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What’s it really like………..

June 2, 2009

This is the most common question I have been getting since we came back to the U.S.

Describing India in contrast to the U.S. is nearly impossible. It is an amazing place – full of culture, history, and fascinating people. It is also so very different from everything I am used to. Some of those differences weren’t even clear to me until I returned home.

Some of the things that are so very different really have nothing to do with India – but encompass more the differences between living in a house and an apartment. My husband has always wanted to live in a city – rather than the suburbs. That is what we are doing. I don’t care for it. It is hard to be in a 3-bedroom flat when you are very used to a 3-level home with a yard and a drive way and friends all over the place. There were times I frankly felt a little claustrophobic.

Doing homework is hard when you have 3 kids and no where to go. Having friends over is hard when you just don’t have the room to entertain. The kids in India don’t really seem to be outside playing a lot. I am not sure why – but we just don’t see it that often.

Having staff sounds like a great gig if you can get it. But again – if you aren’t used to it – well, it is also a big adjustment. I don’t like explaining everything to other people when I am used to doing it myself. But I like going into the closet and pulling out an ironed shirt that I had nothing to do with getting cleaned – if only they would wash it and iron it somewhere else. Cooking and cleaning might be a little difficult to accomplish somewhere else – but that would be nice too.

We have two people who work in our house. And after some trial and (some very big) error, we have people that are a really good fit for us. But it is still someone in your house – your little house.  I calculated that our staff works for us for almost 80 hours a week. They work hard and they work almost the entire time they are there – really only rarely stopping for tea. So that is 80 hours of work I do not have to do. Yes, I am very thankful for that!

One thing my husband always says is that there are nice people everywhere. That is true. I have met some kind and generous people who I hope I will be friends with for the rest of my life. I have met some people who are more interesting than I will ever be. The expats who live in India are adventurous and smart people. They soak in the world.

I am writing delicately on this one – but parenting is different in India. And on this issue, I am talking mostly about expat parenting because that is what I have been exposed to. Some of the parents I have met depend on their staff a lot. Drivers drive kids to and from parties. Not everyone is that concerned with meeting the parents on the other end. Ayahs (babysitters) supervise play dates. This is all about comfort level and, again, if you are used to it, surely this is easier. But I cannot let go of my parenting long enough to enjoy this benefit of India. I like being the one to take my kids places and I want to meet the parents any where I might be dropping them off. I know this is all about balance and I am a little heavy on the side of caution. But it is who I am and I do not want to let India change that part of me.

And this is not the friends that I have surrounded myself with. I gravitate toward people who think more like me. I roll like that.

The expat children I have met are confident and outgoing. They all seem to find their niche and thrive in their own circles. They are comfortable talking with adults and don’t seem too affected by moving around the world. They are impressive in that regard. They will surely accomplish great things. On the down side, some of them are a little entitled. I mean, really, if you have a driver, a cook, a house cleaner, a gardener, and an ayah – yeah, you might feel a little more than special. But a lot of parents I have met work hard to keep their kids on an even keel.

I have written a lot about shopping. Haggling is fun. Very fun. But I do miss Target and Costco and the grocery store. It is just so convenient in the U.S. But I have gotten some very fun Indian items that I probably would never have found in the U.S. – even at World Market – and I negotiated good prices for them.

The best way I can think to describe  living in India is that it is like living in the U.S. about 30 or 40 years ago.

People do not have answering machines – well, I guess technically they have human answering machines. Everyone has a cell phone but nobody leaves messages. It’s all about texting. I stink at texting so it takes me a really long time to do it. I am usually about half-way thru my message when the person I am calling calls me back. Augh.

I am not used to electricity and water being sporadically available. Although we are really fortunate that we will have not been inconvenienced by the outages.

And I know many Indians are not thrilled with the portrayal of India in Slumdog Millionaire – but honestly – it is a dirty place. Pollution is abundant and it is dusty and in many places, very dirty. You see people working hard to sweep the streets and move the garbage – but there is just so much of it. There are lovely places that are not dirty – in fact, they are meticulously maintained. But there is a hazy sky almost everyday. It’s just not what I am used to.

Delhi is less organized than my little corner of the U.S. And India is less predictable. Which makes everyday interesting. You really, truly never know what you might see.

In some ways I feel we are living in a little bubble of expats. We really spend most of our time on the school campus. Most of our activities are there. We have not met that many Indian families. The Indian people we have met thru number one hubby’s work are delightful and kind. They are generous with their support and thoughtfulness. They certainly have made me more comfortable about living in India.

So – what’s it really like – it’s very different. I miss all my routines and friends  and family and conveniences. I am enjoying my new friends and experiences. It’s a mix – it’s a great adventure that really makes me homesick.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. June 4, 2009 1:22 pm


    I guess if you’ve grown up in the west, then the contradictions might be hard to relate to. A couple of friends of mine from Kenya just came back from Mumbai and loved it. The contradictions didn’t bother them and I think when I go it will be the same for me. I have seen those contradictions elsewhere.

  2. Arun permalink
    June 3, 2009 3:13 pm

    Ke: It is not without reason that India is called the land of contradictions (or paradoxes or contrasts—pick your favorite). Certainly, there are many things the might remind areason2write of the US 40 or 50 years ago. But, there are also all those modern conveniences you mention, including skating rinks, luxury cars, large grocery stores, international TV shows, and high-def TVs, even though there is not yet any high-def broadcast in India :). When I was in Delhi from December to April I made use of a government-run public sports facility that could match any similar one in the US and had an ISP that beat hands down my US ISP in reliability and service.

  3. June 3, 2009 12:42 pm

    Why do Indians still refer to people who work in their homes as “servants”? isnt’ that term out dated and not very politically correct? it bugs me because it conjures up negative perceptions of race and caste and all of those things.

    It’s funny you said that living in India reminds you of being in America 40 years ago. When I visit Kenya, I don’t get the feeling that I’m living in America circa 1950. Urban kenya, with money, is really the same as living in urban America (today) — you have the large grocery stores, american tv shows, American restaurants, even an ice skating rink! and I assumed that urban India would be the same way, but I guess not.

    It sounds like India might be a tougher place to live than even some African countries like Kenya or South Africa. I’ve heard from people who’ve lived in both and traveled to India and their assessment was that they’d rather live in a place like Kenya or South Africa because even though there is higher crime, both places are less polluted, less populated, have better weather and are cleaner.

    I will make my own assessment when I travel to India next year. Since I’ve already been to kenya and south africa.

  4. Rit permalink
    June 3, 2009 12:11 pm

    Buses in Delhi are chaotic and manic but are definitely getting better. Unparalleled convenience and cost-effectiveness is their USP. And now the Government is building on these strengths. They have recently introduced spacious, low-floor buses. Many routes now have air-conditioned low-floor buses with the fare ranging from 20 cents to around 50 cents.

    The problem of Delhi’s rickety and speeding buses will also be solved once the corporatisation plan (where bus routes are auctioned off in large chunks to bonafide transport companies) comes into place. One hopes that then buses in Delhi will have to maintain standards in quality and customer service.

    Delhi also needs many more buses to accommodate the nearly 14 million people that reside within the city limits! Like most mega-cities, it needs a multi-modal public transport system and, thankfully, the Government seems to be waking up to this fact with action being taken on constructing the metro, upgrading buses and experimenting with dedicated bus corridors, and also other plans such as Light Rail Transport etc.

  5. June 3, 2009 10:23 am

    Gorigadhaa – you could live without all of it – you’d probably even save some money – but life is much easier with it!

    M – it’s hard to explain all the differences – they are so big

    boston123 – I have not been to Haus Kaus yet – it is on my list to do as soon as I get back – and yes the buses are off limits for my kids too 😎

    Badass – why thank you – you make me sound so much better than I actually am. 😉

    Nancy – yin and yang indeed

    Tottmom – there is truly no place like home – I bet a lot of my Indian readers living in the U.S. feel the same way when they go back – and I agree, not too many of my friends in the U.S. even have a twice a month house cleaner.

    Sharmishtha – the sensory overload was really only bad once – at the zoo – I will try restructuring the time – the only problem is we really don’t have any where for them to go for the in between time – I do have a couple hours in the morning to myself and I TREASURE it

    Tushar – where is Amritsar? It will be interesting to see if Walmart is a success – Spencers is a mini version – but not really even close 😎

    Gorigadhaa – it will be interesting

    Sriram – welcome – Slumdog was a great movie from a creative writing standpoint and what you said makes sense – but I heard a lot of rumblings that people weren’t happy because it did not portray the “real” India. Cleaning up the dirt and pollution is a monumental task and it would take everyone pitching in – it would truly mean a change in everyone’s life style – people are working at it and even small dents will make a difference. They are eliminating plastic bags and encouraging everyone to use reusable shopping bags – changes like that can have a big impact.

    Lola – yeah, you would not heart delhi! 😎

    • June 3, 2009 10:54 am

      The question that still remains is what is the real India. If one tells its what is seen in Slumdog then I will have to only partially agree. Its one very vital part of India and one that needs to be changed. On the other end of the spectrum we have a very opulent and very flashy and very rich and financially secure India. The issue is that we see everything according to our perception. When one thinks of the US or UK the idea is of a better life. But the fact remains that many who emigrate have to work twice as hard to get that better life.

      I agree with you that many thought its not really India but the fact is all countries have their dark corners. The appearance of the dark corners depends on many factors such as economic development and population. Comparing a US and UK and India in terms of economic development and population is highly illogical because as the development and population, so the issues related to them.

      And I totally agree with you that it was a great creative writing feature because in reality the player in such a show can never be arrested for the reasons of a strict external audit which came about after the fixing of such game shows came to light in the US and I believe a movie too was made about a Congressional investigation into quiz shows. I think the government was just worried about their tax collections on the winnings :D.

      To answer your Wal-Mart shopping dreams it may take a while. They have taken a different format where you and I will not be able to shop yet. It will sell only to wholesalers and retailers with valid documentation of sales tax, VAT and such.

  6. June 3, 2009 8:05 am

    Well, I don’t think I could do it. I need space in my home and outside to stay sane. I’m incredibly claustrophobic when it comes to everyday living, and I always have been. I love to visit the city, but I’d have a tough time living there.

    We have cleaners come every other week, which is a big help, but I’m so glad when they leave and I can have my house back. A staff 80 hours a week? I’d run away!

  7. Sriram permalink
    June 2, 2009 9:44 pm

    To the writer of the post, I really don’t think Slumdog Millionaire has said anything wrong in many aspects but what seems to be a lot of Indian filmmakers grouse is that Boyle made a very Bollywood style movie and won Oscars for it. Considering that the most of the best film or best foreign film awards have gone to movies like Life is Beautiful, Crash or No Man’s Land, Boyle must be credited for having turned conventional wisdom on it head. Truth is most of the American blockbusters and money spinners will probably get technical Oscar awards but not a best film but Boyle was able to do both; make money and win an Oscar.

    As for India being dirty, a place that has such a huge population with most of them moving towards urban centers at a faster pace is bound to have massive problems. No amount of investment in helping ramp up civic utilities is going to help. As the investment takes effect the population movement has beaten the investment twice over. Add to this the slower urbanization and Delhi and Mumbai are supporting a population that is way beyond their existing capacity. It is a nightmare for people who have lived all their lives in these cities. Put together the Populations of Delhi and Mumbai beats the population of many European nations and if the numbers are to be believed then Australia has lesser people than Mumbai plus Delhi.

    Add to this the influx of people on a regular basis who stay for less than a week. All this adds to tremendous pressure on the city civic utilities and no amount of investment is really going to help.

  8. Tushar permalink
    June 2, 2009 4:59 pm

    @gorigadha….Walmart just opened their first Indian store at Amritsar 2 days back!…..Lets see if it revolutionizes Indian retailing or fizzles out like some other seemingly giant Indian retail giants like Subhiksha which closed shop a few months back.

    • gorigadhaa permalink
      June 2, 2009 5:58 pm

      Considering Wal-Mart makes it big here in the US with stuff made in China and India at slave wages, I doubt they’ll be able to make the profit they want without pricing themselves right out of the market.

      • Sriram permalink
        June 2, 2009 9:14 pm

        The cost differential is what makes buying in India and China and selling in US profitable. An Indian is not going to pay US prices for a stuff made right here at home when he can get that in any place other than a Wal-Mart or Costco or any American or European retailer. This is what is forcing organized retailer to fight a uphill task and the establishment cost is quite high and the sales is not supporting it as of now. Hopefully Wal-Mart will have the edge of learning from the experiences of the failed or slowed down retail venture and plans of others.

  9. Sharmishtha permalink
    June 2, 2009 4:58 pm

    That was a good summary of your experiences – good, bad, and just plain uncomfortable at times. I still miss the hustle and bustle although I know the sensory overload is too much, sometimes. And let’s face it, Delhi is not renowned for the gracious public manners of its inhabitants. As for litter and dirt, there is no place in India free of litter and garbage except perhaps the high Himalayas (although I’m sure trekkers and mountaineers are working hard to change that).

    The lack of privacy with servants constantly around can be an issue. The way some people work around it is to have all housework done between 7:00-10:30 AM and then the servants all leave the house. In some houses, they come back 5:00-7:00 to help with dinner prep, dishes, etc. In between, the house is all yours. As household help is a necessity in India, you might try to ration the amount of time you have people in the house, just so that you can have some privacy. Again, I doubt this is realistic for you, as expats are supposed to be helpless as babies without full time help so whether you like it or not, you will have a small regiment of people taking care of you.

  10. Tottsmom permalink
    June 2, 2009 1:01 pm

    ARTW, you have done a wonderful job of giving anyone looking into the prospect of moving to India a good idea of what to expect. You have highlighted areas that most people would overlook as trivial, but in my eyes are HUGE, ie. the toilet issues and toilet paper. I think it is great that you get to come home and see the differences you did not really notice at first. And that you are going back with a good idea of what to expect.

    As to M’s comment about white collar workers in the States having servants. It has been my experience that the most help someone will have is a maid, once or twice a MONTH, maybe once a week. And I do know a few that send A LOT of thier laundry to the cleaners rather than iron, but for the most part, unless you fall into a very high income bracket cooks and even part time maids are out of the question. I grew up in an upper upper middle class family, and we counted our selves (my sister and I did) VERY Very, lucky when Mom started having Mary come and clean the house every other week.

  11. Nancy permalink
    June 2, 2009 11:00 am

    The yin and the yang…

    Good for you for always trying to see both sides of the experience.

  12. June 2, 2009 10:15 am

    I have a lot of respect for you and your family. Adjusting to life in India would be hard for anyone, but you’ve made it appear (to me, at least) like a fun experience, rather than the stressful and anxious experience that I’m sure it was at first.

  13. boston123 permalink
    June 2, 2009 9:32 am


    Interesting Post !. I grew up in Delhi, and went to college in the Hauz Khas area, through 1979. A lot has changed( not always for the better).. for e.g. Hauz Khas and its surroundings were about the limits of Metro Delhi.. areas such as Vasant Kunj, Gurgaon were barely inhabited. There was far less dust and pollution, and cars ! I suspect the Rajasthan desert is slowly moving towards Delhi ! I recall most kids routinely walking over to small neighbourhood patches of green, to play outside , and taking the bus to go anyplace. The concept of getting chauffered was unknown.

    But we also evolve. I remember travelling on the footboards of overcrowded buses, to (high) school, but wouldn’t dream of letting my (America born) kids go anywhere near these buses. More importantly, I wouldn’t give up the clean air and water of the US, for anything in the world. I think with money you could probably buy most things in India, except air and water!

    Re. parenting.. I think parents in South India (and in South Indian households) tend to be more engaged in their kids lives.. at least mine were.. especially when it relates to academics. Not sure if this is because they have more time, or a cultural thing. Did you see the parents of the kids in the Spelling Bee last week? They give new meaning to ‘Helicopter Parenting’.

    You really should try and visit Kerala.. it is much greener, moist, and relatively ‘dust free’ . It is truly a different place… The poverty is not as much in your face, people seem to be calmer, more self assured, and the poor-rich gap is much narrower.

  14. June 2, 2009 8:52 am

    Good summary of the differences between India and the US….I think though that the difference in parentig style you comment upon is really a Delhi phenomenon. I have Indian friends, long-time Delhi residents who complain of the same thing, that the vast majority of parents don’t actually do any parenting, relying on ayahs to handle all of it. I know a small set of returnees-to-India who actively resist this kind of lifestyle, and are very involved in their childrens’ lives.

    IMO, the lifestyle of an American white-collar family is closest to that of an Indian white-collar family – I mean, people who work the same kind of jobs (say a project manager for example) — they probably have one or more part-time servants working for them, maybe even a part-time cook, but would essentially do much of the same day-to-day tasks themselves (OK, not ironing, not with istri-wallahs on every street corner, something I sorely miss in the US :-D)

    Not sure what the point of this ramble was 🙂


  15. gorigadhaa permalink
    June 2, 2009 8:39 am

    I don’t know if I could live without Costco. But Wal-Mart is taking over the planet, and if you can stomach them, sooner or later one will show up in India, I have no doubt. LOL

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