The Classist Classification of Migration, Or, Why I Hate the Word ‘Expat’

This one isn’t the usual travelogue type of post that this blog has come to accumulate lots of over the last two years. It isn’t about anywhere that we’ve been in particular (with lots of overdue pictures that I promise one day will make it on here). It’s about our state of being. By ‘our’ I mean of course my and TA’s. It’s about citizenship, nationality, home, and our current situation of near-constant limbo.

I’ve been meaning to write this for a very long time, for almost the entire time we’ve been outside of the US, where we met and started our life together. And I keep waffling and find myself changing opinions and rationalizing with myself about why I should or shouldn’t write it.

It’s about why I hate the word ‘expat’. Perhaps it’s not so much about such a strong feeling as the word ‘hate’ but more of a critical attitude towards it. Let me explain through a caffeinated jumble of words. NB: let me also say that I promise I’ll stop using scare quotes at some point, but I can’t help a certain level of sarcasm.

But before that let me also preface by stating that TA and I have not been part of any corporate relocation, so I’m in no position to comment on the dynamics and logistics by which one can be transferred to different branch offices around the globe by a particular company. Nor are we in official foreign service. We belong to a different universe, specifically that of academia, which comes with its own unique rhythms and challenges.

Most of my tension between the two words (“expat” and “immigrant”) comes from my background coming from an immigrant family in the US. A visibly non-white, language-other-than-English speaking, first generation immigrant family. My parents didn’t grow up with the same language or educational system as my siblings and I did, and we as a family constantly had to prove that we were American enough, while still fighting being shamed for not speaking our mother tongue well enough (which still happens to this day). Growing up, there was no question of whether the terminology was correct: an immigrant is an immigrant, and coming from a place which I’m proud to tell people is one of the most ethnically diverse places in the world, “immigrant” was more or less a neutral, matter-of-fact classification. We had safety in numbers living in enclaves just like millions of people throughout our pretty safe city (not to say there’s isn’t bigotry or daily micro- (and macro-)aggressions or racialized violence, because trust me, I could go on about that, but that’s another story for another time). But at the surface, it was easy to say our country is a nation of immigrants, that Queens and New York City were good poster children when it was convenient for the US to pat itself on the back for being so welcoming to foreigners, working hard to achieve the American Dream, blah-de-blah. But while we were falling ever short of attaining that American Dream, being working class and never quite making it, something happened.

After college and a few years of marriage, my spouse and I moved abroad for his academic job. Suddenly as a US citizen, moving for highly trained and highly specialized work purposes, I was flung into this category of “expat”. One of the reasons that this rubbed me the wrong way was my own hangups: I have issues with class and money. As a kid, I never knew anything resembling financial stability (or savings or pensions or assets) and growing up, we were always living paycheck to paycheck. And to all of a sudden be placed on a sort of model-citizen type pedestal was a huge culture shock to me. (Not to be assumed that academic work is lucrative or even financially stable; academia is a whole universe of other issues, but again, another story for another time.) But the combination of a powerful passport with a powerful academic degree placed my spouse and me in a certain strata of society that was totally unfamiliar territory. So a lot of my hangups with the term “expat” have to do with that of luxury, money, access, exploitation, and overall not needing to assimilate because you can afford not to and still get respect. That your accent will get called sexy instead of being made fun of and expected to conform to your host country as a means of survival.

“Immigrant” has connotations of survival, being unwelcome, being expected to assimilate regardless of the cost, needing to jump through so many hoops to prove that you’re worthy of residence within certain borders.

Things that determine classification of this expat/immigrant are:
1. officially: work field/salary qualification/merit, length of stay.
2. softer but still functional social definitions: level of education, country of origin (a big one that may be a definitive one), race, language of origin and proficiency, savings, intention to settle (e.g. US classification of nonimmigrant vs immigrant visas), how low they can pay you.

Why is it that people coming form a certain part of the world to another are called immigrants, but if you reverse the flow, then they’re magically called expats? It’s as if someone waved a magic wand and reversed the tides and the rules changed out of thin air. But we know it’s not out of thin air. We know it’s because of power dynamics between “developed” and “developing” countries, between “white” and “nonwhite”, between the “Global North” and the “Global South”, between countries with big bombs and guns and ones without. See, I don’t need a visa to visit my spouse’s country of origin. But he needs one to step foot in mine. I don’t need to show anything–just that Blue Gold. Whereas he needs to prove his worth and show them that he’s not so different from them because look, he’s a doctor of sorts and knows unknowable things and won’t be a burden to them, and he can even talk like them so much that people marvel, “WOW!~~ You have no accent!” And in the eyes of the US, he’ll always be an immigrant, at best, the highly-skilled type.

And when we moved to Germany, we learned a lot of things the hard way and the inequity was glaring. We moved for a short-term position that TA got at a research institute. Even though I arrived as a dependent, once I showed up on a tourist visa, if I got a job offer, I could have that converted to a residence permit all while still in the country. And even though Malaysians as tourists also have a very powerful passport and get the same length of time of visa-free travel (90 days out of 180 calendar days), it’s not that simple. You can’t just show up and say “I’d like to register with the local authorities like I’m supposed to and have a residence permit pasted into my passport bc look I have a job and everything”. Well you could, but you’d immediately be turned away and told you can’t be helped until you first left the country and get a visa from the last place you lived (which you can’t go back to right now because surprise! That visa expired.) or your country of origin. Which resulted in our surprise trip to Malaysia two years ago.

Some people (generously) lump together all migrants as “expatriates”, and strictly speaking, technically anyone living outside their country of origin (however defined), could be one in theory. But often there are very specific connotations to the words “expats” versus “immigrants” or “foreign workers”. Being an “expat” is like a badge of honor that only an exclusive and undefined body of people can bestow upon you. You can’t just claim that you’re an expat if you’re from a certain part of the world, lest those who have really earned it with all their qualifications of ancestry and phenotype and education and money and security scoff and maybe clutch their pearls at the fact that their classification is being encroached upon.

In the strictest sense of the words, I am both. I am living outside my country (an ex-patriate). I am a migrant (one who moves; let’s also talk about “migrant”, “emigrant”, and “immigrant” at some point). But then again, who isn’t? The point is that these words could apply to anyone. But they don’t. My point is that certain words describe certain people. And everyone seems to know what you’re talking about when you say “expat” versus “migrant” or “immigrant”.

Is it that there is a sense of permanence to immigration, whereas in the case of expats, they are signing up for possibly indefinite but ultimately finite stretches of time? That they’ll go ‘home’ at some point? And then the immigrants are settling in for the long haul, raising families with hyphenated or adjectival identities, not being able to visit ‘home’ (wherever that is or whatever that means) whenever they want because they need to prove that they are seeking permanent residence and belongingness. But then there are retiree programs for rich/white people to be able to settle in other parts of the world to enjoy luxury in a place with the weather is warmer and the cost of living is cheaper and make their pension dollars stretch (cue The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a cute story, but rife with neocolonialism). And then there are returnees, perhaps students who studied internationally or worked for a stretch in a country where it’s “nice to settle” to eventually come back home.

The clearest and most blatant definitions of these words I’ve come across has been with the Malaysian Immigration Department. Take a look at the differences you see between these two pages on their website: one for expatriates and one for foreign workers. The former has a vamped up and attractive website complete with swanky logo designed to invite you, the highly skilled and qualified talent (read, not “worker”) to come and stay! The latter begins by listing the thousand-and-one restrictions placed on you and the type of work you’re allowed to do depending on your country of origin and your gender and warnings of the consequences if you don’t follow the rules, an overall punitive tone throughout the page. (See also, foreign domestic helper.) One can appreciate the clarity, because at least there is no illusion of pretending like in the US that the society and immigration system is equitable and saying on the one hand that immigrants work so hard and contribute so much while on the other, grumbling about the fact that “our country is getting a little too *shudder* ethnic” and trying to disguise the anxiety that “pretty soon we’re going to be outnumbered! Onoz!”

There’s also another word, which is one thing I appreciate about Indian bureaucracy. The government of India uniformly classifies everyone as “foreigners” regardless of country of origin. That’s as good and equitable as a classification gets under a nation-state system, though my baggage from the US tugs at me to resist the rhetoric of the perpetual foreigner. Sort of has the tone of “resident alien” that the US likes to use, which connotes something distant, other worldly (not in a good way), and always belonging to somewhere else.

So what now? Is there any point in trying to reclaim the word and its connotations? What space is there for people of color (my fellow purported perpetual foreigners) to challenge stereotypes? As non-white diasporic people holding Blue Gold, what are the responsibilities that come with treating a place that is not one’s own with respect as both travelers and residents? How can one live in a globalized world that still most definitely has borders without reinforcing hegemonic dynamics?

I don’t really have the answers to these questions, except that there definitely is a responsibility. One is to talk about it because I know I’m not the only POC from the US living outside the US, and for goodness’ sake we need to change the narrative about obnoxious and ignorant rich white gwai lo’s living outside of settler colonial states. We have a responsibility to not perpetuate orientalist thinking or think that the West is going to save the world because that’s just downright foolish. We have to continue asking self-reflective questions about the words we use and why, and always acknowledge the power dynamics in any interaction. We have to educate ourselves on the fact that even within non-white settings, there is an entire hierarchy that places certain ethnic groups over others (e.g. Koreans and Japanese can be expats in South and Southeast Asia, but it doesn’t work the other way around). See also this amazing piece on Crazy Rich Asians which complicates and contextualizes the question of Asian representation in Hollywood. It’s because our power dynamics are all flipped around and because if we don’t do the work to suss out the complexities (and together, might I add), we’ll end up tricking ourselves into thinking that just cus we got a certain kind of passport we can and should act like foolish with impunity. Psh, I’m not tryna end up like Tila Tequila. P.S. Note to all Grateful Immigrants: We also don’t need to grovel and continue proving that we’re oh so thankful to have made it to this “Great Country of Ours That Has Bestowed Upon Us Many Blessings”. We don’t have to fit into these pre-cut molds, but we do have to know that those molds exist, and that unfortunately it’ll take a lot of work to break them or make our own altogether.

As for me, I’ll still cringe when I hear the word expat, but know that it’ll take a few thousand words to explain my discomfort.

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Untitled, Or Where I Have Been, Again

I think it’s time to revive this space. I haven’t written since before the new year, and for several reasons, some more clear to me than others. In my last post I mentioned that I was applying to grad schools and had been channeling my mental and temporal energies there. And then the nail-biting and anxiety-inducing period of waiting to hear back and having no idea what the outcome would be. (I have no formal experience though so much interest in the field of study I applied for.) The me that is simultaneously trying to become more organized and more laid back realized that making life plans, or any plans at all–money plans, social/family plans, leisure plans, is really difficult when you don’t know when you’re going to be next week, next month, next year. Well, I didn’t get in, and at this point I’m not sure if I’ll try again in future cycles, and I guess in this case knowing is better than not knowing because we can finally move on and try to make some plans, dammit. Now I’m all for spontaneity and living on whims and going with the flow, but at this point that is our entire lifestyle, so some routine and advanced notice is more than welcome when I can get it.

TA wrote this in our first post in India:

we tend to experience new things in a way that time seems to dilate in the beginning, and then pass more quickly as we get used to the new normal.

And I completely agree. You can see this phenomenon in the frequency of posts in the last 1.5 years that this blog has existed. But it doesn’t mean that things haven’t happened. I just haven’t thought about them as intensely, and they haven’t affected the way I feel compelled to write about them.

So here’s the whirlwind of things that happened since I last wrote:
– I finally got that pesky visa after a series of very fortunate and somewhat difficult events, which would continue to allow me to stay in India. (And bonus: it’s actually in the correct category this time!)

– We came back to Pune and decided on a trip to Goa very soon after, our very first outside of Maharashtra state in the entire first year we’ve been in this country (not counting Delhi layovers) and had an amazing time in a quiet part of town with beaches and OMG the food. We also discovered that we have a compatible travel style with our friends–so many extra pluses. Photos to come.

– A few days later it was time to look for a new flat because of some nonsense (also, our year was up, remember?) so a hunting we went! Luckily we found a place that is completely furnished, even with a TV so I can resume my Olympic couch-potatoism, in a good location, and overall very cozy, and not just in the way that is a euphemism for small, which it definitely is, but actually home-y. (However, it is less than ideal in this Pune summer where it’s consistently over 40C/105F degrees every day. Right now, the days are spent thinking of ways not to melt.) It’s a studio (1RK) which is not anything new to us, but with a completely separate kitchen this time! Although since the wardrobe may or may not be in said kitchen, I’ve been thinking of it as my very first walk-in closet.

– For about four months, I was making almost daily school visits with the NGO where I’ve been volunteering. This helped me get to know Pune, the landscape of different levels of government, and meet really amazing people who care about other people as much as they value and actively practice self-care. And so much Marathi practice (mostly listening, but still)!

– Our very good college friend S came to meet us in Tamil Nadu and we made a trip visiting different places in the state, including Madurai where I studied for a semester in college. This deserves its own post.

– We took another trip to Rajasthan to meet up with TA’s best childhood friend and had our own little adventure. So. Much. Beautiful. This also deserves its own post. (My to-do list is writing itself!)

– And then I took a solo trip back to New York for some good ole family time. I got to snuggle my twin nephews and celebrate all the things in a very, very short time.

An aside: Some future career options that I have gained some skills toward at this point are travel agent, real estate mogul, translator, child care provider, cook, immigration lawyer, relocation consultant, secretary/pencil pusher. I’m kind of all of those things right now.

What I Have Been Up To

The year in review:

We rang in 2017 among a very fireworksy and festive crowd on the Rhine River in Bonn, Germany. We had a last minute trip to Rome while it was still just two hours away. And then we packed up and moved to Pune a month later.

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Piglet at the Trevi Fountain

Between navigating Indian bureaucracy and managing calendars for the never-ending travel plans of academic life, we finally got all we needed to function on a day-to-day basis (residence permits, phones, bank account, apartment), but there’s always something else, amirite?

After the events of this spring and summer (fast-forwarding here): travel for babies and weddings, two unexpected months back in Germany but this time in the Black Forest, and not making it to Israel as expected (yet again, defeated by visa issues :T ), we finally managed to stay in one place for longer than six weeks for the first time since moving away from New York the year before.

I was able to follow up on a contact with an NGO based in Pune and have since been volunteering most of my time in one of their programs. This involves getting to see different parts of the city and playing with teenagers, so it’s pretty much perfect for me.

During the last six months I’ve also decided to apply to grad school. The combination of these two things has been keeping me pretty busy, hence my negligence of this blog. Sorry, folks, my writing efforts have been preoccupied with a million and one other things!

And celebrated so many festivals! Krishna Janmashtami, Ganpati/Ganesh Chaturthi, Durga Puja/Navratri, and Diwali! Not to mention Halloween and Thanksgiving. Any reason to get together and eat lots of food. And so many birthdays.

We said hello and goodbye to many friends! Two who visited Pune from abroad and too many more who moved away.

And overall spent lots of time just hanging out with people who help us keep our sanity.

As I’ve just finished my last application, I write to you from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where we are, once again, for a visa run so that I can stay in Pune. Plus of course for holiday, seeing family and friends, eating out hearts out and overall having a spankin’ good time.

Happy New Year!

On Language Learning in a Multilingual Society

Learning new languages are hard.

When we first got to Pune we started learning Hindi, thinking that would be useful and versatile, being the national language of India and whatnot. Then I switched to Marathi, thanks to our good friends who are enthusiastic language coaches, plus one book and the internet. My rationale is that while Hindi is indeed very useful and very versatile, the fact is that we’re living in Maharashtra, where Marathi will 99.9% of the time be useful, and leave the survival Hindi for the traveling around India. I’d rather be able to have a meaningful conversation with my neighbors and just get by while touristing, rather than the other way around. Fluency in any one language is hard enough, and learning two new languages at the same time as an adult with a not-so-squishy-anymore brain is almost impossible. So, though most of the Hindi that I started to learn at the beginning has faded from my brain, TA has thankfully managed to retain it. Another extremely fortunate point is that because Hindi and Marathi both use Devanagari, there was only one script for us to learn! Phew.

Sidebar: I’ve learned that in Mumbai, everyone speaks in Hindi. Part of the reason is that even though it’s the capital of Maharashtra, Marathi is not the de-facto language in use because there are significant linguistic communities from all over India who have been residing in Mumbai for generations. So Hindi is the go-to language for most people. You can see this on street signs, in shops and restaurants, with taxis and autos, basically everywhere. And if you’re more knowledgeable about these things, you might know which parts of the city speak certain languages over others. I’m still a noob at this. The moral of the story is, learn some dang Hindi, self. Another reason it might be helpful to learn Hindi is that people often assume that TA and I are from the Northeast States of India because of our East Asian faces, sometimes Nepalese or Tibetan (or maybe even just general foreigner category), and are therefore expected to speak in or understand Hindi. This is always a little bit confusing because when I try to reply in Marathi, we end up having a conversation* in two different languages. (*Also, I use this term very loosely.)

I’ve heard lots of arguments for and against learning Hindi here. One Marathi speaker said that even though most foreigners tend to learn Hindi in these parts, the kind that I’d learn here, would be the bastardized Bollywood version and wouldn’t be so nice to learn with regards to linguistic purity and all that. Another Marathi speaker said that I’d be better off learning Hindi because it would be more useful when traveling and speaking to people from different states. There was another instance in which I was taking an Ola Share (analog of uberPOOL) and I was trying to explain to the driver on the phone where I was. There was some confusion which involved them thinking I was in a different location, and when I tried to explain where I was in my failing Marathi, the other dude just kept going on in Hindi until he just said “kya bol…” like annoyed-ly “what are you saying…”. Anyways we ended up speaking English somehow which was a shock to me, like when you find out your best friend has hidden powers, except not nearly as dramatic. Turns out the person on the other end of the phone was not the driver but another passenger who was just a pompous, condescending-but-overly-helpful, and frankly kind of arrogant type who for some reason kept insisting on taking the driver’s calls. And I guess he didn’t speak Marathi and expected that I knew Hindi.

Okay, so maybe there are many reasons why learning Hindi would be really good for ourselves. My point is that I’ve been learning Marathi, and in Pune thus far it’s been pretty dang useful, so I’m sticking with it, but one thing at a time, amirite?! So most of my time my head is spinning, but I guess that’s what happens when you enter a multilingual society and you try to get used to the nuances of said society. At some point you (meaning I) have to realize you’ll never fully get all of it, call it good enough and be okay with that. But at the same time I want to have all of the knowledge in my brain already right now! Agh, impatience is futile in such situations. For my Marathi-speaking friends who are reading this: Thanks and sorry in advance for dealing with my eavesdropping on your conversations. Let’s call it listening practice. 🙂

Colors and Matrimony

The time has come to write another overdue blog post. After having spent seven weeks in the Black Forest of Germany where TA was a math monk and I was learning Marathi, we’re back in Pune! Perhaps I’ll write more on our Schwarzwald adventures at a later time. This post is going to be about our friend S’s wedding, for which we returned just in time! Six of us all piled into a car for a mini road trip to the bride and groom’s native district a few hours away from Pune. By the time we got there most of the wedding rituals were already completed, as they had been going on since the day before, but we were there for the main event in which they would officially be pronounced married! Before this, we had to freshen up from the car ride. Our friend J and I changed in a spare room at the wedding hall, and took we a while, mostly struggling with our sarees. Luckily a pair of aunties came to the rescue: they promptly undid our attempts and fixed us all up. Oh well, maybe better luck next time. I definitely need to up my saree-wrapping game.

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J and me having fun with sarees!

Then the guests were all called to go outside and follow the groom as he went to a local temple to start with a little offering, and then he was to make his grand entrance back to the wedding hall with his entourage leading the way with dance and music. The DJ was restricted from playing music for part of the way thanks to a local politician being in town or something like that. Here’s some shots of this process.

Then the ceremony was to start at 12:38pm promptly, but at the time there was too much revelry going on, so we took some more time getting back to the wedding hall. Eventually the rituals started, and the bride and groom got on stage surrounded by their families and relatives, who took turns reciting mantras, and at the end of each mantra all the guests threw colored rice towards them. Then of course photos, so many photos they had to take! S and B must have been so exhausted from hours of greeting and standing and smiling!

And then lunch. BTW, the plan for the guys was to wear dhotis with their kurtas, but after searching we were not able to find any(!) so they just settled for pyjamas. Hence instead of the “dhoti boys” I just simply started calling them the “kurta boys”. This is while waiting to sit for lunch.

And some more photos. I love that one of J in the entrance to the wedding hall. She thought I was taking a selfie, hehehe.

And that’s it! Congratulations, S and B!

My Top Five Game Changing Travel Items

Lately I’ve realized that when traveling, most things that I think I might need can easily be bought, replaced, or simply done without. As a recovering over-packer, the queen of “just in case”, my relationship to stuff has loosened up a great deal after our move. Living out of a suitcase has been our lifestyle of late, which has necessitated a lot of changes in what we bring around, how much of it, what kinds, the list goes on. Since we’re often carrying everything ourselves without the help of a personal car, what we pack and how we pack it is at the top of the priority list, and most things simply don’t make the cut anymore.

But there are some physical things that have made all the difference in our travels and in our everyday lives. At first glance, they’re not particularly fun items that would make a good top-20 under $20 list on a colorful, glossy magazine page, but the more we go places, the more I realize just how important these things have been for us. Also, when I say “travel”, I’m not really making any distinctions between tourism and moving. These items have been just what I have found extremely useful for the particular amalgamation of relocation/work/tourism that we’ve been doing. In general, our philosophy has been to (try to) travel as light and cheap as we can. So with that in mind, here’s the list.

#1: Tote bag(s)

Grocery shopping where disposable plastic/paper bags aren’t given out so freely, you need to pay per bag if you want any from the store. “We should take those,” TA said, pointing to our small collection of canvas tote bags, as we’re packing up our apartment in NYC. And he was so right. He luckily had spent time in the Netherlands some ten years ago and realized just how important it is, at least in Europe, to bring your own bags to the store. Neither of us comes from cities/countries that particularly prioritize reducing plastic waste, so this was definitely a good call and major lifestyle change. We know now that this is the case in India, too, and so many other places around the world. The fact that you need to bring your own bags makes you think about what you’re going to get from the store before you go, and therefore only buy as much as you can carry. Our main incentive for bringing our own bags to the store used to be to enter the raffle for a Trader Joe’s gift card, and the fact is that still it’s somewhat financial, i.e. not having to pay for new ones. But it also reduces waste, as you often need to account for every single piece of trash you accumulate at home. This usually looks like separating garbage into at least five different places in Germany (paper, packaging, compost, three different types of glass, plastic bottles to return to the store for a 25-cent deposit, and “the rest”), and in India, it’s a little bit more mysterious what happens to our waste, but all the more reason to try to reduce as much of it as possible. The 1,000 plastic bags accumulating in my kitchen would eventually just be a big pile of sadness and a constant reminder of my forgetfulness. These days I always carry around a rolled-up tote bag inside my current tote bag to give myself more flexibility in case I remember something during the day that I need to pick up on the way home. (Thanks, aging, forgetful brain of mine.) Some extra perks of a carrying your own bags is that you also have the option of borrowing books from the library or friends and carry them home 🙂 and of course, transporting snacks on local travel, such as hour-plus-long train rides, which is key. We have 2-3 that we use regularly (wash when it gets grody), and that’s just perfect.

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Us with one of the aforementioned tote bags.

#2. Dupatta

A 100% cotton shawl/stole, my trusty dupatta was actually part of a matching outfit that I wore during my semester study in India seven years ago. Much to the dismay of my father who seriously thinks I should get new stuff, I wear it all the time. Useful for shade in the sun and heat, for warmth in the cold, for cover in the rain, it’s an all-purpose piece of fabric for virtually anything. I use it as a pillow cover on airplanes. I’ve also even used it as a privacy screen in more discreet situations (take your pick–I have several stories in which this has been a major lifesaver). Any large, breathable scarf-like piece of fabric will do. Just wash it when it’s come into contact with too many public surfaces.

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Another use: here TA is shielding his eyes while he takes a nap in the sun.

#3. Eye mask + ear plugs (+ eyeglasses case)

One thing I do tend to hoard is eye masks and ear plugs from airplanes, though I’ve stuck with one set for a while now, which I’ve been using on lots of occasions. They’re not always available on planes, so I keep them in my eyeglasses case when traveling. For me, it’s been useful for sticking to my own schedule when trying to start the adjustment to jet lag. I joke that I’m sort of permanently jet lagged at this point, but it still helps to keep track of sleeping hours so that I can expect how much more rest I’ll need when the adrenaline wears off in a new place. NB: Some people like to use headphones + music. Unfortunately, I haven’t updated my personal system for music enjoyment in a long time and have yet to get on that, so ear plugs are just fine for now.

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I really took this photo to capture the bee-fly, but you get the idea.

#4. Document holder

Every local municipality wants your paperwork and unfortunately not everything comes in its own fancy protective cover like passports do. I find it odd that all of our important documents and/or information are recorded on flimsy pieces of paper that are vulnerable to moisture… and to anything, really! Even if your filing system isn’t perfectly intuitive, because honestly, who has time for that (they all just get jumbled up again), at least they’re in one place. Plus all the Xerox copies you’re required to make. Even one big pocket is fine. This is where I’m okay keeping my “just in case” habits because you don’t want to have to track down the city clerk in your hometown to get an original certificate mailed to the other side of the Earth for any reason. I just stuff them all in this paperwork folder. And purge regularly, like when we’re in a new place and discover we suddenly have lots of obsolete paperwork. I’m okay with that, because it’s much more complicated not to have originals on hand.

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That blue journal has been acting as my catch-all thought dump, including for plans, but I really need to utilize one calendar. Confession: sometimes I stuff individual documents in between books, which I do NOT recommend. Also, see mathematicians at work.

#5. Calendar/planner

I figured this one out way too late in the game. Whether on your smartphone, computer, paper, or whatever, this is very important for far too many reasons: Keeping track of umpteen visa deadlines, travel bookings (flight, train purchase, actual dates of travel), reminders for reimbursements, other inevitable bureaucratic obligations, bank appointments, conferences, bills, repairs, residence permit renewals, just to name a few likely ones. Every country works differently re: timelines and chooses to phrase their deadlines rather arbitrarily: “at least,” “no more than,” etc. leave you constantly figuring out the ideal time to apply for things not to early and also not too late. Because again, who has time for that? Still trying to get in the habit of not relying on my unreliable brain and just putting it all down in one place, though.

What are some things you just can’t do without when going to a new place?

 

Pune, Home.

I’ve lately been wondering what determines whether one lives in a particular place. Is it official status and whether or not you have a residence permit? Is it a name on a lease? Your own bed? Keys? Is it the length of time spent there so far? If so, is it how long you’ve already spent there or how much longer you plan to be there? Is it the ease with which you can give directions or navigate the area? Is it employment status? Paying taxes? Having friends? Food? Language?

In terms of length of time, I’ve only been in Pune for eight weeks out of the last three and a half months. Yet we live there for all intents and purposes. All of our paperwork says so. But if we go by paperwork, we are also technically living in a tiny, tiny village in the Black Forest of Germany at the moment, since we’re registered with the local municipality. It’s only for a few weeks, but since it’s for a little bit more than tourism, there are such formalities like this that need to be taken care of in Germany.

If we talk about the visceral feelings of knowing you’re “at home”, there are a few things I can think of that contribute to this. In New York, I would always be paranoid about making sure that I always kept the following items on me when leaving the house: phone, wallet, keys. In that order. Ritually chanting to myself as I put on my shoes and head out the door: “phone, wallet, keys”. In my mind, if you had at least one of these, then you could at least be that much closer to accessing the others. (If I even came out of the house with any single one of these, my phone for example, then I could either call TA and tell him I forgot my keys or wallet and coordinate the day accordingly. Or if I only had my wallet and forgot my phone or keys, I could still get to work with my MetroCard without too much hassle. But all three was golden.) Phone, wallet, keys. One might think of them as a form of security, or even call it one’s “life”. So yes, these items are pretty important and such a pain in the butt to lose and then to replace. So, phone, wallet, keys.

Yet after landing in a different country, these things instantly become obsolete. Your phone loses connection. Your money is no good. Your keys are useless.

And so you walk around with nothing on you.

I used to work in a shelter for homeless young moms, where keys were power. The fact was, the person who held the keys was the one in charge. In charge of being able to let someone into their bedroom, the private place where the rest their head at night. It sounds twisted and disturbing, and it is. You don’t want to be on either side of that. So imagine the sense of security one has once she has her own keys to her own space in her own hands. A place to call one’s own.

This is not at all the same situation, but the point is that the physical things that signal that you have your own place actually make a difference in how secure you feel in that place. In Germany, we had luckily found an apartment before arriving, so keys were immediately in our hand once we got there. But to pay the landlord we needed euros. But to access euros we needed a bank account, plus a residence permit. But to open a bank account we also needed euros, plus a phone number, plus a residence permit. To get a phone number we also needed euros, etc. (We decided not to get a mobile phone and instead used TA’s office phone for things that really needed one.) Do you see what I’m getting at?

In India, it was (and still is) so much more convoluted. A headache and a half, and it’s still far from over. In fact, I don’t think it’ll ever really be over. But we’re there! And we live there, even if we’re not there. And slowly, one by one you acquire these things: the phone (which is needed for virtually everything), the wallet (started out with just a few rupees), the keys.

So in one sense, Pune is home. But it’s not where we’re from or where we’re going. It’s being foreign anywhere and making friends everywhere. It’s being able to laugh at yourself and others in any universally ridiculous situation. So I guess home is really where you feel comfortable. (Getting used to constant discomfort and change counts, too.) If you’re lucky, it’s where you don’t need to explain yourself. In this crazy journey of always being on the move, we’ve gotten to make good friends, and the way this is set up, we’re never in any one place long very long. So life is a lot of things right now, but it’s mostly missing people.

 

P.S. I’ve recently started an Instagram (@abenteuerpig) so you might see some different photos there, too!