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Returning to Chaos

How to be an Expatriate in India

India street scene
India can be daunting for the newcomer.

Arrival and Culture Shock

We struggle down the airport ramp and into the sensory overload of India. Even though we are returning from vacation rather than arriving for the first time, it is still a shock. But then this land never fails to surprise.

Of all the major business hubs of this vast country, we have found ourselves relocating to Bangaluru, the city formerly known as Bangalore. If precedent is worth anything, this recent name change will not be straightforward. Mumbai is still referred to as Bombay by the majority of the population, as Kolkata is still Calcutta to those not in the know. For better or for worse we are trying to refer to the city as Bangaluru, but regardless of name the place is still the massive, heaving metropolis it has been for a very long time.

Through the heaving mass of people straining at the ramp’s barriers one man is waving to us and rushing to help get our luggage into a car. It’s our driver, a young man by the name of Das who shyly hides behind a large bushy moustache and neatly-pressed clothes. His English skills do not stretch far beyond, “Hello Madam,” but he keeps a phrasebook in the glove compartment and its well-worn state leads us to believe that we will communicate more easily in the future. English is the unofficial language of India, used to bridge gaps between speakers of the many languages spoken across the land.

We weave our way through the heavy and eclectic traffic. A horse and cart driven by a young boy plods along on one side of us; a massive, lopsided and overcrowded bus pushed forwards on the other. A sea of motorbikes and autorickshaws try their best to get ahead of the rest of us in a haze of black exhaust, while a sacred cow dozing in the middle of the road brings everything to a complete halt a little further ahead. The last time we came down this road there were camels walking through the traffic. In five minutes in India you will encounter each and every stereotype you will have heard of before you arrived, and then discover new sights you could not possibly have imagined.

Though favored by the British during the days of the Empire for its more forgiving climate, and known to this day as a “Garden City,” this is still a metropolis with all of the problems of other parts of India: poverty, pollution, and overpopulation. There is a very good reason why India is held up as the “litmus test” for travelers: if you can survive it here, you can survive anywhere.

However, this should not be a deterrent for any of the many, many foreign workers who find themselves posted to this part of the world. Bangaluru has for a very long time been home to a large and active expatriate community, and the city is one that seemingly reinvents itself every few weeks, with more and more “foreigner friendly” places springing up out of the blue. It seems today every cuisine under the sun is represented in restaurants throughout the city, and tourists are slowly starting to realize the temples and markets here are as good as any in Delhi or Mumbai.

The local markets in India
The local markets.

Life as an Expatriate in India

We pass by the home of an Australian family as we leave the airport road. They, too, have gone away for the holiday season, but we will catch up when they return. Like many of our friends here, we met them at an international social gathering. Reluctant as most are to involve themselves in expatriate organizations when a whole new and exciting cultural adventure looms, it is something nobody should overlook when making the move overseas. No matter how ready you may feel to be in an entirely new place, homesickness hits everybody at some point. No other country—regardless of how similar it may seem on the outside—is the same as home. And for the Westerner, India is going to seem very different from home, inside and out.

Drivers of vehicles that pull up alongside us in the traffic jam do double-takes at the sight of us in the back seat. There is no way for an expatriate not to stand out in India. In a land heaving with well over a billion people, there is nothing like a head of blond hair and alarmingly white skin to bring a crowded street to a standstill.

The country still runs strongly on an age-old caste system in which there is no place for us, and so we are immediately elevated to celebrity status. Invitations to dine at the homes of work colleagues and household staff, as well as to attend a relentless stream of weddings, flow in endlessly. One should not be surprised when strangers approach you in the street and ask to have their picture taken with you. My night-time visit to Mysore Palace, for example, resulted in an hour spent posing for photographs while all of the Indian tourists lined up for a chance to meet the blond woman instead of looking at the bright lights of one of the world’s most magnificent palaces.

Sometimes this attention is good, sometimes bad. Sexual harassment (or Eve-teasing, as you will no doubt hear the locals refer to it) and sexual assault are major problems in India. Hands and elbows straying to cop a feel of me when I walk down a street are not uncommon.

Das hits the brakes suddenly to avoid a pothole and apologizes to us before finally turning onto our street. We are cut off from most of the noise, hassle and rubbish of the main road. With a park at one end, a large churchyard in the middle, and leafy low-rise apartment complexes lining either side, our choice of home in India is a little different to what most expatriates seek out.

There are plenty neat and new gated housing areas springing up on the outskirts of the city, where houses come multi-storeyed with neat lawns and safe play areas, and where the domestic staff appears to outnumber residents. Such places are ideal for expatriates who have children in tow, and also for those who wish to hide away entirely from what can become a frustrating place to live in.

But we have chosen an apartment in central and apparently upscale Richmond Town, from which we can drive down the road to great shopping and dining whenever we like, and where India is there to experience when we want to—and easy enough to hide away from when we need a break. Our Indian neighbors have embraced us wholeheartedly, and we always seem to be heading out to dine or party with people in our area.

Invitations to homes in India
Invitations to locals' homes are common.

At Home in India

Our guard opens the gate for us, and after he stops the car, Das insists on taking all of our bags to our door. We open up all the windows and then step out onto the balcony to check on the progress of the new church garden. A few monkeys run across the wall a few floors down. We will have to keep an eye on them; they have a tendency to sneak into homes and steal food.

Luckily for us there is nothing to eat in the apartment, and so we will be walking down to the market soon. Unlike most expatriates and higher caste Indians, we do not have a maid or a cook for our household, and this is a decision we are very happy to have made. It is a personal choice, and many foreign residents are happy to have a local there to do the shopping and take care of everything around the house. However—with a streak of confidence we found within ourselves—we have taken the opportunity to explore the many food stores around our area, and are now as much a fixture of the market one block away as any of the stallholders.

Our phone rings and it is a Japanese friend reminding me about an international women’s coffee morning. In Bangaluru the Overseas Women’s Club was originally for Americans only, before expanding to include any woman who either came from overseas or could claim to have lived overseas for a sufficient period of time. In a changing world, the association has grown to include men whose partners moved to India for work.

I accept the invitation and my mind turns to what time to ask Das to be there in the morning. The shock of returning to this unconventional place is already starting to wear off.

It is—for some inexplicable reason—surprisingly easy to call India home.

For More Information

www.owcbangalore.org — The Overseas Women’s Club that organizes many social gatherings; from regular coffee mornings to Valentine’s Day balls.

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