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New Beginnings: On Urban Nomads- II

In Part II of our feature on Urban Nomads we look at the homework and planning that a move entails

Part II of our series on urban nomads, their bags and their emotional baggage.

It’s not easy being a urban nomad, but the pleasures are manifold as we discussed in the previous post

One of the most entertaining parts of a move is the homework, the planning, the drawing of budgets and blueprints and checklists.

Three questions should determine whether you are ready to move to a new city or not;

1. Can you afford it?- Know, for instance that a good apartment in a Mumbai or a Manhattan, will take up the better part of your income. Know also that educating a child in Dubai costs about as much as buying a new Honda City every summer.  Focus not just on expenses that you are incurring at the moment but also on future potential issues.  Can you afford a medical emergency in Hong Kong? What if you’d like to buy an apartment in Singapore some day? A website like may help you negotiate the right salary package but it is also imperative to check how salaries are structured in different regions of the world. Is Medical Insurance something you pay for personally or should your company take care of it? Ditto housing allowance? Make sure you have done enough research before taking the plunge, and at the same time, be prepared for surprises.

2. What will you miss/lose?- It is surprisingly easy to become unreasonably attached to the memories of things you didn’t particularly care for back home. I spend days in every new city searching for the perfect North Indian-style samosa (Conclusion-No other place in the world comes close to Kanpur’s taste) . More importantly though, you lose a sense of bearing. Simple things like knowing the best place to buy cheap hairclips or the quickest way to the hospital in the middle of the night gain importance when you find yourself in a new place.  In addition, there is the less tangible but equally essential cultural know-how that you lose completely the moment you get on to a plane. The norms for how long  your lunch break should be,  how short your skirt can be and how much small talk is ideal – all differ by cultures.  And it is not unusual to feel uncomfortable in the early days in a new place without the right information.

As far as possible, talk to people who are already in the city. Have a couple of them on speed dial from the moment you enter the city (this is the one time when it’s ok to listen to your mother and meet your chachi’s younger sisters’ little nephew).  Observe how people around you react to situations, and don’t be embarrassed or uncomfortable about making the occasional mistake!  More importantly, make sure to return the favour when you’ve settled in.  Offer to help the next acquaintance who moves in and join the parade of forum experts. Too often we search on Internet forums for information without writing back when we know the right answers. Add to the wealth of opinions and information available to create a community of friends in an increasingly strange world.

Ishani, describes her process of acclimatisation  in the first  few days in a city thus:

I generally do not worry much about the logistics as much as I worry about meeting people and surrounding myself with a support network in every new city. I am a people person and I went through a HUGE learning curve figuring out the people interaction rules, when I moved to the US. You do not just land at a friend’s place – you need to call, give notice . In Paris, we threw many parties and invited people home and they obliged, but to infiltrate a social circle there, you need patience and time. At the end of out 2.5 years stay, we left behind many friends but 2 families that we will definitely stay in touch with for life – give this statistic to someone in India and they will probably think there is something totally wrong with us . But that is how long it takes to build deep trust and friendships there and once you achieve that you are sure to have a friend for life! (…………)Before every move, I look up information on the people of the country, their values and beliefs etc and of course the rules of social engagement, always keeping in mind that these are generalizations and there are always many exceptions. I try to get in touch with people – sometimes friends of friends,  and make  an effort to chase them down proactively (using country specific rules) till they consent to meet ! This can be done only after you feel slightly settled and that takes time. So in my experience, the first few months often feels like (and perhaps this is a helpful way to look at it) an extended vacation…….

3. What will you gain-  Cultural context and an education in people. Whatever else you gain , this is what will stay with you. Staying in one city for your entire life (or even working life) can be rewarding in multiple ways. But it can’t compete with the sheer drama of learning from multiple cultures. As MS says:

 I think living in different countries has made me more culturally aware, exposed me to a wonderful variety of travel destinations, allowed me to taste local cuisines. (It has also) made me more sensitive and tolerant .


Travelling With our Little Village

Part of this homework of course is to figure out what this move means to the people around you. By the time most of us are in our thirties we are carrying a baggage of co-dependencies- people we can’t do without and who (surprisingly enough) can’t do without us. And moving cities impacts all of their lives- even those who are left behind. Find out how your decision to move affects those around you – what it means for your partner’s career prospects, what it means for your child’s education (and ability to make friends), and what it means for your parents to have you more than a phone call away.  I may look back at the experience of frequent moves with pleasure now, but too often in my childhood I was that lonely awkward class outcast struggling to fit in.

Moving away from home to newer cities can be enriching and frightening at the same time- and making it a collective decision is the best way to do this. It may mean spending more time with the little one for a while before she makes new friends, or taking your partner for a spin to the new city before you agree to move there.  It is also always a good idea to research the tourist and dependent visa laws of the place, making it easy for your parents to visit you. One little thing that we’ve always done in a new city (and also something my parents did for my grandparents when they moved), is always choosing an apartment and locality assuming your parents may want to visit.  The tiny bohemian dumps were all fine at a younger age but now we need places that are walking distance from a grocery store and morning jog track to make their visits more comfortable.

You may find your ability to change cities becoming increasingly difficult as you and your family grow older. And that’s ok. Even nomads lay camp somewhere eventually. As Terry Pratchett so eloquently says:

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”

Is this life style for you?

Lastly, like all great lifestyle decisions (are orange pants right for me? Is a belly piercing a good idea? Should I just quit medical school now?), the one person who can decide whether moving cities is a good idea is you. There are those who eat at new restaurants every weekend, and others who enjoy visiting the same roadside dhaba for paranthas every morning.  And both those choices are absolutely fine. Moving cities means upheaval, uncertainty, a substantial risk that things could backfire spectacularly, but it could also mean a lifetime of memories. Ishani talks of the concept of cultural elasticity- how far you can stretch yourself.  She warns that every move will stretch your definitions of trust, punctuality, friendships and almost all other relationships – boss-coworker, man-woman, mother-child .  She also warns of moving from a more ‘collective culture’ like India to compartively inclusive or closed-off cultures. You worry about not giving your children enough time with their grandparents, you miss the colours of Holi and the firecrackers of Diwali. But you also learn how to move out of your comfort zone and explore new avenues that could potentially be closed to you in your hometown.

If you do believe that packing your bags is the right step for you at this stage of your life, ask  yourself what the reasons are. If they are only money or an escape, you may well be disappointed. But if they include a chance to immerse yourself in a different culture and to gain a broader world education, then get ready to clock those frequent flier (and frequent ‘Skyper’) miles!

1 Comment on New Beginnings: On Urban Nomads- II

  1. Ritu Prasad Pandey // January 3, 2014 at 9:44 pm // Reply

    Very well written! As someone who grew up moving (6 cities), and also moved a little for work (4 cities)… can relate to the struggles and trials and joys of being a nomad. There is no one answer for 2 people, and even the same answer is not right for the same person at 2 different times in their life!

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