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Sandra Bornstein on "May This Be the Best Year of Your Life"

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Bornstein Family at Taj Mahal by photo provided by Sandra Bornstein

My guest today is Sandra Bornstein, author of May This Be the Best Year of Your Life: A Memoir . Welcome to OpEdNews, Sandra. What compelled you to write this book? 

After living and working in India, I could not resist the temptation to write about my unique experiences.  On a basic level, I wanted to address how my decision to relocate to India and subsequent choices both changed and enhanced my life. By choosing to step outside of my comfort zone, I gained self-confidence. I hoped that my example would encourage others to consider taking more chances.

While living as an expat in India, I was exposed to a multitude of events that were ripe for retelling. Initially, I felt that my private blog posts would be sufficient. However, as my select audience grew, I was encouraged by the positive feedback that I received. I considered the possibility of using my blog as a starting point for a book.

Months later when I was employed at the international school, I chose not to continue my blog. While I was teaching, I did not want to put my students, the faculty or the school in the spotlight. Instead, I kept private notes. Viewing the situation through the eyes of an American teacher, I was fascinated by the differences in culture and education that I observed.

When I returned to the US, I opted to use my original blog and my notes to write about what I had learned as a wife, mother, Jew, teacher, traveler, expat, and friend. I had a compelling story that needed to be written.

And a compelling story it is!  How did you end up going abroad in the first place? And why India?

My husband, Ira, accepted a legal position with an Indian company that required him to spend approximately six months in India and the rest of the time traveling in the UK and the US. I had to choose whether I wanted to remain in Colorado or relocate to India. It was not financially possible to travel back and forth with my husband.

Since our eldest son already resided in India and our other children were college-aged or older, I had the flexibility to live in India. Based on the representations made by my husband's employer, I felt that I would be able to spend more time with my husband in India than in the US. I also wanted to be closer to our eldest son and to meet his Indian friends. The opportunity to possibly teach in a Third World country was enticing. I was excited about the prospect of using my multicultural and ESL training.

Your experience there didn't turn out exactly how you envisioned it. What were some of the challenges you run up against, Sandra?

Part of life is learning to cope with the unexpected. Once I decided that I would relocate to India, I knew that I would encounter a larger number of hurdles and obstacles. Even though I tried to mentally prepare myself for my new adventure, there was no way to anticipate what would happen.

After arriving in India, I experienced a strong case of culture shock. I was totally overwhelmed by almost everything I experienced. Every day, there were numerous power outages and Ira and I had to figure out what we would eat.  We only had a cooktop that resembled a Bunsen burner.  On the second day, we woke up to find a monkey jumping on our table. I became guarded and fearful. It took a bit of time before I was comfortable with my new surroundings. 

on my balcony by photo provided by Sandra Bornstein

As I started to adapt to my new life, I became more willing to explore. However, my ability to get from one place to the next was hampered by the fact that I did not have a vehicle and had to rely on others or walk. Whether I hired a taxi or jumped into an auto rickshaw, I had to depend on the driver's integrity. An unscrupulous driver could take me on an extended ride that could cost me extra rupees and drop me in the wrong place. I had to become more aware of my surroundings in order to prevent this from happening.

By the end of my first visit, I was more adept at handling cultural differences and my culture shock was diminishing. Back in the US, I looked forward to teaching at an international school, but still harbored some apprehensions. It was difficult to commit to a two-year contract.

When I boarded the plane bound for Mumbai, I couldn't believe that I was traveling back to India by myself. I had given up my comfy life in Colorado and looked for a job in India so that I could spend more time with my husband, not less. I felt betrayed by my husband's company. Suddenly and without any warning, the terms of his employment were shifting. It was unclear when, if ever, my husband would return to India.

Without my husband by my side, I had to determine how I was going to cope with my new life. Our eldest son had moved to New Delhi to be with his fiance. I could either live in his Bangalore apartment or move to a small room on campus. I felt safer living on campus. I never imagined that I would live by myself for months.

Being the only American primary teacher created another level of challenges. My American education, training and teaching philosophy stood in sharp contrast to the Indian teachers' background. Trying to find common ground was a day-to-day test of my patience. Fortunately, one of my superiors, a woman from the United Kingdom, was able to bridge the gap between some of these differences. As a result, I have wonderful memories of teaching the kids in 5C.

Your experience over there toughened you up.  Were you able to hang onto that new self-confidence and awareness and bring it back to the States with you?

My Indian adventure had a lasting impact on my personality. The "toughening up" aspect occurred before we left Colorado. I had to accept the consequences of leaving my comfort zone and traveling halfway around the world to a Third World country. Giving up my car and resigning from my adjunct instructor position at a community college were the first steps of a multi-step process. 

ride with colleague in Munnar by photo provided by Sandra Bornstein
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I had periodic second thoughts about what I was doing, but I was committed to follow through even when obstacles blocked my path. My determination fueled a new level of self-confidence. I wanted to become an effective international teacher and I knew that I could accomplish that objective.

After returning to the US, I was eager to write my story. For decades, my lack of confidence had suppressed my passion to write. An irrational inner voice told me that I didn't have the ability and that no one would be interested in my writing. I procrastinated repeatedly.

I equate those negative thoughts with a lack of self-confidence. The process of stepping outside my comfort zone had short-circuited most of those destructive thoughts. My Indian adventure revitalized my passions and provided a sense of empowerment.

This new awareness of my capabilities enabled me to fulfill a decades old dream to publish a book. It has also allowed me to tackle the complex world of social media and book marketing without procrastinating. An "I can do it" attitude has taken hold. I may make mistakes along the way, but I am determined to have my voice heard.

Very cool! Besides for all the growth opportunities during your time in India, there were also serious health issues. Can you talk about that and how you dealt with it?

Any American who travels to a Third World country should be aware of the potential health risks. My American travel doctor recommended several inoculations and also provided a prescription for uncontrollable diarrhea. He stressed the importance of making wise eating and drinking choices.

Even though I was extra careful when making food and beverage selections, I suffered numerous episodes of uncontrollable diarrhea and stomach upsets. In less than a year, I had more fevers in India than I had experienced in the US for the last 15 years.

Whenever I was uncertain of the water quality, I avoided drinking. Since I was living in a tropical environment that decision put me at risk for dehydration. My situation was exacerbated since my guest room had a sunny exposure and only had a ceiling fan. For decades, my body had become used to being cooled by air conditioning.

Within a few months, I lost over 15 pounds. I may have looked great, but I felt crappy most of the time. I felt obligated to work unless I was in too much discomfort.

I made several trips to a local hospital. I was overwhelmed by the lack of hygiene and the masses of people that filled every inch of the structure. I could communicate with the doctors, but struggled with the other personnel.

Toward the end of my time in India, I had an extremely painful kidney stone attack that was accompanied by vomiting, blood in my urine, and elevated blood levels. I was terrified when I learned that the ER doctor and a specialist recommended surgery. I spoke with one of my sister-in-laws who is an American doctor. She confirmed that it was in my best interest to proceed with the procedure.

I was lucky that this incident coincided with Ira's visit to India. His presence lessened my anxiety levels as I dealt with unfamiliar medical practices and communication issues. I could only pray that everything would turn out okay.

The procedure went well even though everything was not fully explained. A week later, I needed to undergo a painful procedure to eliminate additional stones in the other kidney. I had to cope with the discomfort since I was not provided any medication. I did the best I could under the circumstances.

One of the reasons you gave up your job in Colorado was so that you could see your husband while he was based in India. But things didn't go as planned. While the long separations gave you an unprecedented independence, it also put a heavy strain on your relationship. In fact, much of your family was vociferously against your staying in India. Can you talk about that a bit?

Yes, life can indeed become messy. For decades, my husband and I had tried to create a cohesive family life. We were proud of our ability to communicate openly with one another and cherished the closeness that we shared.

The decision to accept jobs in India became a disruptive force. Our eldest son, Josh, was thrilled that we would be spending more time with him while our three youngest sons had their reservations. None of them were happy when Josh decided to remain in India for years. Our decision to work in India added a few more sparks to this hot topic.

Once it became apparent that I would be living by myself in India, our three youngest sons expressed their displeasure repeatedly. I listened to them and attempted to mollify their fears. Nothing could change their opinion. All three wanted me to come home immediately.

It wasn't that simple.

Meanwhile, Ira and I missed one another and longed for the day that we would be reunited. I immersed myself in my work while Ira became a bit withdrawn.

It was a no-win situation. Ira's bosses were fully aware of how they were disrupting our lives. They simply didn't care and made irrational excuses for their behavior. It was not possible to determine whether their actions were business related or personal. I suspected the latter. I was frustrated by their callousness. Initially, I channeled my anger toward Ira even though it clearly was not his fault.

In late November, Ira and our three sons came to India for Josh's wedding. The boys were overwhelmed by culture shock and became even more vociferous. Ira, on the other hand, was a bit detached. My ER visit and subsequent emergency procedure became the climax of this messy situation. I realized that something had to change before my cohesive family became totally unraveled. 

Josh and Rachael's wedding in New Delhi by photo provided by Sandra Bornstein

You ended up returning home sooner than expected. Were you able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again?  

I returned to the US in late December for winter break. I had a plane ticket to return in 2 1/2 weeks and 1 1/2 years left on my teaching contract.

I was conflicted. The career oriented part of my psyche wanted to finish what I had started while the family side of my brain could not fathom spending any more time separated from my husband. I was concerned whether our marriage could survive another six months if we remained separated by 10,000 miles. I visited with several American doctors. All of these specialists recommended that I remain in the US.

I'm not sure that your reference to Humpty Dumpty is completely accurate. Nothing had been shattered or broken. Although my health was being undermined and I missed being with my family, my mental toughness had been enhanced. I was confident that I could handle whatever was put in my path. Instead of feeling splintered, I felt more like a piece of taffy that was being pulled in multiple directions. I had to take control of the situation and find my magnetic north.

For decades, my family had always been my top priority. That emphasis had fueled my initial decision to accompany my husband to India. My desire to "make a difference" teaching in a Third World country was an added bonus that eventually turned into my primary purpose for remaining in India.

After returning home, I found myself at another fork in the road. If I returned to India, I was potentially jeopardizing the vibrancy of my marriage and my health. If I stayed home, I did not know what I was going to do. Due to severe budget cuts, teaching jobs were in short supply. I was disappointed that my teaching expertise might become dormant.

As a stay-at-home mother, I had often wrestled with a similar dilemma. Was it possible to find the perfect balance between family obligations and an engaging career?

After investing over 3 1/2 decades in a loving and mutually respectful relationship, I could not rationalize tossing out my marriage for a teaching position in India. If locating a viable teaching position in Colorado wasn't possible, I would have to find another passion.

I examined all of my options and decided that I was not going to procrastinate anymore. I would finally write my first book. I sat down at my computer and started to type.

I thought about everything that had happened and began charting the lessons that I learned. It was therapeutic to sit for hours sorting out what had occurred and to reestablish my internal compass.

The writing process was both calming and invigorating. As I typed, I realized that both the positive and negative aspects of my Indian adventure were part of my story. I would be remiss if I didn't paint a balanced and honest picture. One layer after another was revealed. At the core was my family.

Having a loving relationship with Ira and my sons was the special ingredient that kept me centered. By having them by my side, any year could be the best year of my life. 

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day trip to ancient temple of Belur by photo provided by Sandra Bornstein

It sounds like writing really helped you put everything into perspective, Sandy. Something we haven't talked about yet: What was it like being Jewish in India?

Yes, I agree. Writing allowed me to see everything clearer.

The strangeness of living in a foreign country made me keenly aware of my vulnerability. As a result, it became a priority to meet people who shared commonalities. The Chabad rabbi and his wife were near the top of the list. I reached out to them shortly after arriving in India.

While their belief system was considerably more traditional than mine, we shared our ideas openly. Despite our differences, I always felt welcomed in their home. Our times together were limited, but their kindness and generosity will always be remembered. I knew that I could rely on them if I needed assistance.

India is one of the few places in the world where anti-Semitism never wreaked havoc with Jewish lives. Despite this documented fact, I chose not to wear any jewelry that openly proclaimed my Jewishness. Josh's apartment is located in a heavily Muslim populated part of town. His neighbors frowned upon Westerners dressed in modern clothing. Thus, I tried to dress as conservatively as possible so that I would not call attention to myself.

Celebrating Jewish holidays was a challenge. I had two options. I could join the Bangalore Chabad community that was mostly Israelis or fly to New Delhi to share the holidays with Josh and Rachael.

I traveled to New Delhi. I was unfamiliar with the Sephardic melodies and some of the prayers. It seemed odd and unnatural to be separated from the rest of my family. Tears washed my face when I called Ira and my other sons. I was unable to eat any of the traditional foods that I associated with Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. I sincerely hoped that this would be the only time in my life when I would not be able to share the High Holidays with most of my family.

Chanukah was the week after Josh's wedding. Ira spent the first days with me and then flew back to Colorado to be with our youngest son, Jordan, for the end of the festival. I had never celebrated a Jewish holiday all by myself. Fortunately, I had an abundance of memories of past festivals that reminded me of my wonderful family.

The Chabad rabbi and his wife made a "house call" with their two small children. Their gracious presence brightened my classroom. To this day, I appreciate their effort. It took almost two hours for them to drive to the international school during rush hour and another hour to return home.

After discovering that I was celebrating my holiday by myself, two of my Hindu students asked to share the Chanukah candle lighting with me. Their thoughtfulness and compassion will always be remembered.

It is unnatural to be totally alone on a Jewish holiday. In the future, I will do whatever I can to prevent this from happening to anyone in my family. 

Chanukah 2008 in Colorado by photo provided by Sandra Bornstein

I'm with you - celebrating Shabbos [the Jewish Sabbath] and holidays with family and friends is a biggie for me, too. Before we wrap this up, is there anything you'd like to add?

Thank you for including an open-ended question. I cannot think of anything else that I'd like to say other than thanking you for the opportunity to chat. I have enjoyed our dialogue. I look forward to your sharing my words with your audience.

It was a pleasure talking with you, Sandy. Good luck to you!

all photos from the Bornstein Family collection

Sandra's website  

Buy the book

A special thanks to Meryl Ann Butler for help with photos

Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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