The lessons of India.

I’m now back in the UK having finished my placement, and my time in India. It feels slightly surreal to be home after all these months, and saying goodbye was tougher than I had anticipated, but I think it’s worth reflecting on a couple of things before I close this blog, or get completely absorbed in Christmas here!

In India I was a teaching assistant, but through the experience, I learnt far more than I taught. For the first time in three years I was writing (this blog, my diaries, emails to friends and family) at least as much as I was reading. This was significant as I was constantly reflecting on everything that I did, and deliberately storing up events in my memory so that I could tell people all about it. At university, I had virtually no time for this, and simply read a pile of books and produced an essay or two per week, before moving on to the next assignment. Writing is great because it teaches us to be more articulate (this is why students who have trouble reading a language, or even people who don’t read books in their own language, have such a small vocabulary and sometimes find it harder to put their feelings into words). Not to mention the fact that the more I read over this blog, and my diaries, the more I learn about myself, and my perception of others.

India taught me to try and let go of expectations and prejudices about things that I wasn’t even aware that I held. The experience revealed some of the irrational things that I hold onto without even realising; why do I not want to put new shoes on the table, why am I surprised when students call me by my first name (“Nikita Ma’am”) and no one knows my surname. I enjoyed myself the most in the moments that I was able to let go of these inhibitions, and realise that the time and place we are in can define us as much as our upbringing, our traditions, and our native culture. I was able to overcome a lot of anxiety that I had in the first few months, and adjusted to my surroundings to the extent that even as I sit at home in my old childhood bedroom, I now feel oddly out of place.

Ultimately though, it is the people that make a place, and an experience. I started to feel at home in India, not because I became anywhere near fluent in Hindi, nor that I started eating spicy food for every meal (not at all!) but because I made connections with the people that I lived and worked with. As I became more familiar with them, I minded less that I was so far from home. People have so much to offer, as long as you take that initial step and start your first conversation with them, or tell them something interesting about your family, or where you live.

The world is yours as long as you are open to it, which means trusting people, and trusting yourself. The biggest personal lesson that I’ll take away from this experience is that it’s just not worth getting anxious in anticipation of things which might not even happen, or which will probably turn out to be far less of a problem than you had imagined! Trust that you can adapt to living virtually anywhere, without this underlying fear and nervousness holding you back, making you hide away from people and cut yourself off from the vibrancy of your new environment. Change is not a bad thing, and people are only strangers until you speak to them (obviously not advisable in all cases…).

Looking around at my HAPPY JOURNEY/ Merry Christmas cards made by some of the students at school, against a backdrop of wrapped presents and a lit Christmas tree in my conservatory, I am finally able to start appreciating everything that has happened over the past five months. It’s incredibly overwhelming and this blog could only ever capture a fraction of my entire experience. Even so, I hope that everyone has enjoyed reading it, and that those who were connected with me in India, can look back on parts of it and smile 🙂

Merry Christmas!

Nikita

 

 

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Yoshida Hiroshi, and India according to 20th century Japan

In the early 20th century a Japanese woodblock printer came to India, and produced a set of prints which are famous for their place in Japan’s shin hanga (“New Print”) movement, which aimed at returning to the more traditional style of ukiyo-e (浮世絵 “pictures of the floating world”) printing. This would see Japanese techniques combined with a “western” way of representing form.

A lifetime ago in Oxford, after finishing my exams in June, I visited a TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities) exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, which featured Yoshida’s Indian prints. It felt like fate. Like me, Yoshida travelled to the Taj Mahal, unlike me, he produced six different prints of it, deliberately depicting it during the day and night, at dusk and dawn. Like me, Yoshida also visited the Amber Fort in Jaipur, and saw the pink city gates, and another of his prints shows the entrance to the Jama Masjid – one of the first things that I saw in Delhi.

You can read lots more details about the life and career of the artist here, but this is not the place to copy out all of the notes of the exhibition. What interested me was that Yoshida’s life and career transgressed cultures and boundaries, he was born in 1876 at the time of the Meiji Emperor. He died in 1950, and would have known of Japan’s defeat in the Second World War. His artistic career was varied, in that it doesn’t conform to the idea that Japanese art was becoming “westernised” during this time; in fact, Yoshida trained as a “western-style” painter in oils and watercolours, and only became interested in traditional-style woodblock printing when he was in his 40s. Perhaps this is why the prints were referred to as having a “quality reminiscent of watercolours”.

One sentence stood out to me at the time, enough for me to have noted it down, alongside various other scrawls which don’t make sense now; Yoshida was particularly fascinated with the quality of light that he found in India. I feel as though several of the photos that I’ve taken here have captured much the same thing.

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Maota garden, just outside the Amer Fort, Jaipur. 
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The interior of the Chaturbhuj Temple, Orchha. 

 

You can view all of Yoshida’s India prints here.

 

 

Circles and circularity

Mandala

 

Mandala (Sanskrit for ‘circle’) is an Indian spiritual sign, symbolising the never-ending cycles of the cosmos.
As it was in the beginning, so it will be in the end.
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Today I went and watched a Hindi movie, Tamasha, with my mentor and her friend. The same friend who accompanied us to Manji The Mountain Man, all those months ago. I was excited to be able to understand a little bit more this time!
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Several other aspects of my life are starting to come full circle here; I am throwing away more than I buy, I am being recognised in my same old local haunts as opposed to visiting new places. A new teacher has started teaching Class 2, and now I can tell her the ways of the school.

 

Some things have not come full circle. The expectations I had before coming to India were not met by the reality of life here. That is not to say that I was disappointed in everything, just that my time here has ended up treading a different path to what I had envisaged. There are the silly little things that I didn’t think about, like the fact that there are still mosquitoes in December, or the fact that it actually does get really cold here.

 

Then there are the bigger things, I haven’t really made as big of an impact on the school as I’d hoped, for various reasons I haven’t started a new after-school club, or organised a big event, or even a themed lesson-day. Does this mean failure? Not necessarily, just success in areas that I didn’t know existed, and strength drawn from a part of myself that I was unfamiliar with until now.

 

Even this blog is not what it ought to have been. Packed in my folder, alongside insurance documents and flight details, were academic resources, fresh from the Bodelian library, that I intended to comment on; photocopies of Indian architectural wonders, articles on Indian democracy from The Oxford Historian (Issue XII if anyone’s interested…) and even some notes I made from a talk I attended by the director of the contentious short film India’s Daughter – Leslee Unwin (the talk was organised by the University of Oxford’s India Society and took place on the 02.05.15 at St. Catherine’s College).

 

Yet the road less trodden proved more interesting, and commenting on the things that I have observed here, as they happened, has proven more interesting than any abstract, scholarly insight.
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As a cinema attendant showed customers to their seat in the darkened screen today, I thought about what a great metaphor that was for my time in India. Trying to navigate a huge and complex space, whilst at times feeling completely in the dark, and at other moments, as though a torch was being shone from somewhere, lighting the way.

 

After all, as all circles illustrate, what is an ending but a new beginning…

How learning Hindi opened windows in place of locked doors.

 

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(C) Taken from ‘India Bazaar: Vintage Indian Graphics’ (Icons Series) – (paperback published 31 Oct 2003) by Kairi Jain, Samantha Harrison and Bari Kumar.

Living in another country makes it vital to build bridges instead of walls. In my case, I don’t think that my time in India would amount to half as much if it weren’t for learning words and phrases in Hindi. Actually, not just words and phrases, but how to read some of the Devanagari script too!

Unlike most of the other British Council TAs, I am placed alone, and in a girls’ hostel. This has motivated me to really persevere with picking up bits of vocab from the girls that live here. That, and the fact that living on your own, you need to find some sort of way to amuse yourself!

My Hindi is basic, I can’t write sentences or recognise most words. I can’t say more than a dozen phrases (and their negatives) and about thirty additional words. Yet the difference it’s made to my time here (both in the hostel and outside of it) has been enormous. Often, I hear people saying that I shouldn’t invest too much effort in learning Hindi as;

  • “everyone speaks English anyway”
  • “you’re only here for a few months”
  • “English is the language of business here and most educated people speak it”
  • “Hindi sounds like a difficult language – and when are you ever going to use it after this?”

Of course, there have also been those that have taken the time to encourage me, and teach me different phrases, as well as correcting my accent! For that I’m grateful, and here are just a few examples of times in which an understanding of Hindi has altered my experience of daily life here;

  1. Driving to Ranthambore from Jaipur and being able to read the names of the villages that we were passing through, which included “Moonpur” and “Goth” – so cool!
  2. Being able to ask our driver for the weekend the word for “sorry” after we couldn’t find him parked on a busy shopping street (it’s sharma, though there are several synonyms).
  3. Being able to actually converse with shopkeepers in Jaipur about their business, wish them Diwali mubarak ho!  (which convinced one stationer to try and present me with a free notebook) and get a far better deal than the other tourists by exclaiming “Uncle! Bahut mehengra” (“too expensive!”) until the price of anything was at least halved. This also had a practical side to it, if the friends that I was shopping with wanted to see something in a different size or colour, then I could ask for that too 🙂
  4. Replying to someone in my corridor with Dhanyavaad/धन्यवाद  rather than “thank-you” and receiving a smile and a high-five!

Of course I still make ridiculous mistakes when speaking Hindi. I’ve accidentally asked my boss “what are you?” instead of “how are you?” and misunderstood the question “how are you finding India?” for “how long have you been in India?”. I read words where I can’t tell whether certain segments are supposed to be “oo” or “ee”. Yet I can’t imagine how much more closed my life would be without my little grasp of Hindi. In the hostel it’s quite often the difference between a conversation and silence. I’ll continue to make mistakes, but through my efforts, I will be rewarded with gentle corrections (“it’s hoon not ho if you’re a woman”, a Jaipur clothes shop owner patiently explained) and a respect that leads to acceptance, if not complete understanding.

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The Long Walk To…my hostel room!

Meera naam – What’s in a name?

Indian Dream

 

Meera naam nikita hai

(मेरा नाम निकिता है)

It’s a simple enough start to any conversation, a polite way of introducing yourself. Had the above quote been said by an Indian woman, there would probably be little surprise, with Nikita being a relatively common name in India.

For that reason, when I say the aforementioned words, the reactions are more mixed. Is this blue-eyed, golden haired foreigner joking? Has she adopted an “Indian” name, because her own European name is too difficult for Indian people to pronounce? My friend at the hostel, Kyra, has found this issue particularly tiring, as her name is normally said like the name “Keira” or “Kira”, but here people always default to “Kie-rah”. The only way she has been able to get round this is by explaining that the correct pronunciation of her name is very similar to the Hindi word for cucumber – “kheera”. Cue a lot of laughter, as she not only attends Hospitality college here, but her surname, “Fikke”, bears resemblance to the Hindi word for “tasteless”, not a fantastic combination.

In that sense then I have been far luckier, more people here can spell my name correctly than in Britain (where extra hs, and es, or even the occasional additional k are added) and everyone can pronounce it. Kyra and I often laugh when we introduce ourselves to Indian people, as we pre-empt their reaction to each of our names.

The reaction of most Indian people to my name is the incredulous outburst “but that’s a Hindi name?”. They then usually insist on finding out how I got my name (especially important I guess because in traditional Indian culture, all names have literal meanings, and even the first letter of a child’s name might be deduced from the astrological calculations of a priest). My appearance normally rules out the idea of Indian heritage or ancestry, and people are quite disappointed by the reply “my parents just liked the name”. Names are virtually sacred here, so the idea that I might have just been given a name with a “nice sound” (or, in reality, from the 1993 French Film of the Year La Femme Nikita) seems unbelievable to a lot of people here. However, it does get people talking to me!

Our names inevitably change our travelling experience. Whether our name means something ridiculous in another culture, or is unheard of, or actually belongs to a culture that you are immediately judged to not be a part of. I haven’t bothered mentioning to people here that actually, Nikita is also a Russian boys’ name, and my name is also well known in eastern Europe – though as a masculine name.

Names are a crucial part of unlocking meaning in another culture. They represent not just changing tastes and fashions, but a lot about the more ancient heritage of a country. For example, when I tell people that my father’s name is “Paul”, those that have been given an education by Christian schools here respond “St. Paul!”. People then link the name with the Bible, and presume that my family must be quite religious, and that people in the UK are deliberately named for Biblical characters. Likewise, learning the meaning behind the Hindi names of my students has taught me a lot about Hinduism – “Manav”, named for the creator of the world, “Parvati” – one of the trinity of Hindu goddesses, alongside Lakshmi and Saraswati. Of course names can also be adopted for each gender, so “Lakshay” is a male derivative of Lakshmi.

For my own part, I like the fact that my name excites discussion wherever I am, in the UK it is seen as unusual, in eastern Europe it seems misplaced (as a female name) and in India it is a mystery – how did a European with seemingly no links to India end up with this name? Is it a sign of India’s increasing cultural capital in the world? Is it a colonial hang-over, another one of the things that the British stole from India? Regardless, it helps my own introduction to do exactly what any introduction should do – start a whole new conversation with a stranger.

The (high)Lights of Jaipur

At the end of last week I was finally able to visit Rajasthan, in particular the capital of Rajasthan, Jaipur. This is something that I’d wanted to do since I knew that I was coming to India, and it was well worth the wait!

Although marked on every tourist’s map as part of the ‘Golden Triangle’ of must-visit places in India (Delhi, Agra and Jaipur), Jaipur by no means loses its charm due to the presence of pockets of tourists (in fact, I enjoyed a great conversation about travelling with an older woman and her friend who were sitting in the Amber Fort…)

The main sites of the city are so spectacular that they attract many people from India itself, and it’s not hard to see why;

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Interior of the Hall of Public Audience, Jaipur City Palace

The buildings in the centre of Jaipur conform to the Mughal style of architecture that most tourists would associate with India, but, in a vibrant twist, most of the palace structures are the heart of the city are pink, hence the nickname of Jaipur – The Pink City.

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The Hawamahal, or Palace of the Wind – the outer wall features an elaborate screen by which the palace women were able to view street processions and the outside world via a series of elaborately meshed windows and cubby-holes. 

Ok, so the Hawamahal was probably a personal favourite, because I loved going up each storey and finding something different – a balcony here, some stained glass over there, and of course, an incredible view from the top floors, which allows you to see into the Jantar Mantar complex, and all the way up to the mountainside where the Nahargarh fort  is located.

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View from the battlements of the Nahargarh Fort, overlooking the city of Jaipur during Diwali. 

So here is where myself and my friends got completely enchanted by the city of Jaipur. We’d found out from some other friends, all fellow TAs on the same British Council programme as us, that you could go up to the Nahargarh fort at night and have a drink in a bar which was perched on the walls of the fort complex. The drive upwards was far steeper and on a worse road than I had envisaged, and I can’t imagine taking the same ride on a motorcycle or auto-rickshaw (though our driver gleefully told us that the mountainside road was actually in a far better condition than a few years previously, when a girl from New Zealand had been killed, along with the driver of the auto she was in, when it plummeted over the edge of a steep ridge – not exactly what we needed to hear in the dark!).

After a slightly spooky walk through the main gate of the fort, which is ruined in places, and then along a vaguely-lit track, we came to the bar which was much brighter, and looked down at the spectacularly illuminated city below. I’ve heard that the government actually pays for the Diwali lighting (maybe just for businesses and gov. buildings?) but I have no idea if that’s actually true. Either way, the view was even more breathtaking in person, and the lights were constantly dancing, accompanied by the constant bursting of fireworks and crackers. It was such an incredible way for us to experience the Festival of Lights for the first time. We ordered some drinks, sat back, and enjoyed the spectacle of a city which deserves its place on any traveller’s list.

 

Orchha – one of India’s hidden gems.

Unexpected weekend escapes are one of the major perks of working abroad.

Having made no real plans for the holiday of Dussehra, I was very happy to end up going to Gwalior with another teaching assistant who’s working nearby, to meet up with another pair of British Council TAs. The ‘last minute’ nature of this plan did make travel more stressful (e.g., buying our return train tickets on the Sunday morning, knowing that we had to be in work on Monday!) but it was definitely worth the hassle (and approx. 20 hours spent travelling there and back from Greater Noida…) as Orccha ranks as one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen in India.

Orccha is a medieval fort city in Madyha Pradesh, about 3 hours’ drive from Gwalior. We hired a driver and car and set out to explore temples, a fort and a palace complex, set along a stunning backdrop of mountains and rivers. It certainly made a change from Delhi! Although there were buses of tourists arriving, and the main street of the city was bustling with shops and stalls, the place didn’t have an annoyingly commercial feel to it, once you moved away from the designated tourist bus stands. The main attractions – the fort, the chhatri buildings along the river, and Lakshmi Temple, were not as crowded as those in Delhi and Agra, but even more spectacular. At one point, my group found themselves alone in an almost ‘secret’ gated garden compound, which was full of small temple structures and flowers. Later, as we were about to leave, we were able to sit by the side of the river on some rocks, and speak to some local children in Hindi!

Chhatris are elevated, dome-shaped pavilions used in Indian (Mughal) architecture.
Chhatris are elevated, dome-shaped pavilions used in Indian (Mughal) architecture.

All in all, weekends like the last one are a fantastic cure to the boredom that comes with any working Monday- Friday routine. When everything seems so much more complicated and illogical than at home, seeing such a magnificent place reminds me of why I chose to live and work in India.

“A is for aam”. The Indian Education System – a few stats (and why I’m here.)

As most of you already know, the entire purpose of my time in India has been to work as a Teaching Assistant as part of the newly-launched Generation UK-India programme, run by the British Council. Consequently, I’ve spent the majority of the last 2.5 months working in a fee-paying school in Greater Noida (there are many, and this area is well known for its numerous new colleges). Most of the teaching assistants on my programme have been placed in what in the UK we would refer to as ‘private’ schools (and confusingly, in the U.S, are called ‘public’ schools). However, many of the schools in India are at least partly government-funded.

The following statistics are taken from Indian School Education System, An Overview (Dec. 2014), a British Council publication, written by Arijit Ghosh and compiled by Sasha Sheppard. It can be accessed at: http://www.britishcouncil.in/sites/default/files/indian_school_education_system_-_an_overview_1.pdf

The Indian Education system is expanding at a massive rate. Perhaps the most significant piece of legislation in enforcing this has been the 2009 Right to Education Act (effective from April 2010) the Act granted the right to free and compulsory education to all children between the ages of six to fourteen, ‘in a neighbourhood [local] school’. [1]

Between 1999 and 2009, the average spending on education by both rural and urban families in India has quadrupled their expenditure on food. [2] Meanwhile, if we look at India as a whole, the Indian allocation of existing spending on education surpasses that of China, Russia and Brazil, though they are closely followed by Indonesia.[3]

India accounts for almost 18% of the world’s total population, with 1.23 billion people (behind only China’s 1.35 billion). It is also one of the ‘youngest’ countries in the world, with a median age of 27 years [4]. This provides both great scope for opportunity, but also an increasing crisis – what can be done with such a large population, if education is not provided to a decent standard, and so the Indian students of today are not ready for the job market of tomorrow? With population growth showing no sign of slowing, the race continues to educate India’s youth.

I fit into all of this in Greater Noida, which, although technically part of the National Capital Region (NCR) actually belongs to the state of Uttar Pradesh, not Delhi. Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populated state, accounting for 16% of the total Indian population [5]. Uttar Pradesh experienced one of the highest jumps in state literacy rates between 2001 and 2011, with an increase of around 15% [6]. Closely following were the states of Jammu and Kashmir, Bihar and Dadra and Nagar Haveli, which also saw a significant rise in literacy. A gender gap between male and female literacy rates remains, but this gap has declined considerably over the last decade, and is now below 20%. [7]

So where do I fit into this grand-scale?

Ok, so I don’t wake up every work-day morning and think of my role as some sort of educational mission (especially not with the colonial connotations of missionary) nor do I see myself as a symbol of knowledge in a place of ignorance (a.k.a, ‘white saviour complex’). Instead I just like to think that maybe some of the students I help know me as the funny little British lady who tries to make English lessons fun. I’m the ‘teacher ma’am’ not in a saree at school, who clutches her own water-bottle and cartoon animal pencil case tightly as she walks around school, looking slightly dazed.

Yet I am part of something bigger, and so is every slightly botched game of hangman, every failed attempt to teach ‘Old MacDonald had a farm’. I’m trying to show my students (the lucky few whose parents can afford to pay for their education from the age of three or four) something different and exciting, so that they engage with learning, enjoy their education, and want to share this privilege with others. It’s too much to ask that they’ll remember me specifically when they grow up (most of my students are only just five!) or that this experience will directly motivate them to enact change in their communities and society. But learning English will help a lot of my students reach university-level education in India at a good college, in about fifteen years, and there, these kind of ideas might be more accessible to them.

When I was having a bad day (and a pretty disastrous lesson) last week I was struck by a single sentence, uttered in Hindi and initially completely incomprehensible to me. A small boy who was normally called out for speaking in Hindi (not technically permitted in the school) and other bad behaviour, came up to me and asked me something. “Speak in English”, was my curt reply, but I turned to the class teacher to ask what he wanted. The student in question is the first in his family to attend school, and is from a local village. “He wants to know your name”, explained the class teacher. “He says that he wants to know your name so that he can tell his mother about you”.

References

[1] Indian School Education System, An Overview (2014) pg. 37. For more information see http://mhrd.gov.in/rte

[2] Ibid, pg. 32. Estimates from the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) India.

[3] Ibid. Credit Suisse Emerging Market Consumer Survey (2011).

[4] Ibid, pg. 8.

[5] Ibid. See http://censusindia.gov.in/2011-prov-results/data_files/india/Final_PPT_2011_chapter3.pdf

[6] Ibid, pg. 9. Data from the Census of India 2011.

[7] Ibid. See http://populationcommission.nic.in/content/933_1_LiteracyRate.aspx

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?