Those of you who follow the Times of Amma on Instagram and Facebook know, that in March 2018, I had the wonderful opportunity to speak at an conference that focused on Diversity. It was the 20th anniversary conference of FIGT or the non-profit association called Families in Global Transition and the conference was held at the World Trade Center in The Hague, Netherlands.
It was a pleasure to participate in discussions that spanned the history, present and future of expatriation and get an opportunity to share my perspective. I enjoyed how the board encouraged discussions on diversity and inclusion and some of my favorite sessions at the conference were about those that spoke openly about LGBT and Trans youth and how we can support them as a global community, on how race affects our expatriate experiences, how some of us are classified as immigrants and others as “expats” based on the colour of our skin and therefore subject to different positions on the totem pole of society, and about how we can change the conversation about Afghanistani refugees within Iran and overseas.
One of the things I found disconcerting was the clear lack of Indian expats represented despite our massive diaspora. There were conversations we could have contributed to and given our version to, yet I found myself the only Indian Expat Mom presenting there.
I believe that as a global community we have so much to learn from each other and this conference has left me excited and inspired to do more in this sphere.
As a small attempt to correct the balance, I've created a Facebook group focusing on Expat Indian Moms (as an offshoot of the Times of Amma page). If you are an expat Indian mom, please do consider joining.
And for those of you who wanted to be at the event and have been reaching out to hear my talk, I have reproduced it here in full. You were all with me virtually as I presented.
Coping As A Trailing Spouse and New Mother When No One Around You Speaks Your Language : A Unique Perspective.
The session addresses the challenges of being a trailing spouse and new mother, as a member of a minority within an expat community. Sometimes one moves to locations where one's ethnicity is an unknown quantity. You walk in and are immediately branded the foreigner. This is more of a challenge for new Expat mothers looking for support systems. What do you do when you want to blend in but you do not want to become culturally invisible either?
Do you give up on your identity and assimilate or hold on so tightly that you are left an outsider?
The presentation will draw from the speaker's personal experience as an Indian Malayali Expat who moved to El Salvador with her husband and infant daughter. Participants will leave with strategies to cope and thrive in their new environment.
My name is Shweta Ganesh Kumar. I am an Indian Malayali. I have been an adult expat for more than nine years now. I also spent ten years of my childhood as an expat kid or as a non-resident Indian in Oman.
Back home in Kerala, there is an NRI in almost every home. Growing up there was this ubiquitous joke that made the rounds -
A story of how Neil Armstrong was just a few steps in, on his historic moon walk when suddenly he sniffed the delicious aroma of tea. So he turns a corner at a rather largeish moon- rock and here he is a Malayali and his tea shop. Just another example of how all permeating Malayalis were supposed to be.
There were Malayalis everywhere - in the United States of America, across the Middle East, in Europe, across the many countries of Africa and Asia, and in various parts of the world, until they were not.
In the summer of 2012, my husband, my five-month old daughter and I moved to El Salvador. We had wrapped up our life and work in The Philippines where we had been based since 2009. And though we knew that Central America was going to be a different cup of tea, we had no idea just how different it would be. One of the first signs of the journey ahead was at San Salvador airport where the immigration officials on shift had never seen an Indian passport before. Now, our passport does not have a lot of currency as passports go, but it did allow us visa on arrival to El Salvador. A fact that the immigration officers did not know as they had never had to deal with it before. So there we were, stinking and bone-tired after three flights and 36 hours of travel, with no idea of how to communicate with them. They knew no English and our knowledge of Spanish was limited to Gracias and Si. Somehow, after a lot of gesticulating and waiting around we got our stamps and the adventure began. Soon my husband started heading to work and I was at home alone with my first born baby. Here was yet another language, that I did not understand. I was fresh off the boat in the land of New Motherhood, as well.
Once the jet-lag settled, I decided it was time to get out and make connections. I googled till I found a small English speaking expat group in El Salvador. I quickly joined the group, typed out an introduction hoping to meet other like-minded souls. A couple of days passed before someone actually sent me a response- It was a British Expat with an adopted son, a few months older than my daughter. I quickly made plans to meet with her and we got together at my home in the city. It was awkward. The kids were too young to play together let alone socialize. And the two of us had nothing in common other than being mothers. After the play date ended, I felt lonelier than ever. Had I forgotten how to make friends?
But there had been a silver lining to the whole episode - she added to me to a group of expat moms online. I soon found out that though most of these moms were English speaking and expats, they were married to Salvadorans - they had been here for years - most had given birth here and spoke Spanish as well. They were sure to be a treasure trove of resources and I was grateful for the opportunity to meet then. We were invited to a play date and we made our way to a villa in a heavily guarded community where Mothers who had known each other for years and had been mothers for at least 5 years, sat around and caught up with each other - As a former TV journalist, I’ve been in the unenviable position of having to speak and report from the most challenging of places and situations and I had forged on undaunted- yet this intimidated me. They had never had an Indian Mom in their midst before. And as a new Mother, you always feel vulnerable and on guard of judgement of any sorts.
"Did I do yoga? How about Bollywood Dance?"
They asked me.
Well, I danced at parties but I didn’t do any yoga.
Their disappointment was palpable.
Then someone said, Ah I know someone from the Philippines - so you will probably have something in common with her.
The conversation moved on to other things - their attempts to connect with me, that had come from a warm place - left me feeling more foreign than ever.
Was I just an Indian to them and nothing more? I have to tell you my ego was sadly bruised!
I was a journalist, a travel writer and I had two published novels to my name. Yet at that moment, I was nothing more than a generic Indian to them.
They heard me speak to my daughter in English and asked me if I spoke to her in Hindi at home. "No", I said" we speak English outside and Malayalam at home".
"What’s that a dialect?", A mom asked raising her eyebrows.
"No, just one of the many languages of India", I replied eager to elaborate but the conversation had already decisively moved on.
Later I found myself wondering whether other nationalities go through the same generic lumping that I had faced.
Are Mothers from Copenhagen grouped with Swedish Mothers because they both hail from Nordic countries?
Are all European Mothers asked to hang out together? Is my ethnic identity the only thing interesting about me?
As a mom raising a third culture kid, should I stick to finding my own kind, so that I felt some sort of comfort even though the parenting bit was new?
But how was I to find these people when there wasn’t even an Indian embassy in El Salvador? The closest embassy was in Panama, a flight ride away.
I took it on myself as a Mom to educate my infant about her culture - spoke to her in Malayalam, played her Malayalam songs, made Kerala dishes, read Malayalam books while trying to keep up with the challenges of my fledgling writing career on the side. And so, I also started doing restaurant reviews for a local magazine - the editor, an American serial expat who was child-free and no strings attached and who had built her own beach house on the Salvadoran coast brick by brick told me that I needed to get in touch with the local scene more. Great! So, I signed up for Latin Dance classes too in order to level up.
Of course, you all know that this story does not end with me winning the world salsa championship. It ended with me crashing and burning.
By the time, my daughter turned two I had another Novella out - written in the snatches of time when she was napping. My daughter was talking and thriving, and I had already had an extreme breakout of stress-related hives coupled with mild depressive phases and a sense of having failed on all fronts.
I had reconciled with my life as a trailing spouse a while ago but the crushing loneliness of new motherhood and feeling like a foreigner got to me. I wanted to fit in yet I wanted to stay true to my roots - I wanted to be a good mother but the unreachable standards of perfection that I had imposed on myself was razing me to the ground.
I found myself looking for solutions and as fate would have it, I chanced upon a mindfulness session. When I walked in for that session, conducted by an Expat Mom and businesswoman herself, it was the first time I had been anywhere without my child since she had been born. I had zero expectations from the session - I felt restless.
Did I even have time for this? Shouldn’t I be getting a haircut and a pedicure?
But it eventually turned out to be the best use of my child-free time. Before you all turn off thinking that I’m going to meander into some discussion about being saved and uplifted - let me assure you, I’m not. One of my best learnings from that session was being surrounded by others who had genuine problems. And, no, I’m not a sadist but there I was surrounded by people who could not be more different from me - like a Salvadoran business man in debt, a fashion designer, A call center manager, a mother of three, a college student and they were all propelled to look for ways that would quell the restlessness in their soul and help them overcome the challenges in their life.
And that made me feel less alone, like I had found a motley crew of sorts - united in the quest for inner peace.
That makes me sound like I’m Kung Fu Panda- a little desperate, a little pathetic but committed nevertheless.
As I heard the others share their own unique circumstances, I also felt a little wretched at being caught up in my own privileged bubble of expat life. I realized that listening to others talk about their life had given me the much needed perspective about my own. And even though as a busy mother of two, I’m still trying to find ways to implement mindfulness in my daily life - it was this that I took away from that session.
Later, I found myself regarding my life with deep gratitude- Yes, it wasn’t ideal for my career and identity to be a trailing spouse and now to be a new mom in a brand new country - being miles away from any sort of support is no piece of cake, yet there is much to be thankful about.
I got the opportunity to experience Central America and other regions that are typically not on a lot of family travel lists. My daughter was exposed to world cultures in real life.
The parenting challenges that my husband and in faced in the first two years, while learning to navigate our life and work in El Salvador was nothing short of being on the Amazing race. Thankfully, it brought us together rather than break us up.
Armed with these learnings, I decided to create something to help myself while hopefully helping others in the same situation as me.
This is how I created the Times of Amma - my original intent behind it was just to create an alternate narrative to that of the traditional Indian Mom - to put the story of the modern Indian expat parent out there. As the site evolved, it became a space where I featured inspiring Indian expat mothers (As most of you reading this, already know) - their passions, their dreams, how being an expat affected their parenting, their career, and whether they celebrated cultural events and festivals with their kids and whether it is challenging to raise third culture kids and whether things would have been different if they had been back in India.
Every story that I posted touched a chord with at least one mother. Some stories were shared more than a thousand times. And from a blog that was only read by my parents and my husband, the Times of Amma today has more than 2700 followers on Facebook and 5200 plus followers on Instagram with purely word of mouth publicity and organic growth.
I’m not here to sell my site to you, I run it as a not for profit initiative purely for me and other Indian Mothers like me.
But I would like to share some of my learnings from running the site with the new mothers and trailing spouses out there who might be traversing a similar journey to the one I took.
And here they are.
5 ways to cope as Trailing spouse and New mother in a new country
1. Embrace your identity but don’t get pigeonholed by labels
2. Find your tribe
3. Actively seek inspiration
4. Don’t shy away from asking for help
5. Share your story
1. Embrace your identity
In my experience, the more you are in touch with who you really are, the easier it is for you to adapt to a new place, a new situation. When I landed in El Salvador - I didn’t really know who I was and I was trying to fit myself into one box or the other. Was I the Malayali Mom? Was I a writer? Was I the trailing spouse and nothing else? When I finally decided to chart out the things that were integral to who I was - I realized that it wasn’t a case of either or. I was a writer, a mother and a Malayali. I would always be those things. But that also didn’t mean that I had to get pigeon holed into being just either one of those things. Also understanding that my personality is bound to evolve as I age is another thing that has made me open to more possibilities - Something that is important to the life of a trailing spouse. And I urge all trailing spouses and new mothers to do the same - leaving behind your career and support systems either accompanying your partner or being with your baby can leave you feeling adrift. While both these situations are uniquely rewarding, the loss of identity often makes it more challenging than it should be.
A good way to explore your identity is to do this simple exercise - write a 5 line bio about yourself.
Now imagine this bio is the only thing a stranger or a prospective friend gets to hear or read before meeting you. What would you want in there? Your nationality? Your expat status? The fact that you have kids? That you are an artist or a banker? Now imagine if you were not limited by your past - what would you want your introduction to be? How would you introduce yourself to yourself?
I find this a very useful exercise to do once in a while to reevaluate my goals and to find my inner anchors.
2. Find your tribe
Once you know who you are, it is easier to chart a course to finding your tribe. In my case, I realized that the people I could relate most to were other expat Indian Moms. The only place where I could hope to find a reasonable number of that was online, as I already said. But where can a new mother and a trailing spouse look for their tribe? The obvious option is of course - Facebook groups and communities.
((Quick reminder for Expat Indian Moms looking for an online tribe. Click here.))
I’ve also found Instagram to be a great place to meet like-minded souls who can connect with you on diverse matters from parenting to books to art to science. I would also recommend seeking out book clubs and hobby clubs. Art workshops and even non-profit volunteer associations.
Another place for new moms to make friends are at playgrounds. This might seem obvious but many a friendship has been forged after running after crazed toddlers on colourful playsets.
3. Actively seek inspiration
Sometimes when we are so wrapped up in our own hardships and life, it is difficult to see a way out or a ray of light if you will, amidst the darkness that has enshrouded you. One way to deal with this is to look for another angle. Try to seek out the stories of others. You could choose to read stories of the greats of human history who battled challenges and rose up. If reading about historical figures is not your cup of tea then personal blogs are also a good source of inspiration. Written by everyday people like you and me who were documenting their days for themselves and as route maps to better times. Yet another way is to try and volunteer with local organizations. The exemplary service that one sees being put in at such organizations is always inspiring, no matter what.
4. Don’t shy away from asking for help
As new mothers, the media constantly bombards us with impossibly polished images of mothers who have it all. Their hair hair is clean and shiny, their BMI ratio ideal, their careers on track, their babies well fed and not a trace of self deprivation on their glowing faces as their husbands gift them with yet another diamond ring. It is so easy to fall into the trap of perfection of feeling that you should be able to have it all and do it all.
However, the truth is that we are humans and we have our limitations and it makes sense to accept it and embrace it and give yourself a break. And ask for help if you need it.
Help can be in many ways - it could be asking a friend to help out, to hiring a babysitter or even getting professional help for your emotional health or home. Seeking support when you need it, to function more effectively is the best thing, you can do for yourself.
5. And finally share your story
As I said at the beginning, one of the main things that added to my isolation was the feeling that no one related to me and where I came from - both literally and metaphorically. I was too different but as I learnt on my journey, different was not bad, it was just different. And it feels foreign to others only because our stories are not mainstream yet. - The broader narrative is still not as inclusive as it can be.
And the only way we can combat this is by putting our stories out there. I guarantee you there are people out there looking for a real life story to relate to and that could be your’s. The only way to enrich and amplify diverse narratives is by adding your bit to it. And you could do this is many ways - by simply writing about your experiences, by sharing photographs, by making art, writing poetry, giving talks or attending conferences like this one that focus on diversity and being kind enough to give speakers like me your time and attention.
I'd like to thank the Times of Amma community for being with me every step of the way and FIGT for giving me the opportunity to share my story and present our version of culture shock.
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If you are an Expat Indian Mother looking for your tribe, join us here.