Category Archives: Global Nomadism

The Costs of the Digital Nomad Lifestyle

The Digital Nomad life is now accessible to more and more as our world gets further connected. We love to follow the romantic blogs and Instagram accounts of happy families who seemingly galavant across the world with hip looking children, drinking coconut water along the way and occasionally cranking out a few hours of work here and there to pay for their travels. They seem so well adjusted and self-actualized. The digital nomad life seems like an ideal lifestyle, and it feels like if you aren’t doing it, there must be something wrong with you.

But there are steep prices to pay for this lifestyle that no one tells you about. 

There are two kinds of global nomads. The first are the ones who do it specifically for the travel, mostly taking it as an extended vacation with some work involved. The goal is to work from a location and observe the local culture, then later return back to home base. This could be the person who travels frequently for work but whose family is rooted in their home culture.

The second variety are who I’m talking about. These are the long term digital nomads who have made it a lifestyle. They either have no home base or have a series of home bases which are not in their home culture. Their family (if they have one) comes with them and they have no plans of “going home” or settling down. They engage the cultures they are in and take root.

What are the long term challenges digital nomads face?

Displacement

The feelings of displacement are very real. Being away from your home culture, extended family, friends and familiar places is extremely taxing, to put it mildly. It sometimes feels like a military assignment without any structure or purpose, and the worst part is, you have no battalion.

The mind can only take so many “unfamiliar” at a time, and is not meant to be constantly readjusted for long, sustained periods. One has to give themselves time to become acclimated and familiar with a new location, set of relationships and way of doing life.

I don’t use the term “displacement” lightly as this term is largely associated with refugee populations.  There is a huge difference between “push” of refugees being forced out of their country and “pull” of the digital nomad life. While the situations are very different, there are some feelings which are common between these two groups. The similarities are in the displacement of starting over, the feelings of confusion and longing for familiarity of one’s homeland.

Losing Yourself

Losing oneself doesn’t happen until you allow yourself to truly be known by the locals. I’m not talking about the digital nomad who roams a different country every three months. This is the digital nomad who finds a place and camps out for an extended time, engages the culture, makes friends and allows themselves to be known deeply by the local people. There is a difference between being an observer in a culture and being an active participant. In becoming an active participant, you give something of yourself. You must loosen some of your roots of your home culture and be willing to let go.

Many nomads travel to “find themselves,” but in order to do that, you must lose yourself first. 

Priorities

In the process of becoming a global citizen, one’s priorities have to be completely undone and reevaluated. In the digital nomad lifestyle, one’s perspective of the world goes from an ant size grass level view to a 30,000 cruising altitude view in a relatively short period of time. The first year of nomadic life, is wildly disorienting. Your family, your identity, what you care about, all gets called into question as you delve into a new way of doing life. What is really important and what is not important, all must be reevaluated in order to learn how to function. And for those who find that sweet spot, things eventually fall into place in an improved order.

Each culture has a grid, a different way of wiring and functioning. At first, you often short circuit in a new culture as you assume the wiring is the same as your culture’s grid. These short circuits can lead to a fire in the grid if one doesn’t let the wires disconnect and be reassembled. That period of disconnecting and ambiguity is highly uncomfortable.  Sometimes in this period, you are barely functioning. Slowly, the discomfort goes away as the new wiring starts to work for you. The old wiring is disconnected and forgotten.  You become an improved and flexible machine. 

Even with the steep costs, living the digital nomad life is worth it. 100% worth every tear, every confusing wakeful night and every piece of lost luggage along the way.

 

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Top 5 items to bring from the West to India

With many people coming back and forth from the West to East, there are items which one cannot find while here. Since I find myself asking these questions on a regular basis, I thought I’d share my knowledge and what I’ve found.

Top 5 Items to Bring 

1) Safety items for kids – The best thing I brought from the US was a helmet for my 2 year old. With all the riding on scooters and motorcycles, this has served us well. Child helmets are just breaking into the Indian market, but they are often awkward and hot. I brought a bicycle helmet with holes for ventilation and it has probably been one of the most used items we brought with us. Carseats are also limited since they are not required here by law. Carseats here are often imported and extremely expensive. My advice is to bring your own from North America.

2) Food items -This is a biggie. I’m going to break it into three categories.

  1. Baking- people doing their own personal baking is just catching on in most homes in India. If you have certain molds or ingredients you really like, I’d advise to bring your own. Other specialty and gluten free items really don’t exist here. Cacao powder, almond flour, coconut flour are not available in most places. You may also be surprised to find the quality of vanilla, active yeast and chocolate chips to be less than stellar.
  2. Grains and health foods- Quinoa and other grains sourced from North and South America are very costly in India. Goji berries, real maple syrup, maca powder, spirulina and nutritional yeast are not readily available. Certain herbal teas that are sourced from other parts of the world are not available- matcha, jasmine, etc.
  3. Firmented foods are not really a thing in India (except for achaar and dahi). For those who like kombucha and water kefir- bring  your own starter and brew at home.
  4. Cheese- High quality and certain varieties of cheese like gouda, feta or cheddar are only found in import quality and very expensive. HimalayanCheese.com does source, produce, sell and ship in India.
  5. Coffee- if you’re a coffee snob, most of the Indian brands will leave you unsatisfied. Starbucks is newer in India, but unless you live in a major metropolitan city, you won’t have access to those dark roast kind of beans. There are a few place doing their own roasting like Blue Tokai in Delhi.

3) Kids Books- Unless you are in a big city with Oxford Books, you won’t be able to find specialty kids books in English. There are a lot of general things out there for older kids, but the collection before age five is limited. Also, if you speak another language like Korean, Spanish, you won’t be able to find children’s books here. Books for small children in local languages are starting to make an entrance in the market. Publishers like Tulika have Hindi, Bengali and a few South Indian languages are available.

4) Holiday sentimental stuff- American holidays like Thanksgiving, 4th of July and even Halloween are non-existent here. So bringing your own cornucopia and candy corns are probably necessary if you’re sentimental like that. Up until the last few years, Christmas was even hard to find. However, Indians have taken a great liking to the secular meanings of Christmas. Christmas trees and Santa Clause stuff is not so hard to find anymore. Kirti Creations in Delhi’s Khan Market is one of the few carriers of quality Christmas garb in Northern India. Other holidays where there aren’t large communities represented (like Rosh Hashanah or Chinese New Year) don’t have a large representation here either.

5) Ladies specialty items- Topics like menstruation, pregnancy and breastfeeding are taboo in most of India. Anything having to do with these normal passages of life do not have the representation of goods in the market. Ladies undergarments I find are not as high quality in India and have limited variety, particularly for nursing or for plus size women. Nursing pads, breast pumps, etc are best to be brought from abroad. Ladies menstrual hygiene goods are very limited on choice as well.

Worst 5 Things to Bring 

1) Water filter- Water filters are widely available in India and quite necessary. Carbon based countertop filters like Brita are actually dangerous in India due to the quick bacteria buildup inside sitting water. Save yourself the trouble and buy a Reverse Osmosis mountable filter upon arrival. They come with warranties and often have guys come along to do regular servicing.

2) Most Electrical Appliances – Save yourself the headache and heartache (when it burns out) and just buy stuff here. Ovens, microwaves, blenders, etc are all available. I have still not been able to find an affordable Vitamix or SodaStream India, but other than that, everything is available here in 220 Voltage.

3) Toys, Markers and crayons- Kids coloring and drawing stuff is widely available in India. I find the quality to be pretty much the same. Many of the plastic toys are available here, but not as many educational type creations. There are new companies like Flintobox in India that are making a splash.

4) Clothes and shoes for kids- Clothing for kids here in India is exceptionally good. There are certain things which we North Americans love like baby onesies which aren’t as widely available here in non-urban areas. But if you look on the tag of many of your kids clothes a lot of them are actually made in India. Also, most of the clothes here are made for the climate here.

5) Food items which are found here – My advice to people is to eat local. You can burn thorough a budget pretty fast by buying all imported foods, most of which aren’t that good anyway. There are several fad foods which are consumed in the US which actually originate here- coconut oil, chai, certain spices and anything with turmeric. No need to bring any of these items with you. Just buy the original when you arrive!

This is just my starters list! Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments!

The IKEA Generation 

My grandma’s vaccum cleaner taught me a valuable lesson. I have never seen anything like this. This thing probably weighed 40 pounds and it came with a 25 year warranty. Being a Millennial, I was baffled when my Grandma told me she bought it in the 1970s. How was this thing still working?KirbyVaccuum

Traditionalists/Silent Gen (1927-1945), Baby Boomers (1946-1964) and even Gen Xers (1965-1980) made purchases that were going to last them a lifetime.

Many generations born before 1980 have a “settle and stay” mentality. They buy a house in their 30s and live in it until they retire. The American dream includes buying a long lasting oak bedroom set and matching furniture throughout the house, being careful to include family heirloom pieces.

The older generation bought to last.

Our generation is a mobile one. I know people who don’t even have a vaccum, but just set their Roomba loose while they are at work.  We buy condos to sell them and make a profit. We buy IKEA stuff knowing that we will replace it in 3 years when our job moves us across the country.  We use Netflix instead of buying the collectors set of “Friends” on DVD. We value digital content over hard copies. We are global nomads, spending money on experiences rather than stuff.

There is no question that generations adapt to the times and workforce culture. Our lifestyles have to adjust. But I wonder if these “IKEA” mentality doesn’t have an affect on our relationships?

Do we idolize our lighter lifestyles? Do we think about investing into relationships that are built to last?

The older generations had the expectation that marriage was for life. They desired less change and less adventure. The Traditionalists were children of the Depression, and reached for stability as their highest value. That stability has slid into less of a need with each progressive generation. Nothing is permanent to us.

The relational wisdom of older generations, especially Traditionalists, still matters.

I want to challenge my fellow Millennials and Centennials to learn these important values of commitment, stability and compromise from the older generations. Not everything is disposable, and lets not forget it.

As we reach around the world, let’s keep the values of permanence in relationships intact.

For more on generations, check out The Six Living Generations in America.

Three Tips for Succeeding Professionally in India

Living and working in India can be a strange mix of personal and professional, informal and formal, fascinating and frustrating.

Indian White HandshakeAs a Westerner, one of the biggest struggles I had was figuring out how to navigate personal and professional life while remaining in the appropriate frame of mind for the moment or context I was in. What are the unspoken rules of professional life in India? Where are the invisible lines of work vs play, colleague vs friend, or manager vs peer?

Here are three tips which I’ve learned through my own mistakes in my personal and professional life:

1) Know your place in the Hierarchy

Have you been hired as a contractor for 6 months to do training? Are you an employee of a large company sent for a long term project? Are you a manager of people? No matter what your place, it is essential to find out who is “above” and “below” you as far as the corporate hierarchy is concerned. If you’re a Westerner like me, you probably cringe that I’ve just written “above” and “below” in this way. Western companies are great at pretending that we are all equal and that people should feel open to knock on the CEO’s door at any time. In Indian companies, this hierarchy is simply acknowledged and consistently reinforced according to who has more power. This hierarchy is not written anywhere on paper, and others are unlikely to give you an organizational chart. This is discovered through observing others, asking indirect questions from other staff, and finding out who you are able to go to and ask direct questions to when you are confused.

One of the most important ways you can immediately implement this is by learning who to address as “Sir” and “Maam.” These are basic manners in the office place, and you may be surprised to know that even someone just a year older than you, or someone in a slightly different position than you could be cause to call them “Sir.”

Also learning to interpret age is important (don’t be fooled by a thick mustache on a 23 year old). Even though the person who picks up the garbage or the person who brings chai might be 60 years old, it is not appropriate to call them “sir” or “maam” in an office context, but it could be nice to express gratitude and respect for them as a person by adding “ji” to the end of their name. This is another example of acknowledging hierarchy in an appropriate manner. There are endless rules of hierarchy and where people’ s place social status puts them in how they relate to you, and how you relate to them.

You have even more responsibility if you are a boss or manager to respect the hierarchy. You must realize the power that your words have. People may just bend over backwards even at your slightest suggestion. You are not seen as an “equal” but as a superior. Even though you may relinquish this power and attempt to implement a flat structure, your employees have it hard wired in them to put you in your proper place in the hierarchy.

2) Don’t take cues from other foreigners

I made this mistake of taking cues from a male boss who was about 10 years older than me, a clear authority figure in the office. I was in a role where I was just an employee of the company, around average age of the other employees and an unmarried female. How I addressed other employees and colleagues needed to be different than my boss. I made the mistake of picking the wrong role model given my age, gender and position in the office. He had figured out behaviors that worked for him, but would not work for me.

I also made the mistake of mimicking the dressing style of my friends who were not in the workforce, when I should have been watching what other working women of my age and marital status were wearing instead. I showed up to work in everything varied from ripped jeans to a saree. In India, what you wear speaks volumes about who you are, where you come from, and what you do. This is infinitely more difficult for women than men. I made the common mistake by dressing either too casual or too “wife-like.” Selecting the right amount of jewelry, applying the right kind of makeup (if any at all), wearing the appropriate length and style of clothing, with appropriate texture and fabrics is all a matter of great delicacy. If you work for a larger company in a metropolitan area, they may have clear guidelines on what to wear, then you don’t have to wonder like I did.

3) Learn where you fall on the personal scale of society

The biggest factors your place on the societal scale, are your age and marital status.

Age – If you are a young person, you may think you automatically deserve respect based on your merit or achievements. The fact of the matter is, older people always know best in Indian society, regardless of either of these. Indians know that no matter how old you are, there is always someone in the family older than you, who will have the final say. You are always a youngster in someone’s eyes. Seeing oneself in the context of your family (including ancestors), your caste or religious group is an integral part of the Indian mindset. Even if you don’t belong to an Indian family, figuring out who deserves respect because of their age alone, is an imperative part of successfully understanding where you fit on the personal hierarchy.

Marital Status – Simply put, being married equates being an adult. Married life is one of the ancient philosophical ideas of Hindu Stages of Life and is still very much in practice today. For example, even if you’re 45 and unmarried, people may not know where exactly to place you in society. This is a invisible social system, yet highly important and envelops all parts of life.

Other qualities which you may be judged on while ranking on the personal hierarchy scale:

  • what kind of a career you have
  • what kind of careers your parents and siblings have
  • your basic ability to speak politely to elders
  • your physical appearance (height, weight, tone of skin, good looks)
  • how nicely you dress/ quality of your jewelry and accessories

Becoming friends with a few key people that you naturally connect with in the office is a helpful both personally and professionally. Getting to know an Indian family in the home environment by attending festivals and family events will help you understand important aspects of personal life which affect each professional outside the walls of the workplace. You will gain insight on new parts of Indian life which help you understand why people do what they do. This is not only important for your professional life, but your overall survival in the country.

Ways to master this:

Find an informal mentor of your age and gender. Find ways to learn their lifestyle and kind of copy them until you’re enculturated enough to have confidence in your own ability to make culturally accurate judgements. By spending time with various types of people outside the office will help you understand more of where you fall on the social scale and therefore, the professional scale.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, but find a trusted friend to make them with. Find that special friend to whom you can ask questions. without being judged.

Other applications: The workplace, is not the only time I’ve run into troubles with these three challenges. These rules also apply in organizations like religious clubs or social societies.

DC Metro and Chicago CTA: A Comparison

One thing that a city dweller has in common with any other city-dweller in the world is that we all have the tendency to complain about our city’s public transportation system.  But after experiencing one of the nation’s ‘top’ systems in Washington, DC, I’d like to reflect on how it compares to Chicago’s.

Pros

A far stretching system. The system goes all the way out to the suburbs in many areas! This makes the city accessible to more people and serves the widespread suburban population. While many people might not LIVE downtown, they can access it easily without having to take a bus, a train, then another system train. This was the biggest advantage that I saw over Chicagos multi-train system (CTA for the city and close suburbs, and Metra for the far flung burbs.) For Chicagoans, this can be expensive if you live in the city and work in the suburbs, as you then have to buy monthly passes to both systems.  Looks like in DC, riders just have to buy one.

Very nice busses. The busses in DC (at least that I saw) looked like charter busses. They were clean, freshly painted, and shiny. And even though they service far out areas in the suburbs- they still had people on them. How do they manage to keep ridership that high?

Peak and non-peak times. This incentivizes customers to use the Metro throughout the day—which I know is an issue in Chicago. They are constantly changing the train times to try and figure out when people are using the CTA. Having a system like this would incentivize people to use it other times besides just their morning and evening commute.  This also makes transportation cheaper for people who are students and typically don’t travel during peak hours to get to class.

Zone based fees— This seems more fair. You ride farther, you pay more. Rather than a flat $2.25 (Chicago price), in DC you can pay a pretty penny. I think I saw like a $7.00 fee for one place. But again, you still only have to take ONE system to get far out. So I guess you’d pay that much in Chicago anyway.

Signal underground How did I manage to have an AT&T signal on my phone even in the tunnel?

The self-serve machines take Credit Card. This was great that I didn’t have to have cash to buy a train pass. Big Big help for the out-of-town-traveler.

Friendly staff—I had a man come up to me and help me figure out how to use the machine to buy a card. I feel like this would not happen in Chicago. Apparently, CTA drivers are amongst some of the unhappiest people on the planet and this shows in their behavior towards riders. Thus visitors usually have to fend for themselves.

Cons

Ill placed maps— The maps are on the sides of the train rather than above the doors. See the photo below  to understand why this is a problem of visibility.

Carpets– gives a nice ambiance during the summer, but I can’t imagine how filthy those things get in the winter. Also, if you spill something you’d feel really guilty. In Chicago, at least if you spill a Dunkin Donuts coffee, the liquid slides back and forth to the feet of all the other passengers on the train and spreads out until it becomes a sticky dried layer of brown goo thin enough to air dry.

No vertical poles— This feature does not maximize space. You can’t stand really close to other people, without accidentally touching their shoulder or awkwardly bumping into them when the train sways. There is nothing to hold onto if you’re standing. In Chicago, we like to pack them in, so these intermittently placed poles are necessary.

 

Minimum payment for one time user– In DC, they make you put additional money on the card even if you only need to go $3.50 worth of a ride.  So it actually costs $4.50. I don’t get this.

Incomprehensible announcements—Passengers can’t understand the announcements that the driver is saying. The speakers are very quiet and all you hear is a slight mumble. I seemed to be the only person bothered by this, however.

Those of you who take the DC Metro regularly, please comment. I’d like to hear your thoughts, complaints, or praises on the Metro. Also, feel free to give perspective to any of my one-time observations.

Lessons on Global Competition from India

Even with the deepening of global business relationships and the influx of immigrants coming into the US, many American professionals still don’t realize how globally competitive markets really are. The past few years in the US, we’ve felt the pain of a tight job market. And I’m not convinced that my generation is prepared for the next wave of competition from abroad.

In the small town I grew up, it seemed we all deserved to be handed jobs once we graduated high school. If someone lost their job, it was NEVER their fault. And if someone’s job was outsourced, uh oh! Not fair!
Like my mom always used to tell me “Jessica, the world is not fair. Get used to it.”

But maybe the world is more fair than we think….

With the global nature of markets and the ease of communication between East and West, maybe we should seek to learn from our peers across the world who are putting in extra study time, specializing from a young age and sacrificing greatly to get ahead.

Expectations

When I lived in India, I noticed a few major differences in the way that middle class children are raised in comparison to American kids. Especially regarding the expectations that their parents have for their academic performance.

  • In America, we want our kids to be involved in activities which they enjoy. Allow them to explore their creative and athletic abilities.
  • There are no extra-curricular activities in India. After school kids go to ‘tuition’- which are extra study sessions.
  • In America we want our kids to be ‘well-rounded’.
  • In India, parents want their kids to be specialized in a steady field which guarantees employment in the future.
  • In America we want our kids to be in at least one competitive sport, and some parents push their kids to perform and compete. Parents participate in the support of athletic events and show ‘team spirit’.
  • Indian kids don’t really play sports unless its cricket (typically only boys). Girls and boys also play some light badminton on the roof of their house. They stay in their neighborhood within yelling distance of their mother. The only ‘team spirit’ that they feel is for Indian Cricket.
  • In America, the ranking and division of the sports teams are a major sway factor and reason for fame of a particular school.
  • In India, schools are known only for their academic quality and ranked accordingly.

Indian kids and American kids are happy. It all depends on cultural norms and the way the parents formulate and communicate expectations.

Desire for Security

One of the possible explanations for this Indian focus on academia is the desire for security. In America, many middle class families have grown up with a sense of financial security for generations. Our grandparents remember what it was like to live a life of uncertainty (due to the Depression), but our parents may have never been directly affected by severely tough times.
In India, the possibility of poverty  is not a distant reality. It is right here, right now. Indians are forced to face this every day as beggars and slums confront them on every time they cross the street. Striving for financial security is a must and a driving factor for most middle class Indian families.

So what can we take away from this?

The world will only become more competitive.
I think we will start seeing trends of American families who give their children a bit more guidance in academia. Clearly setting expectations of which fields they hope their children will go into. Parents will creatively find fun ways where kids can be involved in academia outside of school. Parents will allow time for sports and video games, but will set more stringent boundaries on the child’s free time.

We need to make sure that kids who grew up in America are ready for the wave of competition that is about to come. Instead of feeling entitled to a job, American kids need to be prepared to compete with peers like most middle class Indians, who started doing computer programming in 3rd grade.

Culture Shock: from Giving to Receiving

If you’ve ever lived overseas for an extended period of time you will realize that culture shock is not a ‘slap you in the face’ one day event. It is a creeping process that grasps you like a slow growing ivy. Before you know it, you are overcome.

An American  friend of mine just shared with me that after a year in foreign culture, she is experiencing culture shock.  You will hear young travels who visit a foreign culture for 3 weeks say “It was awesome! I didn’t experience culture shock at all!”

Of course they didn’t. No one experiences TRUE culture shock without authentic friendships with national people.

One of the most powerful realization moments for me was about one year into my time in a mid size Indian city. I was working for a small IT company and had done my best to immerse myself in the culture by learning the language and spending time with Indian nationals as much as I could. My dad had come from America to visit me for a few days and we had a great time as I showed off my newly acquired language skills, how I knew the town like the back of my hand, and how well I had immersed myself into the local culture. After 2 days of impressing my dad, I dropped him off at the train station and waved goodbye until the train was out of sight, taking him to the airport 5 hours away where he would eventually catch his flight back to the US.

I took the clanky auto rickshaw down the main road and eventually back to my apartment, paid the driver 5 rupees and shuffled slowly down the dusty lane to my apartment.  All of my American colleagues were out of town for the weekend and I didn’t have any plans for the evening.

Then it hit me.  I was alone again. In an obscure town in the middle of India.  No one knew my hometown or had even heard of my state. No one knew or cared that I was the class president in high school or that my favorite food was sushi. The connection to my past and my culture was gone. All I had was the present.

I must have looked disturbed as I walked into our modest apartment complex. I tried to turn sharply and walk up the stairs avoiding any contact with my neighbors who were preparing their evening meal. One particular lady who I often spent time with paused from cooking her mattar paneer and peering through the door she inquired:
“Papa Chelegaye??!” (Did your dad leave?)
I stopped halfway up the stairs.

I stood in silence.
Then, I broke.
I burst into tears and rushed into her arms. She stood there holding me until I all of my hot tears had stained her dupatta. Her vegetables were burning on the stove, but neither of us noticed.

I looked up and saw her eyes filled with tears as well. She felt my pain. She saw that I wasn’t a perfect content super American.  I was sad. I was lonely.  I hated India that day and I missed my family. They knew I was real.
That night she fed me and made me sit and watch a movie with their family instead of sitting alone in my apartment studying. It was her chance to give back to me.

That was a major turning point in my relationship with Indian people as a whole.

I had come to India to serve and to help. I thought of myself as the Giver. I had never learned to RELY on the people surrounding me. I had moved to a deeper relationship. Into a vulnerable position.  I was no longer just the GIVER. I was also the RECEIVER.

3 Tips for overcoming culture shock:

  1. Push through that culture shock and BE PRESENT in the middle of it.  You are in the right place by acknowledging that you are experiencing sadness and discomfort.
  2. Be authentic–It is OK to tell your national friends that you are homesick.
  3. Find support–Other foreigners in your position have been through the same thing! They will most likely tell you their horror stories of times when they broke down and bounced back.

Dealing with the slow creeping culture shock is essential to your survival overseas long term. This is what it takes to really experience a culture. To fall in love with a culture, you have to hate it first.