Posted by: laurdsed | January 23, 2011

Contemplating India

A year ago, we left our home and arrived in India.  We were so excited to be on this adventure (Well, maybe Chris wasn’t that excited; he had a better idea of what we were in for than I did).  Something new and different, leaving the hum-drum routine and shaking things up.  Once arriving there, I quickly discovered that we were in for quite a different ride from the one I expected.  The above picture was taken on the day before we left to return to the U.S.  It was our Christmas photo this year. I remember feeling profoundly conflicted about leaving four and a half months later in May.   It’s taken 6 months of contemplation and reflection to understand what was gained and grieve for what was lost.  I’ve been totally unable to write about anything else in our family until I was done processing our time there.  There was so much raw emotion that needed to be deadened with time.

I have loved traveling in the past.  There’s something quite addictive about exploring different cultures and meeting new people.  For the 1st 5 years after moving from my parents’ home, I didn’t stay in one spot for more than a few months at a time.  This has shaped me in more ways than I can put a finger on: tolerance of other lifestyles, noticing little cultural nuances in our own country, seeing what I thought were universal values, viewing amazing vistas of mountains, jungles, and deserts.  I think I loved nearly every minute of it…exploring.  I thought that this could be transmitted over to my boys.  I genuinely wanted them to see that diversity in people, places and cultures is something to be acknowledged and appreciated.

Never again will I say that 4 months is a short amount of time.  Every single day it was such a struggle parenting these children.  It’s all relative, isn’t it?  For three young boys, it seemed like F.O.R.E.V.E.R.  They were losing themselves in India.   I didn’t realize just how essential the stable home base these little fellows have here is to them or anticipate that they might not have the means to cope with being thrown into a chaotically different environment.  For example, after less than 3 months there, Alex, our most homesick child, bemoaned how he couldn’t remember what home looked and felt like anymore – which was something Chris and I completely took for granted.  “Home is home and we’re going back there.”  Not for the boys.  It was heartbreaking to watch.  Children are so in the moment and their experience on this earth so brief that submerging them into what seemed like a different planet…well, nothing seemed cozy and familiar for them.  The rug had been swept out from under them, never on solid ground.

Well, this post isn’t written with the intent to convince people to not travel with their kids.  On the contrary, our best and most favorite experiences were when we traveled as tourists around India.  We loved that part.  India is a wonderful place to explore.  Being a tourist in India, however, is a completely different ball of wax than living in India, though.  It never occurred to me that living in a foreign county with children would be one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done.

When one reads that arriving in India is an assault to the senses (I’ve read this many times on blogs and in books), it is….to every single one of them.  It’s not just the smells, tastes, noise, constant motion sickness in cars, prickly heat, and physical closeness; it’s the emotional, mental, and spiritual toll, too.  It’s protecting one’s sense of self.  We Americans are such individuals, and that sense of individuality is completely challenged in India.  For children, whose self-identity is still so malleable, processing this completely different information is like watching a newborn baby.  They just don’t know what to make of what they were experiencing.  So, it was our job to help them, all the while ourselves struggling to cope with these things as well.  Most days I felt overwhelmed; it was beyond difficult to assist my children to make the leap of faith that everything was going to be OK.  They are quite the astute little observers and no matter how hard I tried to cover up my feelings and pretend that everything was all hunky-dory, they knew.  They knew that the crushing poverty and pretending that the beggars weren’t there (like everyone else does there) wasn’t OK.  They knew that the stray animals in the street needing food and attention wasn’t OK.  But when you are living in India, everything you know to be true is completely turned upside-down.  Up is down, black is white.  Heck, people consider it healthful to consume cow urine.

So, after struggling for a couple of months for us all to “assimilate and absorb the culture” like I had planned on doing, I realized I was just swimming upstream.  I was the only one who wanted that outcome.  I decided that what my children needed was to somehow protect their identities in the face of all that was different, even if it meant leaning into the difficult sharp points of not being liked for that differentness.  Not just cooking the homemade meals with impossible-to-find ingredients, but allowing them to segregate themselves from society, from the overwhelming heat, the invasion of personal space, the stares, the judgments of others.   This is where I really feel for those who are foreigners here in the U.S., where people who have different values are so criticized and berated.  Things that they know to be true in their upbringing is considered “backward” or just plain wrong, even for something as simple as the small comfort of using one’s own language.

Anyway, nearing the end of our stay in India, I started to feel atrociously guilty.  Guilty for seemingly squandering the wonderful opportunity presented to us.  Guilty for seemingly scarring my children for life.  Guilty for thinking that India was a horrible place that I never wanted to return to.  Why would I think that?  I had never felt that way before!  I had always wanted to return to the places that I had visited and talk with the wonderful people I had met.  Therefore, after arriving back home safe and sound, I fell into a deep, deep funk.  I told myself I should be grateful for returning safe and sound,  for having the opportunity we had,  for having my job back, that my children wanted to go back to school.  Lots and lots of “shoulds”; few true feelings of happiness and contentment, though.  I had never realized that I, indeed, had had expectations of what our time in India would be like, even though I had told myself not to.  I assumed that it was going to be a box of chocolates, and we wouldn’t know what to expect.  What I had truly wanted, though, was for my children to like being in India…and they didn’t.  So most of the time I was asking myself, where did I screw up?  It’s not a comfortable feeling thinking that months of planning, inconveniencing friends, family and co-workers, investing an extreme amount of financial resources was all for naught, nothing, zilch.  Oh, that was a pit I didn’t know how to get myself out of.

It’s impressive how time heals wounds, and how the resilience of the human spirit shines through, though.  The everyday routine of caring for children and a household numbed those prideful wounds.  For me, being in a world surrounded by new mothers, it’s hard to not compare this journey to that of child birth; the pain of labor deadened with time and memories of little moments bring joy.

So, those boys…the ones who were miserable in India, the ones who seemed to constantly complain and whine while there, the ones who absolutely refused to go along with our attempts to go out and about and explore. Well, they started talking about India.  They talked about a top 10 list.  In the car, they spontaneously would talk about Goa, or monkeys, or something else that they had learned.  They even talk about returning some day! What?  Where did that come from?  The hardest parts of daily survival were fading and the wonderful parts of being all together and trying to have fun were sticking out.  Yes!  Final success, even if it was delayed gratification.

I think what has brought final closure to my wounds was a recent conversation with a friend who, a few years ago, with their five daughters, followed her husband to Turkey and lived there for 10 months.  She had a much rougher time than I did and echoed how one child refused to adapt, to the point where she had even considered sending her back to the States for schooling!  She summed up her feelings so well.  She said that she wasn’t accustomed to feeling completely incompetent in caring for her family.  There was very little that she could do on her own.  That really nailed it for me…my feelings of how I felt in India.  Incompetent.  No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make things better for the boys and couldn’t even do the most basic things like back at home.  I’ve never felt that way here.  Ever.  Oh, how that conversation soothed my soul!  We Americans are doers and have a very hard time just being.  I’m glad I had a chance to catch a glimpse of living that way and have even started working toward just being instead of constantly doing.

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