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How to be an Expatriate in India

Street scene in India.
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. Most of the population still calls Mumbai Bombay, as Kolkata is still Calcutta to those not in the know. For better or worse, we are trying to refer to the city as Bangaluru. However, regardless of name, the place is still the massive, heaving metropolis it has been for a 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. Our driver, Das, a young man, shyly hides behind a large, bushy mustache and neatly pressed clothes. His English skills do not stretch far beyond "Hello Madam." Regardless, he keeps a phrasebook in the glove compartment, and its well-worn state leads us to believe we will communicate more easily. 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 one side of us; a massive, lopsided, overcrowded bus pushed forward 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, camels walked through the traffic. In five minutes in India, you will encounter every stereotype you would have heard of before you arrived and then discover new sights you could not 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 good reason why India is the "litmus test" for travelers. If you can survive it here, you can survive anywhere.

However, this should not deter 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. The city seemingly reinvents itself every few weeks, with more and more "foreigner friendly" places springing up. Today, you can find every cuisine under the sun in restaurants throughout the city. Tourists are slowly realizing 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, 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 a 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 will appear 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 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 without a place for us, so we are immediately elevated to celebrity status. Invitations to dine at the homes of work colleagues and household staff and attend a relentless stream of weddings flow endlessly. One should not be surprised when strangers approach you in the street and ask to have their picture taken with you. For example, my night-time visit to Mysore Palace resulted in an hour spent posing for photographs. At the same time, 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 suddenly hits the brakes to avoid a pothole and apologizes before finally turning onto our street. We are suddenly away from most of the main road's noise, hassle, and rubbish. 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 from what most expatriates seek out.

Plenty of neat and new gated housing areas spring up on the city's outskirts, 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 those who wish to hide away entirely from what can become, at times, a frustrating place to live.

But we have chosen an apartment in central and 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.

Many 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 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 must observe them; they tend to sneak into homes and steal food.

Luckily for us, there is nothing to eat in the apartment. We will walk down to the market soon. Unlike most expatriates and higher caste Indians, we do not have a maid or a cook for our household, which is a decision we are pleased to have made. It is a personal choice, and many foreign residents are happy to have a local there to shop 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. We are now as much a fixture of the market one block away as any stallholders.

Our phone rings and a Japanese friend reminds 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 came from overseas or could claim to have lived overseas for a sufficient period. The association has grown to include men whose partners moved to India for work in a changing world.

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

For some inexplicable reason, it is surprisingly easy to call India home.

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