Life of the Expat


Not long ago I was contacted by JWT New York and asked to write something for their Worldwide Blog, something I agreed to do without hesitation. Finding a suitable topic for a potentially quite wide audience, while keeping it personal, was a bit tricky, but I ended up choosing the dramatic curve of the expat as my topic. It was a bit of a balancing act since I wanted to write about both what an expat goes through in general, and my experiences in particular. But I think it turned out ok.

You can find the post at the JWT Worldwide Blog, however I’ll post it here as well to include it in my journal.

I’ve been living in India for more than three months now. I think my day-counter hit three digits earlier this week. People ask me what it’s like to live here, and every time I’m at a loss for words. I’d prefer the answer to be straightforward, but it isn’t.

I come from Finland. Like most Finns, I seldom initiate small talk in the elevator. My personal space starts at an extended arm’s length. I pay a lot of taxes, in exchange for which I get universal health care, social security and well-kept roads. Salmon, potatoes and copious amounts of coffee are prominent elements in my food circle. I’m not overly obsessive, but I feel happy when things are neat and do what they’re supposed to. The thorough four seasons we have in Finland are not something I always enjoy, but I do appreciate how they symbolize constant change. Lazy summer days are spent at the cottage by the lake, savoring the silence.

With this constellation in mind, it can be difficult to find a more polar opposite country than India. I had never lived abroad before, so the idea of moving there, of all places, was both an intriguing and a terrifying one. Which is perhaps why I decided to go ahead and do it – jump in the deep end.

Come October 2013, I was stepping off the plane in Mumbai. Once the jet lag wore off, I felt the first impact – how vibrant everything felt. There was a sense of saturation, of everything: people, scenery, colors, spices, tenets, sounds and scents. It was intoxicating.

Being an expat is very different from being a conventional traveller. This is something I fully realized after the first few weeks. You see, in the beginning the two are essentially the same, seeing the new place through an explorer’s eyes. Everything is new, exciting and cast in an idyllic light. You find new locations, taste delicious local cuisine and have fun seeing another kind of culture.

However, after some time these impressions start to fade and give way to a more day-to-day view on what life is like at the new location. Nuances start to emerge. At some point, culture shock might set in; a temporary uneasiness caused by trying to fit into a new, unfamiliar type of life and environment. Long before that would happen, the traveller would have moved on. But the expat does not have that option; he has to stay and make a home away from home.

This happened to me after the first few weeks. I remember when I started to see things in a different light, how I started to discover the downsides of my new location; reality was intruding on my romanticized vision of India. Negotiating my way through the zany traffic became bothersome and the constant honking wasn’t funny anymore. The lack of non-local foods made for a very dull diet; no matter how good the food is, if you eat the same stuff for too long you’ll get sick of it. Trying to run paperwork through a bureaucratic engine is never fun, but in India it’s nearly absurd.

This will get progressively worse until month three, give or take. You’ll start to second-guess yourself more and more as you realize family and friends are far away. And there were times, for example when I met a guy carrying a decapitated goat’s head, had a barber stick his finger in my ear or noticed that cars play the lambada, that I felt inclined to do a quick reassessment of whether things even made sense anymore.

Don’t get me wrong, living in a new place is—and should be—a lot of fun too. But the general progression usually goes like this. It’s the typical expat’s dramatic curve, if you will.

The turning point comes sometime soon after the third month. You might still be a bit down on it, but you’re working on it. There is a growing acceptance for the downsides and you focus on the good things, the benefits of living where you are. Nowadays I maneuver my bike through traffic more in sync with the chaotic flow of vehicles around me. I’ve found some more non-Indian restaurants, which I can go to when the local cuisine is not an option. The bureaucracy is still annoying, but at least I understand its quirks better now.

But the ceaseless honking in traffic, no. I’m still not OK with that.

What comes next? I’m not sure. My gut feeling is that sometime after six months the dramatic curve should be a great deal smoother and more stable. The coping should be over and you should find yourself in a comfortable space. Sure, you’ll still be missing your friends back home. But you’ll begin to form new, deep friendships and become more attached to your surroundings. And, perhaps around that time, the word “home” will start referring to that new dwelling.