Where I’d rather be right now

August 18, 2008

Growing up in a number of different places has given me a pluralistic and tolerant perspective on life. At the same time, I feel like it has deprived me of a strong single cultural and national identity, giving me instead a multicultural and multinational identity and encouraging me to be a global citizen.

I was born in Thane, India (a suburb of Bombay) but I have only spent a total of about three years of my life there. My family moved to Bahrain when I was a few days old. I completed most of my elementary schooling in Bahrain and the rest in India. I was also in Atlanta for about six months while my father completed his MBA there. Then we moved back to Bahrain for a few years before moving to Canada after I completed grade 6. My family has been in Mississauga since then. While I was at Waterloo I did one of my co-op terms in Chicago. After graduation I decided to join my firm’s New York office, simply because it is the largest in North America and the second-largest in the world after London. I figured it would make it easier to get to know people early on in my career. I was on a project in Mexico City for just over three months, but requested to be kept on local projects after that to make good use of my time in New York. I didn’t see the point in paying rent in NYC if I was going to be overseas.

What is more interesting than the number of places I have lived in is the way in which my perspective on the various places has changed over time. Early in my childhood I generally preferred Bahrain to India. India of the late 1980’s and early ’90’s was a very different place than today’s India. Infrastructure was weaker, the economy was strictly regulated with import tariffs, and there were fewer career and educational opportunities for citizens. I did not greatly enjoy my brief stay in Atlanta, still preferring life in Bahrain.

Things changed significantly after moving to Canada in 1996. It did not take me long to realize that Canada and the US were two very different countries. After the initial culture shock resulting from attending a school with a Canadian curriculum, I managed to settle in quite well. In middle school and high school my friends would often ask me which country I preferred out of all the countries I had lived in. I would tell them I preferred Canada, an answer that would often surprise them. They did not realize how many amenities they took for granted. I highly valueed access to libraries, parks, community centres, and public transportation because I had previously lived in countries that lacked such conveniences.

During my undergraduate career at the University of Waterloo, I completed a co-op term in Chicago. I liked the city very much, even though I was there from January to April in what is arguably the worst season of the year in the city, and I had to spend a substantial amount of time studying for an actuarial exam. One of the reasons I liked the city is that I was there with about ten other co-op students and we would often get together on weekends to explore the city. A more important reason is that I saw parallels between Chicago and Toronto. Some of the neighbourhoods in the two cities can be directly mapped to each other, such as Halsted Street in Chicago and Danforth Avenue in Toronto, or Devon Street in Chicago and Gerrard Street in Toronto. In fact, Toronto’s Taste of the Danforth Greek Festival is based on a similar older tradition in Chicago. Chicago’s geography is more favourable than Toronto’s. The presence of large parks and the Chicago River in the downtown area give the city a very pleasant atmosphere in spring and summer.

After graduation I decided to join a consulting firm in New York City. Initially I did not enjoy life in the city. NYC is too big, busy, crowded, and confusing for someone new to it. It reminded me of Bombay (now Mumbai) another city that I have never particularly liked. NYC can sometimes also have a very superficial atmosphere, perhaps due to its being a centre of finance and fashion. Living on Wall Street did not improve the situation for me. Every morning I would fight a crowd of bankers to reach the subway station at Wall Street and Broadway to catch the train to work, trying hard to prevent literally stepping on toes or falling on other passengers when the train lurched forward. The garbage bags strewn along all major ‘famous’ places such as Wall Street and Times Square only caused my impression of the city to deteriorate further. There were also reports of rats on subway stations, but fortunately I did not see any at that time. All in all, I found NYC to be overhyped and quite expensive given the quality of the city.

In November 2007, I was posted on a project in Mexico City. The city, which we simply called ‘Mexico’ or Mexico DF (Distrito Federal), is not like any other city I have ever lived in or visited. The city itself is on a high plateau (~ 7,400 ft.) surrounded by even higher suburbs and mountains. My project was in the suburb of Santa Fe to the west of the city at an altitude of about 8,000 ft. Despite the hectic pace and long hours on the project, the city provided a unique cultural experience. Its architecture has been influenced by Native American, Spanish, and French cultures. Paseo de la Reforma, one of the arterial routes in the city, is modelled on the famous Champs Elysees in Paris. While my stay in Mexico was stimulating and interesting, the stress made me finally start to see NYC as a home and refuge on some weekends.

After I returned from Mexico, I started to explore NYC and found that it really did have something for everyone. Winter was turning to spring and parks were opening up. Although I did not make it to Central Park until July, I enjoyed strolling around Battery Park, Bryant Park, and Washington Square Park. I also enjoyed some of the museums and art galleries, particularly the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). I realized that the Financial District is not just about business and money, but has some interesting historical buildings and landmarks as well as great restaurants. I discovered the city’s nightlife and found that it had some interesting clubs and lounges with a wide variety of music. Over the past several months I have gone from hating the city to tolerating it to loving it. Nonetheless, I cannot see myself living in New York for more than a year or two.

Of all the places I have lived in so far, Toronto is still my favourite and the city I can most easily think of as home. Oddly enough, it is also possibly the city about which I know the least, since my family is in Mississauga and not Toronto. For now I am happy to explore new cities and work overseas, being particularly interested in emerging markets in Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East. In a few years, however, I can see myself moving back to live and work in the GTA. It provides the right balance of business, culture, fun, and family life. Many of my friends are still in the Toronto area. In the long run, I may want to move to a place that has easy access to mountains, an ocean, or ideally both. But for now, I must prepare for yet another busy morning in New York’s Financial District.