From Baltimore to India: Hello Talalay
James and Sarah Talalay. We’re originally from Baltimore, Maryland USA and currently live in Chennai, India.
1. Why did you move abroad?
We moved abroad for Sarah’s job. She joined the U.S. State Department as a Foreign Service Officer in February 2011 and her first two-year overseas tour started in late June 2011.
2. How do you make a living?
Sarah works full-time at the U.S. Consulate, while James, who previously worked in film production in the United States, still goes back to the U.S. to work on select film projects.
3. How often do you communicate with home and how?
We use a combination of email, Skype and a Vonage line, depending on whom we’re contacting. With those three options, we can be in touch with anyone as often as we like or need. James has had many audio conference calls through Skype for work and it’s been flawless. Sarah’s parents like seeing her on Skype once a week.
4. What's your favorite thing about being an expat in Chennai?
There isn’t one favorite thing. The opportunity to live abroad and soak up a different culture on a daily basis -- rather than on a two- or three-week vacation -- is marvelous. You have to experience India in person to understand it. And even then it’s still enigmatic. It is impossible to comprehend what 1.3 billion people means, until you are here. It is colorful, noisy, beautiful, and an adventure every single day. And the food is fabulous.
5. What’s the worst thing about being an expat in Chennai?
India is challenging. Sometimes what makes it exciting also makes it frustrating. There is no such thing as a calm, quiet day. It is crowded, noisy, smelly, messy, dirty, hot. With so many people living here, there are few rules, no orderly lines, no calm driving. For example, you have to fight for a spot in line to get served in a place as mundane as a grocery store. We look different, so we’re treated differently – the auto rickshaw drivers increase the price when they see us coming. We might be speaking English with locals, who also speak English, but they still don’t understand us. It can be tiring.
6. What do you miss most?
Not much. Family and friends, of course, but we didn’t live near family in the U.S. and we are in touch with them regularly. And we have made lots of new friends already. Food here is delicious – although sometimes it would be nice to eat a fresh salad or drink tap water. The State Department has an extensive support infrastructure to get you settled. Many of the typical things we might miss are addressed. We miss watching American sports. Cricket is on non-stop – we stopped counting at 14 channels -- but it’s not a substitute.
7. What did you do to meet people and integrate in your new home?
There’s a built-in community through the Consulate. A lot of fellow Foreign Service officers have been here much longer than we have -- and we get introduced to locals and other ex-pats through those officers and as we go about our daily lives.
8. What custom/ habits do you find most strange about your adopted culture?
Where to start? Probably how much religion is intertwined into daily Indian life. Whether Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh or another of a myriad of religions practiced here, one’s religion is quite a driving force. And the icons of those religions are on display everywhere – be it a Ganesha “the Elephant God” statue in a doorway gate; a bindi, ash or colored paste on a forehead; or a picture of Sai Baba on the windshield of an auto rickshaw. Marriages are still arranged, lives are thought to be fated, many beliefs control a lot of aspects of people’s lives.
9. What is a myth about your adopted country?
India is a giant paradox, but often the rest of the world will focus on only one side of this paradox. As an example, while it’s been reported that India has emerged as an economic powerhouse, it’s still quite poor with seriously underdeveloped infrastructure. A bunch of call centers doesn’t mean the country has been transformed or will be any time soon.
10. What advice would you give other expats?
Our advice is to make sure to minimize the temptation to re-create your life from your home country. Bring items that remind you of home, of course, but the best part of living overseas is that it is different. It’s best to adopt as much as you can from your new home, as it will help minimize disappointments and help you learn more about the culture around you. Eat the food, meet the people and educate yourself about customs, local pop culture.
11. When and why did you start your blog?
We started the blog as we started this new ex-pat life at the end of June 2011. The original purpose, which is still its main purpose, is to let our family and friends know about what we’re experiencing – both big and small. It’s a lot easier to blog about what we’re doing and seeing than to send mass emails or make a million Skype calls. As we’ve gained readers, we’ve tried to keep the blog universally interesting as opposed to posting repetitive and mundane items on doing laundry or foods we’ve eaten. We also think the photo-based style gives a daily quick nugget for those interested in our current life. We are fortunate that India is so rich as to provide items of interest every day.
12. How has the blog been beneficial?
The blog has allowed us to keep track of our experiences in an orderly way like a modern-day diary, so we don’t forget the amazing things we have seen and done. It has helped us share those experiences with our family and friends. It has attracted a wide array of readers and introduced us to other interesting blogs. And it has helped us learn more about our adopted home.
James and Sarah's blog, Hello Talalay
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