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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Arjun and Kalpana

The expatriate life is a great life. I lived it for 11 years but only now do I fully understand it. I understand how the expat life is where a man has his identity reconstructed. He is no longer 'Arjun _____' but 'Arjun who's with Unilever' or 'Arjun who's joined CitiGroup'. His name changes too. He isn't just 'Arjun' but 'Arjun and Swati' or 'Arjun and Kalpana'. He is married to his wife and his job and that is who he is. He doesn't have an identity independent of those two and he doesn't need one. The job keeps the bubble comfortable.

He travels two weeks a month. He comes home to a wife and kids and a condominium. A chauffeur driven car and a chauffeur driven life. He comes home to a high rise apartment in Hong Kong or Singapore or Kuala Lumpur or an independent house in London or Paris or New York. The patter of kids' feet across wooden floors, the oriental art, the quiet rustling of a busy maid, the wife's carefree phone conversation and the city lights outside window - whether it's Arjun and Kalpana or Matthew and Michelle, the pillars that hold up the expat pantheon do not change.

It's so clean cut. The hard working husband who earns the money, the charming wife who 'runs the household', the perfect children who go swimming every evening and the Philippino maid who keeps the gears of the corporate dream oiled. "Didn't you hear? Arjun left 'Lever and joined Cadbury in Jakarta. Kalpana and the kids will join him once the school year starts." - I've heard that line so many times over the years.

Didn't you hear?

Last month we visited a colleague of my dad's in Kuala Lumpur while we were there. I stood for 20 minutes looking out of their 26th floor window at all the other perfect lives in the perfect million dollar condominiums across the road. Such tall, beautiful buildings that lit up the muggy evening with blues and greens from the swimming pool - I wondered if the families inside were as symmetrical. Such symmetrical lives: school, house, car, travel, wife - all paid for and then some. Arjun had paid for it all. I looked out the window just like I had done the first sleepless night we arrived in Hong Kong and I looked down at that spectacular sky line. 80 floor shards of light and symmetry. It was stunning. My mum had made parathas to remind us we were Indian and we needed reminding in this strange, clean foreign land. The money made it all symmetrical.

I'm not sure our lives 'mattered' to anyone. Maybe the consumers our dads' FMCG companies fed. We sort of meandered along without examining ourselves, our relationships or what we were doing in the context of some vague 'greater good'. We all made the annual trip back to India to show off to our relatives about our great life and all the money we had. I didn't even know we were showing off till the tables turned and I met other expatriate families on their yearly crusade to teach the kids about cricket and the Taj Mahal.

Being an expat is great. Your universe ends where the bubble does. But that part of my life is over. Now I have to cling to notion that I'm a "world citizen" - or at least that's what career counselors the world over have told me. But being a world citizen sucks.

You are brought up in surroundings that change every few years. A new country, a new school and new friends. At least, that's how it was with me and most of the other kids in the international schools I went to. Every four years there were friends who were forgotten and new ones had to be made. But what happens when the tumble dryer stops and the international travel you've gotten so used to comes thudding to a halt? What happens when you forge real connections with people? You can't just leave them behind. The 'Global Village' soundbite paraded by CNN does not prepare you for when the music stops and your chair is gone and you're out of the game.

CNN does not prepare you for when you no longer have that life and the people you care about the most are on the other side of the planet. The world isn't as small as Freakonomics lulls you into believing. When you're back home and university has come and gone, you have to sit there at the dinner table and feel sorry for yourself because life will never be as good. University is over. The party is over and I've been shipped off and it sucks man. It sucks.

The people you care most about are strewn across the face of the earth and getting to them isn't easy. Whatsapp and Facebook chat and Skype are tenuous links to people who you share your most cherished memories with. As you sit there at your computer when everyone has gone to sleep, the horrific realisation sinks in: you will not see your best friends again in a long time. There is a big hole in my heart where my friends used to be and a hole in my bed where a girl used to be and a hole in my life where my plans used to be.

I guess you will see your best friends once every 4-5 years like my parents do now - when you go to visit them and your kids will call them '_____ uncle' and '______ aunty'. And they will have other halves who will be just as much a part of them as the 4 glorious years of high school or college that you spent together. I suppose that will take some getting used to.

I'm not really sad, just ready to start the search for Unilever and Kalpana.