How Did I Live So Long in India? Musings from China on Women’s Personal Freedom
When I locked the door to my home in Bangalore and headed to Los Angeles for a simple visa renewal in 2013, I never dreamed that I was destined to move to China, never to walk through those doors again! It was a series of circumstances and events that could have been prevented and that I was actually able to remedy but at the end of the day I think I knew my time in India had ended so I didn’t fight as hard as I could have to stay if my heart had really been in it. I lived a yin and yang existence in Bangalore full of fun and friends and opportunities balanced by the worst financial hardship of my life, subjected to degrading situations as a woman and living without personal freedom. I learned from the negatives and appreciated the positives and I genuinely thought that I was happy there. But I was wrong.
It took me the whole of 24 hours in Beijing to realise that I may have liked the life I led in Bangalore but I did not like WHERE I lived. And I don’t mean ‘where I lived’ as in my home, because I was always fortunate to live in a really lovely flat. What I mean plain and simply is India, and it’s a really odd thing to realise that now. I moved from Barcelona to Bangalore in 2011 at the age of 40 – not a spring chicken! – so you’d think that I could have noodled that out for myself there in India long ago but I promise you that I’ve only just figured it all out now.
My first day in Beijing was like a dream come true with freshly fallen snow, crystal clear blue skies and no pollution. I walked out of the hotel in the Embassy District and took the subway a couple of lines over and into the heart of the city until well after dark, navigating through alleyways and deserted parks and bustling touristy areas like the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square – all without a single man objectifying me, all without ever once being stared at or ever once feeling unsafe for walking unaccompanied, and all the while enjoying the amazing benefits of a city that has planned its infrastructure to handle the 22+ million citizens that happily reside in it.
None of that day in Beijing – a day that was like any day in Barcelona – would have been possible in Bangalore. NONE of it. There is no awesome public transportation that effortlessly links all areas of Bangalore…and sadly what is there is either terrible to endure or has segregated women’s only sections to protect girls and ladies from being groped and fondled as much as possible. Some Indian men make it completely unsafe for women to walk alone and the truth is that every expat I know in India has been attacked at least once – including me and my daughter several times. And white women are stared at everywhere they go – often times with lustful looks from some (and if I’m being honest, I would say more than ‘some’) Indian men. As an American accustomed to living free and feeling safe and equal and independent…well, India doesn’t offer much on the menu to choose from. Yet still looking back there was so much I loved about being there, so much that I still carry in my heart fondly for the country. I just never realised that I didn’t love being THERE and that’s a strange thing to realise after 2 years of living in a country … and after years of emphatically saying that I LOVED living in India. It was exotic and different and I do love that…and the country has something special…but looking back none of that should have been enough for me.
Even love itself is something that I deluded myself with in India because not even love meant happiness for me in India. Only my family and closest friends know that I fell madly in love with the most amazing man three months after arriving. For two years we saw each other as much as possible (well, when we weren’t fighting because I wanted MORE), up until the very afternoon before I left India for what I thought was a quick visa renewal trip. I can still remember every moment from that last day, even his fingers running through my hair. Yet we had no true relationship because everything special about us was kept completely secret and we posed as friends because in India it is only a very modern and progressive household that would allow a family member to have a relationship with someone outside their caste or religion – let alone a divorced foreigner with a daughter!
But my American heart always believed exactly what my parents taught me to believe…that love is what truly matters, that if you work hard on your dreams everything will work out for the best, and that anything is possible. And I’m such a sucker because I still believe it all when it comes to him. Yet looking back today from China, with a glass of French red wine in hand, I can see that I really was so silly to believe all that in India, and even more silly to believe it now…and it breaks my heart to admit it. It breaks my heart to think of it for ME but also for every Indian with a dream.
Truly, it is heart-breaking to think of how many dreams are never realised by millions and millions of Indians who opt to ‘do the right thing’ according to society or their family and give up on their own ambitions and dreams to turn their life over to their parents…never to live it for themselves. And I am not talking about love necessarily but careers, sexual orientation, hobbies, entrepreneurial ideas and so many other life decisions that so many Indians do not have control over.
Looking back I am happy for the time I spent in Bangalore but as a woman who enjoys living life on equal terms to a man, I honestly don’t know how I lasted so long! I don’t know if I will be happy in China but it seems to have all the right ingredients for happiness for me. I love the energy of Beijing and the feeling of safety and of being invisible again that it offers me. Now my only challenge is filling the gap of companionship by finding good friends to laugh with and spend time with in the new land I call home. That’s what truly kept me happy in Bangalore and something desperately lacking at the moment.
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