From Vancouver to Mumbai: A Little Bird on the Windowsill of Bombay
My name is Bronwyn. I’m from Vancouver, Canada, and am now living in Bandra west, Mumbai, India.
1. Why did you move abroad?
I’ve been living in and out of India for the past near three years. I think that my experience is different from a lot of expats because I was not sent abroad by my company, or assisted in any way with integrating into life in India. Each of my long stays in India has been because of my own initiative: I am now in Mumbai because I want to be here. I love the challenges presented to me on a day to day basis here, and feel that I’m growing in ways that I couldn’t back in Canada.
2. How do you make a living?
Before, I earned money in Canada through part time jobs (during my studies) and spent that money in India by staying for long periods and volunteering.
I initially came to Mumbai for a volunteer project, but quickly realized that I wouldn’t be able to stay in Mumbai without working! It’s a very expensive city to live in, much more so than Varanasi, the smaller northern Indian town where I lived before.
In Mumbai, there’s a lot of work available for foreigners, and much of it just requires a sense of entrepreneurship and not many concrete skills. I have worked a little bit on Bollywood sets, as a background extra and a dancer. I’ve done voice-over work for Bollywood movies. I’ve also done waitressing and hostessing for events.
Now, I work for an NGO that is working to create quality education for underprivileged kids in Mumbai. My monthly salary is what I might earn in a week in Canada, but the sense of satisfaction that I get from my work is priceless.
3. How often do you communicate with home and how?
I don’t communicate that often with home. I speak to my family on the phone a couple of times a month, and occasionally with friends. Otherwise, I keep up through email and facebook. I prefer to spend time with my Indian friends here in India, and spend quality time with my friends in Vancouver when I am able to go back for a couple of weeks.
4. What's your favorite thing about being an expat in India?
Being an expat in India means many different things: I know a lot of expats here, and all of our experiences are very different. The best thing about being in an expat in India for me is what I get to see and experience on a daily basis. As I’m working for an NGO, I have a very real sense of how millions of people live here in Mumbai: whole families in single room homes, a very basic life, and very basic joys and sorrows. At the same time, I’m aware of my other expat friends, as well as wealthy Indians and the way that they live. The spectrum of lifestyles, feelings and beliefs that I get to see in others is my favourite thing about being an expat in Mumbai, because it allows me to learn and expand my views.
5. What’s the worst thing about being an expat in India?
The worst thing about being an expat in India is the incessant attention from locals. I live in Bandra west in Mumbai because it’s the easiest place to live in the entire country that I have found. Still, there are always some lesser educated locals who either intentionally or unintentionally harass foreign women. I’ve been in and out of India long enough to understand why it happens, and it’s just because of long-standing stereotypes and a lack of education. White women are often misrepresented in Indian media, and it’s only a natural reaction for uneducated people to be curious about the white women they see. It does make living in India difficult though at times.
6. What do you miss most?
I miss some of the foods I eat at home in Canada, like quinoa, avocadoes and sprouted bread. I miss the people I love, and I miss how ridiculously easy and convenient everything is. In Canada, I can create my list of errands and do twenty things in a day because everything is so linear and clearcut and dependable. In Mumbai it can take two days to do a single task. I do miss that Canadian efficiency and easiness!
7. What custom/ habits do you find most strange about your adopted culture?
I find that within Indian culture there is a general belief/social construction that things are as they are for a reason, and to push and fight against that is simply not done. This is a generalised cultural belief, and I think it stems partly from the caste system, which is legally abolished but still exists in society's mindframe. If one is born to a beggar family, he or she will stay a beggar: even if he or she is not physically disabled in any way, and could aspire to getting work as a maid or cleaner (the lowest of jobs) he or she won't: people generally believe that life is for them as it was meant to be, and the same applies to others. People will give a couple of coins to a beggar for their own good karma, but to help that beggar move up to the next rung of the social ladder by helping him or her get a job could be frowned upon: maybe he or she is supposed to be suffering because of wrongs in his or her past life. Interfering with that, and trying to change the order of the universe in that sense is not really done. This completely goes against everything in my North American upbringing, which says that you can do absolutely whatever you want, no matter where you come from.
8. What is a myth about your adopted country?
That slums are sad places full of complacency and human misery. A tour through Dharavi (the largest slum in Asia) here in Mumbai will break every misconception that one may have about a slum. It is a pleasant, purposeful, friendly and welcoming place where people are proactively working to better their lives. Seeing Dharavi is a must for anyone visiting the city, just because it disproves so many preconceived notions about poverty.
9. What advice would you give other expats?
Come with an open and appreciative attitude. Be grateful for the way that others go out of their way to help you. Understand that you are a foreigner entering a place where things are done differently, and be patient and ready for those differences. Understand that you don’t know better, you don’t know everything, and be ready to learn.
10. When and why did you start your blog?
I started my blog almost a year ago as a way to connect with those at home. It evolved into something totally different: I don’t speak of my own experiences in my blog as much as my observations on happenings in Mumbai.
My blog has been beneficial for me to process my own feelings and reactions to my experiences here. I think it’s been useful for others as well, allowing people to look into Mumbai’s people and pulse.
Bronwyn's blog, A Little Bird on the Windowsill of Bombay
Find out more about being an expat in India with Easy Expat's
Thanks for sharing
Thanks for this interview. I am an American. I studied and earned my Master's degree in social work in Chennai. Your experience mirrors some of mine in that you are getting to see life at all different levels of society. I feel blessed to have experienced that, because even in US I would not get to see that. In fact, most people living anywhere don't get to experience that because we are all kind of trapped in our own social strata/group and it's not easy to see how a wide variety of people live. Thanks for sharing.Jennifer Kumar 02 May 2011, 13:06
Hello Jennifer, I'm really glad that you were able to take something from my interview. Life as an expat in any cosmopolitan city anywhere in Asia guarantees for a very wide spectrum of experiences, acquaintances, feelings, understandings and misunderstandings, beliefs, etc. I know what you mean when you say we are lucky to be able to traverse over all of that and choose to be exposed to all of those experiences.
I hope you continue to read my blog!