I introduce to you the talented and multifaceted Athena Desai. Athena was a Third Culture Kid ( TCK) and has just returned to the USA after 7 months living as an expat in Singapore. She is pretty raw and very honest about her repatriation. Surrounded by boxes she still made time to be interviewed.
I was fortunate to meet Athena and her family at a surf and yoga retreat in Sri Lanka. She kindly invited me to have a lesson with her surf coach and hang out with her family. That is the kind of chick she is! I was attracted to her energy, her incredible level of strength for a tiny person( you could put her in your pocket) and really wanted to know about her extremely interesting tattoos. She is super fit and enjoys yoga, surfing, snowboarding and running and is a gorgeous soul. She has been generous with her time and her truth about repatriating to the States.
Andy Mayer. Where were you born and where are you currently living?
Athena Desai. I was born in Philadelphia, PA – my parents, from India and the Philippines, had met there during their medical residency in the late ‘60s. I currently live in Cambridge, MA.
A.M. Why did you return “home” and how long have you been back?
A.D. We’d been living in Singapore for seven months because my husband, a professor at MIT, works at a research centre there. We had a ridiculously wonderful time there; I wasn’t ready to move back when we did, which was a little less than a month ago.
A.M. What other places have you lived?
A.D I grew up in Binghamton, NY and then left for prep school in Lakeville, CT for my last two years of high school. Poughkeepsie, NY was where I spent the college years, lived in Havana, Cuba for my junior year Spring semester, then lived in Washington, DC, San Diego, CA and finally moved to Boston.
A.M. What are the main differences living in your home country compared to life as an expat?
A.D. Funny, before I left Singers I made a list in a journal of all the things I’d miss. Some of those things illustrate the biggest differences between the States and Asia. Small things, like the ease with which I can find a delicious rice-based meal vs. a bread-based meal. Being able to eat outside all the time, and leave the house without a jacket. Living with fewer possessions in tow there, but still having all my needs met – returning to a house full of things, half of which I didn’t miss and half of which I didn’t remember owning.
Then on to bigger differences: the amount of time I had to devote to my art (music, photography) and self-development (Landmark training, spiritual courses). The ease and frequency with which we could travel to such amazing and different places – from Japan to Cambodia, Borneo to Sri Lanka. The ease with which we could return everything to a state of integrity/workability at home, with the support of the serviced apartment staff. The open arms that welcomed me into so many different and unexpected communities – my daughter’s school, local musicians, church, expats.
A.M. How have these differences affected you or your family?
A.D. One big, noticeable impact is that it’s been three weeks and the house has pockets of chaos everywhere. Things we packed away so tenants could rent out our condo, but we realize now those things never had a good system of organization to begin with. So there’s a lag time between putting new systems in place and just clearing up and putting away all these objects. I’m trying to still winnow through and get rid of extraneous things, and when I’m employing my training and mindfulness, it occurs as a great opportunity to build almost from scratch and create fun and ease and comfort in my life. On the days when I’m just cranky and annoyed at everything, I feel overwhelmed by it. But at least my new default is the possibility vs the overwhelm, and I have a lot of support + reminders to take actions from the former space vs the latter.
Another substantial impact on my family is that my husband and I were really happy in Singapore, and in the transition we’ve been less so – so we haven’t been supporting our daughter very well. We are trying to create new habits here, of daily meditation + sharing gratitude etc. – but we are often baffled at her seemingly random outbursts and rebellion to the smallest of requests or instructions. We grew up in markedly different ways from her – we both had immigrant parents of sorts (my husband’s dad is first generation Greek-American) who were strict and stern – and loving! So our initial reaction is often to bring down the hammer + order her around. She just does not respond to that. She literally laughs at our anger, and screams, and exhibits very deep and dramatic feelings. I’m learning slowly to be more compassionate, acknowledge her for the huge changes she’s been through in the past year and the grace and joy she’s shown through all of it – and to make sure she and I have enough bonding time to fill her cup for the day. It’s a bit crazy how a longer morning snuggle will make her so much more agreeable and flexible throughout the day.
A.M. What was the easiest thing settling back in your home country?
A.D. Knowing how to get from a to b. Being able to call my old friends and be in the same time zone. Running into people. Picking up where I left off w/friends.
A.M. What was the hardest thing settling in?
A.D. Understanding for myself and explaining to people the difference between the skin I’m in now vs. when I left. When you’re traveling, it makes sense that everything is new – perspectives, behaviors, reactions – the strangers you meet don’t have a lot of expectations of you, you feel like you can redefine yourself over and over again, create who you want to be. Back home I feel this mirrored cube effect, where old friends have expectations of me or know me to be a certain way, and I know they have those older ideas, and I play into those older ideas… but almost with an outer-body experience of it, as if I can see myself repeating those habits I lost or replaced in a totally new context, and I ask myself “What are you doing? What has really changed?”. Yeah, I’d say the fact that the whole thing feels like a dream and I don’t know if the people I love understand that, or if I’m sharing with them in a way that facilitates that. If I take 100% responsibility for my life and this transition, I know it’s up to me to share what the time overseas meant to me and what threads of it I’m weaving into my current scene.
A.M. What was your favourite part of being an expatmumma?
A.D. So hard to choose! The balance of time I had to devote to my own health and development and focus purely on that, and the time I had to just be with my daughter, take her to a café after school and get a snack, have a swim. Or the fact that just because something was at night didn’t exclude her – she came to my open mics and friends’ birthday parties at bars, she did the Night Safari, she was so flexible and easy. I also felt like there were so many expat mums who were exactly like me – smart, talented, lots of work history and careers behind us or on hold, looking for what we could discover about ourselves and fulfilling all of our purposes, asking lots of big questions and creating new opportunities.
Also, with the auntie and helper culture and support from my husband, I actually had a life after dark and it really added to my feelings of vibrancy and vitality. Funny, because waking up early after a late night is exhausting! But I just felt like an interesting independent adult who wasn’t limited by my daughter having to go to bed – I could open up a new dimension of enjoyment.
A.M. What were your thoughts back when you found out you would be shipping off to Asia?
A.D. Actually I was dreading it. Hard to believe but I had visited Singapore several times and did not like it at all. I had experienced it as boring and lonely and isolating and limiting. And I was trying to build up a Chinese medical practice when I found out, and I kept thinking “I’m going to invest so much sweat equity and time and heart, and then I’m going to have to pull that rug right out from under myself, have seven months of dead time, and start over again when we return”.
Then I did a Landmark course called the Forum and I learned how to create possibility for anything I wanted in my life, no matter what the situation. I kept taking more courses, and I kept getting better at shifting contexts and taking actions that supported that, and so I created the possibility that I would love Singapore. I declared what I wanted Singapore to be like for me (full of friends, connected to community, time to explore and discover what the next arm of my career would be, lots of travel, time to play music) and then I took actions that would move me towards that. And it all worked out so much better than I could’ve even imagined.
A.M. What were your thoughts as time came closer to moving back?
A.D. My first thoughts were that I better create moving back as I wanted it to be, and take a good amount of time to say goodbye to the things I loved about Singapore. I actually spent about 2 ½ months doing that – I made scrapbooks for my friends, wrote down lists of what I loved, scheduled things I wanted to check out before leaving. But I’m realizing now I only imagined what I would like coming home to be, I didn’t take many actions to make it real. I knew I’d be able to see my friends easily, which is always an amazing gift, and we had a lot of trips lined up, which was comforting – I’m discovering I need more structures for my music, my personal grounding + mindfulness, putting the house back together, etc.
A.M. What languages do you speak?
A.D. -I grew up speaking some French and it’s quite rusty now – I spoke a lot more Spanish in college + Cuba, Chris is fluent in it. Aurora is haphazardly learning Spanish, Mandarin + she makes up her own version of German – and Hebrew! We’re all over the place…
A.M. French? Huh? your mum was a Tagalog speaker and your dad spoke Hindi. How did that happen?
A.D. I Grew up learning French at insistence of my polyglot Mum, who’s mostly Filippina (sp?), a 1/4 Basque/Spanish. (Her grandfather was Spanish, I may have the math wrong). She spoke 11 dialects of Tagalog growing up. I’m not sure she’s ever used the word “love” but she loves French 🙂 and spent years studying French and Russian at our local uni after retiring from medicine. She tried living in Paris for half a year as well. My sis and I took private lessons and then studied it in school.
A.M. What were you doing in Cuba?
A.D. I lived in Cuba when I was a junior in college, it was to do research for my anthro thesis – was on rumba + how it represented the intersection of art, religion and community. That was a kick in the pants, my über persistent days. I must’ve tried like 30 different paths to Cuba (organizations, advice, etc.) and they all said no until I found a group in San Fransisco that ran exchange dance programs in Cuba and could help me w/my visa. I got a license from the U.S. Treasury Department, as you had to in those days, to do anthropological research. Lived w/a Cuban family, got a field supervisor, made it all up as I went along.
A.M.How many children do you have and who are they?
A.D. I have one daughter, Aurora Maxine.
A.M. What do you love the most about your daughter?
A.D. Oddly, I think it’s the stuff that challenges me the most. She laughs in the face of anger. She is more dramatic than I thought a five year-old could be. She is wildly inappropriate with kissing. She cares so much about doing things well she resists most things we introduce her to until she realizes she’s having fun.
A.M. What school do does she attend now and what other schools has she attended?
A.D. She’s going to attend the Morse school, a public elementary school at the end of our street. She attended Overseas Family School, an IB school in Singapore. And she had an amazing daycare/preschool on MIT Campus from 8-9 months until Junior Kindergarten.
A.M.What is your job? Where you able to continue whilst living as an expat? If you are lucky enough to be a lady of leisure then what are your hobbies?
A.D. I’m an acupuncturist and herbalist. I wasn’t able to practice while in Singapore, which worked out perfectly because I’d been feeling it was time to integrate all my past passions into new work. I’d been a radio journalist and worked in the non-profit sector before that doing social justice and media literacy work. And I’m a musician – I took that on in Singapore like I’d never done before. Discovered I want work as a songwriter – was NOT expecting that one!
A.M. How do you live your life differently now you have the hindsight of your expat experience? Can you give examples of where you changed habits of “home” to fit your new belief system about living life and family?
A.D. Honestly, I don’t think I can answer this question yet. I’m still so deep in the transition, we’re still building new habits. I can say that I’m reminded how much I need to travel. I’m also more motivated to have Aurora learn more languages. And as I seek new work, I’m pretty damn devoted to keeping a high quality of life and not running the rat race again.
A.M. Describe a usual day in Cambridge?
A.D. Summer days we wake up with the sun – have a leisurely breakfast and arrange schedules, read the news.. Aurora runs downstairs to see if the neighbors are up and want to play and I try to sneak work in. Then she may have a scheduled activity like a play date or some camp – then we most likely have dinner at home together w/Chris, putz around and read before bed. That sounds so boring. And the rest of the time we’ve been traveling! To the mountains, to the beach, to New York City.
A.M.What is the best thing about living back home?
A.D. Having groups and networks of people that know and love us, welcoming us back.
A.M. What is it you simply KHAN’t Face about Singapore?
-That it’s so far from here. And if/when we go back, I want to be making money/working working.
A.M. What i it you Khan’t face about USA?
A.D. That it’s so acceptable to put your nose to the grindstone and live quietly so everything fits into place.
A.M. Where would your ultimate expat posting be and why?
A.D. Not sure of the actual location, but it would be somewhere a) warm, b) where I could surf regularly, c) teeming w/cool people, d) a vibrant music/art/cultural scene, e) I could make it back to the States with some degree of ease, f) I spoke the language or could pick it up w/o keeling over, g) where I could really be in service to the greater good.
Thanks for your extremely honest and insightful interview Athena. xoxoox