Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Chicago or Bust

Technically, my flight doesn't leave until 12:15am tomorrow, but I'm considering today my last in India (for nearly three weeks). While I've been out of the country since my arrival in early January, tonight's trip marks the first time I board a plane for home. When I arrive in Chicago tomorrow morning, it will be exactly nine months to the day from when I left. Of course, I was in the U.S. one day after that, thanks to some passenger's pesky little urinary blockage over Hudson Bay causing a diversion to Boston. Regardless, I'm calling it nine months.

The next three weeks will be a whirlwind tour; starting with a round of golf five hours after arrival with my father-in-law (not a bad way to stave off jet lag) and ending with lunch with my parents before heading back to the airport on October 26. Sandwiched between those events include a birthday dinner with the mother-in-law, a long weekend in Moline with my family, a few days of work back in Chicago (each night scheduled full with dinners; the wife, she's kind of a planner), a Saturday of college football and cards in the city, a fire pit evening in Lake Zurich with the Williams clan, and another half day of work before heading to South Carolina for a week split between Lindsay's parents and my retarded college friends. Bottom line, I can't complain. I'm hitting all the good stuff.

Even though (outside the five days of work) it's more of a vacation-type trip than actually "living" and I like to think I'm going to be too busy to experience any kind of reverse culture shock, I'm sure it will be there to some extent. There will be things about India I miss and things about America I don't understand.

That's a small risk to take; I'm ready for some time at home.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Visa Verification

After we visited the FRRO last week, we knew there was a next step involving a constable visiting our apartment to verify we were who we said we were and we lived where we said we lived. Based on what our immigration people had said, we wouldn't go through that step until after we returned from the U.S. at the end of October. The immigration people were wrong.

On the way home from the gym this morning, my trusty driver Kailesh politely mentioned that he had received a call from our other driver that the police had been there to visit this morning. He said that the guards had told the policeman to come back when ma'am and sir returned, likely around 9pm. When I arrived at the apartment, the guards mentioned that the constable had gone to another unit and was likely still in the complex. Thankfully, he was able to contact the cop and that he was willing to come back. At this point, I called the wife, who was busy at the salon correcting a highlight nightmare she had been living since the weekend. Not knowing if her presence was necessary, but assuming that it was, I suggested she hurry back.

A few minutes later the doorbell rang, and unsurprisingly, it was the constable (it just sounds fancier than "cop", right?). I had no idea what documentation I was supposed to have or what exactly he was there to verify but it seemed the polite thing to do to invite him into the apartment. He motioned that I sit (always nice to be told where to sit in your own home), and he started fumbling through some paper files. His English, while still infinitely better than my Hindi, was limited (I later learned from my HR guy at work who had the pleasure to speak to him on the phone that his Hindi was somewhat garbled as well). From his first question, I understood that he wanted two copies of the lease and copies of our passports. Thankfully, we keep a copy in the safe, though only one of each. When I brought it back, I basically said, "sorry dude, only have one copy".

He seemed content for the time being and started asking some basic questions like "Nationality?" and started to write up his very official looking verification report. This official looking document started as a blank 8-1/2 by 11 sheet of paper and gradually was built into a fairly official looking piece of paper; that is, as official as a handwritten piece of paper can look. After he finished the first page, he looked at me and said, "Two copies of lease. Need to neighbors or Indians to verify who you are." Seeing as the only neighbors we knew moved out last week, I responded, "Can I go get the guards?" He didn't seem to like that response. He asked, "Can any colleagues or HR people from work come?" Based on this question, the light finally went on. I actually had resources that could help me with this situation.

I called my HR guy, explained the situation, and handed the phone to the constable. They spoke for a few minutes and I was handed back the phone. Ramen told me that he'd connect with someone at the office and send a couple copies of the lease over with some people that could "verify" me. He also made the astute recommendation to offer the guy a Coke or something. I hung up and turned to the constable, saying that people from the office would be there within five minutes (it is actually very close). He feigned annoyance (something tells me he was just fine sitting there for as long as it took) and we waited in silence.

Finally, Lindsay made her way back to the apartment, but I'm not sure she technically needed to be there. I decided not to let her know until after she arrived. Immediately upon her arrival, the mood changed in the room. He started asking questions about us, were we married (he wasn't sure because we had separate applications), did we have kids, etc. Upon answering "no" to the kid question, he motioned over to the pictures we have of our nieces on the entry table and Lindsay explained, gushing (of course) about how cute they were. He seemed to like this exchange and the topic quickly turned to the Commonwealth Games with Lindsay mentioning how great the opening ceremonies were and how the constable should be proud. From that point forward, I decided she would do the talking.

The doorbell then rang again and our HR contacts arrived from the office. After pleasantries, they two guys were able to sign the official looking verification papers (now actually looking somewhat official) and copies of the lease. I'm still not sure why they had to sign the lease. At that point, I thought we were done. But one of the HR guys and the constable began engaging in a discussion in Hindi. I really had no idea what was taking place, but my colleague then pulled out his wallet, drew Rs. 200 (about $4.50), and handed it to the constable.

A "donation"!

The constable, now satisfied, took one last swig of Diet Coke (it's entirely possible he disliked me simply because I didn't have regular Coke), and abruptly left the apartment. Our colleague turned to us and said, "Sometimes, in the third world, 'donations' are just the way it works. But for $4 or $5, it didn't seem too bad." Relieved the verification was over, we thanked our colleagues profusely, reimbursed the donation, and let them go about their day.

Things like this don't happen EVERY day in India, but I felt like I had been on a bit of a cold streak lately. As I embark on my first trip back to the U.S. tomorrow night, this was a great reminder that I still have a lot to experience, witness, and learn when I return at the end of October.

Monday, October 4, 2010

My First Hindi Movie: 3 Idiots

Yesterday I finally took it upon myself to watch an entire Hindi movie, which was long overdue. Seeing as how my Hindi vocabulary is somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty words, this first Hindi movie was viewed from the comfort of my own apartment with the help of subtitles rather than the true Indian movie experience of going to the theatre.

Never one to shy away from a movie from the always hilarious college comedy genre, especially one with "idiots" in the title, 3 Idiots seemed like the right first movie for someone with my refined taste. It was "the" movie when we arrived in January. At the time people were shocked that I hadn't seen it before I gently reminded them of the language barrier and that I'd wait for the DVD. Well, I was in a movie shop a couple weeks ago (an actual one, not the pirated one at Super Mart I) and finally saw the film on DVD. It was time.

Like most Hindi you hear spoken here, the characters readily slipped between Hindi and English. While still not enough English to entirely understand what was going on without the trusty subtitles, I gave the movie points for accuracy. With the help of those subtitles, I found myself enjoying the movie. While it wasn't the Indian-Old School that I was expecting based on co-workers descriptions, I must admit it kept me interested. I was surprised that the movie made light of the Indian education system and its reputation for learning for the sake of what will be on the test and memorization rather than learning for the sake of learning. Culturally, it presents a progressive view of Indian culture where people should follow their passions in life rather than what their parents tell them. Again, messages that I agree with, but not what I expected from a comedy. At least not a comedy I was hoping came from the same vein as Old School or Animal House.

There were a couple of Bollywood-style numbers, which seemed to have just been inserted because that's what they do with movies here. It was also longer than expected. It could have easily been wrapped in a 90 minute movie but went one at least an hour longer. It wasn't "too" long, just long, which is (again) kind of what they do with movies here. I think it kept my interest based on the settings. Primarily set in Delhi with some absolutely stunning scenery from Ladakh and Manali. It presented an Indian that I was either familiar with or have plans to become familiar with over the next year.

While I wasn't able to finish it in one sitting (we went to friends' apartment last night to gather for the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games), I found myself looking forward to getting home to finish up the final 45 minutes, which, I think is an indication that I actually enjoyed the movie.

Next up in the Hindi film hopper, My Name is Khan, which I've heard described as Shah Rukh Khan's post-9/11 version of Forrest Gump. With a hook like that, how can I not watch?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

FRRO, Part 2

If you've ever wanted to experience pure, unbridled Indian bureaucracy, the FRRO (Foreigner Regional Registration Office) is probably about as close as most foreigners will ever come. It's a little like going to get your driver's license renewed, except it's paper-based, there's no official queue, no air-conditioning, and lots of people sitting around and/or literally sleeping on the job.

For a detailed and balanced account of everything required for an FRRO registration, check out this link from a Wall Street Journal affiliate. For slightly more disgruntled (yet equally accurate) accounts, you can find in nearly any expat's blog in India.

Based on our type of visa (Employment), we were first required to visit the FRRO within 14 days of entering the country. Since we only have a one-year visa that expires in December, it was time to start the renewal process. Fortunately, we have the help of immigration attorneys as part of our expat package so we literally just have to appear there in person, sign a couple things, and our handlers do the rest.

While it's nice to have the handlers, it certainly cuts down on the number of interesting things you can witness. In fact, I think the most startling thing I learned yesterday at the office was that both of our handlers were Mormons. Of all the religious diversity in this country, I have to admit these were the first Mormoms I had met. Upon doing a little research on the information superhighway, I learned that, as of mid-2009, there were 7,500 Mormons in India. While that's 7,500 more than I expected, it still seemed noteworthy.

My other impression of the experience was my general comfort level being at the office. In all honesty, the building in January seemed cold and intimidating, if not a little scary. After nearly nine months, it just seemed like another place to go and another errand to run (thanks to the handlers). Sure we were stared at while we walked the halls, but that tends to happen here from time to time.

While there are any number of (fairly obvious) ways the Indian government could make this an easier and more inviting process that gave a better initial impression of the country, they don't, which is entirely their choice and right. And until they do, all of us foreigners will just have to deal with it.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Imported American Leisure

Shocking as this may sound, I dare say the average American grew up spending a lot more time than the average Indian on leisurely Western pursuits that can be enjoyed while consuming frosty beverages.

During the past couple weeks, I've been on what was basically the same work outing twice; starting with simulator golf and ending with bowling. I grew up playing golf and like to still think I'm a bogey golfer, which is to say my score typically goes something like "double-double-par-par-par-bogey-birdie-triple-bogey" on nine holes. And I'm a decent bowler, which is to say that I understand how it's scored and bowl over 100. However, you tend to forget that those are basically Western activities that are just now making their way to places like India for mass consumption.

As a result, with golf in particular, these outings were the first time that many of my colleagues had ever picked up a club. If you ever think it's outrageous that someone from a foreign country doesn't understand a sport, I highly recommend either, (1) explaining the rules of that sport to a person that is a blank slate or (2) actually trying to get that person to play that sport. The net result, especially with number one, is the exact reason Americans don't like cricket and also why sports like baseball and American football are limited to America (I know, baseball is played other places, but you get what I'm saying). I think of this often while on the treadmill if I happen to catch a baseball game. Baseball, if you haven't grown up with it, makes no sense. Seriously. Try and explain what's going on to someone who's never seen it before. And I'm not talking about your wife or girlfriend or someone that chooses not to watch it. Try and explain it to someone who's had absolutely zero exposure to the game. If you actually listen to yourself explain it, you'll wonder why it's even remotely interesting to so many people.

Golf, falls into the second category as the fundamental rules are fairly straight forward but actually striking the ball is not. I just kind of take for granted that I can walk up to a golf ball, properly address it, and take a swing that, while still severely flawed, generally makes the ball do what it's supposed to do. On the other hand, if you're over the age of 25, have never picked up a club or even watched it on television, receive three minutes of basic instruction, you're going to struggle to make the ball go more than twenty or thirty yards (at when hitting into the screen of the simulator).

One of the most enjoyable parts of the day, other than my triumphant victory against the inexperienced competition, was seeing how quickly people were able to improve. I was also impressed with their patience. Something tells me that the average American wouldn't have the patience to take a 21 on the first hole and a 19 on the second. That being said, it does help that in the controlled world of simulator golf, you don't have a foursome hitting into you.