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Carissa Hickling, Mumbai

Who are you?

I am Carissa, originally from Canada, call India home while working and traveling around Asia. My profession is consulting with a focus on the people side of the equation. My passions are music, theatre, art, reading, writing and I’m a bit of a ‘Whisky Lady’ too!

Where, when and why did you move abroad?

Warning – study abroad programs can become addictive!My 1st taste of life outside Canada was a series of study abroad programs: Germany (1986), France (1987 & 1988), former Yugoslavia (1990) and then my fateful trip to India with the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (SICI) summer program in 1990.

The first time I moved abroad was in 1995 to Delhi, India – again with SICI – this time with a full year fellowship to study Hindi and research my thesis. I returned to Canada in 1996 to complete my thesis, worked for a few years and then moved back to India in 2003… and have called this remarkable country my adopted home ever since!

What challenges did you face during the move?

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As a student on a very limited budget you learn to adapt rapidly with tremendous resilience. By my third day in Delhi I was hopping on and off local buses as my scholarship was so meagre the only way I could ’treat’ myself to a few restaurant meals or any other activities was to be extra careful about every rupee spent!

However I was also hugely fortunate. I lived as ‘Paying Guest’ in a filmmaker friend’s mother’s home, integrating into the daily fabric of life few have an opportunity to access. They are an amazing family and through them, my new life came with fabulous cultural and contextual translators, building a deep appreciation of all the influences and experiences that came my way.

Are there many other expats in your area?

In Delhi during the mid-90s, there was a ‘crazy Russian’ and another ‘French lady’ who married Bengali men in the 70s and made India their home. Otherwise, I was a complete anomaly in a ‘colony’ with a population of oh… a million!

Similarly, the area (Kalina) I initially moved to in Mumbai in 2005 was not known for any expats. Some folks were frankly incredulous I chose to live in such a modest middle class area. For me it worked – I loved my flat, had friends and a terrific support network in the area and it was convenient for both work and social activities.

When I met my partner late 2011, he wanted to remain in the area (Bandra) where he grew up which is full of expats. There is something about Bandra’s strong Catholic influences, Anglo–Indian and Goan communities, lively night life and ready access to ‘phoren’ items which appeals to a lot of expats. Our building even has a lovely American – Canadian couple living just upstairs!

What do you like about life where you are?

Many things! What I enjoy most about Bandra is that practically everything is in walking distance – markets for shopping, gym, great places to eat, fabulous places for music, theatre, festivals and home to a ridiculous number of friends. As one friend puts it “We’re all in stumbling distance!”

What do you dislike about your expat life?

Honestly, nothing. The best thing about how I’ve designed my life is a balance between living in India and doing projects outside to feed my hunger to explore other countries. For example, Singapore is my ‘alternate’ home where I set-up my company whereas Jakarta is a favourite ‘work’ home.

What is the biggest cultural difference you have experienced between your new country and life back home?

Given that I first went to India 25 years ago… it is tough to pinpoint something specific!

However one element does come to mind from my early Delhi days. There is a funny little thing called ‘Eve Teasing’… Except that it actually isn’t amusing at all. It covers with a ‘cute’ label the very serious challenge of sexual harassment women face to a varying degree in their everyday lives.

My polite, friendly Canadian approach to common interactions had to be replaced by an ‘armour’ of aggression and what felt to me like rudeness, snapping back at the slightly provocation lest someone feel emboldened to try and get away with more.

Women face sexual harassment all over the world, however I found the blatant misogyny and tolerance for such behaviour in North India challenging. I should also note, it is not so prevalent in other parts of India. When I moved to Mumbai, I could take for granted freedoms unimaginable and imprudent in Delhi.

What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?

Recently I’ve seen a lot of blogs about AMWF – Asian males / Western (White) females. Some come across as terribly earnest yet incredibly naive with unrealistic expectations about romantically embracing the life and country of their Asian spouse.

Thinking about these young women, I would suggest a few things:

– While it is important to embrace the culture of your spouse and adapt to your immediate surroundings, make it work for you…
– Get a job!! Or continue University studies… Or engage in some kind of activity that enables you to build something which is yours and not dependent on your new family
– Don’t expect your spouse to always ‘translate’ the world around you… embrace it! Learn the local language, build a network of other folks willing to answer your ‘dumb’ questions, keep trying new things
– No matter where you are in the world – be true to yourself!

What are your plans for the future?

More of the same! I hope to keep Mumbai my base, enjoying life here while still having opportunities to work and explore other parts of the world.

Carissa shares more information about life in India and experiences in Asia through her blog, Everyday Asia.

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