiculturalism, allegiance to passport countries, global nomads and third culture kids. As we settled down to our lunch of glass noodles filled pot stickers, spinach pancakes, steamed baby lobsters and clay pot braised chicken,Parmesh read from Pico Iyer’s Global Soul: ‘I’d often refer to myself as homeless – an Indian born in England and moving to California as a boy, with no real base of operations or property even in my thirties. I spent much of the previous year among the wooden houses of Japan reading the “burning house” poems of Buddhist monks and musing on the value of living without possessions and a home’.

Stepping into the discussion of roots versus rootlessness, Neelam Singh said that she grew up American of Indian descent. “I am American but I am an Indian also”. She said that when she was growing up, she “looked brown and felt brown”. Not to be distracted, she became the poster child for a highly educated Indian community and was in complete sync with the American culture and her Indian roots. She emphasised that she was no confused desi. But she confessed her move to India had left her a confused pardesi. This was not the India she remembered as a child nor the India of the 60s that her parents left. The roots she came looking for existed but in a morphed and twisted 21st century sort of way. She agreed with Parmesh when he remarked that she was probably Indian from an American perspective. Bina on the other hand came back to India when her son was young so that he would grow up firmly in the Indian system and there was no looking back.

As the ladies dug into the spicy Sichuan twice cooked fish, Richa observed that she returned to India after a long time and felt like a stranger in the house. A strange feeling of rootlessness took over, of belonging yet not belonging at the same time. We all agreed that phrases from well-meaning relatives like ‘Welcome back home’ carried no meaning. I mentioned that when I left India, I had to condition myself to make life more amenable to the linearly programmed West and then on my return had to recondition myself to sync with India which moved in a Pulp Fiction sort of way. I had just set up my new roots as a first generation American and then had a sense of pseudo uprooting only to come back to the original roots. Or was it even uprooting? Maybe the roots would fall like those from the branches of a giant banyan tree and spread all across the globe.

Tomomi Glekin, Japanese and married to a British diplomat had come to India to pursue kathak. Truly living in a multicultural world, she felt that she is at the confluence of Japanese, English and Indian cultures. Wearing a Bandhej suit, she said she was at ease dancing, listening to Indian music and absorbing the sights and sounds of contemporary India. She said she is “between the two cultures” and enjoying the beauty of being there.

Sharon believed in going with the ebb and flow of the tide. She started a home for orphaned HIV-inflicted children called Naya Jeevan in Thane. After the initial hiccups of setting it up, she is now happy to be able to devote as much time as needed for this cause. Neelam felt the burden of seeing so much disparity. Revati asked her to think of it more as a responsibility, of giving back to society.

Lata Patel who deals with relocations firsthand brought in a very important viewpoint when we talked expectations vis a vis global standards. According to her, non Indians definitely have lower expectations than the returning Indian. They are curious and come in to explore culture and if possible give back like Sharon Weil has done.

The Peking Duck arrived at the table. Sensing an after feasting inertia, the staff volunteered to make our wraps for us. With cabbage and duck wraps for all of us calorie-conscious mere mortals, we set off on our conversations again, this time around Third Culture Kids or global nomads as they are commonly called.

A Third Culture Kid is an individual who, spending a significant part of the developmental years in another culture, develops some sense of belonging to both the host culture and the home culture. In the process, these people form a culture entirely their own which is called the Third Culture and hence the term Third Culture Kids!

Stories of international school meets and tangential exposure to local cultures came up. Accented speeches or worse, pidgin languages, little kids speaking Bandra-meets-California English or Australian-inflected Hindi were enacted. Neelam felt like she was living in a hyphenated culture. Richa felt that this was in fact a blessing for the children where they were accepting of everything. Like giant sponges, they absorb everything from blocks to shiboris and everything in between.

The desserts had arrived by now, trays upon trays of pan Asian flavours, green tea mousse, aamras with doily-laced cookies and jackfruit parfaits. As the ladies started savouring the desserts, Parmesh and I started reading from a collection of haikus.

Then arrived the goody bags filled with Verve issues and Shivaz Spa gift certificates. As we rose and bid goodbye to each other, we promised we would meet many more times to exchange our life experiences. Geography ceased to exist in our books. All that remained was what we took away from each other.

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