Redefining "crisis" living abroad

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Brendan Doyle's picture

When I first arrived in India, I began to stoke a fairly obsessive relationship with news cycles – blogs, newspapers and social feeds.  The need to stay connected intellectually to the United States was visceral, but I also found an interesting ‘meta’ experience seeing Western news outlets report on India. For the past few months, Mumbai has invariably been reported as dealing with ‘unrest,’ ‘crisis’ and ‘lockdown,’ but having gone through these periods myself, it’s pretty clear that most of the career professionals I work with adapt and move on – just like everywhere else.  

In November, politician Bal Thakeray died, and Mumbai was reported to be on the brink of anarchy. This was one event that actually did affect my normal routine – all shops were closed for the weekend, and more than a few people stayed home from their corporate jobs that Friday. Ostensibly, the shuttering of business was to pay respect to Thakeray, but my office teammates explained – somewhat amused -- that Thakeray’s influence was more akin to ‘the Godfather,’ and that his hired thugs were threatening to incite riots. Thankfully, nothing happened in my part of the city – about forty minutes from the heart of Mumbai – and I had a very boring weekend to myself with no grocery shopping, movies or bars.

 

If you were to have told me a few years ago that I would have my safety threatened by the death of a political ‘Godfather,’ I would assume that either I or the world had gone mad. However, the general banality of the death’s aftermath taught me that living life in a ‘crisis region’ – where anything is possible -- does not mean constant panic.

In December, a horrendous gang-rape in Delhi sparked international outrage and numerous reports of India’s intractable sexual harassment problem. Students and activists protested across the nation, and many Western media outlets declared a watershed political moment for India’s burgeoning middle class. One New York Times’ guest columnist, Sonia Faleiro, noted that in Delhi, “sexual harassment is as regular as mealtime.” Ms. Faleiro explained that moving to Mumbai when she was 26 provided her a more “cosmopolitan and liberal” working atmosphere, where sexual depravity is rightly unacceptable. To this end, I was proud to be a Mumbaiker – and I was also able to explain to family back home how sexual harassment was not a problem in “my city.”

This lack of personal effect, of course, is reflective of the ‘Mumbai bubble’ I live in – I know for a fact that the rape protests had wide-ranging consequences for India. But seeing the Western media define India is such stark terms made me rethink the power of communication, and my perspective as an expat.

Similarly, reading about catastrophes in the U.S. during the past year has given me an interesting view of America from the outside. I’ve seen my share of hurricanes in my hometown – but Hurricane Irene, to me, seemed like an entirely freakish event which belonged in a disaster movie. Exploding transformers in lower Manhattan, Wall Street flooding, the Atlantic City boardwalk blowing away --  Irene dwarfed any of India’s problems, and my teammates were subsequently very curious how my family was holding up. Luckily, the hurricane blew through D.C and Virginia with little damage, but I have multiple friends living and working in New York City, including one who had to evacuate his apartment in the financial district. The evacuation seemed completely unbelievable to me, but in talking with my friend, he had the same attitude I had during the multiple Indian crises – the unexpected happens, and professionals adapt.

Granted, my friend and I have been lucky to have only seen the ancillary effects of tragedies. There were many homes destroyed in Irene, and I’m still surprised that I never saw any protests of the Delhi rapes in my part of Mumbai – I believe they took place downtown. But my point is that ‘panic’ is not universal, and though certain regions may be more volatile, this does not conversely mean that people and organizations in those regions are volatile. I’m sure this is not a huge insight for plenty of well-traveled people, but for me, gaining this understanding of cultures has been huge.

For organizations still unsure of India’s stability as a place to do business – and there are many doubters – I would emphasize that the country’s resilience, particularly of the sprouting middle class, has no limits. India will certainly see more ‘growing pains’ – protests, maybe even violence – but these are necessary as the country tries to fill the shoes of an economic superpower. For the young professionals I work with, a ‘crisis’ situation in their city is never a reason to drop the ball at work.