Posted on July 13, 2017 by Heather
Here are my 10 biggest learnings, to help you really make the most of life in India. Please note that this is subjective and based on my own personal experience – feel free to comment and add your own.
Even for long term expats, life in India can be challenging. The noise, the pollution (depending where you live), the crowds, the fast pace, can zap your energy and leave you feeling like a wrung out dishrag. The key to ensuring that this doesn’t all gradually wear you down and turn you into a frazzled, exhausted shell of yourself is to have your “coping mechanisms” in place. Simply put, these are ways you can temporarily escape the apparent insanity, and recharge the batteries. Whether you join a private members club, find an awesome spa for a weekly massage or even find a spot in a secluded park, you need to find somewhere where you can take yourself to de-stress. My Coaching sessions for Expats can help you find ways to cope and de-stress even further.
This is a really tricky one. As relatively well off expats, we stand out like a sore thumb. Not only that, but we tend to feel guilty about having people cook, clean and drive for us, as if we are somehow exploiting them (when actually we are providing them with employment). The trick is to be fair. You’ll be approached for money every day, and you’ll be spun endless sob stories. Some may be genuine, but many won’t be. It’s impossible to give to everyone, however well meaning you may be, and giving money isn’t always the right thing to do. I carry biscuits and sweets in my car for kids who beg on the streets, and I also go above and beyond in supporting the people who work in my home.
India is a complex country, and almost impossible for us foreigners to ever really understand, at a visceral level. However, we can at least try to dig beyond the surface, to understand what’s going on. My Cultural Adaptation Coaching can help you find “insights”, and manage appropriate responses. My own discoveries, over time, have made me a far better manager of people and teams in India. Over time, I have gained an understanding of the complexities of a society without the safety net of a social security or “benefits” system, where money and status are critical to differentiate you from others and where familial ties and expectations and even gender roles put pressure on co-workers. Understanding some of these dynamics, and how internal and external pressures drive people and behaviour, is critical for any Expat.
I absolutely love Mumbai, and adore living here, but even I find that unless I leave the city once every 3 months, I start to feel the telltale signs of stress. By leaving the city I don’t mean flying off for an expensive holiday every quarter (although that would certainly be nice!) but a trip to Goa which is only 45 minutes away by plane, a visit to another part of India, or even just a weekend chilling out at Madh island which is a short ferry ride from the area I live in in Mumbai. This really helps me wind down and again, it’s all about recharging the batteries.
We always have the choice to control our reactions in life. Though it can be difficult sometimes, I always find that my life in India is made easier when I choose to view it through a less critical lens. OK, things may be frustrating to those of us used to a more orderly approach, but if we look at life from a different perspective what can be frustrating can also be liberating. On the one hand, it may seem impossible to get anyone to commit to a timeline in India and stick to it. “Yes” often means “no chance” and no one really likes to plan things too carefully. On the other hand, the Indian concept of “jugaad” (a catch all word which embraces the ability to find innovative solutions to problems) may mean that what would be impossible to do in the West happens as if by magic in India.
This is one of the most significant things I’ve learned in my years in India. You can pretty much guarantee that there will be some kind of “crisis” in the workplace on a weekly or even daily basis. And by crisis, it’s usually something which is actually blown out of proportion. Adapting to the Indian work environment, and learning not to react to situations, is one area which Cultural Adaptation Coaching can really help with. The point is that India thrives on drama. It is a hugely expressive country – just watch a few Bollywood movies and you’ll see what I mean (as a Shah Rukh Khan fan, the classic Kal Ho Naa Ho is my all time favourite). Real life reactions to situations can be equally dramatic. Strip back the drama, wait a while, and things usually go back to normal.
You can enjoy many experiences in India which would seem like a luxury back home. Make the most of them. Many expats are lucky enough to have a car and driver. Being driven around is an absolute perk – sit back and enjoy the ride. Watch the sights and sounds of the city from the comfort of your air-conditioned car. Revel in the fact that you don’t need to worry about finding a parking space, or driving home from work when you’re dead tired. Indian cities are jam packed with beauty parlours which offer very competitively priced services. Get your self a manicure, pedicure, blow dry or massage. Enjoy being waited on hand and foot, and always tip generously. Oh, and there’s the sunshine of course!
There are those who come to India and immediately immerse themselves in the culture, learn the language, wear sarees and salwars and seek to be as “authentic” as possible. Others prefer to live in a gated community, surround themselves with other expats, refuse to learn a word of Hindi and eat only imported food items from the expensive supermarkets. Both are exhausting, and there is a happy medium. Indians love it when as a foreigner, you embrace their culture. I wear a saree for weddings and to the office on certain festival days, but I also generally feel more comfortable in my western clothing. I’ve learned enough Hindi to get by, but it’s exhausting trying to speak Hindi all the time, so I don’t. Many of my closest friends are Indian, I work with Indians, but I also have expat friends and belong to expat groups. It’s a happy balance.
There are many really useful groups which you can join, or be a part of. Most Indian cities have a good number of expats and foreigners, tourists and travellers, and you can hook into those networks. Expat groups are particularly useful for new arrivals, and can help set you up with a place to live, help at home, furniture as well as connecting you socially with a group of likeminded people. Networking is a huge thing in India, and it’s often who you know, not what you know. Take advantage of Indian hospitality and warmth, make those connections, and see you circle of influence expand rapidly!
These words of wisdom were given to me when I first arrived in India, 14 years ago, and have rung true ever since. As tempting as it may be, don’t try to change India. You need to adapt and be flexible, if you are to survive. Having said that, there are certain things which I refuse to stop doing – being on time for meetings, for example, though that is an uphill battle. Be open minded, find your coping mechanisms and support groups, perhaps even consider some Coaching sessions, understand the culture a little bit, embrace the madness, and you may well find that India will change you!
Alongside my work as a Coach for business leaders, I specialise in coaching expats to help them adjust to the challenges of living and working in Asia. Do contact me if you’d like to chat further.