Life as an Expat in India

Posted On: February 27, 2015

India, Where Anything, Everything and Nothing Can Disrupt Your Plans.
By: Jennifer Kumar
Originally published in 2015. 

Village girls in a remote village in Tamil Nadu giggled at us and passed comments on how weak we city girls were as my classmate and I together carried one bucket of water back to our rural camp. Compare this to the three buckets carried by any one girl in the same village, and you will quickly understand why the girls thought we were indeed weak.

It was at this moment, I realized that the culture shock of this village in remote Tamil Nadu was not only an experience I was alone having as the only foreigner in my class, but also my fellow Indian classmates who had never left India before.

Social Work in Chennai, India
Field work was part of our social work degree in Chennai, India.

Fast forward many years ahead, again living in India, but in an urban environment, and I realize how much about India still makes me feel weak, like a baby building up my strength everyday, remaking my life.

Expats all around the globe can probably relate to this feeling. Once upon a time in a land more familiar, possibly our hometown, we were at ease. At the most basic, we could talk to others in a language easier on the ear and the tongue. But, in our adopted land or lands, even the most basic requirements, sometimes even after years in the adopted land, still are not so easy, and help is always required to understand and even undertake basic, everyday interactions.

While this can be problematic, frustrating, and sometimes debilitating, it is also refreshing to realize that a human can pick up, try to start over, day after day like in the movie 51st Dates, and keep learning with new eyes and a fresh mind everyday. Is it easy? No, it’s down right exhausting. Sometimes, you just wanna give up and go back to something more familiar or easy or automatic. While, at the same time true expats find it impossible to do this. Once back in the ‘easy comfort zone’, that same person will get restless and wanderlust will set back in very fast. Is this something that I regret or would want to change? No, not in the least. For all the frustrations and insane, hair-pulling moments where I feel I have lost my mind, there are many more moments that I wouldn’t trade for anything… Well, I take that back, I would take it back for one thing, seeing my family in the US more often. It’s the other important and heart-wrenching trade-off expats world-wide for centuries have made, the pull of the life less traveled or for better opportunities, but those experiences come at the price of being away from near and dear.

In my case, I am not a traditional expat. I am not totally separated from all my near and dear as I am an American married to an Indian who grew up in India and is originally from the city we currently live in in India. I do have family in India, as well. This added element gives me insight into the culture that an expat who is not married into the culture doesn’t have.

A typical day in the life is hard to identify. Though we have a routine, routines are so out of place in India. Anything, everything and nothing can disrupt your otherwise well-intentioned plans. This may not make sense to most people, but if you have moved to India or as an NRI, moved back to Îndia, after living abroad for many years, I am sure you understand the sentiment I am trying to convey! That being said, let me try to describe a somewhat ordinary day in the life of an American expat in India.
Morning tea in India
Upon waking around 7ish, I go straight to brush my teeth. Many Indian families I interact[ed] with have a strict policy of no eating, drinking, talking or even breathing on someone without brushing your teeth first. No one likes morning breath, and it also ruins the taste of the first drink of the day, water or tea! After brushing, we head straight for the kitchen to make a cup of chai. No, I don’t boil tea leaves anymore. I am a bit lazy for that. We make tea bag tea, and because we don’t like to boil the milk that comes in small packets, nor do we like the taste or texture of it, we use milk powder for our tea, which we do have the Indian way, with milk and sugar. Along with the tea, we have biscuits or other types of snacks that accompany morning tea.

As we do have English television channels, we rise to watching old episodes of The Simpsons, Big Bang Theory, House or White Collar. Though my husband is Indian and is fluent in Hindi and Malayalam, he also prefers American television shows, so I am not familiar with the current television shows or even movies for that matter. We simply don’t have enough patience to sit through the three hour Indian musical-dramas. Though that is the case currently, I personally do have a fondness for older Tamil movies. Afterall, I did study in Chennai and which self-respecting college students don’t go for a movie here and there? Thanks to my classmates in Chennai, I became a Tamil movie buff of that time period. If you ask me about more current movies, sorry… don’t have a clue!

After this, we lounge around or do some work. Owning my own business means I am working almost twenty-four by seven. And, in India, where the boundaries of personal and professional life are blurred, I often get calls at all kinds of weird hours, and not always during “typical” business hours. In fact, I am not really sure what those hours are anymore!

Being that my husband works from about two to ten pm, if I have a relaxed working day, we will eat a brunch then go into the office about one or two pm. However, as my work often keeps me busy, the alternative for me is to go to the client site anytime between 8am and 7pm to deliver instructor led cross-cultural awareness sessions. Hopefully some of the lessons I have learned in being an expat in India help the Indians in my sessions to prepare them for bridging the culture gap from India or going to the US and being thrown right into the mix!

Evenings from about six or six thirty, we have tea again if we are home, and that is followed by dinner really late- anytime between 8 and 10pm. I am saying it’s really late as compared to American meal times. Americans typically eat lunch at 12, where as in India, we now eat lunch at 1 or 1:30. Americans typically eat dinner by 6-6:30, but in India this just is not possible for us due to our crazy work schedules, so we end up finding time between 8-10pm. Most Indians eat their dinner between 9 and 10pm I believe.

While all of the above still sounds pretty ordinary and nothing noteworthy, there are plenty of small daily things that keep us on our toes. Once, long back, I asked an Indian friend in the US what was the biggest difference she saw between the US and India, and she responded, “In India there is always someone or something to bother you.”

I heard this response some fifteen years ago, and only understand it now after living in India for a second time! In India, anyone or anything can unexpectedly throw you off course. Flexibility is paramount, in such a different way than it is in the US. Examples of a few things that can throw us off can range from mere irritations to major setbacks that prevent us from “basic needs” like clean, running water in our home (which was never an ongoing problem, but did happen once in a while, as noted below).

Because most places in Indian metros are very dusty, typically, when returning from vacations, we know at the least, dust will pile up on the floors. When walking on the floor with bare feet, footprints appear. As the climate is very humid, many things we own have been damaged by mold. Because of this, we leave the windows open twenty-four by seven as the homes are not weather proofed or climate controlled. The only thing we did have to do was bear the expense of installing metal nets installed on the windows.

If it is not the dust, other unique things happen. For instance, one fine day, we were getting ready to bathe, only to find our water tank was totally empty. We ran from pillar to post and finally found out that we could call a water truck to deliver the water. We never knew that! When the tanker came, some 6-8 hours later, we found out that another reason the tank was empty is that the pump had a switch in the house that was accidentally turned off by one of the guests! This was in our initial days of living in the house, and we did not know how to turn on or off the pump! We felt like total idiots. But, as we already paid for the water tanker, we added the leftover water (most of the tank) to our neighbors tank who also had a problem with their tank and needed water. This was the start of many minor and major incidents of hours or days without water, or without clean water. There were several days at one stretch we had completely muddy water enter all of our taps because the tank cleaning was not done properly.

Malayalam newspaper on my desk at work in India

Being without water is a more than a minor irritation. We also have had many sporadic power cuts. These are unplanned, though the paper ‘announces them’ they never or rarely happen as they predict in the paper. At least, not in our area. And, these outages are usually reported in the Malayalam paper, which neither my husband or I can read fluently. Of course, yes, we do have an inverter and UPS which kicks in when the power goes out. But, now they have aged to a great extent and again the power goes out, and the battery back up fails. I have learned ways to continue doing things even if the power goes out. In the US, when the power goes out we stop everything. We become motionless. In India, I realized if I do this, I won’t ever accomplish anything. And, the world continues. The training program continues with discussions, even when all the lights are out. We can’t see each other, but we know the other is there, so the conversation continues! But, back in the home, you can see a train of UPS backups, they are like a string of train cars… a back up for the back up for the back up and even then… it’s not fool proof. That’s the thing, in India, nothing is fool proof, or certainly it’s not defined the same way as it is in the US.

The cat that got rescued from our car's engine!

Then, there was the time we heard a weird howling noise from the engine of our car while driving. It was coming from the passenger side of the engine. We had no idea what it could be. When we pulled over the first time, it stopped. Then when we started driving again, it became louder. The second time we pulled over, we opened the trunk.. something was stuck in the engine. A man who owned a shop near by saw us looking into our engine and came to help us. He wrangled his hand inside the engine and pulled out a kitty-cat! Only in India, could I sent a text to my friend that said, “We just pulled a cat out of our engine, that’s why we will be late meeting you for breakfast!” Possibly this could happen outside of India, too, but the entire string of events to me appears uniquely Indian. Or, I prefer to romanticize it that way!

And, last but never not least is the highlight of my working life. Those days I go in, and like all others I introduce myself to the crowd in typical Indian fashion taking about 15 minutes discussing my long relationship with India from my college days to my married life and professional life….. and if I just back up to the part where I mention, “I am married to an Indian and have settled in India…” this is the part where in many sessions I get a range of feedback from shock to smiles, to a twinkle in the eye, and the most memorable of all, a standing ovation!

There are many other such interesting situations, but I will allow you to imagine them up in your mind. While these stories would be fascinating, curious or exotic to my family or friends in the US, who desperately want to see my exploits written in a book, they test our patience and creativity in a variety of situations. And, yes, even when I remember these stories, and now see them in writing, they do seem strangely disconnected from what a ‘real life’ would have been if I never moved to India. However, now, no matter how strange these stories seem to anyone, they are now just an ordinary part of my everyday life. But, as I am an expat, a foreigner, an alien in an adopted world, these experiences do make me wonder will I ever find this normal? If I ever do find this normal have I adjusted? If I adjust, will I still see my adopted land with fascination and interest, or will it seem just as ordinary as the place I once called ordinary, the USA?

Jennifer Kumar utilizes her experience of living, working and studying between the US and India to help those in the IT industry; such as software developers, engineers, team leads, delivery managers and others working with Americans build better working relationships from offshore or as an international assignee onshore at the client site. Learn more by clicking the links or contacting us today. 


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