Ankita: The Culture Shock Of Returning Home After Living Abroad
2017 - My good friend Ankita Kumar-Ratta has just returned from a two-year trip to India. I invite her to my new apartment where I am eager to hear about her (presumably) life changing experiences; boys she’d met, food she’d tasted, new-found friendships. And of course, how happy she is to be back home with friends and family. “I feel weird,” she tells me. The wide-eyed and passionately expressive Ankita I knew had slightly faded. “I’m having a very hard time connecting to anything here. I feel uninspired.”
I was immediately transported to the moment I arrived home after spending a year in Europe: a sense of reverse culture shock. No longer was I a “traveler,” learning a new language and exploring new cities every weekend. No—I was a server at a local Brew Pub, living at my mom’s place and riding the same subway route I’d taken for the last 20 years.
Returning home can take an emotional toll on anyone who embarks on a long-term trip. But for Ankita, these feelings only fueled her creative passion. That summer, Ankita began writing a one-woman show called Undercover Indian that artfully tells the story of her experience with reverse culture shock. After performing multiple shows that year and finding success in Canada, Ankita took her show back to India, where she now lives and studies dance.
It has been two years since my initial conversation with Ankita, but I recently sat down with her (via Facebook Video) to revisit those feelings of returning home and finding creativity in times of transition.
“It’s not actually about the environment—it’s about our ability to respond to it. If your mental health is stable, then you will find energy everywhere.” -Ankita Kumar-Ratta
Erika: Do you remember how it felt returning to Canada after such a long period of time?
Ankita: I didn’t expect to feel so emotionally detached. Things that I connected to so much before were suddenly hard to [connect to].
Erika: Did India feel like home to you at that point?
Ankita: It was more the fact that I was connecting to all these things in me in India that I never knew existed… So leaving, I questioned if these things could still exist.
Erika: Why do you think you were making more connections in India?
Ankita: So many questions come up when you are in a different country. When you’re in your home, or when you’re in a space where you’re comfortable, questions don’t come up because that’s your environment—that’s what you’re used to. In India, every moment was a question. Looking around, I was always having to ask myself, how do I feel about this? what does this mean?
Erika: What was the biggest thing you missed about India when you returned home?
Ankita: I missed the energy. There was energy all over the place and I felt so mentally stimulated. People in India love interacting and are so wonderfully curious and intelligent. Going back to Toronto, I didn’t think people wanted to interact and interaction was always difficult.
I was also not in a very good place mentally when I came back to Toronto. I’ve now come to realize that you can create energy, despite the space you’re in. It’s not actually about the environment—it’s about our ability to respond to it. If your mental health is stable, then you will find energy everywhere.
Erika: What was the biggest cultural difference that took some getting used to?
Ankita: One of the biggest things is family because the family situation is so different. It is very cliché, but the whole independence vs. co-dependence thing… In India, I’m always having to answer questions; about my lifestyle, my choices, my spending habits.
Also in the West, it’s common to ask each other about work—it’s something that’s usually connected to interests or passion. So when I first came to India, I wanted to know what my cousins did for work. But my cousin said, “That’s what we do all day, so we don’t want to talk about it.” I remember at the beginning, I was thinking, how do I develop deeper connections with people? All my entry ways were not how people enter into deeper relationships here.
Erika: Why do you think that is?
Ankita: I do think it’s beautiful that you don’t connect about work here because work is not life—We so often forget that. Here especially, work is not number one on the list. In the West we always say, “Family is first. Health is first.” But If you call in to work and say, “I have health problems or I have family problems,” you get very little understanding.
“There are all these moments in your journey that you don’t realize are important until you write them out and process them.”
- Ankita Kumar-Ratta
Erika: How did you re-discover your creative energy and turn this experience into a one-woman show? What inspired you?
Ankita: I was visiting one of my good friends in Toronto who’s a visual artist. She was in a very creative space—she was literally just pouring out creativity. I remember there was this moment where I shared with her that I’m feeling like I also need to have some kind of “pouring.” It just seemed like that’s what had to happen but I didn’t know it would be a show.
It was actually my mom who suggested this course by a woman named Tracy Erin Smith who runs these fantastic courses for people who want to create their own 10-minute solo show. I took a course and it went really well. The 10-minute show was a great beginning, but I always knew that was not going to be it. I started writing four or five hours a day… I must have written over 150 pages. I was really amazed at what stories came out. There are all these moments in your journey that you don’t realize are important until you write them out and process them.
Erika: What was it like performing the show in India? Was the audience response any different?
Ankita: It was a good learning process because it’s obviously very different. I was forced to ask questions like, “Who is this show for?” Of course, reflections of India are not going to be as exciting for an Indian audience. For a Canadian audience, it might be more exciting because it’s something new.
Yeah—it was super different. I did it in this international community called Auroville [Read more about Auroville here]. That was a good audience because a lot of people shared the experience of cultural displacement. I wanted to give a voice to this community of NRI’s [Non-Resident Indians] because there are so many of us in the world and you don’t often hear the story of the person in-between.
Erika: You are now studying movement arts in India. What is it like studying the arts in India vs. Canada?
Ankita: The arts here are super inspiring because they’re so rooted in tradition and tradition is so rooted in history and story. The depth of the art here is really rich.
E: Do you see yourself going back to Toronto any time soon?
A: A lot of people have asked me that question—I don’t know. Things are going smoothly in India and there is a flow so I think I should ride that.