When I worked for Dell, I did a lot of international work, and it was probably the most fun aspect of my work with them. I had hoped that an ex-pat assignment might open up, but alas at that time, they were few and far between. Having just spent the best part of a week living with friends on an ex-pat assignment, one can see that the realities of ex-pat life in India are perhaps more challenging than might be imagined. Perhaps it is no wonder that The Wall Street Journal listed India as the toughest ex-pat assignment country.
On the surface there are many things that sound nice about living as an ex-pat – having a large house in a modern gated community. Your own dedicated car and driver, domestic help, and cook.
But nothing is really easy here. For example, our friends have a vegetable washer – basically a power salad spinner connected to a water filtration system; an essential item here as every piece of fresh food has to be washed. Unfortunately theirs has a leak in the water hose. At home, if I had a problem like this, I’d just run over to Home Depot and get replacement parts, but there is no Home Depot and getting replacement parts would likely require special ordering and waiting some weeks to arrive, assuming it arrived at all. If you break your French coffee press, there is no Williams Sonoma down the street to go get another one, so you do without.
A lot of the independence and spontaneity we take for granted at home, being able to go where we want when we want with little or no planning is just not possible here. For starters, there is only one car and only the driver can drive it, although some ex-pats may make a short local drive, it really isn’t advisable. If an accident happens it doesn’t matter who was truly at fault, as the wealthier party you are going to come off the worst of it. Getting you, your spouse, and your children to where they need to go, when they need to be there, whilst simultaneously dealing with traffic that would make Los Angeles or New York driving seem like a dream, requires the scheduling skill of a small airline.
Domestic help sounds nice. Some may relish the idea of having a maid or two at your beck and call to do whatever needs doing. However, the reality is a bit different. For one thing, a big house is an arid location like Hyderabad needs constant cleaning. After just a day or two, if not swept, all the surfaces will have a fine layer of dirt on them and thus everything needs constant cleaning. Maids here are local and can at any time just decide to show up late, or not to show up, or just up and leave. When paid too much, empolyers often run into a problem where the maid can become bossy, or may decide that she doesn’t need to come in the next day since she earned more than enough yesterday. Paid too little, the maid will simply not show up at all. So dealing with staff is an ongoing issue. And the maids skill level is not guaranteed, – the Ventimiglias have had more than their fair share of clothes ruined, despite specific instructions on how they should be handled. For these reasons, smart ex pats may hire more than one maid to ensure that they have continuity of service and retain a balance of power.
Even grocery shopping is a challenge. At home if we are missing some ingredients, we can run out to any number of markets in just a few minutes. We get upset when we can’t get everything we want in one place. Here, if you are missing ingredients, you need to send someone (assuming the car is available) and if they have to go to a specialty store, it may take upwards of an hour for the round trip journey. If you are looking for familiar comfort foods, you have to be willing to pay the premium – for example, a box of American cereal locally could cost as much at $10 each.
Then there are the constant power outages. Although the community has its own generator, it takes about 30 seconds to kick in, so at least four times a day the power goes out, usually just for a brief period. Which means that if you have any sensitive electronics, you need to have them hooked up to UPSes.
Life here can be challenging not just for ex-pats. Phil shared with me that his company had hired a graduate of a business degree program who was a modern professional Indian woman. One of the problems she ran into was finding appropriate housing. As a single woman alone, no landlord would rent a property to her, so she needed to have a roommate. Given where the office is (in an older part of the city) vs. where most of the western companies have setup (in new areas further out), any roommate that she would likely find would want to live in a very different part of town, meaning that she would likely have up to a 1 hour commute each way.
All this is not to say that living in a foreign country doesn’t have its rewards. The exposure to different cultures and the unique opportunities that creates is invaluable. But it comes with a series of challenges (I am sure many more than I’ve detailed here) that one has to be able to overcome if you are going to retain your sanity.
Ready to move to India?