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Cherry Chiesa-Barbon on The Struggles of Being an Expat Family

Author: We The Expats
6 Minutes

Cherry Chiesa-Barbon on The Struggles of Being an Expat Family

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Originally from the Philippines, 59-year-old Cherry Chiesa has lived in seven countries, namely Canada, Spain, France, Luxembourg, Philippines, Netherlands, and the USA, before moving to India with her husband and her two kids. They have been living in Delhi for three years now and will be moving to another country next year. 

What were your first impressions of India?

Since I have lived in many different countries before India, back in my mind, I was very keen to come and live here; it’s completely different. We have read and seen so much about India through movies and music. Still, everything that we knew about India before coming here was quite negative, it was a long list of the Do’s and Don’ts, but I always looked forward to discovering this country.

When it comes to the weather, it’s no different from the Philippines, but it’s hotter and drier. We have traveled across Asia a lot, but India is different, from the people, the food, the clothes to the traffic, everything about this country came as a surprise when we arrived here. 

Having lived here for three years now, how different would you say your expat experience here is in comparison to the countries you’ve lived in?

I like living here as it’s very comfortable— you can have a driver and a house-help. However, the one thing that makes it different is not being able to enjoy the outdoors. I enjoy going on picnics or having a walk or chat with friends outdoors. I also enjoy cooking, but it’s tough to find the ingredients right away, you have to go all the way to INA to find the ingredients, which are usually hard to find. Otherwise, every other kind of cuisine is available here like Chinese or anything else. Especially for Filipinos, sometimes you have to bring the ingredients for our dishes from the Philippines.

If you want to make Adobo, our national dish, and the favorite of everyone, the result is always different if you don’t cook with it vinegar and soy sauce available in the Philippines. Every country uses various spices, and you can interchange them, but the basic ingredients should be the same. 

What shocked you the most coming to India?

I came from the Philippines, which is also filled with people and traffic; hence, it was not shocking to me. The shock was despite being a beautiful city, Delhi is not that modern. The Philippines is very modern, with high-rise buildings and everything. Moreover, the traffic here is worse than in the Philippines! And sometimes the tuk-tuk, in front of the car, is just a few centimeters away, but they don’t even hit each other! The other surprising thing is the presence of animals in a city, which is something you will not find anywhere. I would say that India is less modern than the Philippines though it is also a developing country.

What is the best and the worst thing about living in India?

I can deal with the people here; however, sometimes, you misunderstand each other because of the language barrier. Though language is a problem, it’s not a big deal for me as I am patient. Unfortunately, sometimes they think we don’t know or understand them, and they try to make a way, but of course, you know, I am not new to traveling. It’s not only the communication, but it’s also a willingness to understand.

You have to be patient and should have the will to have an adventure because it’s so different here, this is why it’s called Incredible India!

You have to be patient and should have the will to have an adventure because it’s so different here, this is why it’s called Incredible India! I have so many beautiful Indian friends who are well educated and kind. The problem is when you take the tuk-tuk, Uber, and even with your driver, as only some understand Hindi, you have to be really patient with the other half. You have to be patient with people because they are from a different culture. Some of them have never been out of Delhi and their hometown. They never traveled, and some are working with expats for the first time! Hence, I am always kind to them, and if they don’t like it, then they are free to go.

The other thing is the temperature and the weather. The pollution is one thing, I miss having a park in front of my home. 

We’ve often heard that it is quite challenging to build relationships here, especially as an expat. What was your experience regarding this?

I approach people. I am very open. I go up to them and introduce myself, or I say, “hey. what’s up!” You have to be direct because, like everybody else, it’s up to you to show that you are interested in them. It started with the owner of the house, and then the home association, here in Vasant Vihar, organized a party for the residents of the area and announced a lunch for all residents and owners. So, we went to a park where I met a lot of people and started inviting them over. Generally, when you go to a new country, I’m the first to approach the neighbors. I don’t wait for them to come to me. So that’s how I started. One day I went to the mall and complemented an Indian for his looks and discovered later that he was a retired person from Air India, and now we go out for dinner with his wife every now and then! I usually start, then we talk, and then we become good friends.

What are other things you love about living in India?

The other best thing is the culture of India. My husband likes to travel and read, we both like the music though we don’t understand it much, I like the beats. I love the way Indian women dress; in the Philippines, we have our traditional dress, but you only see people wearing only during the national day. Here you see women wearing their traditional dresses now and then, and what I really like is that the women here are hard working. When you travel across India, take Rajasthan, for example, you can see women working with the animals while wearing beautiful colorful saris. They are not only proud to wear their dress but also feel very comfortable in it. If you want to buy some Indian wear you should go to the Sarojini market, my expat friends and me, we call it our happy place because everything is cheap there. You can even bargain and find everything from bags, dresses, saris, and kurtas.

I buy some Indian wear for all of my guests who visit Agra; the pictures in front of the Taj Mahal turn out good if you are wearing Indian wear.

One of the known struggles of being an expat family is not being able to expose your children to your home country and culture. Is this something you and your family struggle with too?

Our kids are older now and haven’t lived with us for a year now. However, when the kids were growing, my husband and I decided that the kids will go to a French school. My husband can speak French; hence, we talk to them in French and English, but from time to time, I talk to them in my dialect from the Philippines. I tell them about life in the Philippines, and during vacations, I take them home to show them my home country. Also, the Swiss government makes sure that every year you bring your kids back to Switzerland, you have to spend at least 15 days there.

To teach them, you have to make them eat your food so that they will be familiar with your culture. You can be abroad, but the basics of what you have learned, and where you come from, you have to teach them too. So, my kids know the Philippines; they know my dialect, they probably can’t speak, but I have made sure that a part of them is Filipino. Fortunately, one time we got posted to the Philippines for four years, so that was a good thing for them. 

When my son, Paulo, was young, he played soccer. One day, he told me that a boy called him “chinois chinois” (Chinese), he looked at the kid and said, “I am not Chinese. I am Swiss!” But he looks Filipino! My kids look Asian but think European. They think they are white, and that’s why we call them coconut— brown on the outside, white inside! So, when it comes to children, they are what you teach them. You have to take them home and show them where you were born as I did.

So, when it comes to children, they are what you teach them. You have to take them home and show them where you were born as I did.

Do you have any advice for newbies?

Before coming here, you have to do some preparation. You have to get your vaccinations, you have to check if you are healthy, and that you don’t have asthma, especially because of the pollution. You have to be careful, the first time you arrive and have to avoid the regular tap water. One has to be cautious with food and water because some people have a sensitive stomach, but I would say India is a really nice place.

Though it’s not very clean on the streets, people usually have clean houses. Have a housekeeper and a driver because we can’t drive here. Meet people here as Delhi gives a great networking opportunity. You should travel outside of Delhi to see the real India; it’s a good idea to read about India before coming here too. It has a rich culture, and you can find everything, whether its cheese or something else, it’s just triple the price!

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