After a tearful goodbye with my boyfriend at Mumbai’s flashy new airport I hobbled white faced onto the plane, doing my best to repress agonising stomach cramps whilst dragging my screaming toddler behind me. I could see the looks of “please god don’t let my seat be anywhere near that woman and her brat!” on the other passengers faces as I passed by. What a great start to my repatriation experience!
I had little or no desire to be back in England, however 40,000 feet in the air and sick as a dog with airline staff discussing whether they should land the plane and take me to hospital, I couldn’t get there fast enough! Luckily I had been prescribed some morphine and there no short supply of hot water bottles and hot drinks from empathetic air hostesses, so with plane still firmly in air and massive melodrama averted, our journey from hell commenced onwards.
After twelve hours, the highlights of which being a minor head injury acquired by my ferral-stampeding-up-and-down-the-aisle-toddler (the blood always makes it look worse than it is) and a drunk passenger emptying the best part of a bottle of wine into my hand luggage (goodbye clean nappies!) the whole ordeal was over. I didn’t even glance at the duty free (I must have been in bad shape!) and made a beeline with my leaning tower of suitcases into my parents arms and the chilly air of Heathrow’s arrivals lounge.
The first thing that struck me about England was it’s grey blandness. The sky was grey, the roads were grey, even the light was a murky grey. In contrast to the techi-colour vibrancy of India it was like I was viewing the world through the veil of a grubby net-curtain. I didn’t like it one bit.
Still it was good to be back in the parental bosom where I could convulse in comfort with invaluable childcare assistance. My long-term health problem that had caused such commotion on the aeroplane was finally getting see to thanks to the wonderful NHS. Calls, offers of help and moral support were flooding in from friends. Maybe England wasn’t so bad a place to be… Before long I found myself in London with a new job, flat and even a cat.
I had heard of reverse culture shock as a phenomena before, but nothing could have ever prepared me for it. At first it was the little things. I missed my bum washer! You would never think that you could miss Indian toilets but when presented with good old English loo roll as opposed to a refreshing jet of cleansing water, my whole bathroom experience just felt unhygienic!
Then there was money – English bank notes just didn’t seem real and seemed to have this magical quality of disappearing faster than seemed possible. I checked and there was no mysterious hole in my purse – stuff really was that expensive. I felt like crying every time I converted the price of things back to rupees in my head! The rent on my new flat was more than six times what I had been paying in Mumbai, yet my earnings were not even twice what I had been getting back there – it just didn’t seem to add up!
At home I continued to cook Indian food for myself and my daughter. I sorely missed all my comfort street food snacks – vada pav, behl puri, pani puri. I just couldn’t go back to a British diet of bland followed by stodge with a side helping of dull. Still it was good to be able to get cheap tins of baked beans.
At work I found myself thinking in Hindi when I wanted to direct crew to move flight cases or fly PA. At the childminders and at friend’s and family’s houses I had to explain that if my daughter asked for pani it meant she was thirsty and dudu meant she wanted milk- not that she needed the loo (doodoo is slang for poo in England!). It was surreal being able to understand what everyone was saying all the time!
Crossing the road in the UK is a completely different technique, as is driving and travelling by public transport (more about that later). I found I had picked up other Indian habits as well that I just couldn’t shake – wobbling my head (my current Indian boyfriend hates this but I just can’t help it!), abruptness and directness in conversation and answering the phone (there is a great article by an ex-pat I met in Mumbai on this: http://idiva.com/opinion-iparenting/are-we-bringing-up-a-generation-of-rude-kids/25757) and neither me nor my daughter, could get used to the amount of layers of clothes you need to wear to combat our British climate!
Everyone noticed my difficulties adjusting – strangers as well as people close to me. The smell of curry at work had been commented on more than once. There had been a few road rage incidents. I found myself talking incessantly about India to anyone who cared to listen (as well as a few who didn’t!) I began to question myself – was I just making a big deal out of nothing? After all, I had lived in England for a large part of my life. Was I clinging on to my Indian habits, even obsessing over them, not to mention adding unnecessary quantities of masala into my food, as a way of conserving some kind of connection with the country I had fallen in love with? Was all this symptomatic of the fact that I had not wanted to leave? I felt like a different person to the one who had lived in England before – was this my way of maintaining and advertising my position to the world around me as an ex-pat even though I could hardly call myself one? Enough of the self psychoanalysis – one thing was clear – I missed India and my life there terribly and had big doubts if I was ever going to, or wanted to, adapt back to life in England. So what was I going to do about it?
Here are a few links that ex-pats returning home may find useful: