OJ: Wisdom Wears Neon Pajamas
Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Silicon Valley, etc.
I grew up in Bombay, India, in the 80s and 90s, a city that has been home to my family for at least 5 generations. My field of study was Psychology and I received Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Mumbai. My first move abroad was at a month shy of 23, when I started Graduate School in the United States, and I continued to work on the East Coast after my M.S. degree, as a mental health therapist and early interventionist for young children. I lived in the United States between 2001 and 2006, and after many interesting experiences, relocated to my beloved city of Bombay.
Bombay was, and is, a thriving, vibrant megapolis—and I was delighted to work and play in the city of my childhood. My work revolved around children, and I ran a preschool, launched the city’s first Play Gym, and later was a consultant at a non-profit for children with disabilities. In addition, I was a freelance writer and editor, and enjoyed blogging, eating out, watching theatre and attending music concerts.
Five years later, in 2011, marriage and my spouse’s transfer—two events that happened in quick succession—brought me back to American shores, and we now live in Silicon Valley (also called the San Francisco Bay Area) in Northern California, where I was, until very recently, the manager of an inclusion preschool program. I am currently taking time off to travel.
When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?
My first blog entry, on January 26th, 2006, was a result of curiosity and boredom. I had heard of an acquaintance maintaining a blog, was in the middle of wrapping up my life in the United States and moving to India, and decided to take a picture of all the shoes I owned and write about them. I had exactly two readers—my then boyfriend, and a lovely lady I met online quite by accident (only to discover that we were related!)—and I didn’t give it much thought or attention.
I started blogging regularly a few months later, and since I have always enjoyed creative writing, used my blog as a platform for short stories, poetry and observations from daily life. Writing about my life, although it gets the most hits and comments, is not among my favorite topics. I know many people have personal blogs, and I have shared details about my life increasingly over the past 6 years, as readers became friends, but to be honest, I don’t see why anyone would want to read about what I had for breakfast and how I can’t bear to walk barefoot even at home. J
I had to shut my earlier blog due to technical problems and started my current one in July 2008. Though I now have a much wider readership, I miss the supportive community I had with the bloggers on the Yahoo 360 network. That said, my blog has introduced me to some lovely people the world over, who are now good friends.
Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?
The posts where I wear my heart on my sleeve and write about things and people I love are the hardest, but also the most fulfilling. I love writing about my home city and have a category (called Bombay Meri Jaan) dedicated to it.
Some favorites include:
Other favorites include the posts about my Nana (grandmother) and Daddy, both very precious to me (and featured in the Heart Tart category):
I also love the Shutterbug category, where I put up pictures I’ve taken, and though not a favorite with my readers, I enjoy taking a break from words and letting the photograph speak for me.
Tell us about the ways your new life in California differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?
California, and the South Bay area of Silicon Valley in particular, is remarkably easy to acclimate to, given the large immigrant population from our home country (India). Even my spouse, who had not lived in the United States prior to this posting, realizes how good we have it. We have ready access to Indian food, cultural activities, shops, and people, and sometimes escape the South Bay just to get a break from all the homogeneity! We frequently laugh about the fact that we eat more Indian food here than we used to back home, and I take Bollywood dancercise classes and watch old Indian movies, something I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing in India.
Having lived in other parts of the United States that were not so immigrant-friendly, I value the familiarity and availability of so many objects and symbols from home. At the same time, I find myself exposed to so many cultural practices that did not form part of my socio-religious sub-culture in Bombay. Ironically, when it comes to the Indian community in California, I am exposed to a far less cosmopolitan population than I am used to at home, but since we also have friends of other nationalities and cultures, that isn’t a concern.
Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in Silicon Valley? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?
I don’t believe one can ever be fully prepared—and one shouldn’t, because that makes the journey less exciting. Having said that though, I believe I was reasonably prepared, since I had the advantage of prior exposure to the culture and the presence of some family in the area. We did have a nasty incident involving a car accident fairly early into our stint, and that exposed us to the complex, infuriating world of American insurance companies and lawyers, in addition to the healthcare system, but we chose to chalk that up to experience and learn from it.
There were a few items of food that I would have packed more of (that most of my countryfolks wouldn’t know about, since I come from a minority ethnic group in India), and I wish someone had mentioned how unreasonably expensive decent bed linen is in America, but apart from these minor things, I must admit I was surprised at how easy it was to slip into life in this area.
Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?
When I first came to the United States as a student, I used a credit card that billed my parents back home, and I once used it to buy groceries. The store’s name was Price Chopper and when it showed up on the bill, my mother hit the roof. She thought I had spent Rs. 9000 (approximately $230 then) on a vegetable chopper, called my best friend, and ranted about how I was going to drive the family to ruin. We still laugh about that.
Another incident comes to mind. My friend, who is visually disabled, arrived at a University in the American mid-west from India to work on his doctoral thesis. Having lived in college dormitories for most of his student life in India, he walked around the campus for two days, asking everyone where the Mess was, and received responses ranging from confusion to suspicion, until he finally called me and I explained that in America it’s called a cafeteria.
Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in Silicon Valley?
- The area is incredibly diverse (albeit with a large Asian and South Asian population) and you are bound to find countrymen and women if you want cultural familiarity. If your workplace does not offer opportunities to socialize, there are several online groups where you can meet folks in the offline world based on similar interests or a common background.
- If you don’t plan on buying a car, make sure you live close to a train/bus stop. Public transport outside of large cities in the United States is notoriously sketchy.
- Ensure you have health coverage, and car and rental insurance from day one. Study all the plans available to you and choose one based on your needs, but do not scrimp, because you absolutely need to be covered in the event of an illness or accident—or you will pay through your nose when the bills pile up.
How is the expat community in Silicon Valley? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?
A large percentage of Silicon Valley’s population consists of first generation immigrants, working professionals and young families. It is a thriving community that understands global relocation and the challenges of settling into a new way of life. In a little over a year of living in the area, I have encountered 18 different nationalities and diverse sub-cultures, and unless you choose to live under a rock, it is hard to feel isolated. Whether you choose to meet like-minded people from different background based on interests and activities, or fellow countrymen, chances are you’ll find what you are looking for in the Bay area. It may be a greater challenge to find like-minded people who are also fellow expats and countrymen, but I have to say we have been lucky to find all three.
How would you summarize your expat life in Silicon Valley in a single, catchy sentence?
My expat life is an exciting blend of the familiar and the new, with the good fortune to shuttle between opportunity, diversity, and the comfort of home, as I please.