I found myself out dancing last night. Head bopping to Shakira, I looked around the setting. What city were we in? We could have been anywhere. A DJ was at front while the Germany-Uruguay game played behind him. Neon green lights darted across the room, hitting a sleek white bar in the back packed with late night revelers.
I was dancing with new friends, friends of Daniel’s, friends of friends from home, and some people I hadn’t even been properly introduced to yet. It was expat night at the Blue Frog and while we were surrounded by a sea of Indians (dressed very differently on the inside than perhaps many would on the outside) but a little enclave of outsiders had formed in the middle. Here I was, someone who normally hated clubs (even if I love dancing – the two don’t usually get to go together due to the massive crowds in New York clubs) and I was having a great time. It was my first real night out and I’d been able to wade through it with a little help from the community I now belong to.
While I live in Mumbai and I’m trying to experience it to the fullest, I can’t deny that I live in a second world as well – I’m an expat. The expat community of Mumbai lives in the same city as the native Mumbaikers and the millions of Indians who come from all over the country. Yet they have their own way of flowing through the city while still creating their own space in a crowded metropolis.
Expats are like a venn diagram. Every circle interacts with the Indian circle in its own way – on the street, through their jobs or volunteer work, through slowly learned Hindi – but there’s always going to be a portion of an expat circle that stands alone. And so, they all stick together – giving each other advice, living in the same few locations, and crowding certain bars and restaurants. They establish outposts in the city.
Living in Scotland for four years in college never felt like this – I was part of the University community, I belonged. And I was proud that I tried my hardest to make friends primarily with British people (and not corner myself off into an American clique). That felt important to me then – what was the point of going abroad if you only wanted to hang out with people from home?
In a non-University context and in a culture clearly much more different than that of our neighbors across the pond, I think it’s okay to admit that the situation here is different. Here I’m more of a fish out of water – and while it’s admirable to hope that I can immerse myself into Mumbai and it’s people, it would be naive to think I didn’t need the comfort of the built-in community in front of me. You can make friends on both sides of the aisle here – but as an expat it would be hard to fight the natural inclination to befriend people who a) understand you but b) also are always happy to have and accept new friends, since theirs are always coming and going. Young expats here are transient. Most come for months or at most years, so being a new person is part of the natural expat life cycle.
Luckily for me, it’s been hilarious realizing that most of the young expats in Bandra are all connected. A girl I was put in touch with through an Andover connection happened to be living with one of Daniel’s old friends who was in Mumbai. They invited me out last night with a guy who I’d already been put in touch with through another friend from home. And a friend of Daniel’s from work who is also living here is now temporarily living with a girl who turned out be someone Daniel had known in high school. Just when I thought I didn’t know anyone, everyone I COULD know already knows each other.
It really puts the phrase “It’s a small world”, into a funny context.
The friends issue been one of my larger fears moving here – how can I leave my great life with my great friends to go move somewhere where I don’t know a soul? But it’s the expat openness that makes those fears start to recede, even in these early stages where I’m still pretty much on my own (with Daniel of course).
Listening to American pop music in a bar with my own enclave, even for a night, makes it seem like even when the whole world is in front of me, I’ve got pieces of home standing squarely behind me.