“It’s the most confusing, energetic, and hilarious place I’ve ever been”

Hilary and Indian child (image © Girish Menon)

Hilary FG is the author of hilary in mumbai, a blog about her life as an American expat in India’s so-called Maximum City. Her posts cover the gamut of Mumbai activities – from the perils of buying food, to coping with humidity, to the cast of characters at a regular expat party – and while her blogging is occasionally infrequent, this is largely in an effort to ensure quality.

I first discovered Hilary’s blog when she commented on one of my posts for The NRI about dealing with the dreaded local FRRO on the quest to obtain tiny-but-vital residency stamps. My immediate reaction upon looking through a couple of her posts was to laugh, loudly and repeatedly, but consistent reading showed that her humorous take was not merely frivolous. Many are lengthy and detailed, and the humour acts as a vehicle for quite genuine insight into what it’s like to be young, white and female in such a seething foreign metropolis.

Hilary has been known to undertake long flights somewhat regularly, and works full time for a living in a place where working full-time can easily occupy all of your surviving brain cells, but she was happy to answer my questions and let us a little further inside her world.

(NB: You will notice that Hilary is American and therefore spells ‘humour’ without a ‘u’. Please forgive her for this.)

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Why did you start blogging, and why do you keep blogging? (Is this your first blog?)

For about one week my sister and I had a blog called “Sisters Make the Best of Friends” on which we posted pictures of the cake we made on the 4th of July, items of clothing that prove that money can’t buy class, and video clips we think everyone should see. We didn’t really share it with anyone and took it down the next week.

I started blogging because my fellowship encouraged us to, and because I thought it would be a good way to keep my family informed without sending monster emails to everyone. My blog ended up not being about my day-to-day activities, so I still sent out those emails anyway, but the blog definitely helps me put events into context and reflect.

I keep blogging because it’s fun and other people seem to enjoy it. People tell me I say things they’ve wanted to talk about but couldn’t express. Expats here have sent my blog to their families and said, “Now they can picture just what I’ve been going through.” I love that. I also want a testament to all the things I go through here that I might forget later in life.

Have you ever kept a personal journal? If so, do you see ‘hilary in mumbai’ as an extension of that journal (or vice versa)?

I tried to keep a number of journals at a young age and failed pretty miserably. I usually liked journaling because I loved buying pretty notebooks, and physical paper is one thing ‘hilary in mumbai’ doesn’t have. I think there are a lot of “stream of consciousness” blogs out there, that are very journal-esque, and I’m usually not a very big fan. I like to give events the proper time to ruminate before I try to put words to them. If I had a journal it might have even more swears in it.

There are also a lot of things I go through that I will never put in the blog. Some things might be interesting, but violate some general privacy considerations, like my personal relationships or my job. Other things, like travel logistics, are just boring, and I don’t think anyone should put them anywhere.

What is your first memory of writing creatively?

My first experiment with writing creatively was a journal I kept of our family trip to Italy. I was around 5 years old and the whole thing is barely comprehensible and phonetic. I think it makes for a really wonderful read of life through the eyes of a weirdo 5-year-old.

"This is sugar packet from a very fancy restaurant."

I was told I was a horrible writer for 20 years of my life and it never came easily to me. I’m actually a published author now, and there’s the ole blog, so people have been eating their words.

Describe something that is beautiful to you.

I really like gradients in nature, like sunsets and horizons. I think the beach my family and I go to in Wellfleet, Cape Cod, is probably the thing that I dream about the most. Thinking about the transition of the dunes to the water to the sky makes me very homesick. There is something particularly magical about the light on Cape Cod.

Have you always been interested in India, or was there a moment in your life that pushed you to go there?

I have a pretty nerdy backstory. I took Latin and Greek in high school, and I started taking Sanskrit so I could get all three Indo-European root languages. I’ve forgotten almost every word I learned, but I loved the material I was reading. The difference in worldview and philosophies that I came upon studying Sanskrit spurred an interest in India, although I really knew nothing about it when I first started. I visited India for the first time in 2004. I was on a high school trip in which we visited the Mumbai slums. My world was definitely blown open by what I experienced. I had no idea how to categorize or contextualize everything that I saw, and I knew I was never going to stop studying India. I remember picking my major in college and knowing that if I picked South Asian Studies I would never get bored. Since then I’ve been back on a study abroad program and now “for good” in September 2010.

How would you describe Mumbai to someone who had never been there? What advice would you give someone visiting for the first time?

I have two pieces of advice, once of which you’ve probably read on my Twitter. “Take the shits with the giggles” and “It’s worth it” are my main words of wisdom, but I would also tell people to try to suspend judgment for as long as possible. It’s difficult to describe Mumbai to people, especially if they have never been to a developing country. It’s the most confusing, energetic, and hilarious place I’ve ever been. If you can take the shits, you get a lot of giggles. Literally. I think visiting India can be really fun and worthwhile, but moving here might not be right for everyone…

People who come with preconceived notions of spirituality and romanticism can be disappointed, and people who come expecting to see the functioning and developed financial hub of a major world power may also be disappointed. It’s better just to show up. Oh, and use a lot of talcum powder and unscented baby wipes. Eat the street food but don’t wear valuable shoes. And come say hi!

Pretty much every post of yours cracks me up one way or another. I sense such an appreciation of the absurd in the way you view the world around you and your own endeavours. Is this something you’ve had to work at? Who has influenced your sense of humour?

Thank you! Humor is a family specialty. I grew up surrounded by the funniest people I’ve ever met. We have a very verbal family and sitting around making fun of things is probably what we do best. When my last visit with my mom and sister ended we joked that we weren’t going to laugh again until we got to reunite. My father passed away from cancer a year and a half ago, and he kept his sense of humor until the very end. It was impressive.

When I started the blog, I wasn’t sure what audience I should try to write it for. My sister told me to write it like I’m talking to her, and that set the informal tone. What I have to work at is balancing how much to let events speak for themselves, or try to explain the humor in them. I find myself in a lot of situations here that are objectively funny, and I always have to remind myself not to add, “It was soooo funny,” at the end.

It might also be worth mentioning that I have a degree in South Asian Studies and I’ve been studying India for almost a decade now. I try not to make the blog too academic, but I know that my experience with the subject matter means I can spend less time trying to figure out what the hell’s going on, and more time laughing about it. I try to put in My Mind Numbing Fact of the Day to acknowledge that even though I’m laughing, there are a lot of fascinating and devastating things happening all around me.

Even before I moved here, people have complimented me on my ability to convey my worldview in an entertaining and interesting way. People generally like talking to me unless I’m making fun of them. I think if people aren’t naturally observant or critical, a blog by them won’t be fun no matter where they are.

How much of an effect has living abroad had on your belief system(s)?

I’ve changed a lot since moving here, but I’m not sure if it’s had an effect on my belief system. I was an atheist when I moved here and I’m definitely still one. My family has always been the most important thing in the world to me, and that’s still true, maybe more so. Living abroad has definitely made the world seem really small to me. If it’s near an airport it feels nearby to me now. I also think I have been more determined to convince everyone that all people deserve the same standards. The inequity here is really difficult for me to live with and I think that it does not get adequately portrayed in the media. You can’t help but see firsthand here how GDP can correspond so little to people’s lives. Don’t believe the hype.

Is there a post on your blog that you are most proud of?

I like ‘approowalls’. I think most foreigners have a lot more help with relocation than I did, and so not a lot of people have to deal with all the Indian approvals at the same time right when they land, with no maid, driver, phone, internet, etc. That whole experience made me feel invincible.

Has your blog made a difference in other areas of your life?

I’m a more confident writer, and I definitely have more pictures because I force myself to take them. People have recognized me at parties and introduced themselves. Professionally, I try to keep things pretty separate, at least for now, but I like knowing that if I ever need to produce conversational material at a later date for my job, it shouldn’t be a problem. I like to judge new friends by how they respond to the fact that I have a blog and then check in later to see if they’ve read it. I’ve come across some great people that I would probably never have encountered if I didn’t put myself out there, including my interviewer.

***

This interview is part of Inside the Bloggers Studio, an ongoing project of short interviews with bloggers I read and admire. (Apologies to James Lipton.) To view the archive, click the category tag in the ‘By Category’ section at the top right of this page.

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7 Comments

Filed under India, Inside the Bloggers Studio

7 responses to ““It’s the most confusing, energetic, and hilarious place I’ve ever been”

  1. I really have to appreciate you and Hilary here. There is a lot we can learn about our own home listening to the experiences and viewpoints of others who haven’t been brought up in India. Kudos.

  2. Pingback: in case you missed them… | hilary in mumbai

  3. Melia

    I enjoy Sharell’s blog, she’s mature, intelligent, insightful, even if she’s critical it’s usually criticisms that are centered around what she finds to be an injustice, the bureaucracy, unacceptable behaviours or the cultural divide. This woman is just pure vitriol, she sounds like such vile scum. The things she seems to take issue with are infantile and trivial. In one of her posts she mentioned something about Indians smelling terrible. I’m sure It’s all very funny and amusing if you’re a foreigner and you’re hearing this sort of rhetoric from another foreigner. Unfortunately for me I live in the states and I’m quite repulsed by the majority of white americans and a lot of them really do live up to the image of the prejudiced, dumb, ignorant, bible clutching fool and even so, If i had a blog, I might critique the culture, the government, the politics but I wouldn’t disparage them as a group of individuals on a public forum. I would draw the line there. She gives off this notion that these people, these individuals are somehow less than her. She is one dimensional and constantly stereotypes. This woman is a horrible nasty piece of work. She sounds petty, bratty, spoiled, arrogant, bitchy and bigoted. Yeah, her blog is not the least bit enjoyable! No thanks.

    • Whoa! I’ve always found Hilary insightful and never roundly disparaging of Indians, though I can admit that her sense of humour is a little more on the acerbic side. Still, the main reason why I enjoy her posts is that she has a sense of the absurd and focuses on being funny rather than being bitchy.

      I think we’re gonna have to agree to disagree here, but thanks very much for commenting. I know you’re not the first to take issue with her style!

  4. Melia

    Yeah I guess we will have to agree to disagree. When you cross the line by disparaging an ethnic group of people and you stereotype them (for example when she stupidly comments about Indians smelling bad for instance), It certainly is very bitchy and prejudiced. I don’t have a problem with her style, it’s the content, its what she says about an ethnic group of people. Utterly shamelessly bigoted.

  5. S.

    I agree with Melia. Pointing out differences between two countries or societies is one thing and exaggerating and cribbing about *everything* the country offers is another thing. In one of Hillary’ recent posts, she says she has to travel everyday through “a pool of shit” (i know it would be childish to demand a photo!) and then she goes on to bitch how Indians love cricket.. I was more amazed than angry at how could she bitch about us loving Cricket?? commonsense says that if you don’t like a place, there is no reason you should live there for years.

    and Hillary’s blog is insightful?? humorous? really?? humorous as in we Indians could also laugh at it or as in for you expats to sneer over beers?

    And anyway, what is the motivation when people move to other countries voluntarily? to learn the culture and appreciate the differences and challenges ( i know its not easy at times) being an expat offers or to bitch about their host country on their self-important I-am-not-judging-just-observing blogs?
    Are you expats really unable to look beyond India’s dinginess,smelly people, spicy food and incorrect English (you have written 4 posts about it on the NRI.. hats off to you!! it proves that you didn’t meet even a single Indian who could speak proper n correct English!!)
    I am not saying the above things don’t exist in India, but there is life beyond.

    think I am exaggerating? Last year, me and a friend stood near the Gateway of India at sunset. A foreigner was standing nearby and he took a picture of a beggar family which was sitting on the footpath and walked away. There was the beautiful sunset, the Gateway, the Taj hotel .. but all he preferred to concentrate on was the beggar family.

    • Hi S, I’m really sorry that my posts on The NRI have offended you, as it appears they have. I wrote the posts about Indian English with absolutely no intention of suggesting that it is incorrect English, and as for the other things you mention as typical of expats… well, I regret if I’ve ever given you the impression that my view of India is so narrow, or indeed contributed to the impression that all expats think this way. I realise you are a regular reader of The NRI; I thank you for that and hope you haven’t been put off.

      As for Hilary, I really don’t think she exaggerates or sneers, although she has admitted herself that she would like to write more positive posts about her life in India.

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