Q: What caused you travel to India?
Bornstein: My husband accepted a legal position that required him to spend approximately 6 months in India and the rest of the year traveling in the US and Europe. I carefully considered my options. Based on his new employer’s representations, I believed that I would see more of my husband if I resigned from my community college teaching position and relocated to India. I was intrigued by the prospect of teaching at an international school and was convinced that I could make a difference. Moreover, I would be able to spend quality time with our eldest son who was living and working in India.
After my first trip to India, the terms of my husband’s job offer began to fluctuate. Despite this uncertainty, I chose to honor my Indian teaching contract. When I flew to India the second time, I went by myself.
Q: Why did you decide to write your memoir?
Bornstein: During my first trip to India, I started a private travel blog. I wanted to share my unusual experiences with a select group of friends and relatives. The positive feedback they provided made me wonder whether I should take my writing a step further. I contemplated a memoir, but knew that my story had to be more than a travelogue.
Shortly after returning to the US, I abruptly stopped writing my blog. I was deeply moved by my husband’s horrific accident and overwhelmed by the choices that I needed to make. I lost the desire to write. After returning to India, I was tempted to write again. I was confident that a blog about my international classroom would generate an audience, but I was reluctant to invade my students’ privacy.
After I returned to the US, I could not put the brakes on my writing anymore. The lessons that I had learned from my adventure needed to be shared. A memoir that chronicled my choice to live outside my comfort zone and my incredible teaching and traveling experiences needed to be written. I wanted to provide useful information to fellow teachers who are considering working abroad and teachers who work with diverse learners. It is my sincere hope that my words will resonate with people facing unusual challenges and others who need encouragement to take a special journey.
Q: Memoirs often divulge private information. Did you ever stop and pause before deciding to publish your work?
Bornstein: My husband and I have always maintained a low profile. We have purposely avoided being in the public eye. When President Obama visited India, one of my eldest son’s friends asked if I wanted to be interviewed by an American television station. I declined even though the prospect of being on a nationally televised program was enticing. I wasn’t ready to have my story go public.
I vacillated between my desire to publish a memoir and to maintain my family’s privacy. I was willing to let go of our anonymous status when I realized that I had an incredible story to share. For too many years, I had suppressed my passion for writing. Finally, I had an engaging topic that I could not resist revealing.
Q: Many memoirists feel that the process of writing their memoirs is cathartic. Did your mindset change after writing your memoir?
Bornstein: Living overseas had a profound impact on my marriage, career path, and overall outlook. By taking the time to organize my thoughts and tell my story, I was able to review the chronology of events and determine how different experiences affected my life. As the various threads to my story unfolded, I focused on the lessons that I had learned. I transformed my raw emotions and feelings into universal ideas that helped me grow as a person. Through the process of writing and editing, I acknowledged everything that I had gained from my Indian adventure.
Q: What message are you sharing with your readers?
Bornstein: There are multiple messages that I am sharing with my readers. The most prevalent lesson pertains to individual choices. People tend to be most comfortable living within their established comfort zone and rarely make daring decisions. Stepping outside a self-imposed boundary oftentimes creates unnecessary anxiety and irrational fear. When I decided to plunge into the pool of uncertainty, I let my emotions take control and felt unbalanced. Eventually, I overcame my fears and learned that stepping outside of my comfort zone can be an invigorating experience that enhances life.
Q: You decide to take an unusual journey for an American woman in her 50s. Should middle-aged women consider stepping out of their comfort zone?
Bornstein: Before I traveled to India, I would have responded “no.” Now, I would definitely say “yes.” If I had followed the norm, I would have experienced limited opportunities for intensive personal growth. Every day would have been similar to the next.
My decision to live overseas exposed me to different lifestyles and cultures. As a result, my awareness of various belief systems was expanded and my appreciation of my American upbringing and education was augmented. Teaching at an international school was an exhilarating experience that made me reflect on my American teaching style and the importance of accepting other people’s differences. Moreover, I was able to share my American teaching methods with the Indian faculty. I hope that my presence made a difference to my students. Every day, I learned something from my students and colleagues. These experiences would not have been possible had I remained in my comfortable suburban home.
Q: What’s the one thing that you wished you knew before traveling to India?
Bornstein: It would have been helpful to know that many Indians have, at best, a limited command of the English language. I assumed that everyone would be able to converse fluently in English. This misconception caused many frustrating moments. Had I realized that only a small percentage of the population was fluent, I would have been less anxious.
Q: After teaching at a highly regarded international school in Bangalore, India, what was your most memorable experience?
Bornstein: I will always remember the fifth grade jungle trip to Kabini River Lodge, a former hunting lodge for the maharaja of Mysore. In the U.S., 5th or 6th grade students usually attend an outdoor education program at a nearby rustic facility. My students took motor coaches without a restroom to this well-regarded accommodation. Seeing the jungle through the eyes of 5th graders was a unique experience.I also had the opportunity to interact with my students in a social setting.
Q: If you could give a prospective international teacher some advice, what would that be?
Bornstein: I would recommend that prospective international teachers be flexible since it is likely that they will encounter the unexpected. Living abroad is totally different than life in America. Becoming overly frazzled by unforeseen obstacles can inhibit one’s ability to enjoy a wonderful international teaching adventure. After all, some of the most engaging teaching experiences are a result of the unpredictable classroom moments you encounter along the way.
Q: You must have met many interesting people. Can you share one of your experiences?
Bornstein: I met numerous lively individuals, but I’ll never forget one of my son’s American friends. Her lifestyle was the antithesis of mine. As a freelance writer for American publications, she had traveled throughout Asia for decades. Fearlessly, she visited remote places that few Americans have ventured to. She had not driven a car in years. She chose not to have children, rarely returned to the U.S., and had never skied. Even though we had little in common, her stories were mesmerizing. I secretly wished she would take me on one of her next assignments.
Q: What was the most intriguing aspect of living in India?
Bornstein: Being able to travel and explore Indian culture was an amazing experience. So much is to be gained by visiting diverse cultures. I especially enjoyed the historic sites that my family and I visited in the Golden Triangle- Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur. At each stop, I found myself asking questions. In retrospect, I should have read a few Indian history books before I traveled. I realized that my prior education had too many history gaps so I struggled as I tried to put all of the pieces together.
Q: Throughout your book you mention songs. What role did music play in your journey?
Bornstein: Music was my constant companion.I heard songs even when my Ipod and computer were not turned on. The lyrics from my youth prevailed. They added a level of comfort that helped me cope with my overwhelming feelings of loneliness. Being separated from my family for an extended period of time was challenging. I could always rely on my music to bring a smile to my face.
Q: As an adult, you embraced your Jewish identity. Did your journey to India impact your Judaism?
Bornstein: My formal Jewish education began when I attended preschool at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, Illinois. After experiencing this early indoctrination to Judaism, I did not have any formal religious education until I enrolled in Jewish Studies classes at Spertus College in Chicago. I completed an undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois-Chicago in History and Judaic Studies. Decades later, I fulfilled a dream by adding an M.A. in Jewish Studies to my resume. The Jewish Studies classes enabled me to see the world from a Jewish perspective.
When I traveled to India, my ability to interact with the organized Jewish community was limited. I had the choice to connect with the Bangalore Chabad rabbi, to travel by plane to my future daughter-in-law’s synagogue in New Delhi or to remain detached from the Jewish community. Unlike my prior synagogue experiences where I was surrounded by family, in India I was either traveling solo or with my son, Josh. Celebrating Jewish holidays in India became an awkward experience. I realized that holidays were meant to be shared with family.
I am immensely grateful for the exceptional kindness and concern that I received from the Bangalore Chabad rabbi and his wife. Their hospitality helped me understand the role that the Chabad movement plays in locations that lack a well-established Jewish community.
Q: Near the conclusion of the book, you discuss the importance of finding your True North. Did finding your True North affect your daily life?
Bornstein: I needed to find direction in my life by adjusting my internal compass. After years of being a devoted wife and mother, the circumstances propelling my odyssey had driven me far off course. Stepping out of my comfort zone was okay as long as I did not stray too far from my values. By reclaiming my True North, I avoided a potential catastrophe. I reaffirmed my belief that my husband and family were the core of my existence.
Q: Now that the book is completed, what are your future plans?
Bornstein: I am exploring topics for my next book. I am also investigating different ways that I can utilize my expertise teaching diverse language learners, either in the U.S. or abroad. I’d love to find a series of short-term international teaching adventures that would not require being separated from my husband for an extended period of time.