Living in India is like going to the Opera for the first time: you’re either going to love it or hate it. But it would be more accurate to describe, from the viewpoint of a foreign national, the experience of being here as savouring a richly flavoured masala curry–having a perfect blend of mystery and spice–until you chance upon an unbelievably and unforgivably hot piece of chilly.
As anyone who has ever even considered moving overseas would know: many things need to be taken into account, like language, cultural and lifestyle differences and so on, before you can think about relocating. And cities in India, as possible destinations of choice, are no exceptions.
Thanks to the suburban industrial hubs in Gurgaon and Noida, Delhi over the years has become one of the most attractive places for foreign nationals who’ve made India their temporary home. The Japanese community, for instance, in and around Manesar, has continued to grow and flourish, bringing in their wake specialty stores, restaurants and cultural centres catering specifically to Japanese tastes.
Delhi, too, has attracted its fair share of foreign nationals in the last decade or so. While the roster of expats living in the NCR mainly comprises engineers and industrialists from Europe, America, China and Japan among other places, Delhi has continued to play host to more and more people of a creative or an academic bent.
Yet there’s no easy way of determining the exact number of expats residing in Delhi today. The Foreigner’s Regional Registration Office here is the place where all foreign nationals, who wish to stay in the country for a minimum of six months are required to het registered. But when Guardian 20 called the office, no concrete data was forthcoming. “Such questions,” an official said, “can only be answered through an RTI application.”
Still, one doesn’t need official corroboration to establish Delhi’s cosmopolitan credentials. Residential colonies in South Delhi, for example – like Jangpura, East of Kailash, Malviya Nagar and Vasant Kunj in particular – are increasingly catering to expats looking to rent apartments for the long haul.
27-year-old Karolina Dubiel, a Polish national, who now lives in Malviya Nagar, and works as a manager at a local backpackers’ hostel, has had mixed bag of experiences during her stay in Delhi. For starters, public transport and navigating around town has proved a challenge here. “Indian cities are tricky to navigate as a newcomer, and taxi and rickshaw drivers don’t help,” she says. “Many don’t speak English and, if they do, they often don’t have a clue where they’re going. Some also drive you around in circles on purpose if they are able to guess that you don’t know where you’re going, so that the rates often soar sky-high.”
For most expats, though, commuting isn’t the only challenge. Staying away from home brings problems of its own for everyone. Home-sickness and loneliness are among the more serious of the many psychological setbacks that an expat might suffer. There is no doubt that when you relocate to a foreign land, especially where a language different to your own is used, it can a little tough to acclimatise to the changed cultural environment.
Indeed, it is well documented that many expats will remain cooped up in their homes for many months after their initial move overseas, finding it difficult to socialise and mix with their new neighbours.
Dyhan Summers, an American national who runs a Delhi-based psychotherapy practice called Expat Counselling and Coaching Services (expatcounselingandcoaching.com), and offers video or personal counselling to foreigners here, says: “There is no simple solution to the problem of loneliness and for many people it will take some time to settle down. However, if you can push yourself to leave the house and mix with the local population then the issue of loneliness will become less prevalent in your mind.”
Larger cultural differences can also contribute to, and deteriorate, such psychological states. In the words of Alecia Kinder, a 45-year-old marketing executive, originally from Finland, who now lives in Mumbai, says: “The world is now a more relaxed and a more accommodating place than ever before, although this may not always seem the case if you read the attention-grabbing headlines in the press. Then there is the issue of law and order, an issue which very often brings into account various cultural problems and cultural friction. As for me, I have spent the last decade living in various Asian countries. And having spent over a year in India, I find this place the hospitable among them all.”
There is no doubt that employment is one of the major reasons why the vast majority of expats move to India today. Very often foreign nationals would move to Indian cities for larger pay packets which are complemented by a generally more affordable cost of living. But in truth, living in Indian cities these days can be as heavy on the wallet as in places like New York or Tokyo.
“It is worth remembering that there are so many aspects to consider before you relocate to India. You have to think of property, food, utilities, local taxes and other issues. The amount of money I’m saving in India is exactly what I was saving back home. The cost of living is high.”
When Dhruv Bosu moved to India from Dhaka, this is exactly what he realised. “It is worth remembering that there are so many aspects to consider when living here,” he says. “You have to think of property, food, utilities, local taxes and other issues. The amount of money I’m saving in India is exactly what I was saving back home. As the cost of living is way higher here then what it was in Dhaka.”
And if a high cost of living comes with a parallel expense of costly healthcare, as it often does, things can get seriously taxing for even those earning corporate salaries. Healthcare in India is an issue of abiding importance for the expat community here as the cost of private treatment continues to grow and the standards of public healthcare continue to fall.
“Those who are moving out of the UK are coming from a relatively strong position, with the NHS offering an array of free services, to a country (no matter where in the world) which is highly unlikely to even come close to matching the services offered by the N.H.S. You’ll probably suffer from regular stomach issues, especially in the monsoon, when germs are rife. So finding a doctor near you soon after you arrive is important, so you know whom to call if you run into trouble.” Says Dyhan Summers of Expat Counselling and Coaching Services.
Finding the right home in India takes time, money and effort. Major Indian cities all have very high-end gated communities where most expats live. These are very much an integral part of the country’s landscape as more and more Indians aspire to live in them, but there are just not representative of what authentic city life in India looks like. These enclaves are copied on the American gated suburban communities model, and have all the amenities for their tenants precluding the need to go outside entirely.
“There are clear advantages to living in these communities as they are often free from a lot of the hassles of living in the city. They have permanent power supply, a fully-equipped clubhouse, relative silence, danger-free roads, proximity to the international schools…and to other expats. Living in town usually doesn’t have all these advantages but it allows a family to experiment everyday life in an India city: making friends at the local park with your children’s friends’ parents, for instance; getting invited for biryani on Eid by your Muslim neighbours; attending sports/dance/yoga classes with people from your neighbourhood, and so on,” said Guillaume Gevrey an Organizational Development professional based in Bangalore, India, who’s originally from France.
But is it that easy for Foreign Nationals to find a place to stay in Indian cities? “Not at all,” says the Malviya-Nagar resident Karolina. “In the past three months that I have been in Delhi, I have had to move thrice. It’s either that the landlord all of a sudden realises that it is very risky to let a foreign national stay at their place, or that the neighbours have a problem with you smoking on the streets. Plus the process of authentication and verification for us is very long and tedious and, let’s not forget, expensive. An Indian needs to spend around Rs 500 for the verification process while the brokers ask for Rs 1,000 from us.”
So if you’re thinking of moving to India, remember that there’ll will enough be ups and downs. But “Incredible India” remains one of the most fascinating, most vibrant and indeed one of the craziest places to live in anywhere in the world. Every day here is fun, exciting and filled with adventure – sometimes good, sometimes bad, but mostly amazing. And to enjoy this adventure, you might have to endure a few hardships.