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The Former Expats' Union

The Former Expats' Union

August 12, 2012

It isn't that the folks back home don't care about your overseas experience. They just weren't there.

We four sat around a cosy dining table in West Seattle, three Americans and one Zealander, eating a home-cooked meal of dal, chard, rice, naan and roti, followed by in-season peaches and Trader Joe's dark chocolate for dessert. A shared connection kept us telling stories for hours, many recalled with laughter, others punctuated by weighty silences. The connection was not a person (although it often felt like it) but a place: we had all been to India. 

Contrary to the foreigner-in-India cliché, we did not sit around talking endlessly about so-called 'spirituality' and gurus (although yoga, meditation and 'Eat Pray Love' were each discussed for longer than a passing mention). None of us went to India in search of The Answer, and none of us came away with it neatly packaged and ready for the mass market. I say this because I acknowledge there is a preconceived notion of the India pilgrim among residents of English-speaking nations. I spent three years in India but I too hold this preconception, fuelled by decades of long-haired weed smokers and incessant Om chanters monopolising the image of the India tourist.

No matter what I say here, and no matter how we present ourselves to people we meet, some will fail to see anything else in us except that preconceived image. That's the extreme, the cliché that gives rise to the accepted wisdom. The norm is a little less blunt and quite a lot more awkward. Each of us were somewhat surprised by the reactions we received from the folks back home, once we made it back home. In America, it went something like this:

“Oh my GOD, you went to India? Oh, wow! India! Well... what was it like?”
“Well... it was India, I guess. Kind of hard to sum it up.”
“I'll bet. Wow! India. Did you do the whole 'Eat Pray Love' thing?”
“...hah, maybe, I guess.”

And in New Zealand, it went more like this:

“So, I heard you went to India.”
“Yeah, three years.”
“Wow. Three years in India.”
“That's pretty... cool.”

It isn't that your compatriots don't care about your overseas experience. Starting a conversation about it is actually hard for both parties: you, the former expat, aren't sure what level of detail to go into or where to even start talking about it, while your fellow countryman often just doesn't have anything they feel they can relate to. For seemingly many former expats, the conversation quickly turns back to the present:

“So, anyway, what's going on with you?”


The conversation at the dinner table wasn't entirely focused on India either, of course. Our ongoing lives meandered in and out of the conversation. Plans for the near future were clarified and acknowledged. We have all moved on from our respective India experiences, some more than others, although we all hope to return someday.

India has become part of our own minor legends, though. Each of us is an artist in some form – not helping to debunk the foreigner-in-India cliché, I know – and the people, the traffic, the spices, the English, the beasts and the colour of India have all become valuable artistic, sensate and emotional resources. We accumulated enough of these resources and experiences to clearly picture whatever India story was being told at that dining table, and to be able to seamlessly offer a story of our own in return.

If it weren't for fatigue at the end of a long, warm summer's day, we could've kept talking all night.

Photo credit


  • tonyH
    13.08.12 06:01 PM
    The sub heading says all of it Barnz! Whether India, Oz or UAE, the experience of the world will always be amazing but un-conveyable - you have to have been there. I think also the universality of TV travel, as well as real travel - so many have now had some OE of more or less depth, or at least the vicarious experience - that there is an inevitable numbness of response to our Marco Polo tales. Though you do a fine job of conveying. And to be sure, I have been gratified to find the 1 in 100 wide-eyed listener is still out there, imagination still intact. "Shut me up!" I gush; "No, go on!" they reassure. And we will do so, with nearly as much gusto as when we reminisce with fellow returnees from, and wishful returners to, those magic places, whether it was mere weeks (a taste of India was not enough for me), a few short years (the desert will always be another home now); or a lifetime (how great to have NZ as a baseline to all this).
  • AussieDesi
    13.08.12 04:17 PM
    I think you are now experiencing what many second-generation Indian kids have experienced.

    Questions about India are never answered easily. I have given up trying to "explain India" to people, especially those planning to visit.

    My conversations now go something like:
    Them: "So I have decided to go to India"
    Me: "Cool, good for you"
    Them: "Will it be tough?"
    Me: "Could be"
    Them: "Will I get sick?"
    Me: "Maybe"
    Them: "Will I enjoy the people and culture?"
    Me: "I hope so"
    etc etc

    You are better off chatting about India with those that have their own experiences of India to share. :-)
  • Hari
    13.08.12 07:14 AM
    Lovely read Barns...and you are welcome back home any day
  • pindi gill
    pindi gill
    12.08.12 01:19 PM
    Cheers and a HIP HIP HOORAY for your straight talk and no frills approach. Can relate to the group and i am yet in india and this is probably my 15th trip and this is the first time that i sold myself '' i wish i could live here forever.''. my personal sum up of idia, '' CHAOTICALLY HARMONIOUS '' Enjoyed your sincerity. Pindi

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