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The Expat Arc – Book Review and Author Interview

By alison - May 8, 2008 (Updated: December 1, 2014)

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It’s no secret that I’m just a tiny bit obsessed with India. Just ask my Indian friends whom I’ve pestered with endless questions about their country. I’ve been planning my trip itinerary for years. So when fellow Canadian, Danielle Barkhouse, was looking for volunteers to review a book about her expat life in India, I jumped at the chance.

The Expat Arc is a collection of stories from the past year of Danie’s life in India with her husband, son and their dog. It begins with researching and organising their move from Illinois and moves through their settling in and coming to terms with life in India.

Danie claims on the back of her book “Don’t read this if you’re expecting deep insights on culture, politics or religion in India. Oh no. I’m far too shallow and lack the intelligence necessary for that. I’m not an expert about anything. I’m just here for a good time and amusing myself about it to stay sane.” The book is fun and light hearted, but I do think that Danie makes some interesting insights about life as an expat. As I was reading the book, I couldn’t help but relate to Danie’s struggles as an expat wife. Despite the differences in cultures, many of the feelings and frustrations were similar to those I had deal with moving to Belgium.

Danie says, “I have found that most expats don’t really talk about culture shock. We all look at one another and know we’re each going through it at some level. Some people will say they’re fine, when they’re really not. And then there’s me. Let’s just put it under a microscope, magnify the details and write about it! That’s all this really is, a magnification of the details.”

I recommend this book to anyone who has considered living abroad, or is living abroad now, (as well as family and friends of expats who wonder what the heck is going on in their heads). If you’re interested in an honest look at what expat life in India is all about, pick up The Expat Arc.

In addition to letting me review The Expat Arc, Danie has graciously agreed to answer some of my questions about her life in India.

What was the first thing that went through your head when you found out you were moving to India?

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We knew a move was coming.  We had lived in Illinois for three and a half years.  Every once in a while my husband would come home and say, “What would you think about China?”  A month later he would say, “How about Mexico?”  My way of coping is research.  I would hop onto the internet and look up housing, schooling and interest groups.  He came home another day, put a hand on each of my shoulders, looked me straight in the eye and said, “Forget China.  Start researching Bangalore.”  To which I replied, “Where’s Bangalore?”  Never heard of it.  Before I had a chance to research anything, we met his boss that night to talk about moving to India.  I’m an impulsive person so I say yes without really thinking of what yes really means.  We’ve been expats for thirteen years and I get itchy feet if I stay in one place for too long.  My first thought was that I was glad we were moving on to something new.  I was happy we were doing another foreign assignment and I don’t think I gave much thought, initially, to the fact that it was going to be Chennai, India.

Once I started to tell my family we were moving to India, each of them shared the first thing that was going through their heads. Maybe it’s a good thing you’re not interviewing my mom.

What has been the most challenging moment of your Indian life so far?

Just one?  I’ve had many new experiences in India, many of which have been way outside my comfort zone.  India has unleashed a diva from within me and that’s been a tough thing for me to face.  I didn’t know she existed and I didn’t like what it revealed about my character when she reared her ugly head.

In other countries, I would eat the food just about anywhere and I would check in to just about any hotel.  All of a sudden, I’m in India and I have a standard.  It made me feel like a snob, which induced much self-loathing.  That’s my greatest challenge here—calming my inner-diva.  That’s the side of me that struggles with the ugly side of India.  I’m not proud of it.

What has been the most rewarding moment?

As the mother of a third-culture-kid I’m forever hoping that when my son grows up he won’t hate us for schlepping him all around the world.  I think most expat moms fear their kids will need more therapy than the average angst-ridden young adult.  Not long ago, a friend of his was in the car with us.  I was listening to them chat in the back seat as it turned into a little counseling session.  My son, the experienced expat, was giving advice to the new expat kid.  He was explaining the Indian way with compassion and an understanding far beyond his years.  I was really impressed by what he was saying.  These were his own insightful words, not the words that I’ve used to hold him up with from time to time.  I was so proud of him for creating an understanding between two cultures.  It made me realize that he is well adjusted in India and growing into an exceptional young man. Isn’t that the only reward any mother can hope for?

What would you tell other expats who are considering a move to India?

In any circumstance, knowledge is power.  It’s important to read and research, not just India, but about being an expat.  I regret that I only read books about expatriation and repatriation years after I’d first expatriated and returned home.  I could have saved myself much heart ache if I’d known what to expect and what was normal.

As for India itself, I tell people the same three things my husband told me (the fourth one is all mine):

1) When you get frustrated, keep in mind that WE are what is different in India, not India itself.

2) Go with the flow or you can make yourself crazy going against the grain.

3) India has been the way it is for thousands of years. You won’t be changing it to “your way” in the short time you live here, so get over it. Smile

4) A sense of humor and the ability to laugh at oneself helps.

If you could have one “luxury item” from home, readily available in India, what would it be?

I can hear all the expats in India shouting…

“Danie, tell her decent tampons!”

“We want Bounce!”

“Bagels!”

“Brown sugar!”

It’s amazing how the small thing that we can’t have becomes an item of luxury status in our minds.  If I were to pick just one thing—oooh, so hard—I would have to pick a dog grooming service for my golden retriever’s inner-diva.  Who am I kidding?  I can’t choose just one.  I’d love to go bra shopping, too.  Ok, and maybe grab a Caramel Frappaccino along the way.

Tough question.  Next!

Has being an expat changed you in any way? (why or why not?)

It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from or where you move to, being an expat changes who you are.  How can it not?

For example, I never noticed Indian people in the US until we decided to move to India–then they were on my radar.  It never once occurred to me the culture shock they must experience moving from India to America.  I get it now.  The more I travel the more aware I am.

Travel and expat experiences allow us to see the world—-and people–differently.  We don’t see things differently because the world has changed but because our experiences change how we view the world.

When did you decide to publish your story and how was the experience of making a book for you?

I didn’t plan to publish my story.  As the daily number of hits increased on my blog, readers were encouraging me to publish my stories.  My story takes place (this time) in India, but the steps of culture shock are universal.  Regardless of where we live, we all experience some level of culture shock.  We all bounce around the same steps.  I guess I wanted people to read my story and be able to feel better about their own, because chances are they’re handling it more gracefully than I did.

For the most part, I’ve enjoyed the experience of creating this book…in between the feelings of fear and self-doubt.  It’s been a good learning and growing process.  I’m thinking about what my next project will be.

What are you looking forward to?

In the short term, I’m looking forward to the end of the school year and taking a round-the-world trip with my son this summer.  Longer term…more travel, more adventure, more expat assignments and more writing in lieu of therapy.

I’d like to thank Danie for allowing me to review her book and pepper her with more questions about life in India. If you have any questions for Danie about her book or her life, leave them in the comments section or email them to me and Danie has agreed to stop by and answer them. Make sure you check out The Expat Arc on Amazon.

Looking for more resources for expats living abroad? Check out our Expat Resources page.

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Alison

Alison

Big Cheese at CheeseWeb
Alison Cornford-Matheson is a Canadian freelance writer and travel photographer and the founder of Cheeseweb.eu. She is the author of The Foodie Guide to Brussels: Local Tips for Restaurants, Shops, Hotels, and Activities. Alison landed in Belgium in 2005 and, over the years, has become passionate about slow and sustainable travel, in Europe and beyond. She loves to discover hidden gems - be they museums, shops, restaurants, castles, gardens or landscapes, and share them through her words and photos. She is currently slow travelling through Europe in an RV, with her husband, Andrew, and two well-travelled cats. You can also follow her work on Google+
Alison
Transylvania is at the top of my Bucket List, even more so after this fantastic post from Adi. Take me back to... https://t.co/sTv8TFmgQB - 3 days ago

5 comments

  1. Comment by Danielle Barkhouse

    Danielle Barkhouse May 8, 2008 at 13:16

    Alison,
    Thank you for the review!
    To answer the first question…
    My family thought I was nuts long before I moved to India. I’ve lived away from “home” for a long time so I think they’ve accepted that part. India was so unknown to my family. In their minds, I would living in a thatch-roofed hut and cooking my meals over a fire–which, my inner-diva would just never allow me to do. My friends and family, although they know my husband works for a multi-national company, all asked the same question, “Why would you go there?”
    I know my parents really struggled with my first year here because they were reading my blog posts about the good and the bad. They had never really heard about my other foreign assignments told in a “tell all” kind of way so my struggles were their struggles. Now that I’ve mastered the the expat arc, my folks are OK too.

  2. Comment by Danielle Barkhouse

    Danielle Barkhouse May 8, 2008 at 13:44

    Andrew,
    Thank you for your thoughtful questions. You sound like you’re already an expat or thinking of taking the leap!
    My husband has adapted well, although some weeks he groans that he can’t handle one more business dinner serving Indian food. I hope you don’t mind, I’ve actually asked my husband to answer your first questions. Here is his response:
    Adapting has been relatively easy once you figure out how things work. That took about 6 months which is a little longer than other assignments, but reflective of the complexity of the Indian culture. Once you get that figured out, it gets exciting fast.
    Different? Yes!! Basically you have to throw away everything you have learned about leadership in the west and start over! The things that motivate people in other countries are very different than here. I would not say wildly different as every country I have worked has had its differences. I think leadership success in India comes down to remembering India is not America or Europe, and opening your mind to new ideas.
    Thanks JB.
    There are two ways of bringing pets into India. You can do all paperwork yourself and ship your pet as extra baggage. Or, you can hire a pet shipping service to handle everything. We’ve done it both ways. When we moved from the US to the UK, we shipped our cats ourselves and it was fine. This time, we used a pet-shipping service and although it was very expensive, the peace-of-mind was well worth it. I usually suggest to people that if they’re moving to a developing country or a country where English is not widely spoken, it’s best to use a pet shipping service. They have local people that they work with to make the process smoother.
    I have found several Indian foods that I enjoy. Our family motto is that we don’t have to like it but we do have to try it. Many dishes here are very spicy. Unfortunately, my body gets very angry when I eat Indian food. My family loves the naan bread–we could live on those happy carbs–and we like a lot of the snacky “chaats.” I’ve written a few posts about foods, one of my favorite topics in life, you can check them out here:http://earthtodanie.blogspot.com/search/label/Food
    Honestly, we have not done a lot of traveling within India. Like I said, I’m no expert! During our first year, I didn’t want to travel in India, I wanted to run from India. Every opportunity that we had to travel, we went to places as luxurious as we could afford. Now that I’m not freaking out here anymore, I’m looking forward to traveling to new places. I just knew I had to wait until I had adjusted enough.

  3. Comment by Alison

    Alison May 8, 2008 at 10:12

    I have a question via email Danie and it is this: “What did your friends/family think of your move to India and has that changed since you’ve been there?”

  4. Comment by Andrew

    Andrew May 8, 2008 at 10:28

    A couple of questions I have:
    – How has your husband adapted to business in India? Is it wildly different then his experiences elsewhere?
    – What was the process like for importing your dog?
    – Have you found any new favorite foods?
    – Have you found any new favorite places to visit?
    Thanks!

  5. Comment by Rick Goyette

    Rick Goyette May 9, 2008 at 16:05

    “Just one? I’ve had many new experiences in India, many of which have been way outside my comfort zone. That’s my greatest challenge here—calming my inner-diva. ”
    That’s more than enough……I’m really glad to see how you’ve grown and especially recognize your”inner-self”. India may be a long way off….but you’ve come a long way too. Always proud of you.

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