Life in Hyderabad - Raquel and Alex Newgard

The pandemic has made living abroad even more challenging for expatriate. Many of them are still struggling with their daily stay-at-home routine and lockdown restrictions. However, for Alex Newgard, an expat from the USA, it a different story. The happy husband of Raquel and father of two young children – Jullian and Mariyam – Alex has always been passionate about travelling. This week, he sheds a revealing light on his stay in Hyderabad in this fascinating interview. While he acknowledges having to make some minor adjustments when moving from the USA, the culture, the care, and the diverse local community have more than made up for what he misses about home!

You’re originally from the US,-and your wife is from Spain, but you both are in Hyderabad. Tell us your story. Why did you move to the city and what do you do?
At 22, both my wife Raquel and I were pursuing separate endeavours in London. Raquel has a master’s degree with an emphasis on teaching Spanish as a foreign language and myself a master’s degree in Psychology. I had a friend from the US likewise living in London at the time who just so happened to be Raquel’s flatmate. We met through this mutual friend, and a series of fun, friendship, and love eventually all came together. By no means was it the picturesque “love at first sight”, though. As a matter of fact, we both were emotionally on guard as we knew my study visa was coming to an end and we only had roughly four months together before I’d have to move back to the US inevitably. This being said, we enjoyed all the fish and chips we could together, had a date night on the London Eye weekly, went on walks nightly in Hyde park, danced in the middle of Piccadilly circus frequently, and gradually became more and more like a romantic comedy by the day. The time eventually came for me to move back to the US, and we started zoom calling before zoom was even what it is today. Her night was my morning, and my morning was her night, but we made it work and eventually, she got offered a job to work at a university in Portland, Oregon, USA. Raquel was a language scholar in a Spanish speaking home on the Reed College campus and I was an interning mental health therapist at a psychological inpatient high-risk residential facility. We both moved to Portland, pursued these professional opportunities, and got married in November 2016, with literally just us two in an office with three close friends and no family. It was a decision we felt clear we wanted to make at the time, and although hard to convince our parents, it was supported, and we loved every second of our quirky, small, but special wedding day. Fast forward a couple of years, and We couple moved around the US, and Raquel became pregnant with our son. I always wanted to work in education and thus we find ourselves overseas again; I decided to get my school counselling license and applied for international educator positions (Raquel is a Spanish Teacher and I am a Social-Emotional Counsellor). We were open to going anywhere in the world and around five months into Raquel’s pregnancy, our current school in Hyderabad contacted us, interested in offering the positions. We went through several interviews and it wasn’t until the second or third that we shared Raquel was five months pregnant. We were nervous about how this would be responded to but were immediately met with the response that “India is the best place to raise kids” from selling us on all the perks of living here. It was hard to say no, but of course, we then had to tell our parents who were still slightly resentful about our wedding decision that we now were going to have them be first-time grandparents and then five months later move halfway across the world.

After several conversations and deconstructing preconceived notions our parents had about India, we signed the contract for the 2019 academic school year and were committed. Our son was born, in what can best be described as a whole separate story type of scenario, and at only five months of age, we got his passport and about 30 vaccines that were basically fear and ignorance-based decisions, and boarded the plane to Hyderabad and we can’t forget, with our two cats as well (likewise a story for another day). Upon landing after a long journey, we arrived in Hyderabad and were greeted by some very welcoming faculty at our school. However we were not greeted with our luggage or, most importantly to my wife, our baby car seat, a concept we soon realised was not common in India. Our luggage was all confirmed missing and my wife would refuse to get on the road with our 5-month-old son without his car seat. This led to quite the panicked impression and although by profession I am intended to keep others calm in times of crisis, I was not of much support at all, to be honest. It was eventually decided that I go to our housing first to secure a car seat to bring back what was thought in one of the houses. Long story short, this ended up not becoming a reality and my wife held on to our son for dear life without a car seat (something we were raised in our home countries to be considered a huge legal offence) as they both joined us at our new home. Day 1 was rocky, but from that point on, it was everything we were hoping for. We fell in love with our nanny, who was at home to greet us when we arrived; we loved the school we are working at, and we felt like we had an immediate built in the community. Raquel continues to teach six different levels of secondary Spanish and I support roughly 200 student’s social and emotional well-being. We make a great team and have gone from falling in love as friends, to partners, to parents, to colleagues.

You’ve recently adopted a girl child in India. What was the reason behind the adoption?
We adopted our daughter in February of 2021. We get asked the question of "why adoption?" a lot and, to be honest, our answer is simple- it just felt right. We never viewed it as wanting to “save a child” or thought of it as a secondary option to getting pregnant again; we just knew we wanted a sister for Jullian, we knew we loved India, and we knew adoption would complete our family. There are so many different thoughts surrounding adoption and other people seemed to have so many different unsolicited opinions, but the fact is, we wake up and go to sleep next to our daughter every day and are reminded it was the best decision we could have ever made.

I am sure living in a foreign country during COVID-19  could be stressful so much so that Covid has also transformed the psychology of ambition for many. How have you managed it?
Well, our kids, work, and life in general keep us busy, so COVID hasn’t left us with much time to really think about the impact of everything, nor have we really begun to grasp how we are managing it, but I guess my answer would be, we manage it by permitting ourselves not to be perfect. We have days that I feel like we all hate each other and others where it all makes sense and is great; the key is to remind yourself of the latter when experiencing the former and to know that any moment of frustration, anxiety, stress, etc. is 100% NORMAL and OK given the context of everything. This permission to experience and express all emotions allows us to feel human and, as a result, support one another completely.

How did things change once the number of COVID cases began to rise in the city?
This part has been tough; a couple of times, Hyderabad went into lockdown, we were not allowed any house help or our nanny, which inevitably meant hosting classes and meetings with our kids on our laps or screaming in the background plus long nights to attend to all the household chores. So the experience has been by no means ideal and led to some fairly high-stress moments, but in the greater perspective of things, we have remained healthy and this is the main thing we can ask for and want. 

What was a typical day for you prior to COVID-19?
Prior to and during COVID, our time is most spent changing diapers and sleepless nights, but prior to lockdown, we were able to travel into the city for the occasional nice hotel visit or dinner, which we loved and can’t wait to resume. 

What have been your favourite things in Hyderabad so far?
The support we get. Whether it be in lockdown or not, the level of support in any sense of the term is so available in a way that just doesn’t so easily exist in Spain or the US. In addition to this, we do love the food and both our kids fuorth learnt word was Dosa.

What was the biggest culture shock for you?
Probably the fact that I am fairly convinced our son is the background photo of half a million people’s phone. Wherever we go, he is the centre of everyone’s attention and this can be difficult to navigate sometimes.

How do you keep a little bit of home with you as an expatriate?
We call our moms probably 3-4 times a day which helps feel connected and reduce unwanted feelings of guilt associated with being so far away. In addition to this, when we have the time, we keep up to date with all the trending classic US TV shows, which help us feel connected. We also occasionally spend an incredibly inflated amount on mac and cheese from the US to feel at home.

What advice do you have for other families making a move to Hyderabad?
The main advice would go back to what I talked about above regarding giving yourself permission. It’s a big shift leaving everything familiar, but reminding yourself that you are here to create your new familiar and family. I give myself permission to know this move has made sense for so many present and future reasons, and this eliminates any moments of doubt I have ever that come my way.

Also, try not to compare and contrast. This really is a losing game and not of much help. It’s so easy to say, “In my home country, this was so much better, or I could do this so much easier, etc.). My main advice would be don’t compare Hyderabad to where you are coming from. Hyderabad is a world of its own with opportunities completely unique to its location and culture. Break the model of it not feeling like home because of what it doesn’t have and put in efforts to create the feeling of home for what it does have.

Any particular experience in the country you would like to share with us?
My main desire as a takeaway from this interview is to thank India for everything that has been provided to us. Even in times of global pandemic and fear, even in times of not seeing our family for over a year and a half now, even in times of our parents not being able to meet our daughter or see that our son now walks, talks, and has an attitude of his own, we would not change being here for anything. I read countless expat articles of feeling “stranded in India” or being “stuck.”  To me, this implies that India is a less desirable place to be or a place that is needed to “evacuate from”, as I have actually received official notice from the US government to do. The fact is we can’t leave India as our daughter is yet to secure a passport and continued lockdown makes this difficult to pursue, but even in this scenario of technically being “stuck”, we are so grateful to the people, culture, and care experienced in India. We are healthy and we are happy, and we want people to know this.     – as told to Anisha