What moving to a non-native country taught me

Last week, right before Diwali, my parents returned to Delhi for good after spending 14 wonderful years in a foreign land, Dubai. My aunt funnily compares my parents’ return to Delhi with Ram & Sita’s return to Ayodhya; their return signifying the festival of lights, Diwali in the Hindu Epic, The Ramayana. She even went for a very traditional welcome for my parents.

My aunt welcoming my parents to India! (From left to right — Dad, Mum, Aunt)

In my brother’s words, “Its an end of an era! ”— An era that has transformed each of us for the better. 14 years ago, my father, a paper and pulp engineer from IIT Roorkee, had a great job in Delhi. He was living at his ancestral home near Delhi with his loving family. In the past, he had come across a lot of job opportunities in different countries but he never really considered any. In Delhi, we were surrounded by our family and friends and he didn’t want to let go of that.
14 years ago, my father was in his late 40s when one fine day he decided to move to an alien country. A decision that would uproot our family from our comfortable lives. A decision that is amongst the best decisions that he has made in his life so far. It has not only given us a better life but has also given us lifelong friends and irreplaceble memories and experiences.

I was only 10 when we moved from Delhi to Dubai. Thus, this move has had the most impact on my life. I will be forever grateful to my parents for being able to provide this exposure and experience to me. Through this article, I want to share my learnings and the impact of living in a non-native country. I sincerely hope that it inspires you to take the plunge (even if you’re in your late 40s like my father was) and experience different cities, cultures and people. Here’s what I learned —

Lesson 1 — I learned to build relationships!
Surrounded by my siblings and cousins, I never found the need to go out and make friends in Delhi. I had everything I ever needed right at home. 
When we moved to Dubai, I was suddenly left with no-one. My brother went off to college in India so it was quite lonely. For the first time ever, I was forced to step out of my comfort zone and learn to make friends. In-fact, I was able to make some lifelong friends.

My first outing at my new school! — Hi Akanksha, Harshit, Harsh, Deep, Arushi, Shreya, Neha, Raghav, Ibrahim!

Yuval Norah Harari in Sapiens talks about how our species was able to survive because of our innate nature to form social circles. Moving to a new country or city without knowing anyone, I felt the absolute need to build new relationships, to form a social circle to survive.
I still had it easy given I met new kids at school everyday. On the other hand, my mother, a homemaker, had a tough time initially. There was a period of around 20 days, in which she was all alone in the new city as my dad and I were traveling. She had no access to the Internet and International calls were very expensive. She basically went for a few days without any human interaction. Eventually, she really had to put herself out there and build new relationships. I am sure that she now has more friends in Dubai than mine and my dad’s combined.

Quick Lesson — This whole experience has taught me that relationships are self-less and require effort from both sides. You can’t just have them when you need them or when it’s convenient. Also, distance doesn’t really matter these days given how connected we all are through the internet and the ease of travel. My best friend lives in Dubai and we both take trips every year to spend time with each other. In-fact our friendship has grown stronger since I moved back to India for college 7 years ago. More importantly, this experience has made me more empathic towards someone who is new to the city. I ensure that I do whatever I can to help out. Talking about help, it has also re-instated my belief in my mum’s teaching to help out people without expecting the same in return. Life is bizarre and you find help at unknown doors. Try being that door for someone, it feels quite nice!

Lesson 2— I learned to look beyond our differences!

Indian history talks about how the English were quite confident that a united India with so much diversity was engineered to fail. While so far we have done a great job at proving them wrong, we do witness people (and not just politicians) using our differences and diversity negatively for very short term gains. While being Indians we do understand diversity, how many us have truly experienced it first hand? Even if we’ve experienced it, how many of those experiences have been great?

Growing up in Dubai, I witnessed true diversity early on — not just globally but diversity within our own country. Being from Delhi, I never knew the differences in the taste of sambhar from Tamil Naidu and Andhra Pradesh. I became friends with people from different family backgrounds & cultures, people who spoke different languages at home, people who prayed different gods and who didn’t, and people with different ethics and values. 
This has made me more susceptible and empathic towards people, their viewpoints and actions. Quick Lesson — Growing up with a diverse group of people makes you realise that issues around religion, caste, language are insignificant and makes you see beyond these man-made constructs. 
In Dubai, we celebrated all festivals such as Eid, Holi, Diwali, Christmas together so much that Eid without Sheer Khorma and Biryani for me (even after 7 years) doesn’t really feel like Eid. Unfortunately, I didn’t experience the same when I moved to Pune a few years ago. However I do believe that given the increase in globalization and the influx of immigrants in Pune, this city is progressing and becoming more and more inclusive.

While I was very excited to be in Delhi for Diwali this year and celebrate it with my entire family, I was also a little sad that I am going to miss out the festivities and celebrations back in Dubai where Diwali is surreal. It brings Indians from the whole country, decked up in Indian attire and irrespective of their religion to Bur Dubai.

Diwali Decorations in Bur Dubai!

Lesson 3 — I learned to embrace and be proud of my culture.

While living abroad provides the opportunity to meet people across geographical borders, at the same time, it gets you closer to your own culture and traditions. You must have already witnessed you or your friends who are studying abroad joining Indian communities. A major factor for this is the social incentive; we come across people from other countries celebrating their culture which makes us want to celebrate and recognise our own. Also, it unites us and brings us closer to the familiar people around us in an unfamiliar country. In my experience, interacting with people with different beliefs makes you more aware, not only about their beliefs but also makes you delve deeper into your own. 
Quick Lesson — For those of you who move to a different country and only hang out with people from your own country, please don’t. Spend more time with unfamiliar people and use this opportunity to learn more — about their culture, beliefs, ways of working, society, law, religion, sports, politics, food, history. Trust me, it is the best way to advance your thinking.

Lesson 4 — I learned to adapt and became unafraid of change

I decided to move back to Pune (an unknown city to me) in 2012 for college. Over the years, a lot of people have questioned my decision to move back saying ‘Who in their right mind moves back from Dubai to Pune?’. In-fact some still wonder why I didn’t move back to Dubai for work after college, considering I already had a resident visa and everything.

Why did I do it? I believe that life has a lot to offer but it wouldn’t bring that to you served on a silver platter at your doorstep. You need to work for it. You need to enable life to give you all that it has to offer. You need to get out of your comfort zone and experience different things. And that’s why I moved. Honestly, I wasn’t even nervous about it as I knew I would adapt and be alright in the new world.

What did I gain from it? Although moving from a known and safe environment in Dubai to an unknown one in Pune was quite exciting, it wasn’t at all easy at first. I had to learn to cross the road without a traffic signal, abide by the hostel rules (yes in-time and dress codes), live on a budget, make new friends, do my chores, learn to cook and often eat unhygienic food, bargain with the auto drivers (there was no uber back then), deal with the Pune rains (I come from a desert), learn to navigate through the city without google maps (imagine that!) — All this while studying with the smartest kids in the city. I remember I used to fall sick so frequently during the initial period. But just as my body (specially my stomach) adapted to my surroundings, I did too.

All this has made me more independent, a little less indecisive and way more confident. In today’s day and age, where technology is evolving exponentially and changing the landscape every minute, staying relevant is of utmost importance. Adaptability is the winner’s skill and one cannot be afraid of change and in-fact needs to learn to embrace it. My experiences have empowered me and given me the courage to proactively bring change and consistently embrace it and adapt to it. It has made me confident enough to explore opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise, knowing that I will figure it out. Quick Lesson — Say yes to that opportunity first and then put your all in to figure out how to do it later.

Thank you for reading! I hope I was able to add some value and inspire at least a few of you. Please do share your feedback in your comments or messages. I will come back with more!

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