Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A 'Hardship' Assignment

Our company sends its employees to far-flung places on the globe - these international assignments (ISEs) are a great stepping stone for careers, and also bring with them the opportunity to experience different cultures, to explore beyond comfort zones. I, personally, have enjoyed all our ISEs - China is our third - and frankly, the prospect of 'settling down', being a 'regular' person rather than an expat, is not something I'm looking forward to!

It is always a challenge to settle in a new place - some places maybe be a tad more challenging than others, and China and India have the dubious honour of falling into this latter category! Assignments to these countries are known as 'hardship' assignments - there's certainly no sugarcoating there, you know what you're getting into. Greater hardship also brings with it bigger perks, of course - more vacation, lavish homes, maids and drivers - you name it! When we accepted our India assignment, I was almost bubbling over with the irony - I would have given my right hand and foot to be able to live in India, and here I was being offered extra incentives because of the 'hardship'!!

Realistically speaking, though, India is certainly a difficult country to move to. Even for me, the first few months were really hard - the extremes of poverty, the resigned, lackadaisical attitudes of people, the rampant corruption - every day brings a new challenge! Even worse, living in India forces you to change, and not in a nice way. The first time you see a child begging at a street light, it hits hard in the gut - after a few months, that child has faded away, blended into the scenery. And this is just the beginning. As much as I hate to admit it, the indifference and callousness bleeds into the soul - and it made me a harder person, less sympathetic, more likely to turn a blind eye. Yes, the infrastructure is terrible, the heat is unbearable, nobody seems to work without a bribe - but the real hardship in India is the struggle to keep the conscience alive, to be kind, and above all, to be grateful. Simple things - but the most difficult! Would I do it again? In a heartbeat - in spite of what I've said, India is and will always remain, Home! And even for the other expats - India, with all its contradictions, invariably makes a lasting impression!

At first sight, China is so very much like a Western country - the huge freeways, the skyscrapers, the shopping malls, everything clean and shiny and new! Of course, behind the veneer is a communist regime, but that doesn't really impact my day-to-day life here! The language is a bit of a problem, but it's fairly easy to learn rudimentary Mandarin. The people are friendly, hardworking and eager to please. Sometimes, it seems like the biggest hardship is not having a car to get around every day! And yet, 'hardship' assignment! Of course, we were always being warned about washing fruits and vegetables carefully, and there was the big avian flu scare just a few months ago - but overall, things didn't seem to be too bad!

Until about a couple of weeks ago, when I revised all my opinions about China being a 'hardship country'. The air quality has never been the best here, and a combination of the winter cold and increase in coal burning caused a deadly smog to descend on the entire Jiangsu province. The Air Quality Index (AQI) hovered at over 450 for more than 10 days - to put this in perspective, the WHO recommends that 0 to 50 is the acceptable range of AQI - we were being forced to breathe in 10 times as many pollutants!! Most of us expats have our air purifiers running around the clock at home - but that is hardly any consolation when I have to let Manasi walk out to the school bus, and then spend the whole day at school! The students are not let outside to play, of course, but Dulwich College is taking a step further and having purifiers installed in all the classrooms!

The very idea of the air you breathe being 'hazardous' is preposterous - but it is the harsh reality here in China. This goes beyond any imaginable 'hardship', and what makes it worse is the knowledge that we are here voluntarily! I don't even pretend to understand the damage this is causing to our environment - the planet is literally choking, and there doesn't seem to be any respite coming! On a personal front, I dare not think of the long-term effects of this pollution on my family's health, and can only hope that once we leave, our respiratory systems will slowly recover! For now, the only solution is to stay indoors as much as possible - we're even considering buying masks if the situation does not improve. It is difficult to understand the high spikes in AQI - the number fluctuates quite a bit. This is the first time since we got here that it has stayed so high for so long - and I don't know if it's going to ever so bad again! The most we can hope for is a 'Unhealthy' AQI, numbers less than 200 - and I'll count myself lucky if it stays in that range as long as we are here!

Today, after 2 weeks, Suzhou has sunshine, and almost-blue skies. The AQI is getting better, the smog dissipating slowly! Fresh air is on the way - until then, stay indoors, breathe safe, all my China friends!


  1. Gauri, even though this is not a happy topic, your writing makes me feel like I am living right there with you. I have followed your blog and I can only think how fortunate I am to have known a person like you. You are a lovely person with a lovely family and life, all due to your persistent optimism. It has been my pleasure to call you my friend. Keep the blogs coming. Anne

  2. I am happy to read your daily life and adventures in remote corners of globe. It is difficult to kill a day without activity. The activity of own choice. A pet is good one.
    Picture of India is exact. We Indians live the system without knowing what hovel surrounds us. The Hardship you are baring is joyous only when you come out of it to home The India. It is Chultya remembering you, Mansi and Ajay.