Alone in a Foreign Land: Part Adventure, Part Challenge

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I have been living away from home for a long time now – it’s almost a decade since I moved out for the very first time, as a naive sheltered 17-year-old girl. Nearly five of those years have been spent in New York City. That’s half a world away from India, away from where I grew up, away from all the people I love the most. I have had to build my support system from the ground up, while also learning to navigate the streets, conduct research in a new lab, and understand the culture of a foreign city. It’s been quite the ride, and I have lived and experienced every moment to the fullest – the highs and the lows, the twists and turns, the victories and delights, and all the bumps and bruises. And while I have many, many thoughts on how my life has turned out based on all the choices I have made so far, it’s hard to sum up what this phase of my life has meant to me. What does living all alone in a foreign country entail? Is it the best of times, or the worst of times? Is it a glamorous adventure, or the toughest of challenges?

The best part of living abroad by yourself? Most definitely the independence. The freedom of living life on your own terms, and exploring the streets of a strange and exciting city. The sheer independence of not having anyone to care about what you wear, where you go, or what time you get back home. The ability to test your own limits and set your own curfews. The liberty to spend your money on whatever you deem necessary, be it Seamless deliveries at midnight, or a cute mermaid tail blanket just because you saw it and now cannot live without it.

Living abroad by yourself is when you can immerse yourself in a whole new culture. It’s fascinating to observe how fast people walk, the left-right escalator etiquette, the public transport system. And if you live in NYC, every now and then you’ll come across a new location which seems strangely familiar – before you realize, oh right, countless movies and TV shows have been shot here. Oh, these are the steps in Central Park where Blair and Chuck from Gossip Girl got hastily married. This is the Roosevelt Island tram which White Collar’s gorgeous Neal Caffrey climbed up to escape capture. You can scout out all the famous locations, but you can also hunt down tiny little bookstores, in alleyways you wouldn’t wander down in the dark, and find new hidden cafes with nondescript doors and wonderfully eclectic interiors. Everything is ready and waiting to be discovered – like being in a real-life choose-your-own-adventure book with multiple chapters and endings just waiting to be explored.

Living abroad on your own also leads to self-exploration. You end up surrounded by a completely new culture, and you get to decide if you want to hold on fast to your own culture, adopt the new one, or find your own unique blend of old and new – your own set of beliefs and rules, and use them to fine-tune your moral compass. Living abroad is the time when you can figure out who you truly are, far away from all the expectations and societal pressures – getting some distance is what allows you to recognize those, and realize how much you’ve unquestioningly internalized. You can now question what you’ve never questioned, behave in a way you’d never have imagined, figure out the person you truly are – underneath all the people-pleasing, expectations-fulfilling, rule-following persona you’ve developed over time naturally and unthinkingly because that’s just the way it was. Living abroad allows you to remove all those masks and uncover how unconscious your core beliefs and biases are. It helps you grow into an authentic, messy, real version of yourself – and forces self-discovery like nothing else. Living abroad is an exciting, thrilling, and fascinating experience – I highly recommend it!

 

What’s the worst part of living abroad by yourself? Once again, the independence. The anonymity of being all alone in the crowd, and not having anyone who cares about what you wear, where you go, and what time you get back. There’s nobody who would automatically check in on you. It’s surprisingly easy to become isolated. You’re all by yourself in a completely new place, and every step is a new challenge – from finding the nearest grocery store and navigating unfamiliar social situations, to filing for taxes, and getting your social security number. Coming home at the end of the day can feel dreary, because you’re welcomed only by your (most likely, unmade) bed, and perhaps a plant or two. There’s no warm food on the table, no warm companion to ask how your day was. There’s no automatic social interaction after coming home, unless you specifically make plans with friends. You’re completely by yourself, and while that sense of freedom is liberating, it can also get lonely.

Also, the whole process of figuring out who you really are and testing your limits and beliefs is not easy. It’s unnerving to question what you’ve always held true. The transition period while you’re coming to terms with loosening your grip on the old belief system, and building a new one? It’s uncomfortable. It’s disturbing, because all of a sudden, ideas are fluid instead of rigid – and if you can’t rely on what you’ve held onto for twenty-something years, what’s the guarantee that this new system will serve you? All the absolutes start dissolving into relatives, there is no perfect right or wrong anymore. While building your own system from the ground up is essential for personal growth and self-awareness, the process can be rather bewildering . Change is good, but change is also hard, and while adventures are really exciting, they are by nature quite terrifying as well.

 

Knowing what I know now, would I do it again? Would I head out on a whole new adventure, or would I prefer stability and familiarity? Will I spread out my wings and fly out to a whole new phase of my life, or will I hang up my boots, and say, enough flying, I’m done – I know who I am now, and am happy with it, so now, after having accumulated all that experience and knowledge – watch me put down my roots now?

I’ve thought about it long and hard, and my conclusion is: while the idea of safe familiarity is tempting, so very tempting at times – I am an adventurer at heart. I’m always looking for the next challenge, the next hurdle, the next battle. I am not the kind of person who would be happy to settle for just good enough – I always want to be better, do better, strive for more. That path isn’t always easy, but it’s the path I choose. It’s the path I want. The bumpy one, with the crazy ups and downs. Because while the lows can be devastating indeed, the highs are just so incredibly rewarding. The harder the battle, the sweeter the victory. So bring on the next adventure. And watch me fly!

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In Defense of Stories Untold

But ever so often, consciously or otherwise, we curate and edit our stories – and even if we call ourselves an open book, there are certain chapters we don’t read out loud, certain stories we don’t exchange while sitting around bonfires on beaches at night – because they don’t have conventionally acceptable happy endings, or because they paint us in an unflattering light, instead of as the valiant and righteous protagonists we’d like to be.

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We are all storytellers. We express ourselves through Instagram pictures, overly long Facebook posts, public blogs, or even just dramatic retellings at extra long lunch breaks with our friends. We love being narrators, in varying degrees of spotlight, and there’s something incredibly gratifying to have our audience connect with our narratives.

But ever so often, consciously or otherwise, we curate and edit our stories – and even if we call ourselves an open book, there are certain chapters we don’t read out loud, certain stories we don’t exchange while sitting around bonfires on beaches at night – because they don’t have conventionally acceptable happy endings, or because they paint us in an unflattering light, instead of as the valiant and righteous protagonists we’d like to be. So we bury these stories deep, never to see the light of day – and if we do decide to share them, we prefer to add filters to our photos, don masks for our one-man shows, and narrate our stories from a different angle. Maybe we’re afraid of being judged too harshly. Maybe the statute of limitations isn’t up yet. Maybe we are still in denial, and haven’t yet accepted this chapter. Maybe we look back and wonder what we were thinking in the first place, or if we were thinking at all. And so these stories, these untold stories, are kept under wraps because they spoil the overall narrative, you see? They don’t fit the image we’ve worked so hard to project. These stories are the chips in our armor, the unnecessary glimpses of flawed and painfully real humanity. It’s vulnerability laid out bare in front of the world, and we don’t want anyone to see it, because we ourselves struggle to reconcile with it. So we tell ourselves that it’s just a fluke, a one-off, and that the true narrative is still unblemished.

But don’t these stories deserve to be told? Aren’t these tales important? Don’t these chapters offer insights into self and values, knee-jerk reactions and instincts, as much as, if not more than the stories widely published? In fact, more than the stories themselves, the reasons why we choose to keep them under wraps is a deeply insightful, if difficult question, which provides a clear path towards exploring our own implicit biases and judgments. What do we feel, and why are we feeling this way? What guilt, shame, pain would we rather not deal with, and pretend doesn’t exist? While this ruminating may not change our public narrative dramatically, it does help the storyteller understand motives and reasoning of their primary protagonist – themselves.

We all love the image of ourselves we have in our heads – the perfect, flawless, whip-smart version of us who never messes up. Who never makes mistakes. Who knows exactly what to say at the right time. Who is kind and thoughtful, but also not a pushover. Who has no hair out of place, no wrinkles in their perfectly ironed clothes, no chinks in their armor. Who’s always more talented, more unstoppable, simply more than who we are in reality.

But you know what? That isn’t who you really are. You are not perfect – instead, you are real. You are real, and flawed, and just figuring out those flaws, and working on what you think warrants change makes you gloriously human. It’s hard, so very hard to remember that vulnerability is not weakness. Your messy emotions, your honest-to-goodness pain, your rawness, your awkwardness – may not be perfect, but they don’t have to be. You don’t have to be. All you have to be is your unique self, flaws and all. So let’s remove those filters. Let’s throw off those masks. Let’s read out those stories, loud and proud. Here’s to being fearless, instead of flawless!

In the driver’s seat

So you see, the honest answer to that is yes, I can. I CAN drive a car, you know, just as long as I’m barefoot, it’s a manual, someone is barking rapid-fire instructions at me, and I’m allowed to drive on the left side of the road.

I don’t drive. While I was growing up in Indore, I’d take my bicycle or my mom’s scooter to travel short distances, and Dad would drive me if I wanted to go beyond a certain radius. When I moved to Pune, I promptly adapted to elbowing my way into overcrowded buses and haggling over ‘meter’ charges with rickshaw-wallas. After moving to the States, I have been lucky enough to live in Manhattan which has a pretty great public transport system. Conveniently, parking is criminally expensive, so nobody expects me to have a car to drive anyway.

If anyone ever asks me if I can drive, I usually say no. That isn’t completely true, but the truthful answer requires a long-winded and rather ridiculous backstory.

I did learn to drive in India. During one of my winter breaks from college, I attended fifteen days of driving classes in Indore. I was taught by a female retired police officer, who was proportioned like Madame Maxime and behaved like Mad-Eye Moody. She was brisk and efficient, but wouldn’t let me rest my feet against the brake or accelerator unless I kicked off my shoes first. She assumed all women wear wedges and heels while driving, and claimed that that wouldn’t give me a real feel of just how much pressure I’d have to apply for the car to respond. So now every time I get into the driver’s seat, my first few moves are to pull my seat up close to the dashboard (otherwise I’m this short-legged child whose feet dangle and don’t touch the pedals), adjust the mirrors, and then kick off my shoes before putting on my seat belt.

Madame Maxime’s next tactic was to drive me right into the middle of the crowded, traffic rule-flouting city, and then plop me in the driver’s seat. Me, an utter novice, who wasn’t mentally prepared to drive before I’d learnt the exact name and function of every single thingamajig of the car. But nope, I had to learn by diving into the deep end – so middle of the city it was. The parts of the city where there isn’t unidirectional or bidirectional flow of traffic, but pretty much two-, three-, and four-wheelers driving in whichever direction they pleased, in bumper-to-bumper traffic, amidst the ear-splitting din of annoyingly-pitched truck horns. While this experience taught me how to change gears instantly, and swerve to avoid stray cows plodding along the street, potholes, idiotic cyclists, and dogs who streak past the front of my car at the last possible second – it’s still a rather limiting skill set. Sure, I am fairly confident I will never crash into anyone, I have relatively fast reflexes, and have learnt to expect everything short of a UFO landing on the road in front of me. But on the other hand, I freak out the moment I have to go above third gear, simply because I have never had to. I can be the safest driver on the planet, but am probably also the slowest. I’m quite unsettled by empty roads and highways – what, am I expected to drive really fast, and own the whole road? That’s too much open space. Where is all the traffic?!

The third thing I learnt in driving school was how to obey orders instantly and without question. If Madame Maxime said stop, I slammed on the brakes with all my might. If she said switch to second gear, I did it instantly, before comprehending why. If she said I have to lean on the horn and press for several deafening seconds, that is exactly what I would do. While all this worked well for us in those two weeks, I never learnt how to drive without instruction. So the first time I drove without her by my side, it was incredibly unnerving. All of a sudden, I was expected to make all these decisions on my own. When exactly do I switch to second gear? How much do I slow down on my turns? Nobody else was looking out to estimate the size of the pothole coming up, and deciding if my wheel track was significantly wider than the pothole diameter, so I could safely drive over it instead of swerving to avoid it. That’s a lot of pressure, I tell you! What if I decide wrong? What if I switch to third gear, without anticipating giant orange construction barrels which suddenly materialize in front of me, and I panic and have to downshift to first, accidentally stalling the car in the process? (This happened while I was trying to impress my dad with my new-found driving skills in his new car. He was not impressed.)

After finishing up driving school, I got my driver’s license. There was a written multiple choice test, which I aced, because if there’s one thing I can do well, it’s prepping for theoretical exams. There was no actual driving test, which is quite alarming now that I think about it. Is this how all Indian driving licenses are handed out? Because that might explain a lot.

I haven’t learnt how to drive in the States yet, and have no immediate plans to do so. I’ve gotten by quite nicely in the last four years, and the whole process of buying or renting a car, getting a teacher, learning to drive in Manhattan traffic, and relearning all my driving coordinates (the left side of the road is NOT the right side to drive in this country!) seems a lot more hassle than it’s worth. I might do it at some point, once I find a reason more convincing than having to answer – ‘wait, you can’t drive?!’

So you see, the honest answer to that is yes, I can. I CAN drive a car, you know, just as long as I’m barefoot, it’s a manual, someone is barking rapid-fire instructions at me, and I’m allowed to drive on the left side of the road. I can totally drive! 😛 But for mine and everyone else’s sake, I’d really rather not!