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On Urban Nomads- I

A growing number of young professionals refuse to take root.

Why city hopping may be the right lifestyle for you, and what you need to pack before you take off.

There is something to be said for your first morning in a new city. No- not a new city you are visiting as a tourist but a city you walk into intending to stay. You find yourself the nearest coffee shop from the service apartment, pick up a local newspaper, listen to the cadence and patois that will soon become a part of you, and discover what it feels like to have a foreign sun shine down on you. Sometimes your first encounter is like that between Raj and Simran- there is frission there, but everyone knows that those two crazy kids will make it together before the credits roll. And sometimes it’s like Jesse and Celine’s first conversation- you’re not sure if it’s attraction you feel,  but what have you got to lose?

A growing cadre of urban nomads are moving out of the comfort zones, and packing bags to different locales- not because they HAVE to but because they WANT to. Whether it is the “Punjabi” north Indians daring to find jobs and friends in “Madrasi” Bangalore, or the New Yorkers returning to Mumbai, a new breed of upwardly mobile professionals is perpetually on the move. They are uprooting families and disassembling their Ikea furnitures one piece at a time – all on a wing and a prayer. For some , it is an urge to build new roots (or to return to old ones). For others, it’s as simple as a change in scene.  For yet others, it’s a chance to earn money or find the kinds of jobs that their current location doesn’t provide. Whatever the reason, for these professionals, geography is no longer an insurmountable barrier. As Ishani, an intercultural specialist, and self-described global nomad says:

I see how lucky I am when it comes to living in different parts of the world. Every move was a choice given to us. We chose to move to pursue careers and sometimes just to experience life in a different country. There are many who are forced to move or stay in search of work or due to visa limitations and I never fail to acknowledge how lucky we have been in being able to choose to move.

A New You

Moving to a new city provides its own challenges and pleasures. There is the all important chance to start anew. As someone who has stayed in eleven cities so far, I find myself behaving slightly differently in every new location. Some of those changes may be just age and the resulting (hopefully) wisdom. But the others stem from the freedom a move provides. You stay in one place long enough and you begin to become defined by what’s around you. You meet the same friends for drinks every Friday and it becomes increasingly difficult to say, I am sorry I no longer think that Bon Jovi is all that. A new location and new social circle allows you to grow up in so many different ways. You can discard your youthful pretensions and settle into comfortable middle-aged domesticity, or you can emerge out of your provincial fears to become the life of the party. On the professional front, being freed from the strictures of peer and familial pressure, you can choose to carve a niche for yourself that your hometown didn’t afford you.It is a chance to immerse yourself in the experience and register in the Improv comedy classes or Spanish flamenco lessons that you don’t want to explain to anyone. Often, a new location can be the beginning of a new you.

Do I Belong?

There are two ways to embrace the experience of being in a new place. You could choose to disregard every fibre of your past and start anew- like someone in the Witness Protection Programs. In the past I’ve met Indian men who insist on a “foreign women only” dating philosophy in a new place, and we’ve all heard the dreaded Chattarpur-by-way-0f-Chicago accents. Then there are those who double down on their identity , immediately joining the Tamil Sangam Jacksonville Chapter, insisting on listening to Bhangra alone and refusing to conform to the norms of the new place they stay in by insisting -“We are Indians yaar, we do what we do what we do”.(or more likely use the vile ‘We are Like This Wonly’ phrase).  The balance between the two becomes even more difficult when children come into play. You do want them to ‘fit in’ but worry about them losing touch with their ‘culture’ (often an all-inclusive phase acting an excuse for regressive norms). Cut to the harried NRI mothers chaperoning their kids from Bharatnatyam classes to Little League games.

And while it’s perfectly OK to want to build a circle of familiarity around you, don’t be afraid to embrace and to ‘immerse’. If you’ve been in Mumbai for three years now and not learnt a smattering of Marathi to chat with your building’s watchman you are missing out. And if you’ve stayed in New York without once going to the Yankees or Mets stadium , you are losing out on the vital local colour that you ‘cricket vs baseball’ argument requires. Sample street foods, shop locally, make local friends (definitely more challenging than taking pictures at a local landmark.), observe local interactions.  Use this opportunity to gain a true education by experience.

MS who has stayed in 3 different continents in the last ten years says:

…I find myself more wanting to embrace as I grow older. I realize that this may be temporary and we may move again, so I try more and more to do local things. The one thing that is hardest to do is make local friends, there aren’t any common avenues to meet people unless you study in a city.

Ishani, when talking about moving cities, describes the process of ‘stretching  her culture elastic’  and expanding her thought process with the help of real situations and real encounters. These are opportunities that staying in one city simply cannot provide.

For Part II of the feature, on the homework one needs to do before leaving, and some of the important sacrifices made go here.


1 Comment on On Urban Nomads- I

  1. Enjoyed reading this post. I’ve been a urban global nomad since birth. I truly enjoy experiencing big city life and the newness of different cultures. What you say rings true. With fitting in, my advice is to find hobbies and interests. There are hobby and interest groups. I found my social circles in writer groups, professional organizations, and church. Also don’t be quick to make judgments and narrowminded assumptions.

    In big cities, there are many opportunities to get involved:
    – fitness & recreation: yoga, gyms, cycling classes, tennis groups
    – volunteer organizations
    – professional organizations
    – religious organizations if you are into it
    – expat groups such as InterNations

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