Safety while travelling alone as a woman

I’ve been travelling across the world on my own since I was 15 years old.  I love to explore new countries. It’s fun to travel with others, but sometimes it just doesn’t work like that and you end up travelling on your own. It can be a bit scary at first until you learn how to be independent and try new things. It’s going to be a bit uncomfortable to do things in a new way, but once you get the hang of it, you feel great!  The first time taking a bus on your own through Dhaka and actually arriving at your friend’s house. When you finally feel like the lady at the tienda down the street understands what you’re asking for in Spanish. Catching your flight after navigating a long customs line and running through an airport to make it to your gate.  These are all stressful situations, but once you master them, you feel totally accomplished – like you can do anything!

Then a person comes along… They may be a stranger, a colleague, a friend, or even your mom.  They say “Are you sure that’s safe?”, or “You shouldn’t go there, because you might get murdered”, or “Did you hear about that tourist that was abducted just last week?”, or “What’s a small girl like you doing travelling all by yourself?”, or “You should go back to Canada and cook for your boyfriend.”.  They probably mean well, and have the best intentions at heart, but it totally sucks. Telling someone not to explore the world just because “it’s a scary place” is not productive.

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Ink that finger!

After a long hiatus featuring fieldwork across India in the blistering heat, my first ever visit to New York (!) and the wedding of one of my dearest friends, I am finally back in the Oxbox and ready to get back to my expat life. Or whatever remains of it 😛

For the entire time that I was away, I was running from one thing to another, which left me with little time to think. And while going back to India was obviously fun, it was my trip to the US that really gave me some fodder, despite the busy schedule.

However, in the interests of relevance, I decided to write this month about something that I have actually been meaning to write about for a while. It’s a happy coincidence that it will come into sharp focus in about a week’s time. And if that and the title weren’t dead giveaways, let me spell it out for you – it’s the UK General Elections coming up on 8th June! Well that’s not exactly what this is about. It’s really more about voting and being involved in the political life of whichever place you live in as an expat.

Many of you may not know this, but citizens of Commonwealth countries, such as myself (seeing as I am Indian), get to vote in a whole plethora of things in the UK. meme13In fact, it is mandatory to be registered to vote, otherwise you incur a hefty fine! And as it happens, with all the volatility in the UK in recent times, this resulted in giving me a vote in Brexit, in random Town Council elections and now in the General Elections as well. Having a vote means having to think. And having to think about who to vote for, really got me to think about what my vote meant for me, as a citizen of another country voting in the UK. Admittedly, this is a bit of a peculiar situation because not many countries offer voting rights to non-citizens. But as someone who has now voted more times in the UK than in my own country (thank you administrative hassles of the Indian electoral system), I have truly felt the responsibility of this vote on my shoulders.

At the same time, I have tried to ask myself multiple times why this matters to me. In the grand scheme of things, particularly as someone set to leave this country soon, do I really care about who becomes the next Prime Minister? And funnily enough, I found that I do.

Not because I particularly care about this country or because I will be personally affected by future policies but because the outcome of this election will have much larger repercussions – on my friends and family in the UK, on other students coming into the UK and even on India-UK relations. On the flip side, I did find that voting as an expat matters less to me than voting in India ever would, in the sense that I can’t get myself to feel as invested in political discussions as I usually do. Yes, the loss of the Brexit vote did feel like a very personal loss. In all the time that I have lived in Oxford, there has not been a single day of mourning like the day after the referendum and that too, in a town that has a majority of international students. And yet, for me, it paled in comparison to the feeling of despair that dawned upon me after the conclusion of the recent Uttar Pradesh elections in India.

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It’s obviously natural to get involved in the political life of whichever place you’re living in but having the right to vote as an expat has been a very different and at times, confusing, experience. It has played somewhat of a role in integrating me better into this society and also forced me to learn about the political landscape in the UK very quickly, particularly given the number of elections we have had in the last 2 years or so.  But at the same time, it has definitely felt out of place and odd at other times too.

I’m yet to decide how I feel about this, but in the meanwhile, I’ll leave you with a quote from a friend that did adequately capture my foremost feeling in this regard. Feeling frustrated with Theresa May’s snap decision for a general election and staring at the prospect of another few years in the UK, this is what she had to say – “I have now voted in the UK more times than I ever expected to. Give a foreigner time to gain some political momentum before demanding so much of one!”.

Make of that what you will 🙂

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Working with Different Cultures

When you’re an expat in a new place, you have to get used to a new culture, with new types of people.  Since I work in international development, I’m always working with colleagues and “clients” from different countries. Primarily, the country that I happen to be working in, but that’s not always the case. I also end up working with other people from all walks of life:

  • Young and old
  • Men and women
  • Liberals and conservatives
  • Christians and Muslims
  • Volunteers and directors
  • Partiers and quiet types
  • Locals and international staff
  • Every profession imaginable….

A lot of jobs these days have a requirement along the lines of “Values diversity”. It’s always a tough thing to answer. Of course, I value diversity, I’ve worked all over the world. But what do you actually say? “I worked with “x” group of people and they contributed a lot…” – not great I think. But I do love that working with a diverse group of people is included on job applications. Of course, some are probably just doing that for legal purposes or corporate social responsibility reasons, but probably not all of them.  I really do think that having a diverse group is more likely to get you new opinions. Although this might cause a bit more discussion, I think it will ultimately lead to the most successful “product” for your organization.

Here’s an example. In my current office (in Bolivia), there are so many knowledgeable people. The fact that everyone has a different background and experience is so useful, and I learn so much from the people I encounter on a daily basis.  Here are just 5 of the people I interact with regularly:

  • A volunteer from Cuba/Venezuela who helps me practice my Spanish every day in the office. He also knows everyone at the school (so he can create connections), and will help you with silly administrative stuff (like opening a bank account or getting a library card). I let him use my computer and we practice English together. Plus, I let him drink all my rum when he comes over for parties at my house! 😉
  • Another volunteer (from Canada) is newly arrived but I enjoy her company a lot. We have such different skills that we can really help each other out. She knows so much about seemingly everything – hunting, carpentry, farming, metal music, travelling, etc. She helps to create the initial ideas for great programs, and I polish everything up on the computer. I love that she’s not afraid to speak her mind, and it gives me more confidence to voice my opinions as well.
  • One of the office staff (local Bolivian) is the sweetest lady ever. Not only does she make an effort to speak in short English phrases and also ask you how your day is going, she also knows everything. If you want to find out about local vacations, understand certain Bolivian customs, or just know which bus to take to a certain city – she can help you out. I try to help her with a bit of administrative/graphic design stuff when there’s a big conference at the school and we’re in need of formal envelopes, programs, and invitations.
  • A fellow Canadian lady runs a small bed and breakfast in a nearby town. She’s a great friend. I love to talk to her about everything going on in Bolivia. She even let Steve and I stay at her beautiful, little place. I let her vent to me about crazy stories of running a BnB in rural Bolivia – like all the problems she has encountered just trying to get fresh water from her well! I also try to promote her place to other travelers I see, because I think it really is a great, authentic, Bolivian experience if you travel there.
  • Another volunteer who works with a different organization is from Costa Rica. He seems to know everyone in town, and knows where all the coolest events are happening. When we arrived he showed us everywhere we needed to know, and it was great introduction to the city. I’m not sure that I contribute much to his placement, but I’m hoping I’ll have the chance in the future!

As you can see, everyone has some way to contribute. Everyone teaches you new things, and you help them with other things in return.  In design, we like to say that “everyone is an expert of their own experiences”. When you design something for someone, they’re the one that can tell you the processes they normally go through, and what will fit in with their life and culture.

Unfortunately, it seems that a lot of people think that “diverse” people are only hired to check a box. They think they hired with less skills and knowledge them themselves. I think that’s a completely wrong attitude… Would a homogeneous group of old, white men probably finish a task quickly because they all agree? Yup! Would that idea be creative, inclusive, innovative, and solve anew problem?  Probably not… Diversity gives you different ways of looking at a problem, and that’s exactly what leads to great new ideas.

Who doesn’t want great new ideas, innovation, and inclusion in their organization (or in their life, for that matter)?

Table for One

How moving abroad can be a fast-track to something we all need to learn: how to be alone

A couple of months ago I took myself to see La La Land. I strolled, on a picturesque winter’s day over the hill to Hampstead’s small independent cinema. ‘Just one ticket?’ the clerk wondered. Indeed. I asked myself if I’d like popcorn, I replied, ‘yes please!’ and then me, myself and I stretched out on one of the theatre’s velvet sofas, put our feet up and proceeded to laugh and cry and snack with abandon. Continue reading

Getting ready to go home

This weekend I had to say goodbye to one of the closest friends I made in Taiwan. We spent all of the most memorable moments here together. Waving goodbye to her from the other side of the barricade, waiting for the metro to come was the hardest thing for me to do. Seeing her with all of her suitcases packed made me want to go home and pack too. Maybe if my bags are packed that will mean that I’m going home as well. I’m not saying that I am not enjoying myself here, I just know that the life that I created is slowly slipping away. Over the past few months, my closest friends have gone home, leaving me as the last remaining member of our little group. You are probably thinking, why don’t you make new friends. Well, it isn’t that easy. I have friends with whom to meet for dinner and drinks, but not the kind of friends that I can call when I need some advice or a moral boost.

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Unexpected Opportunities

When I decided to move abroad, I felt like the move was itself the opportunity I wanted. Living in a new country is a really interesting experience, it gets you to think through the pragmatics of how other people live, it allows you to see new things, and learn about the world. But moving also gave me other kinds of opportunities that I never would have imagined in my doctoral research, my professional development, and in forming some big picture thinking.

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Picky Eater in a Strange Land

For as long as I can remember, I’ve only eaten simple foods. If you ask me what I don’t like… well, it’s probably easier for me to tell you what I do like. I explain to people that I eat like a four-year old, so whatever your little niece or nephew likes, I probably do too. People laugh and think I’m joking, but then I list the foods I don’t eat and they stop laughing. “Huh, you were serious…”.  I mostly eat a lot of bread and cheese, in various forms. When I tried to ask my Spanish teacher what the right word would be, she just said difficult. I guess it’s appropriate but doesn’t feel great. :p

Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem. I can cook, and my boyfriend is a good cook, and we eat a lot of meals at home with the ingredients I like. He makes food for me and then adds extra stuff for himself like hot sauce or mushrooms. In Canadian restaurants, I can always find something I like. When I’m travelling, or living in another country… that’s a different story!

Ghana was the first time I had lived in a “non-western” country for an extended period of time. For those of you who don’t know, Ghana is on the coast in western Africa. This means that the food is spicy, fermented, and there’s lots of fish – not exactly my favourites! While my colleagues were ripping of pieces of fermented dough like fufu to dip in their spicy peanut sauce or grab a hunk of tilapia (a white fish), I was learning how to eat with my hands. I had to emphasize to restaurants that “No, I don’t want any of that extremely spicy black sauce. No, not even a little. Yes, I know it’s boring without it.” They would laugh at me for eating “baby food” but serve me plain rice with chicken anyway. I ended up eating a plastic bag of plain rice with a hard-boiled egg, and maybe a small piece of chicken every day for lunch. Fortunately, I had my own kitchen so I could eat anything I wanted at home. Unfortunately, there were constant power outages and I had a major ant problem in my house so I ate a lot of staples – like pasta. I had to keep all my food on a table in the kitchen so the ants couldn’t find it. One time, I tried to eat some leftover vegetables and chicken that had been in the fridge during the daily black-outs – it was my first time getting food poisoning, and I gave it to myself. How embarrassing!

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A Box of Expat Memories

As you can see, I’m late with this post, which was technically meant for last month. That’s largely because I have been caught up with work but also because I didn’t really have anything much to write about. I have been wracking my brains but sadly, came up with nothing. And then it hit me – I don’t have to use words!

So, SO much of my experience living abroad has been captured in photographs – countless moments that were happy, sad, funny, stupid and crazy! So for this post, I thought I’d do a collection of pictures that capture some of the most memorable of these moments and reflect briefly on why each of them were significant to my expat life. Here goes 🙂

From matriculation to getting trashed, Oxford has weird traditions. Don’t question them, best to just go with it. Fun can come from unexpected sources.

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What it really means to be an expat

After living as an expat in three different countries, I can easily say that there are a number of misconceptions about this kind of life. Part of the reason for putting together this blog has been to attempt to address some of these misconceptions. I’m always flattered when people congratulate me on the life that I’m living, but I fear that some of those praises stem from preconceived ideas of what being an expat actually is. So, here is my attempt to address some of these misconceptions.

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Being a Digital Nomad

planeMy personal/professional situation is a thing. It’s a situation that many people find themselves in. Perhaps it’s common enough to even be a phenomenon. It’s called being a digital nomad.

When I finished my undergrad degree, it was really hard to find paying, relevant jobs while I completed my Masters part-time. Sure, as an aspiring writer I could be an unpaid intern at a publication, but it was hard to see the point of doing so much busywork for free when, if I applied a little initiative, I could be paid real human money for doing interesting work. So I created my own job. I registered as a business and I emailed publications about ideas I had and some of those publications said (more or less), ‘Yes! We’d love to give you money for words!’

A lot of the pieces I wrote were very location-specific. I wrote about local events, state and national politics, and stuff I saw around me. Increasingly though, I diversified, wrote about things that could interest people worldwide and for publications in countries on the other side of the world. When I moved abroad, my work became even less tethered to the spaces I actually inhabited. In the last year, while living in the UK, I’ve written about gluten free flour in Kenya, youth engagement programs in Haiti, global challenges relating to HIV, the European Union’s robotic workforce policy, the Australian Prime Minister’s five-dollar donation to a homeless man, a Scandinavian teen TV show, and so on. The nature of the work is likewise distant – I’ve worked with dozens of editors and have actually met about three of them.

A digital nomad is a person who conducts their work remotely. They can be anywhere in the world (as long as it has an internet connection) and do their job. This frees them up to travel when they like.  I can live in Norway for two months without any disruption to my career, for instance. It’s a privileged, agile position.

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