The best and worst of working abroad – some thoughts.

The Good

  1. You’ll actually be motivated to learn another language. Although I tried pretty hard to learn French in school, this has absolutely nothing on the determination that I’ve had, since being in India, to pick up Hindi words and phrases. Necessity is a massively motivating factor. Beyond the “I need to know how to ask for water” type stuff, there’s also the desire to understand a society which can only come with learning the language. For example, I teach in a lot of primary classes and was surprised by the prevalence of the name “Harsh”. In English, this word means severe or strict, like a “harsh punishment”. In Hindi however, Harsh means ‘glad’. Mind = blown.
  2. You *might* get the chance to travel (but see below on this as well). Travelling as a tourist can offer a lot, you’ll see the highlights of a place, you might have some of your travel arrangements sorted by your travel company, and you might be able to organise things through a hotel so that you can skip the queues at major attractions. Travelling whilst working obviously has the advantage of the fact that you’re earning money as you travel, and you don’t feel as though you’re constantly eating up your savings. Plus, travelling whilst working in a country might mean that you have access to more local knowledge, and so you can find places that those on the tourist-trail might miss out on.
  3. You’ll gain a new perspective (and often appreciation) of your ‘normal’ life at home. I don’t ever think that I really appreciated always having access to clean, hot water until I lived here. On a deeper level, I really didn’t understand how much liberty I had to be able to wander around the streets where I live alone,or to walk to the nearest shop unaccompanied to buy food.
  4. You’ll be immersed in a new culture.This is great because it really does show how relative most aspects of human life and society are. Gender roles, educational methods, family structures, these all vary so much by time and place. Things you thought were the norm are actually merely your norm.
  5. You’ll grow so much as a person as a result of the above.Not only do you have to learn to drop the whole “well, in MY country we do this…” attitude, but after coming away from your native country and culture, you’ll be in a much better position to assess your own strengths and weaknesses. Taking myself as an example – since working in India I’ve found that my resourcefulness can be boundless given the right conditions, but I need to work on my overall pessimistic outlook which can often lead me to presume the worst, or to think of problems which never materialise.

The Bad, and sometimes Ugly

  1. The food.So you thought that because you have Indian/Chinese/American food where you come from, it’d be roughly similar to what you’d find when living abroad. Nice springrolls, Chow Mein, Chicken Tikka Masala, maybe the odd Korma, or at least a McDonald’s cheeseburger if all else fails…wrong. The reason that this is a real issue when working vs. travelling/holiday-ing/tourist-ing is that if you’re working in a specific location you may be unlikely to have the time to really seek out food from your own country (probably only found in the nearest large multi-national supermarket or big city). You need to adjust to local food, but sometimes, having no choice over the meals in your work-provided accommodation or work canteen, can feel restrictive.
  2. Accommodation.Again, having work provide accommodation for you can bring its own problems. Work might be able to intervene if there are any problems, but it might not be exactly the kind of place that you were expecting.When I was told that I would be living in a ‘hostel’ with a shop and a gym I expected some sort of walled city, or miniature town in this compound. Instead, there’s really not a lot here, and most residents, including me, have to turn to their laptops for entertainment instead.
  3. The work ethic.This applies especially to Asia. Whereas I’m only contracted to work Mon-Fri, basically everyone else at my school works Saturdays too. Schools functions (PTMs, Sports Day, Annual Day) mean working weekends, even for me. I arrive at work by 7:50am and leave at around 3:15pm. However, that’s another arrangement which is tailor-made for me. The other staff must remain in the school until at least 3:30pm – an hour after school ends. There’s a 20 minute lunch break at school, but most teachers don’t sit down, or even eat during this time. They don’t sit together, or talk, and tend to either supervise their class eating in their classroom, or get on with yet more work. I’ve never seen anything like it.
  4. Adjusting expectations. When you signed up for this job you saw yourself becoming practically fluent in another language (well, near enough fluent, after about 6 months) and you’d have travelled all over the country, beyond the big landmarks. Yet when you arrive, you realise that everyone is going to insist on speaking to you in English, and you don’t have quite as much time or logistical ability to travel beyond the locality in which you’ve been allocated.
  5. Differing cultural norms. Cultural exchange is fun, right? Maybe, until you realise that in this country, people don’t say bye, they just walk away when they feel that your conversation is/ should be over. As for work, you’d better stand every time your boss enters or leaves the room, and ask for permission to sit down. You’re not in Europe anymore, so there’ll be no ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ when someone wants you to do something. You’re welcome.

Somehow though, all of the everyday annoyances are worth it. You empower yourself by overcoming the little challenges that you face everyday, and realise that some of the things that you saw as obstacles a month ago, just aren’t as formidable any more. You will learn some of the language, and see some new sights, even if they aren’t those that your Lonely Planet or Rough Guide recommended. You start building bridges around yourself instead of walls – you’ll change a little bit and so will those around you, as a result of having you there. After all, does it really matter that there’s no toilet paper, when you can use the same word for ‘tomorrow’ as ‘yesterday’, and buy a king-sized meal for under 50p?

Advertisements

Travelling, and the authenticity of experience.

This is just a quick post on something that’s been bothering me for a while.

Staying in backpacker hostels on my weekends has proved to be a great way to see new places and speak to travellers. Obviously, it’s very different for me, working in India rather than just travelling around, but I was starting to get annoyed at the way in which people just seemed to be ticking off places, and listing the ones that they’d already been to as some sort of superior achievement.

I’ve always preferred to be based in one place (e.g., Washington D.C, Beijing, Zhuhai, Greater Noida) and then explore the locality and a couple of special places (like NYC when I was in Washington D.C, or Hong Kong when I was in Guangdong). I can’t help feel that the quantity of the cities that you’ve visited in a country doesn’t mean that you know more about it, or that your experience has somehow been “fuller” or more comprehensive than someone who’s spending months in a country but doesn’t cover a large geographical area. Just my two cents.

I think another thing that had been bugging me in the back of my mind was that the placements that the other Teaching Assistants on my programme had were somehow better than mine. Obviously, everyone’s placements have their advantages and disadvantages, which is part of the beauty of the British Council’s programme, but I was really bothered by the fact that everyone else seemed to have been able to explore more places than me. They were either located closer to Delhi/ the metro, and so could travel around easier, or, they were in a pair/ living with a host family, which generally means that they can either make outings more easily, or be taken directly to places by their host families.

However, since then I’ve been thinking a lot about my experience in India and it’s authenticity. Was my experience any less real because I spent a lot of time in a provincial girls’ hostel? No, I had learned as much about Indian culture (and probably, a little more spoken Hindi) due to this. Did the fact that I hadn’t really travelled out of the state that I’d been placed in invalidate my experience? No. I’ve learnt so much about how Indians from U.P view other states and their history, even if I haven’t snapped the perfect photo of the blue roofs of Jodphur (which I’d still totally love to do…) What about the fact that some of the others had seen more sites of historical interest (e.g. Lodhi gardens, palaces in Jaipur and Udiaphur) and could discuss these with their Indian hosts? Again, I reached the conclusion that the things I had learnt about myself whilst living and working in Greater Noida, especially in a hostel where so many girls my own age live, had just as much value, even if they were less picturesque and Facebook-worthy.

I may not have been to as many bars, or scenic beauty spots, or house parties as some of the other people that I know or have met here, but I’m starting to accept that maybe that’s not me anyway. That’s not who I am when I travel, otherwise I’d have set off to Australia or Thailand, or road-tripping America, taking pictures at each landmark, partying, and moving on. It doesn’t matter that I spend most of my days here moving between two air-conditioned buildings (the school and my hostel), by the time I return home I will have learnt as much about contemporary India as any boastful gap-year teen or graduate, and understood much more.

Things you will and (probably) won’t need in India

What NOT to bring;

  1. Tight clothes/ formal western wear – unless you’re planning on seriously hitting the clubs in Delhi, or you’re heading to Goa. I brought a dress with me because it was knee length, and covered my chest, back and shoulders, in fact it’s long sleeved. However, the fact that it is quite tight (it’s made out of an elastic-type material) has made me realise that I can never wear it to work functions or British Council India events whilst I’m here.
  2. A waterproof raincoat – when it’s not the monsoon season! Though an umbrella might well double as a sunshade. I think for those arriving in India in July (depending on the geographical region) this might have been more useful. I haven’t opened mine once in the two months that I’ve been here.
  3. A long, formal dress – which doesn’t cover the shoulders or chest properly. This dress was suitably loose and flow-y, and it’s also floor length. Great! Nope. It’s strapless and so isn’t really modest enough, again, to wear to most events here, though obviously at a friend’s party, or just around the girls’ hostel where I live, it’s fine.
  4. Waterproof bags/ sacks(!) Ok, so I kind of convinced myself that there would come a time when all of my possessions might be soaked in an absolute monsoon deluge. Maybe I’d be travelling somewhere far away, outside for some reason. Or I’d be trekking over rivers and streams. So far, this hasn’t happened, and seems very unlikely to on my placement! Again, I guess this might depend on your specific plans, but my stuff has survived the monsoon fine in my hostel room, and most ordinary bags can hold out even in a monsoon downpour, as long as it’s only for a couple of minutes.
  5. Bags and packets of western medicine. Ok, so some of this is a good idea – like paracetamol. I’ve never taken ibuprofen, and I’m reluctant to try seeing as my mum can’t have it and I’m also asthmatic. Bringing some paracetamol was a life-saver when I was ill and didn’t want to negotiate the Indian brands of pain-killers, searching through ingredients labels etc. On the other hand, bringing loads of generic cold and flu relief type sachets has so far proven useless – especially as I’m place in a city with multiple pharmacies selling very similar, non-specific products. So if you want/need a particular medicine, bring it, but rest ashore that as long as you’re not heading into the middle of nowhere, you’ll be able to locate a chemist in the nearest town with many of the same type of products as in Europe/ America!
  6. Make-up. It’s around 34 degrees here today. Wearing anything other than a tiny bit of mascara (and absolutely necessary concealer for blemishes) seems pretty pointless – it will literally melt off your face as soon as you step outside. Vaseline is worth bringing though – or at least, it has been for me – the constant air con and temperature change between the inside and outside of buildings makes my lips crack.
  7. The national flag flies at Connaught Place, Delhi.
    The national flag flies at Connaught Place, Delhi.

Very quickly – things that you probably haven’t thought of, but ARE a good idea to bring;

  1. Vitamin, iron and protein supplements. Vitamin C because travelling wears you down; your tired and constantly on the move and coming into contact with so many new people and places (read: germs). Also, fruit and veg. rot quickly here and can be hard to come by – few people get their 5-a-day! Iron and protein because you might want to avoid meat entirely when you first arrive in India, to allow your body to adjust to the climate, and your digestive system to get used to some of the spices. Also because you’ll still be sussing out what’s safe. Dropping meat from my diet completely (the hostel I live in, and the school I work in, only serve vegetarian food) has often left me feeling lethargic and sleepy – probably because I haven’t found a decent substitute. Hint; taking vitamin B12 supplements will stop you being bitten by mosquitoes. The yeast in the tablets comes out through the pores in your skin and mosquitoes don’t like the smell (though humans can’t smell it, don’t worry!). Trust me on that last one – I’ve been doing it for years!
  2. A cheap pair of flip-flops. Not suitable for hiking or long-distance walking, but surprisingly good for exploring cities and urban area. Easy to wipe clean, soft to walk on, and flexible enough to absorb some of the shock of the rough ground that you’ll be walking on. I brought mine in Primark for £1, intending to use them for my wetroom in the hostel (which gets absolutely flooded every time I use the shower…) but I’ve worn them everywhere. They’ve lasted me over 2 months and I prefer them to the sneaker/canvas shoes I brought with me. They’ve even been to the Taj Mahal!
  3. Sunscreen. You can find it in airports and I’ve seen it in Delhi, but it’s ridiculously expensive because only tourists need it. Believe me though, even if you’re not heading to the beach, parts of India are so hot and sunny in September and October that you will need it!
  4. Postcards, pencils, keychains and fridge magnets of your home country. Sounds like a complete waste of space, but these are lightweight and make great presents for the people you’ll meet, especially if you’re staying in one place for a couple of weeks, or with a  host family. They’re authentic, and people really appreciate them as presents that will remind them of you when you’re gone, and as things that they legitimately can’t get in their country. Plus, if you’re moving abroad for 6 months or so, having the odd familiar postcard to look at in your room can be comforting 🙂

So what exactly is the meaning of this blog’s title?

noun: saree, or sari

  1. a garment consisting of a length of cotton or silk elaborately draped around the body, traditionally worn by women from South Asia.

You know that everyone at the school will have a smartphone in their hand?

– My mentor, during our first meeting

She was commenting after catching sight of this little beauty during orientation;

It'll always have a place in my heart...or a museum.
It’ll always have a place in my heart…or a museum.

Say hello to its Indian successor (kindly loaned by work :P);

This one is in colour and everything. Sadly it hates being flipped though, silly touch screen!
This one is in colour and everything. Sadly it hates being flipped though, silly touch screen!

One of the things that has really struck me about India is its technological advancement and its pride in integrating technology into all aspects of everyday life. Or rather, everyday middle and upper class life. In the school that I’m working at, the students each have their own tablet, which can be wirelessly connected to the teacher’s tablet at the front, to make sure that everyone is literally reading from the same page. Most textbooks are stored electronically, “on tab”, which certainly saves paper (another major contrast between UK/ USA and Indian schooling – the school I’m working at uses hardly any physical worksheets, and I’ve only seen two printers for a school which runs from nursery to Class XI/11).

Continue reading

The pros & cons of (non-human) roommates

PROS

  • Even if we’re talking about spiders here, they eat mosquitoes and flies! (This point obviously then, does not apply to mosquitoes and flies, who also like to share my room.
  • Company when things get too quiet, esp. at night.
  • Like being in a live National Geographic documentary.
  • Don’t have to worry about leaving my possessions unguarded.
I've named this one Mr. Smiles. Yes, I genuinely believe (or like to) that it's the same one each time...
I’ve named this one Mr. Smiles. Yes, I genuinely believe (or like to) that it’s the same one each time…

CONS

  • They don’t contribute towards rent or cleaning duties.
  • Not good at sharing food. Or respecting the labels on mine.
  • My mentor is starting to get tired of my ‘animal stories’ as an excuse for being late to leave in the morning, once more I’ve “got a frog (or is it a baby toad?) under my bed” or “a gecko has got into a gap in the wall”.

So, overall they are an asset then. Which is good thing, because with my room being next to the ‘garden’ here, and with the summer drawing to a close, the non-human roommates just keep coming, and, as an outnumbered human occupant of this room, I don’t seem to have much choice 😛

Landmark

Just a quick note to say that this, fairly un-extraordinary Monday actually marks a particular achievement for me. I’m now well into my 7th week in India, and today was the beginning of my 6th week of work here.

Nope, not this kind of landmark!
Nope, not this kind of landmark!

Unlike most of the other Teaching Assistants on this programme, I have never taken a gap year, or spend a year, or even 6 months abroad before. This is true of most of the participants simply because quite a few of them studied languages at university, and so had to do a compulsory year abroad as part of their undergraduate course. Naturally, a lot of them were also British Council language assistants, and placed in schools, during their university years.

6 weeks is the longest that I’ve ever been out of Europe, or in Asia. It’s probably also the longest I’ve ever been with seeing my parents, sister or grandparents. My university terms were exceptionally short at Oxford – just 8 weeks – and although I usually stayed to do some sort of activity at the start or end of term, members of my family visited me every term whilst I was at university.

So this is a very personal landmark for me. I’ve finally started to get into a proper routine with work and hostel life, and that’s set to continue for the next 2.5 months. I think I realised from the very beginning that this wasn’t going to be a holiday, but now I’m actually starting to think seriously about whether I want to live and work abroad in 2016. Now that I’ve been away from the UK for my longest ever time, I can start to properly reflect on the good and bad features that come from living away from my native country.

I wonder if in a year or two, 6 weeks away will feel like nothing. I’ll get a job and settle in another country and that’ll be that. Or I’ll be back in the UK, wondering how I ever coped without cheddar cheese for so long. For now though, I’m not thinking too much about the future. I’m thinking about this moment right now, and this landmark that I have built for myself, out of (occasional) tears, plentiful patience, and enduring memories.

3 Reasons to see a film in India (even if you don’t speak Hindi)

  1. It’s a completely different experience to European cinema. For example, there’s an interval about half way through the film. This gives the audience time to buy snacks, go to the toilet etc., without worrying about missing anything. When the curtains come down at half-time, you feel more like you’re watching a theatrical performance than a pre-prepared film. The interval allows you to talk to your friends about developments in the plot, and helps to build suspense as it normally occurs just as the plot is beginning to twist. You come back into the screen refreshed, having stretched your legs a bit (I’ve often heard complaints about the length of films from people with longer legs than myself). The interval also gives you the chance to change seats more subtly, if you want to.
  2.  The snacks are like a strange variant of what you might expect in a European or Anglophone cinema. You can get mini Domino’s pizzas to take back into the screen. Instead of Pick ‘n’ mix sweets and confectionery, you can select pakoras and samosas. Strangest of all (to me) there is popcorn, but not as I knew it. Popcorn is either salted or spiced, or even tomato-flavoured!
  3. The atmosphere is much more interactive. Watching a film in Indian is like watching a live cricket match. The audience audibly reacts to events onscreen. At times this can seem disruptive, to those of us used to restrained emotions and near-silent cinema screens, but I actually quite enjoyed the gasps and clapping of the audience – especially useful when you’re trying to gauge the mood of the dialogue without understanding any of the language!

The film I watched a couple of weeks ago was Manjhi: The Mountain Man. It concerns the story of a man from Bihar who, by various events, feels compelled to start building a road through a perilous mountain range, thereby connecting his remote village to the wider region. The story takes place over many years, but is fairly straightforward – as my mentor comes from Bihar she was able to explain to me the basic plotline, and I would say that I understood most of the essentials, if not the detail. It was also a good opportunity to see exactly how much Hindi I had picked up! I’d say that the point of this post still stands even if the language concerned isn’t Hindi, but any other Indian language. Obviously Bollywood films are a bit different, with a lot of the plot being conveyed through songs and dances, but I genuinely enjoyed and would recommend the experience.

What a girls’ hostel is, and what it isn’t.

View from ground floor window.
View from ground floor window.

Driving along the road to the hostel, for the first time.

Me:

Oh, I like it, I like that there are little balconies for each room!

My mentor:

No, that’s the boys’ hostel. The girls’ hostel faces inwards. The architectural style is completely different. We don’t have balconies.

Writing this post because I thought I had to get up for work, but surprise! It’s Bakr Eid today (‘Eid of the Sacrifice’ – not the end of Ramadan, but the celebration of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac before God’s intervention). Although I would have liked to have known this before getting up and dressed at 6:30am, and before unsuccessfully trying to communicate with the guards (concerning the whereabouts of my colleagues, and driver, to go to work), stomping around my room won’t solve anything, and being annoyed is not a productive way of getting back to sleep.


Adjusting to life in a girls’ hostel has perhaps been one of the most challenging things about my time in India. Whereas most other British Council teaching assistants have been placed with either host families, or in pairs, living in school accommodation (many of the participating schools are boarding schools), I was dropped off at a hostel which turned out to be nothing like the ‘backpacker’ hostels that I was used to.

The hostel resembles a university hall of residence, but it’s single-sex, and city-wide, so the girls living here are all studying at a college in Greater Noida (the city is a hub for educational institutions, there’s even a branch of the Oxford University Press here, which I spotted). A minority of the girls here are working, like me, in nearby schools, or companies such as KPMG. Unlike in a  university hall of residence however, there is a 12 hour curfew (7pm-7am) and armed guard.

The residents here tend to stay at least a year, for college courses or job contracts. I’ll be one of the few exceptions to that. Another exception is that I don’t have any (human) roommates – but most rooms here are triple occupancy. The canteen is called a ‘Mess’ (think army slang, and I’m thinking colonial origin…) and serves traditional, vegetarian Indian food three times a day. Perhaps the most surprising thing to UK, if not continental European, readers will be that dinner is served between 8:00pm and 9:30pm. In the six weeks that I’ve been here, dinner has been rice, some sort of vegetable (75% of the time it’s potato) and either yellow or brown daal, with few exceptions.

The hostel has a number of different spaces. Below ground is a former canteen (creepy…), a basement shop (selling confectionery, crisps, stationery etc, and some pretty good banana smoothies, or ‘shakes’,  but sadly not fruit or cereal) and a gym, which I’ve rarely seen open or used. There’s also a ‘dance studio’ – a dark space with mirrors along one side and the odd table or chair. Of the ‘study space’ I’ve seen little, other than an empty bookcase and some more desks. I remember my surprise at being taken to the ‘laundry room’, where several men were toiling with piles and piles of linen and clothes, which were each being permanently marked with the room number of the girl they belonged to. No tumble driers or washing machines here, just sheer manual labour, and a vast washing line on the back lawn.

Oh, and due to a fun mix-up, I thought my room number was the number on my keys as my door doesn’t have a number, but actually, after more residents moved in for the start of the academic year, it turns out that I was wrong, and my clothes/bedding have all been incorrectly branded. In the process of retrieving them now. Oops.

Day #50 – again, yesterday

'English Oven' bread, fruit flavoured jam (I preferred the mango one :P), apples and a spiced pear fruit smoothie!
‘English Oven’ bread, fruit flavoured jam (I preferred the mango one :P), apples and a spiced pear fruit smoothie!

So yesterday I accompanied some of the younger years on a trip to a Parle biscuit factory, located here in Greater Noida. Parle manufactures, or at least owns a lot of foods other than biscuits, but they really do seem (after a close inspection of various wrappers & packaging) to almost have a monopoly on the biscuit market here.

Highlight: Realising that my childhood trip to Cadbury World in Birmingham was like being taken to Disneyland in comparison to an Indian school trip to a factory. No display boards, no painted path, no videos or activities, just the real noise and sweat of a working factory floor. The workers were all on the main floor of the factory, and we were literally walking in between the machines in the packaging section as they worked, with workers helpfully placing themselves in front of the moving rollers/ trays. Luckily we were viewing the ‘production’ section from a slight distance, because the heat from the ovens could be felt everywhere. It was pretty cool to see the biscuits being cut into circles and whizzing around on the conveyor belt though.

Verdict: I like biscuits, and the entire surroundings of the factory smelled like baking, so all in all, I’ve had worst afternoons! The children loved being given fresh biscuits by the workers before they were packaged! Although parts of the trip made me slightly nervous (lining the students up outside as various delivery lorries were simultaneously being loaded with the biscuits…), including posing for photos surrounded by moving machinery, I couldn’t help but think that the UK could learn a lot from a slightly more relaxed approached to health & safety on school trips. Nothing compares to actually being shown a real life process in operation, rather than just reading information from visitor signs.