How not be crushed by India

1:22 PM

bangalore sunset
India! Incredible India…the land of contrast, and contradictions. A country that will both amaze and frustrate its visitors! And while the very idea of being puzzled and confused can be exciting when you are a tourist (the siren call of the exotic factor), it becomes a very different ball game when you actually have to live there.
I have blogged about it many times, culture shock is real, it hits everybody giving a try at expatdom, and while some get it worse than others, nobody is spared. You have to let that phase pass, and work your way out of it, but long after the culture shock wears out you will still find yourself having your “expat moments” and that is normal. Leaving in India I call these the “India moments”, but they happen to anybody not living in their home country and in any host country.

The challenges one face living in India are different than those of an expat in another country, and they also vary on your degree of adaptability, a person that is highly germophobe will have a very though time with the dirt and sanitation level in India, while others will find it to be a minor things to adjust to (I belong to the non-germophobe lot).

I decided to put a non exhaustive list of tips and tricks to cope with daily life in India and stay relatively unflustered :

1) Don’t sweat the small stuff. That one apply to just about anybody anywhere, we should all thrive to simplify our lives, but when you are living in the clutch of culture shock, it makes even more sense to point it out.
India won’t kill you, yes the dynamic is different, people work at a different pace, you have to bear with the unavoidable IST (Indian Stretchable Time), yes the hygiene level differs too, things will never always really work just the same as back home…but you aren’t back home, so while you can control certain things, you can’t control it all, and you should not let that lack of control run you over, else you’ll be a perfect candidate for a total burnout.

2) Throw the Lonely Planet Guide away…it’s a very good book for tourists, not so much for relocating expats. India is not just about bright sarees, majestic temples, bazaar, street food and…cough cough poverty…while we are at it, don’t watch Slumdog Millionaire thinking it will prepare you for India…because it won’t. Instead start finding expat resources online before you move, there are several good blogs out there, and city specific Facebook group and website…yes you will find out that people in India do dine in nice restaurant and shop in malls and supermarket too!

3) D-E-L-E-G-A-T-E. I can’t stress this one enough, India is stressful, things like keeping your household will take several hours of your day, if not the entire day. I had many people finding the fact I have a maid coming 2 hours a day funny, if not pretentious. I also know some people who tried doing it all without a maid or any help. If you come from Europe and US you probably have been fed since childhood that one has to be self-sufficient and that there is pride in doing everything yourself. That attitude works back home…not in India. You may not need a full time maid and a driver (some do, but it’s not for everybody and certainly not for me), you will find that having help to do the basics will salvage some of your sanity. Even if most maids tend to create a little drama, trust me, it still saves you time. Know your limits, and know that nobody is asking you to prove yourself, and that hiring help will not make you look like a snob in India, middle class Indians all have a hired help support, some more than others, but nobody can pull it all off in a day.

4) Compromise. Once you delegate, you can expect a certain level of professionalism from your staff, but will need to compromise on certain things, they will not necessarily understand your cleaning habits, you can try drilling them on certain things, but in the end if there is one thing you are super particular about and see they just don’t grasp it, do it yourself, or let it slide. At the end of the day, what does matter the most? You being nervous breakdown free or the whiteness of the bathroom tile? You can’t have it all, picking your battles is a wise choice anywhere.

5) Control the thing you can personally control. In a word you can’t control India, don’t try…ever. But you can control how things are running in your home. You want punctuality from your hired help…demand it. I had to put my foot seriously down on that one a few months ago, to the point of scaring my maid, she has since then been punctual on the dot ever since. You can’t control the power cuts, but you can have a back up plan ready should you be caught in an unforeseen one. Not everything will keep on schedule, or run smoothly, so make room for the unexpected knowing it could totally happen anytime. Power off at home for the whole day? No biggie, head out to the mall to beat the heat…that laundry and baking can wait another day…really.

6) Find your groove. Get organized in a way that suits you and you alone. For example, I like to plan meals ahead of time, and even if I need to remain flexible due to all the unforeseen things that can hit me in India, it works for me. As a newcomer to India, you might easily find yourself thinking that one need to go buy vegetables to the market daily…you know because that’s how “everybody” is doing it. And if it works for you great, it doesn’t for everybody, many only shop once a week and end up going to the local store to buy emergency supplies, and it’s totally fine too, even though some Aunties will try to tell you otherwise, let them be, they aren’t the expert on how one should live their lives, and you should not let their opinion weight more just because they are Indian and you aren’t.

7) You don’t need to prove your worth. One of the thing that you will find the most taxing in India is how certain people will like to stereotype you, most of the time in a negative way: foreigners are dirty, foreigners only eat junk food, foreigners can’t keep a household, foreigners have rotten family values….You are likely to hear them all at one point or another. But you know what? India isn’t perfect either, even though some people will try to make you believe it. Don’t try to prove your Indian worth quotient, you aren’t Indian, and a vast majority of people in the country doesn’t even expect you to be, and doesn’t even really care what you can cook or can’t cook. No need to stress yourself trying to show off your parenting skills as exemplary to a crowd that started by saying you could not be a good parent, proving them wrong will only irritate them more and push them to find more flaws…don’t go there if you want your sanity to remain.

8) There is no such thing as the REAL India experience…forget it. It doesn’t exist. Because if it did that means there is an actual “fake India” out there, the very notion is insulting. There are just different realities for different people, you aren’t a sell out if you have money and a good life, you just become a sinister moron if you use your status to treat others like garbage. Those who prefer watching movies in an AC multiplex and eat popcorn are no less Indian than those going in an old independent theatre eating bel-puri. So as a foreigner don’t feel you have to keep it “authentic” and only visit bazaars, eat Indian food, dress in ethnic wear at all time. Those who will criticise you for your lifestyle are in all likehood those who wished they had said lifestyle. Don’t let these get to you.

All this to say that being an expat and being called a foreigner is not a bad thing, because that’s who you are in the end, and sensible people will respect you for yourself. You can’t ask of India to change to accommodate you, and you don’t have to change entirely to be part of it, but you need to go with her flow. India is changing, at its own pace, follow the current stirring yourself smartly in it, don’t try to swim against it.

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  1. apple5:17 PM

    There is also something else you missed out. Since most of the expats started living in India after marriage, the relationship with inlaws is is also a big factor in forming an overall opinion about India. Having a culture shock and starting off on a wrong foot with the in laws must be quiet troublesome. This I guess, is the most crucial factor in an interracial relationship. Since even Indians DILs have this problem, I can only imagine the plight of a foreign DIL.

  2. I left the marriage part out on purpose not to make it too situation specific, there are expats that come in India without being married to Indian citizens too. And they go through culture shock just the same. I also know more ladies who aren't living with in-laws, but yeah living with in-laws is a massive adjustment and I have many Indian friends who say they could never do the joint family thing themselves :)

  3. Beatrix7:42 PM

    My last trip to my native US was a real eye opener in remembering what USED to be important to me when I lived in California.
    Like- is the bedding 'coordinated' with the drapes, flooring etc, do all my appliances in the kitchen match, etc- basically "Does my house look like a picture in a magazine?"
    One of my girlfriends had just bought a house & was just stressed to no end buying all the coordinated 'crap' she needed.
    Up here at the Himalayan Hovel everything's a mismatch! I'm lucky if I find 2 pillowcases the same color! Let's not even talk about the hideous vomit pink the landlord painted all the walls in the hovel, pairing it with green marble baseboards & atrocious carpeting sporting blood red daises on an electric blue background.
    My American friends & family think I sit on my butt while the maid does all the cleaning daily.
    It takes around 3 hours getting the house 'ready' for the maid to come. Add in another hour for me to get lunch tiffin on the way by 11 AM.
    Like you said there are certain things most Indian maids don''t understand - one huge problem is the maid continually trying to clean the wooden furniture with soap & water or window cleaner & a newspaper. It doesn't matter how many times I've shown her how to use the feather duster, furniture polish, & a cloth rag. Another example: I can't trust her to do laundry ( she doesn't sort colors or types of fabric or choose an appropriate cleaning product).
    So I spend 3 hrs doing the things she can't do, or setting up projects so she can do them, (i.e. She doesn't understand how to take the shelves out of the fridge to clean them, so I end up taking the fridge apart & putting it back together).
    I would also be embarrassed for most of my US friends to see how slovenly my house is- even after 5 hrs of cleaning everyday. The ubiquitous Indian dust is 5 times as bad living by a dirt road in the mountains. Everything is 'grubby' no matter what you do.
    I've also never lived with so many other creatures in my house- the omnipresent cockroaches, lizards, millipedes etc,. Occasionally we had ants & spiders in California - but nothing like this!
    Another thing my American friends & family don't understand is I can't just go to the store and buy anything I need here in Nepal. It's an 'iffy' proposition. If I need a phillips screwdriver or a bag of cat chow- there might be a store that has it or maybe not. And just because the store had phillips screwdrivers or cat chow last week, well that doesn't mean they'll ever have it again.
    So definitely, delegate, compromise and don't sweat the small stuff!

  4. Oh yes I had that same kind of revelation in 2008 when I went back to Switzerland for 2 months. It was in the midst of the Euro-footboall cup hosted by both Austria and Switzerland too, back then all stores wanted to gear you up for the biggest soccer event Switzerland ever had, apparently every grocery items had to be soccer-ized, suddenly your barbecue essentials were not good enough anymore, there was soccer party supplies everywhere, a list of all the thing you truely "need" for your soccer Summer. And all the magazines I read were about throwing the perfect garden brunch with time consuming fancy dishes, crazy decorations...I was never much for that in the past, but reading it after several years of living in India made me feel really uncomfy, because I never realised how they really want you to believe you need to spend 3 hours on food prep before a Brunch with family and friends, and throw the weekend bash of the century, when in India we used to informaly hang out on our terrace in the evening int he company of munchies, beer and then when hungry just say "ok let's order take out for a local restaurant".
    Being a decorator I have a certain sense of aestetic, but because I don't like fuss, I keep it simple. The idea of having a magazine perfect home never really appealed to me, nor does the need to have coordinated appliances, but I know people back home who do just that.
    And glad my maid is not the only one that think wood furniture need to be dusted with kitchen cleaner and a heavily soaked up rag (dirty rag at that). I had to seriously put my foot down on that one and tell her to just DUST as in DRY dusting after one day she tried to tackle a patch of dirt on my wooden dining table with a kitchen knife! Stopped her just in time and told her to leave the dirty spots to me.

  5. Alexandra Madhavan9:23 PM

    Excellent post! Agree with everything you said. Very thorough. Especially #7 and #8 I can relate.

  6. Number 7 strike a chord with me too, because having been in India for nearly 10 years now, you can imagine I had a period when I tried to prove I belonged :)

  7. Marriage and the resultant adjustments I guess adds another layer to the otherwise 'uncomfortable' introduction to India. BTW, what do you like about India.

  8. Even if I complain about the heat here in mumbai I like the climate in India much better than in Switzerland, the fact that daylight hours are pretty much constant across the year also helps, I was a "Seasonal Affective Disorder" (aka SAD) sufferer in Europe, a disorder that is quite common, you can google it to know more.
    I like the food a lot. And in many way, the chaos as well, being in a less rigid environement (Swiss love their laws whcih is good but sometimes a bit too much), les rigidity means more creativity, and I like having options and possibilities even if I might not really seize them all.
    What I don't like is the tendency to double standards and hypocrisy that is far more in the open in India than back in Switzerland.


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