2 years India – Living Abroad By Christiaan Stoop
Christiaan Stoop is an expat who has an incredibly exciting story to tell about the subcontinent of India. For the last two years he has been travelling there and in the kitchens of the country. Read this great report here.
It’s hard to keep track of all the lessons that I’ve learned since moving abroad.
Let me bring you up to speed: I left my hometown of Munich, Germany around 4 years ago. Since then, I have lived in a number of completely different cultures – from Spain to the UK and now India.
Living in Delhi for 2 years has taught me a myriad of things, both small and big. I can now make myself some bhurji or dosas in the morning with ease, or comfortably dance with friends and locals in the evening to Bollywood music.
Here are some of the more serious lessons that I’ve learned during my time abroad, condensed into 5 little nuggets of wisdom for you:
“You will feel like an outsider.”
There are few situations more challenging than moving to a new country as a foreigner. In the beginning, you’ll probably be reminded every day that you’re an outsider. It starts from the moment you walk down the street and notice people staring at you for an uncomfortably long amount of time, to quickly learning what the word “gora” means.
Of course, I soon found out that Indians are some of the warmest people who will go out of their way to make you feel welcome.
However, as a chef, you always work in a particularly fast-paced environment, where all the challenges of being a foreigner increase exponentially: you’ll miss out on important information that was announced in the local language, your instructions might be misunderstood due to the cultural differences, and you might feel a little lonely when everyone laughs at a joke that you don’t understand.
Do not get defeated – instead, accept that you are different and find ways to assimilate with new culture that you’re in. Learn the customs and slang, eat the local faire, and don’t stop asking questions. There will always be things that separate you from the locals but focus on the things that bring you together.
“Your stomach will go through (a little bit of) hell.”
My first weeks in Delhi were an absolute roller coaster. As someone said to me, you’ve never used all your senses at the same time until you’ve come to India – the sights, sounds, and smells are completely unique and sometimes overpowering. And so is the food!
I already knew that Indian cuisine is vastly underestimated in the culinary world, but I was still shocked by just how little I knew about it. I was also shocked to learn how unaccustomed my European body was to its typical heat and spices. I had my fair share of Delhi Belly – much more often than I’d like to admit – but despite that, I couldn’t stop enjoying all the street food I could get my hands on.
I believe that the best way to get to know a city is to eat your way through it, and perhaps there’s no better way to familiarize yourself with Delhi (or any Indian city) than to explore and devour its street food. Whether it’s my favorite chhole bhature on Sunday, a trip to Roshan di Kulfi, or some momos for an afternoon snack, I learned that the heart of Indian cuisine lies in its street stalls, dhabbas and hattis. It is this very food that you cannot find in Indian restaurants around the world, and that you will regret missing out above all else.
So, my recommendation is to start out slow and acclimate your body to this new, spicy palette so that you can fully enjoy the sundry of food that India has to offer. Like the great Anthony Bourdain said, “you’re never going to get that magical meal if you’re not going to take a chance on a bad one”
“You will become more patient.”
I moved from Munich to Barcelona to London – all very hectic and fast-paced cities. This was no coincidence; even though I grew up in a village, I’m a city boy at heart. (Translation: patience is not my best friend)
But from moment I left my European bubble and arrived in India, my patience was tested constantly – and yours probably will be too. Things will go wrong, whether it’s the delayed flight, food poisoning, or the sheer ability to communicate with your taxi driver.
These challenges extend beyond a difference in language to a cultural difference in personalities and work conventions as well. For instance, in my new kitchen the staff was taught to relay all cleaning duties to a separate team that was assigned to handle only spills, breakages and clean-ups. This led to a lot of unattended messes which I found unnecessary and avoidable, because I’ve learnt that best practice is to clean as you cook.
It’s easy to get frustrated with something like this. But, the only way to move past such differences is to communicate. Sometimes you will try it their way and learn something new, and vice versa. Or sometimes you will reach an impasse. Anger will only build walls – communication will build them down.
Accept the things that you can’t change and focus on the one that you can. If you don’t learn to be more patient and to go with the flow, you’ll be burnt out before you know it.
“Your assumptions will be challenged (for the better).”
I had heard a great deal of facts and opinions about India, as I’m sure you have too. But, at the end of the day, the only thing you should trust are your experiences.
This doesn’t mean that you should deny the facts – Delhi is crowded, Delhi is polluted, and Delhi is unsafe for women. However, context is key – your experience will probably be very different from the next person. Use others’ beliefs and thoughts only as a guideline before you form your own opinion; don’t take anything as gospel truth. If you’re moving somewhere new, it’s mandatory to keep an open mind.
“You’ll need to ask for help – don’t be afraid to.”
Whenever you need it. Don’t be stifled by the fear that somebody might judge you – you have nothing to be ashamed of. (Besides, everybody is judging everybody in some way all the time anyway!) After all, you’ve taken the step to change your life and live in a new, unfamiliar place. You will have questions and you will need advice – never be afraid to seek it.
There’s a German saying that goes “Aller Anfang ist schwer” which roughly translates to “all beginnings are difficult”. Moving abroad is challenging and intimidating, but it is also extremely rewarding. If I hadn’t taken the difficult first steps, I would have missed out on so many opportunities, memories, and incredible friends. Don’t make that mistake.
Thank you Christiaan!