Jennifer Hillman-Magnuson was raising her 5 kids in Nashville, where they lived a comfortable existence in a large house, and her days were filled with car-pooling and kids’ activities. She was worried that her kids were getting spoiled by excess, so when her husband’s company offered them the chance to move for India for just under a year, she leaped at it. The result is Peanut Butter and Naan, a book of travel essays that manages to be both laugh-out-loud funny and heart-warming at the same time.
Jennifer’s kids ranged in age from teens to toddlers, and their life in Chennai plunges all of them into the colourful chaos of life in a crowded, hot Indian city. Jennifer finds a good friend in their landlady, a well-off woman named Shemain, and she helps introduce the family to local culture, including a trip to the Taj Mahal that she and Jennifer take together. Henry, the toddler, learns to speak Hindi better than English, and spends his time with the cook in the kitchen. The older girls aren’t quite prepared for real Indian yoga, as opposed to that practiced at the Nashville YMCA, and the chapter on that had me laughing out loud. When the family’s driver takes them to a small local orphanage near his home, Jennifer is afraid of how her kids will react, but instead the entire family gets involved, and a one-time visit turns into weekly outings.
Although they are in India for less than a year, the experience changes the family at their very core, so that when they return to suburban American life they are changed. Aside: I can relate to this. We lived in North Africa for 9 years, and we’re still not entirely American in spite of our passports. Read more about our experiences there in my post at 5 Minutes for Mom, Confessions of an Ex-Pat Mother.
Peanut Butter and Naan chronicles it all, from the joyous to the difficult, from shock at levels of hygiene or crowdedness, to recognition of the importance of family ties and dignity. I love that she packed cases of peanut butter for their year overseas, not recognizing how much they’d come to love the local cuisine. I love that on their return, she brought bracelets made by the orphans, which she sold to raise money for them.
The writing style is humourous, self-deprecating, and fast-paced, which all combine for a very enjoyable read. At the same time, living overseas is helping the author question and re-examine certain things Americans take for granted, and she’s not afraid to be real with her readers. I really enjoyed it, and I highly recommend it, even if you’re the sort of person who likes armchair travel only.
If you like this kind of book, please check out the other ex-pat memoir recommendations I made in my post at 5 Minutes for Mom.