Beyond Relocation: Building relationships through language

Rohini on her experience of moving to a new country and finding belonging there

I lived in Mumbai all my life, until in June 2015, when I moved to another country, Yangon (also known as Rangoon), in neighboring Myanmar. 

This is what my first three months at Yangon looked like:

  • No social life, because I didn’t know anyone there. The only person I spoke to was my husband, who was at work all day.
  • I didn't know how to buy vegetables from the market and couldn’t explain directions to taxi drivers, because I didn’t speak Burmese. 
  • I couldn’t find a job. 
  • I couldn’t find fresh curd. I couldn’t find a good loaf of bread. 

I was frustrated that now I couldn’t even eat those simple things I took for granted back home, foods that were part of my daily diet. I often wondered if I should have opted to stay in Mumbai; I had even considered taking the next flight to India.

The worst problem I faced in Yangon was that I could not sleep. I would toss and turn all night, and sleep by 5:00 or 5:30 am. I would wake up by afternoon, feeling hungry. I tried to stay happy by reading a lot, watching TV, doing some freelance writing projects and updating my blog, but that fizzled out soon. I was neither motivated nor interested in anything.

The long, empty afternoons reminded me of my home. I missed my dinner dates with friends. I missed taking my nephews for ice-cream. And I missed weekends and lunches with my family. I even missed the Mumbai monsoon.

Gradually, I decided to learn a bit of the language and find activities to occupy my time. I found basic Burmese audio lessons online and used my new vocabulary to shop in the market. I trawled through online expat forums and found that a Russian woman wanted a Spanish tutor for her son. I speak Spanish, and so I replied to her email. Her seven-year-old son was smart and fun. He became my first friend in Myanmar.  

Around the same time, my mom visited us. She cooked for us while I helped her. Her visit forced me to set a routine, which I tried to continue even after she left. I woke up at a decent hour and did yoga. I began to sleep better. 

Now that I gained some confidence in going out on my own, I searched for groups I could join. I became a regular at a Spanish-speaking club. I signed up with an expat women’s group and joined them for excursions and attended their book club. I also joined the Yangon Writing Group, which became a very important part of my weekend.  

Six months after I moved in, Yangon began to feel like home. I got used to the slow-paced life, enjoyed the local cuisine and began to appreciate Myanmar culture. I learnt about the goodness of people (taxi drivers who came back to return the mobile phones we’d left behind), Myanmar’s rich history comprising of centuries of royalty followed by colonial rule, and about the importance of Buddhism among people of Myanmar.  

I met interesting people through the various groups and made new friends I’d never have the chance to meet otherwise. I picked up new ideas and perspectives from them as they shared their life stories. I got ideas for stories while working with my writing group. 

Most importantly, I learnt new things about myself. I discovered that I can adapt to new situations and places. I realized that speaking a little bit of someone else’s language can build relationships. I learnt that finding people with common interests can help me make new friends. 

A year and a half after moving to Myanmar, it was time to leave. My friends gave me gifts and I cried while saying goodbye. 

It’s been more than six months since I got back to Mumbai. I miss Yangon - the simplicity of my life, the delicious South-East Asian fruits, busy market and seeing Buddhist monks on the streets. I miss the people. It was home, after all.   

Rohini is a freelance writer and blogger based in Mumbai. She’s already dreaming of her next visit to Myanmar. 

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

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