Category Archives: Miscellaneous

Looking at the past through rose tinted glasses

Live in the present, be like a child

As photos of the Indian monsoon flood my Facebook timeline and news feeds, I find myself in the grip of strong nostalgia. After a long, hot and dry summery spell, monsoon is a time of celebration in India. Childhood memories of thundering rain clouds, the cool breeze filled up with the earthy smell of the first rains, mom made ilaichi (cardamom) tea and aloo pakore (potato fritters), all come alive in a flash and make me long for ‘home’. I look out of my window now and see a thick grey cloud in the sky. There’s no dearth of rain in England but the dull, achy drizzle fades in comparison to a full blown, scented downpour.

Nostalgia – a constant companion
As a first generation migrant living away from my ‘home’ and family, nostalgia is my constant companion. It catches me unaware when I least expect it. Amid the quiet of my home in a leafy suburb here in England, I particularly miss the ambient sounds made up of vegetable sellers, people talking, traffic (yes, even traffic), and chants heard from the nearby temple that I grew up listening to.

The past wasn’t perfect but somehow seems rosier. As a child, I hated to be dragged to meet the large number of relatives during festivals, but memories of those times seem joyous. The mind doesn’t remember details of getting stuck in traffic jams after rain, all it remembers is the scent of the first showers. I guess the longing has no logical basis but is more of an emotional need to connect with the people, places and events associated with the younger, carefree self.

The old is comforting but the new is reality
While memories of younger days have helped me stay connected to my Indian roots, I am not entirely sure if I always like the nostalgia as it evokes very strong emotions, when I would prefer to be more rational.

Logically, there should be no room for the kind of nostalgia that holds us back. We travel to home countries far more often now, and are in touch with immediate and extended family on a daily basis thanks to Whatsapp and Skype. The presence of strong multicultural communities mean our children can absorb the best of both worlds, without any of our emotional baggage.

Still, most of the first generation migrants I know perpetually oscillate between missing the old and adjusting to the new. We moan about how our children don’t get to play on the streets like we did at their age. At other times, we indulge in self-pity about how our children are somehow deprived of the affection and company of cousins and large families that we enjoyed. The result is, we are in a constant state of flux, and neither completely belong here or there. The children, thankfully, do not know any different and seem content with their lifestyle in the present.

“I miss my home,” I casually tell my four year old.

“But this is your home mummy,” she replies.

“But I miss my family and friends,” I say.

“But papa and I are your family mummy and you have so many friends,” she concludes.

I secretly hope the child’s pragmatism always wins over my nostalgic overdrive.

We need cleaners and pizza delivery boys as much as high tax payers

Beata (name changed), my elderly Polish cleaner, does multiple jobs at hotels, restaurants and houses to pay for her council house and to meet other expenses. At the hotel, she is required to clean five rooms in an hour at national minimum wage of £7.20. She is efficient, and is thus very popular in my local area where legal, hourly rate cleaners are hard to find.

My friend’s babysitter Anezka from the Czech Republic works as an assistant at a leading fast food outlet and does extra jobs so that she can pay her share of rent for a private accommodation she shares with her friends.

On 23 June, the UK is going to vote whether it wants to remain in the EU or exit (Brexit) its membership of over four decades. Immigration is at the heart of UK’s EU referendum and I wonder what would happen to potential workers like Beata and Anezka who want to come to this country in the pursuit of a better pay.

Workers like Beata and Anezka engaged in low skilled play an important role. By doing the (paid) work they do using their skills and time, they allow people like me and my friend to focus on the tasks we can do with our abilities.

Migrants (not just European) are everywhere, at the supermarkets, workplaces, at the doctor’s clinic carrying out jobs ranging from low skilled to the very high skilled. My local taxi driver is a Pakistani, I myself am a first generation non-EU migrant living in the UK, and my husband’s colleagues at a leading consulting firm in London are from as many as 30 different nationalities including a significant number of EU nationals.

There are different rules of entry into the UK depending on a person’s nationality. EU nationals have a free right to live and work in the UK while non-EU persons are required to qualify an entry criteria for working in the UK, such as having a job that pays over £20,800 per annum.

As a first generation middle class non-EU migrant who often competes with EU workers for work, I feel tempted to vote out in the referendum and wish for a fairer system that assesses potential EU workers on the basis of their skills and income too. But then there are statistics that make me think.

According to a report published by Oxford based Migration Observatory, the largest number of EU born workers living in UK are employed in low paying occupations and industries and are unlikely to qualify for an income linked work permit. The distribution, hotel and restaurant sector was the largest employer of EU workers in 2015, and only 6 per cent of these workers earned a minimum of £20,000 per annum. Industries such as banking, finance and education, that educated migrants like myself fancy, already had a large share of highly skilled and well paid EU workers. This suggests that a Brexit followed by a skills and income based policy (if this happens) would mainly hit lower skilled workers like Beata and Anezka.

For society to function at its optimum, we are going to need pizza delivery boys and cleaners as much as we need millionaires and high tax payers. The key question is who should do these jobs and at what wages and conditions.

Living with uncertainty as a cancer carer

breast-cancerIn the summer of 2015, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I still remember that day very clearly.

It was a Monday morning, and right there in front of my eyes on the computer screen was a biopsy report that confirmed malignancy.

The previous Saturday, my mother had got a needle biopsy done for a breast lump she had for nearly two years. My mother did not complain of any symptoms but recently she was worried that her lump had started to grow in size. She had continued to have routine mammograms done and her recent one was borderline suspicious. The mammogram screening coincided with a random (or rather god sent) visit from a doctor cousin who upon examining the report and the lump literally pressed for mother for having a biopsy the very next day.

I spent the next two days searching online for causes of breast lumps and kept telling myself and my parents that my mother’s lump wouldn’t be cancer. My mother, a very religious lady, had complete faith that her lump would be just a piece of fat.

I was in complete denial, my mother couldn’t be suffering from cancer. I quickly emailed the report to my doctor cousins in India who suggested that my mother was in need of urgent treatment. I was still not ready to believe it, perhaps there was a sampling error. But there was no getting away from it.

The hardest part was to break the news to my parents. I called up my parents and calmly told them that some cells in the biopsy didn’t quite look alright and further investigations were needed. I didn’t want to highlight the cancer word a lot.

The next two days then seemed the hardest days of my life, I couldn’t sleep at night as the thought that it was our neglect that caused this haunted me. Being far away from my parents at this time didn’t help. Thankfully, I was able to find a lot of information, contact numbers and emails of oncologists in Delhi and most of them were quick to respond to emails. Treatment depended upon the stage of the cancer and more tests were required. I was on the plane to Delhi a day later.

My mother’s illness restored my faith in the doctors. Cancer treatment across hospitals in Delhi follows international protocols and it is reassuring when different doctors do not vary a lot in their opinions. We met a couple of oncologists and finally decided to proceed with the one who made my parents most comfortable. Many more diagnostic tests followed in the next week to plan for the extent of surgery but even then the onco-surgeon maintained that it all depended on what they discover during the operation.

The uncertainty made us anxious but this was just the beginning. There were question marks all along, and one could only tackle it step by step during the course of the treatment. There was no way to know it all. Had the disease had spread? How curable was it? How likely were the chances of having a disease-free survival?

It made my insecurities about career and future etc seem trivial in comparison. I remember once asking the oncologist if my mother would be totally cancer free after the recommended treatment and he smiled and said, “With cancer, you can never be 100% sure.”

That’s the thing with cancer treatment, it teaches you to learn to live with doubt and be grateful for what you have.

I am thankful that my doctor cousin visited when he did, I am glad that my mother’s disease could be treated and I am grateful to everyone who supported us with their uplifting words along the way.

Being a cancer patient or even a carer can also teaches you to deal with your demons yourself. I had the full support of my husband, extended family and friends every step of the way but the stress I went through while awaiting scan or biopsy results, or the sheer helplessness of watching my previously active mother now weeping in bed due to radiotherapy induced burns was only mine to deal with.

World Cancer Day was on February 4 and Geneva based Union for International Cancer Control that works towards preventing cancer is running a three year long campaign under the theme “We Can. I Can” to promote cancer awareness. I am no doctor but as someone who has experienced cancer closely I can say that don’t take yourself too seriously in life but when it comes to health, one shouldn’t take themselves too casually either.

Finally, I do hope and pray that my mother remains cancer free and healthy for the years to come.

(published on the Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.in/ruchi-hajela/living-with-uncertainty-a_b_9163874.html#)

Virtual Mohallas: How Facebook Groups Empower Migrant Indian Women In The UK

Settling in a new country, getting adjusted to its different ways of life and building your social life from scratch is as much daunting as it is exciting. I first moved abroad in 2010 and made some lovely friends from all over the world. Still, I longed to have Indian friends just to have a sense of familiarity in an unknown country.

Fast forward to 2015! I have discovered Facebook groups targeted at migrant Indian women living in the UK that allow womenfolk from different walks and stages of life to connect with each other and seek advice on everyday matters.

The Indian Women in London group on Facebook with over 3,000 members is one such platform where discussions range from the best place to find a specific Indian grocery item in a London suburb to more serious domestic issues such as finding help with childcare among others. Picture this. You have recently moved to London and are keen to find out if any one from your home town lives in your local area. Unfortunately, Google can’t help in this case. On the Indian Women in London group, you are likely to meet many from your home town living in your local area.

Deepti Belwal, the founder of Indian Women in London and a mother of two young kids, formed the group last year. “I could closely relate to those isolated women who migrate from their homeland, sacrificing every wish of theirs for the sake of their husbands’ career. The realisation that I sacrificed my social life to an extent and had no friends when I needed them drove me to create this group,” Belwal said.

Sharing similar interests, many have extended their friendships offline by regularly meeting for Bollywood themed dance parties or for cultural events such as learning to drape the saree in different ways. Members also help each other send small things for family in India or bring items from there. This sets the group apart from popular online forums where discussions largely remain virtual.

A different group targeting Indian mothers, aptly named Indian Mums in UK, has emerged as the one-stop online destination for parenting queries. Traditional home remedies for children’s illnesses, travel and vaccination advice before visiting India with kids or experiences of raising children in a multicultural environment are all regularly discussed on this forum.

We were looking for a primary school for our daughter and my husband spent hours switching between rankings, browsing school websites and reading online reviews. I, on the other hand, simply browsed through the Indian Mums in UK group where this topic has been discussed several times. An hour later, I could compile a more relevant list of decent primary schools in and around my area, recommended personally by other mothers.

The groups also provide opportunities for migrant entrepreneurs to reach out to a relevant demographic and develop friendships along the way. “I wanted to help fellow mums through the journey of motherhood, sharing our experiences and also to provide mum enterpreneurs a platform for their business,” said Mini Yadav, the founder of Indian Mums in UK.

These groups have gone beyond providing a platform to find Indian friends to providing solutions and fixes to expat life issues.

To my mind, these groups are the digital avatars of local ‘mohallas’ where women can freely share their migrant experiences, thereby empowering each other.

(This post was published by Huffington Post India, here’s the link)
http://www.huffingtonpost.in/ruchi-hajela/virtual-mohallas-how-face_b_7830230.html?utm_hp_ref=india

Where is the spring and the summer…

British-Weather-Cartoon-1024x544

I was in India in early April and everyday my mailbox was flooded with emails about the arrival of spring in the UK. Pictures of parks in bloom, news stories about an impending heatwave and promotional deals on spring wear from high street retailers made me dream of returning to a warm and sunny UK just a week later.

Now UK weather is notorious for being unpredictable and it can be sunny, rainy, chilly and breezy all in a single day itself. I understand that UK’s weather is determined by a constant tussle between the cold air from the Arctic North and warm air from the Tropics in the South. However, knowing this is one thing and dealing with random weather on a daily basis is another. I grew up in India’s capital New Delhi where weather largely varied around expected times of the year. In February, my mother would neatly pack away woollens and these would resurface in our wardrobes only months later around the arrival of winters. Here in England, we never really pack away woollens. On many sunny and seemingly warm days I have stepped out of my home in summery clothes, only to be deceived by chilly winds accompanying the sun.

But this time, I wasn’t disappointed. After I returned from India in mid April, it was perfectly warm and sunny for a week or so. I was glad that my toddler was able to spend more time outdoors chasing butterflies and running around the neighbourhood park. Few things make me as happy as a weather forecast for a bright and sunny week ahead. Very simply it means we as a family can go out more often, without having to pack varieties of jumpers and jackets. But even before we could celebrate the arrival of spring in full zest, the British weather gods changed their mind and it was suddenly winter again in the month of spring.

It’s time to learn from our parents

Some of my best childhood memories are of my parents doing nice little things for each other. Didn’t parenting responsibilities overwhelm them? I grew up in a nuclear family where my father worked very long hours and my mother single handedly raised me and built her home in a city that was new to her. They still managed to create happy memories for us, perhaps it’s time we learn from them!

Read my story for the UK Asian here
http://www.ukasiaonline.com/bickering-as-tensions-mount-it-s-time-to-take-a-lesson-from-our-parents.html

Published in The Guardian

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In the run up to the election, The Guardian is running an interesting initiative to publish the views of immigrants in the UK about what life is like for them in thiscountry. I learnt about it after a friend shared a link about this on Facebook and felt it was a great idea to be able to voice one’s views on an established platform. I have been in the UK for over 3 years now and while I love my independence here, I equally miss my family’s emotional support I had back home in India. And I am not the only one who feels this way, a lot of my friends have such mixed feelings as well.

I decided to submit my contribution for the Guardian’s UK immigrant voices initiative. A few minutes I received an email that their team had decided to publish my inputs. My first story was published 10 years ago when I had started my career with a start-up tech magazine, but getting published still gives me the greatest joy.

You may read my published post here:

https://witness.theguardian.com/assignment/54d891e9e4b045255634008f/1378963?CMP=EMA_GWitness_Contir_Approved

If you think you have something to say, please go ahead and share your views as well.