May This Be the Best Year of Your Life: A Memoir by Sandra Bornstein

By Ekta R. Garg

January 30, 2013

Rated: Borrow it

When the latest United States recession causes a major change in one couple’s employment status, the wife gets an unexpected opportunity: to put her teaching skills to the test in a different country.  But when her husband suffers a life-threatening injury, it provides an unusual challenge: keep teaching or resign the teaching position and stay home in the States?  Sandra Bornstein shares these issues and more in her memoir May This Be the Best Year of Your Life, a memoir developed from blog posts, emails with friends, journal entries, and her own recollections about her experience.

Bornstein’s husband, Ira, finds his high-profile law career coming to a halt due to the recession, and husband and wife begin discussing their options.  Sandra and Ira’s oldest son, Josh, a venture capitalist in Bangalore, suggests expanding their reach: why not consider working for a company in India?  Despite their initial reservations, Sandra and Ira begin looking into the possibility of Ira joining an Indian company in some legal counsel capacity.  Sandra decides to explore teaching options and eventually secures a position with a private school that also functions as a boarding school in Bangalore; Ira, too, finds a job with a company based in the same city, and the two hold hands, take a deep breath, and travel from their home in Colorado to the southern part of the Indian subcontinent.

While the idea of moving to a country with a drastically different culture and language causes some hesitation and anxiety, Sandra and Ira don’t realize the full extent of their decision until they arrive in India and try to navigate daily life there.  Ira’s company doesn’t follow through on several of the promises made—such as allowing Sandra to visit the company’s campus or providing them with housing—and Sandra struggles to import Western teaching styles and protocol in a school with a vastly different method of operation.

On a vacation back to the States Ira suffers a life-threatening skiing injury and must undergo surgery and rehab to come back to a normal state of life, delaying his return to India.  Despite her intense desire to stay with Ira and help him through the rest of his rehab, Sandra has formed a bond with the students in her Indian classroom and decides to go back to Bangalore to continue teaching there.  After another teaching stint in India, Sandra ultimately decides to leave her class mid-term and come back to Denver to rejoin Ira.

As a child of Indian immigrants, I could sympathize with many of the author’s uncomfortable moments; having grown up here in the States, I’ve visited India many times throughout my life and have had many occasions to observe the physical and cultural differences of the two countries.  Life in India presents its residents with a unique set of challenges that one cannot understand until one lives there.  Unfortunately the author experiences so many challenges due to her own health issues and the additional challenge of trying to follow her Jewish faith in a foreign land that she misses the opportunity of understanding the subtleties of the Indian culture.

An example of this comes late in the book when the author celebrates the Jewish holiday of Chanukah and wears socks to school with Stars of David, dreidels, and menorahs on them.  One of the Indian teachers questions why Bornstein would wear religious symbols—indicators of one’s faith, of something holy—on her feet.  Bornstein shrugs off the teacher’s question and states in her narrative, “In order to understand her viewpoint, I tried looking through her Hindu eyes—the eyes of someone who worshipped idols and symbols.  Our respective traditions attributed different meanings to symbols.”

While the author’s observation could be considered partially correct, she grossly misunderstands the motivation for the question.  Readers familiar with Indian customs and cultures will realize the irony in Bornstein’s oversight.  She comments several times in the book on the substandard condition of the roads and pathways in India.  A combination of weather and an extreme amount of trash and poverty all contribute to filthy road conditions, causing a person’s feet to get incredibly dirty by the end of the day.

This leads most Indians to consider a person’s feet as unclean, and to touch one’s feet to anything good or sacred means equating those good things to the filth that a person’s feet will accumulate during the day.  Young people in India will touch an older person’s feet to show that compared to the older person’s wisdom and length of life, the younger person becomes equal to the dust on the older person’s feet.  When the teacher in Bornstein’s Indian school questioned the author’s decision to wear religious symbols on her feet, that teacher did so from the aforementioned cultural position—something the author fails to understand.  The question the teacher poses has less to do with the actual core issue of religion and becomes more of an interesting dichotomy in cultural observations.

Also, the time factor sometimes becomes somewhat clouded.  A drawn timeline would have offered readers a more clear-cut through line to the story and anchored the memoir so readers could know exactly what happened when.  And while for the most part the author writes in an engaging style, some sections come across as directly edited from her blog posts and emails and feel a little choppy.  Her passages would have benefited from closer editing for comprehension of the continuity of her journey.

Bornstein’s experiences may come across at times as slightly biased against the Indian way of life.  She commiserates often with other people who have migrated to India for short terms about the living conditions that fall far below those found in the Western world, but Bornstein doesn’t seem to engage with any of those native to India on what they feel about those conditions.  If she had done so she might have gained a deeper understanding of the way of life in India and just why people there tolerate those conditions.

However, anyone who has lived in a foreign country for a short period of time will most likely understand the challenges Bornstein faces.  May This Be the Best Year of Your Life can provide readers native to Western countries with an honest account of life in a foreign country.  For readers with a non-Western background, the book can offer those readers insights from a Western perspective of life in emerging countries.

***

What the ratings mean:

Bookmark it!–Read this book and then buy it and add it to to your own collection.  It’s definitely worth it!

Borrow it–Check this one out from the library; it’s a worthy read, but think twice before spending your hard-earned money on it.

Bypass it–Free time is precious.  Don’t spend it on this book!

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