Being a regular visitor, Sharon Sivalenka from the United States, President of the Overseas Women of Chennai Club, believes that her journey here over the years has been evolving and she has learnt to adapt to the challenges and embrace the uniqueness of India
What was your first point of contact with India – a person, place or event?
I came to India because my husband is Indian. So, for the first few years, I would come over for two weeks a year to visit my husband’s relatives and had no real exposure, outside of my husband’s home. In 2012, I actually started staying in India for three to four months at a time. I was on my own to discover India. I had a very difficult time because I did not know anyone who spoke English, besides my husband. Then one day, I was in a grocery store and an expat woman came up to me and told me about the Overseas Women of Chennai Club (OWC). That day she had me come to the craft group, one of the OWC activity groups, and that was how I finally found English-speaking women to socialise with and get into some fun charity work.
What is your impression of India before you came here, and now?
What I knew about India before I came here is that it had beautiful hot weather. Chennai did not disappoint. I had lived in very cold Wisconsin most of my life. So I was very excited to experience the tropical weather. I had also heard that India had very poor people, who led unhappy lives. I was told that some of those sad people were working in my house. In my early days living in India, I spent most of my time shut away on my balcony. I got tired of trying to communicate with all the people in my house who didn’t speak English. I was really uncomfortable having so many people around all the time, in my home. So as I sat on the balcony observing the help, and I realised they were happy people. They seemed happy with their work. They also had a wonderful social life. Friends came to visit my cooks all the time. Some days I felt like my house was more my staff’s house than it was mine.
How does Indian cuisine/food compare with local favourites back home?
I am extremely lucky that my cook prepares for me food that is not spicy. So I get along fine eatting Indian food everyday. The only thing I can’t get used to is eating hot vegetable entrées such as dal for breakfast. I prefer a cold smoothie, which you can get nowadays in India. The one drink I miss is Diet Mountain Dew. It’s good they don’t have it in India, because it forces me to take a break from it every three months. And nothing goes better with Diet Mountain Dew than twizzlers and pretzels. They do have pretzels here now, but there not the same as they are back home.
Have you taken part in any Indian festivals?
I have partaken in Ganesh pooja and Diwali. But the festival that stands out for me is Holi. I wanted to play Holi for years. When I first came to India, I was told that colours were played only in the North. But finally in 2015 I went to my first Holi party in Chennai. My hair got pink colour and it did not wash out for a year! So although it was a really fun time, I’m not as keen on playing with colors.
What are some sources of entertainment in India?
I love to run and dance. I’m part of a running group. I really get to see a lot of wonderful new parts of Chennai through that group of friends on our runs. For dancing, I like night clubs. Chennai used to have a lot of fun ones. I really haven’t been to too many this past year. But I was lucky enough to be part of a dance group through Global Adjustments. We learnt Bollywood dances and I got to perform them at Global Adjustments India Living Awards party. It was an extremely fun experience. I will never forget it!
Have you travelled to different parts of India? What was the experience like?
I haven’t travelled in India as much as I think I should have by now. Because we will always be in and out of India for the rest of our lives, we keep putting off the travel part. I have been to Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Kanyakumari, Kerala, Mumbai, New Delhi and Puducherry. Soon after coming to India, we took a trip to Mumbai. At that point in time, I could not tell the difference between Mumbai and Chennai. It all looked the same to me because I hadn’t been out exploring enough. Now it’s easy to tell which city I am in.
If you wanted one thing to change in India, what would that be?
The trash situation. It has improved tremendously since I first came to India. Now, as time has gone by, we have ladies who clean the streets daily and pick up some trash. And when dignataries come to visit, magically things get cleaned up. So in the future I think India will be able to get a handle on its waste management problems.
A special memory from your time in India so far?
I have had so many, many wonderful memories in India. But, of course, what will go down in history for me is being here in this lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic.
If there was one thing you would take back home from India, what would that be?
The beautiful materials that saris are made from.
• Best Indian friend: My husband (of course!)
• Favourite Indian food: Sambar and garlic naan
• Favourite hang-out spot in India: The Loop
• Intolerable India: The trash fires
• Loveable India: The people. They are beautiful and kind.