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Beyond relocation: I was trying to create home wherever I went

Nandini Datta recalls her experiences in different countries, and what they have taught her about herself

The author in front of her school in Lesotho.

I’ve moved cities so many times in my life, and had so many experiences - and those have affected me in some way or the other. I grew up in Lesotho (a landlocked kingdom encircled by South Africa). When I was 10, my parents moved to Kolkata. It wasn’t a complete culture shock because I’d been to India every summer, but it took time to get used to nevertheless. When I started going to an international school there, I found others who also didn’t have that sense of belonging and began making friends with them. It was a blessing to have family and cousins around - but I did miss my friends, familiar food and television shows.

A few years after, we  moved to Delhi. I enrolled in an international school there for my 11th and 12th. Being with new classmates, for the first few months, was terrifying. They had their own groups, their cliques and niches. I didn’t know where I fit in. I’m a fairly social person but in that period, I felt very alone. Gradually I made friends. School was great, but home was boring. Unlike Kolkata, I had no friends, neighbours, family or cousins here. I felt alone. I would return from school at 2 pm and stay home, either studying or getting bored.

It was during this time that I began to discover myself - and also things about myself that were slightly dark. That I didn’t like situations where I wasn’t in control anymore.

I chose to go to Canada for my college because I wanted to explore new places and have my own experience. I came from a very sheltered background, never even made tea, and yet here I was in a dorm with a kitchen and making my own meals - even if it was pasta or sandwiches. I was studying, spending 5-6 months in the cold weather, experienced snow, it was all very new and exciting. This time also helped me figure out that I could do things on my own. It was empowering. I became independent.

Once I finished college, I came to Delhi to look for a job. Delhi was the city where I grew up, but now I had no friends here. I felt like I didn’t belong. I was frustrated and shut myself up. I got an internship and got interested in work. That helped me create a bond with my teammates. However, I was younger than everyone else. And there was also a culture gap because Delhi as I knew it, was changing. It now had swanky shopping centers, a McDonalds...My neighbourhood had changed too. I was worried about whether I would be able to adjust.

My team at work became my support. But it was hard. I had to socialise. Sometimes, I ended up going to movies I didn’t enjoy. I had to compromise a little bit on who I was, but it helped in a way. Gradually, we began bonding over food. We began exploring new places to eat out at. One of my colleagues was Bengali, just like me - that helped us get close.

I realize now that I was trying to create mechanisms to cope with homesickness, but in completely new situations and experiences. That was frustrating.

I decided to study further and moved to the UK. I had travelled to London before, but now I was living in Leicester, which had a fairly large Indian community. But most of them had grown up in the UK. So it was hard for me. I didn’t fit in and I had an identity crisis. In contrast, my sociology classes, in which there were few Indian or Asian students, were more comfortable.

Wherever I have lived, I have tried to find a little bubble that I could feel comfortable in. In Delhi the first time round, it was school. Later, it was work. In UK and Canada, college classes were my comfort zone. These were the spaces where I could say, I am here, I am comfortable and I am in control.

When I came back to Delhi after my Masters, things were better. The changes this time round were not so drastic and I didn’t have a lot to deal with. My mom had a social welfare group that included me. I went back to my old workplace, where I had already established a sort of comfort level. I was now a full-fledged sociologist. I was more confident about myself and a lot more at peace.

As a child, moving wasn’t my decision. I had a sense of resentment at being forced, though I could see it was good for me (I knew there was civil war in South Africa and moving to India was far safer). When I got over the initial resentment, I could see what I was getting from the move: family, my extended family, my cousins. In Africa, I would have never had these experiences.

My other moves were all my decisions. When I moved to Canada, it thought it was my decision and I wanted to make the most of it. I took more effort to get to know people and cope.

Towards my mid-20s, I began wanting stability. I wanted roots. During my childhood, my parents kept moving every few years, so I had never experienced this. I looked Indian but when I was in India, I felt like an outsider. I’m a social person so this was quite frustrating for me.

Once I’m in a new place, I realize I have so many things to deal with, and they are mostly internal. It didn’t bother me much that it was new food, new culture, and that I was surrounded by people I didn’t know. But internally, I tried to figure out who I am.

I realized through my experiences that you have to take up responsibility to make it work, or rethink your decision. I have come to the conclusion that at the end of the day, I need to make the effort rather than expect my environment to mould to fit my needs.

This story is from Beyond Relocation, a series on migration and how it impacts our emotional and mental health. Read more here:
1. We need to acknowledge the emotional impact of migration: Dr Sabina Rao
2. Organizations must help employees transition: Maullika Sharma
3. Moving was all of these: a challenge, and adventure and an opportunity to learn about myself: Revathi Krishna