India is a fascinating country, full of geographic wonders, rich history, unique cultural experiences, delicious food and adventures of all kinds, both good and bad. Almost daily someone asks me if I am enjoying my stay in India, and the truth is, sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. It depends on the day really. There is one thing for certain, if you are coming to India to work, be prepared for some serious culture shock! Here are 15 things I wish I had known before coming here.
1. Workplace Culture: Indian people are taught to respect their “seniors”. Authority figures have tremendous power in India and their subordinates rarely question them. They typically do as they are told, no more and no less. As a result, don’t expect your Indian coworkers or staff to speak up, give you great ideas or put in a lot of extra effort. On the flip side, they are a very social and hard working group of people and once you win their loyalty and respect they will work even harder for you.
2. Tardiness: When we held our project kick off meeting everyone was late and we started an hour after it was scheduled. I was horribly offended but soon learned that they mean no disrespect. The traffic in India is atrocious (see number 3 below) and the simplest things (herd of cows in the road) can have a ripple effect that causes huge delays. The buses and trains are also often late for a number of reasons too which in turns causes their commuters to be late. In fact, I’ve yet to have a single interviewee show up on time for an interview. It’s just their culture. If nothing else, India will teach you patience.
3. Traffic sucks: When I say sucks…I mean SUCKS! Give yourself plenty of time to go anywhere. Traffic in India reminds me of a video game. There are so many obstacles that drivers are constantly on the defense. There will be everything from cows to wild dogs, potholes, rogue donkeys, tractors, wrong way drivers and police checks. They have no concept of staying in their own lane and fill up even the shoulder areas. As a result even ambulances get stuck in traffic for hours.
4. Learn the Language: Yes, most people in India speak some English, but it is mostly the educated people. The working class (maids, drivers, etc.) rarely know English. Take the effort to learn some basic phrases in Hindi, such as please, thank you and hello. This will earn you bonus points and will come in very handy. Hindi is a beautiful language and really not that difficult to learn.
5. Money: India is a cash based culture. It is often difficult to get a receipt. Carry small notes because you will find that most people don’t have change for anything larger than 100 rupees. Also, they won’t take torn or damaged notes so handle your money carefully and if someone tries to hand you a damaged note don’t take it, hand it back! At any given time only about 50% of the ATMs are in service or have cash, so plan accordingly. When you find an ATM that works and accepts your card, get out a good deal of cash because you don’t know when you might find another one that works properly. Foreign cards are often not accepted, except by major hotel chains and big retailers. Also, they always charge foreigners more! It’s not just because they expect you can afford it. Many times it is actually policy. Personally it pisses me off, but it’s just the way it is. If you have a guide or driver, have them buy big ticket items for you.
6. Office Hours: The standard working hours are usually from 10:00 to 7:00 and many places work on Saturdays too. Indians are typically night owls, but bars close early (like 12:30 AM). Most shops don’t open until at least 10:00 or 11:00. Often Tuesday is the day that retailers are closed.
7. Phones: There are very few land lines but almost everyone has a cell phone. Your cell phone from another country will most likely not work in India and if it does it will cost you an extraordinary amount to use it. Most Indians use prepaid services and you can get an Indian sim card for cheap and slip it into your current smart phone. If you are going to be in India longer than a month you should get one, but the process is a hassle. You will need a letter from your hotel for residency, 3 passport photos, your passport and visa, a “sponsor” with their contact number and some other things. It will probably take you 1 to 2 hours, but trust me, you will need it. Also, they don’t have voicemail, so if your phone rings, answer it!
8. Bathrooms: In India they call them washrooms because bathrooms are used for bathing. There are very few public restrooms and if you are lucky enough to find one you won’t want to use it. They are typically filthy beyond belief and most of their toilets are a squat style (unless the place caters to westerners). Men in India urinate in public all the time so just get used to it. Ladies have to suffer. I use a Go-Girl for emergencies. It is a device that let’s a woman stand up and pee without taking her pants down. I strongly suggest you carry handy-wipes or your own toilet paper as Indians don’t use it. Their toilets have shower type nozzles next to them that they use for cleaning. There will also not be hot water or any towels for drying your hands.
9. Dust: India is very hot and dusty. The only place I have needed a coat or sweater is high up in the Himalaya Mountains. Unless you are going there don’t even pack one. If you need one you can buy one for cheap. What I didn’t realize is how dusty it is. Maybe it is because of their unimproved roads, I’m not sure, but my eyes are always dry and my nose crusty. I use a netipot every day and even that doesn’t help all that much. My hair and skin is also constantly dry. Many women (and sometimes men) cover their face with a cloth, especially during the commute. I suggest bringing eye drops, your favorite moisturizer and good hair products.
10. Interaction Between Men and Woman: Indian men love western fair skinned women. If you fit this category, be prepared to be stared at a lot! They often believe that western women are more promiscuous than Indian women and will be relentless in their pursuits. Be very careful about giving an Indian man your contact information. They will think you are sexually interested in them. The same thing goes for extended conversation, eye contact and even smiling. They will probably interpret it as flirtation. They can be very aggressive and persuasive, so ladies just be cautious please. Remember that they are a very conservative culture where over 80% of their marriages are still arranged. They just don’t have the same level of dating experience and opposite sex interaction that westerners do.
11. Rolling Blackouts: Everyday there are regular blackouts. Typically they only last for about 10 seconds, but sometimes they can last for hours or days. Wi-fi is often very unreliable as well. So if you have an important meeting be prepared for possible interruptions and have a backup plan.
12. Stomach Problems: Be prepared for some intestinal issues and bring over the counter medication. Bottled water is regularly available but they reuse their bottles and sometimes they aren’t even cleaned properly. Fresh fruits and vegetables may not be clean either. Indian food, although delicious, is very heavy and greasy, which doesn’t help. Food workers use their bare hands in preparing food and dairy and meat is often sold way past it’s expiration date, so use caution.
13. Time Zone Differences: Obviously I knew there was a 12.5 hour time difference between India and the west coast of America, but I didn’t really understand how that would effect me. Besides the obvious jet lag and initial time change adjustment, it also means that your workers in other countries are working when you are not. Inevitably, that means very late or early meetings and often having to wait a full day to get a response to an important question. It also means that I wake up to a full inbox when I was caught up the night before! Also, it is harder to connect with friends and family back home, so be patient and plan accordingly.
14. Valuables and Security: Protect your valuables at all times. I’ve had the strangest things vanish from my hotel room; shoes; a favorite blouse, a pair of earrings I know I left on the night stand. I recommend you use the safe in your hotel room. If you get an apartment, there are typically locks on all the wardrobe closets and even on the refrigerator. If it locks, use it! Ladies, use a shoulder bag that goes over your head and keep your purse closed. If you use a backpack, be careful that someone doesn’t unzip it from behind. It is usually a good idea in crowded areas to move it to your chest. Also, be prepared for security checks/scans at most public entries into hotels, major shopping areas and sometimes even office buildings.
15. Your Passport: I absolutely hate carrying my passport around with me for fear that it will get lost or stolen, but in India it’s necessary. You will have to show it to check into any hotel or to go on any sort of tour or excursion. Sometimes you even need it for big purchases. Also, copy machines are often in the back room and they normally need a photocopy, so be prepared for them to disappear with your passport for a short while. The first time that happened I was very anxious about it because I had heard nightmare stories of passports getting stolen and tourists being stranded, but it India it is just a common every day occurrence.
I hope you don’t allow this list to discourage you from going to India as an expat. My time in India has been life changing and one of the best experiences of my life, but it’s been far from easy. Everything worthwhile in life is often challenging. India is no exception!