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Career,  India

Reflections on A Year Working in India

Living and working full time overseas headlined my life bucket list. Last May, I took the plunge and moved to Bombay for one year as part of a social impact leave of absence, which conveniently allowed me to keep my job in the US while taking a year to work at an Indian nonprofit. Despite having spent every summer in India growing up, and having completed many internships in Bangalore and Delhi, moving was nonetheless an adjustment.

Whether you’re considering moving abroad to India or another emerging economy, I hope my reflections help to smooth your adjustment curve and set realistic expectations! As trite as it sounds, my year in India profoundly altered my life trajectory, and I highly recommend living abroad to anyone considering it.

A disclaimer before I inadvertently offend someone: this article reflects a few of my own personal experiences, and in no way attempts to generalize a very, very large country.

Weather Matters

It’s humbling in the extreme to realize that regardless of age, we are affected by the most basic of factors: sleep, food, water, and weather! My attitude and happiness throughout the year maintained a terrifyingly high correlation to Mumbai’s weather. Through observation of the highly legible and professional-looking chart presented below, the keen scientist can deduce an inverse correlation between the temperature and my desire to live in India long-term.

One of my friends interned in Mumbai from March to August, and missed all of the city’s best weather! I, on the other hand, luckily braved the worst weather early into my year. I was then able to enjoy the best of the year’s weather for the rest of the year, and the searing summer heat returned just in time to usher me out the door to the United States.

It’s tough to completely control your timeline overseas, but factor in the weather if possible — it matters more than you think and completely alters the set of activities in which you can engage.

Buckle up (figuratively, of course — no one actually wears seatbelts in Mumbai).

Mumbai teems with people who will push you for no other reason than to test you. Auto rickshaw and car drivers press the accelerator and race towards you if they see that you are trying to cross the road. New acquaintances quickly attempt to categorize your status and level of ‘Indianness’ with rapid-fire questions about the building in which you live, your Bollywood and cricket IQ, your marital status, and your Hindi proficiency. Hawkers offer wildly unreasonable prices, and tailors ask to deliver orders late.

Stay calm and don’t take it personally. These tests of mettle help people quickly understand the person they’re dealing with in an environment of low public trust. Establish your boundaries and do what you need to preserve your sanity. Sometimes passing ‘the test’ requires walking away from tense situations, while at other times a demonstration of visible anger and/or power is required. You’ll learn through trial and error which technique works for which situation.

No one responds to emails.

Despite what perspective-warping management consulting led me to believe, the world isn’t comprised of people who respond to emails within 24 hours. Expect to spend significant time on people management and follow-ups. Email culture largely doesn’t exist in Indian nonprofit workplaces, so you’d be well served to follow up any email with a phone call. As an introvert, I used to dread answering the phone, but I soon embraced it as the superior means by which to get the job done.

Lines between the personal and professional blur.

Not in a creepy way! The micro example of this is that everyone shares lunch. When lunchtime rolls around, everyone heads to the cafeterias, unloads their multi-tiered tiffin, and offers their wares to the others. As members of a collectivist society, Indians demonstrate and expect incredible generosity. To not offer one’s food to others (for example, to eat a sandwich all by oneself without offering it to ten people first) is considered rude.

Bossess commonly invite their teammates home for dinner, or offer advice on personal issues. Colleagues openly share about their personal lives, and comment on each other’s  weight and physical appearance. The lack of separation between personal and professional initially disconcerts, but offers benefits as well. Roll with it.

Chill.

In Mumbai, people often run upwards of 30 minutes late to appointments, meetings, and dinners. Attributable to both the city’s unpredictable traffic and a culturally fluid sense of time, it drove me absolutely nuts. By learning to carry a book with me everywhere, I saved myself from getting angry every time someone arrived late to meet me, as I was able to fill the time I spent waiting ‘productively’ and not feel like my time was being disrespected.

If you react every time you hear a politically incorrect comment, or a peer at work calls you beta (translates as ‘child’) during a meeting, or you’re stuck for two hours in a monsoon traffic jam, you will never thrive, even if you manage to survive. Learn to focus on the positive, and try and develop coping techniques to help you maintain your sanity. You can’t change an entire society–and it’s arrogant to think you should even try–over the course of a year, so instead focus on yourself.

Mumbai. Where the excellence of the chai compensates for the tardiness of the friends.

You can live like a king.

While there are several downsides to living in India (pollution, traffic, heat, etc.), the country offers an equal or greater number of perks. Though private sessions with a yoga instructor who comes to your house sound like something only Giada de Laurentiis can afford, each session in Mumbai cost me less than a cocktail at a nice restaurant. Domestic help is also relatively inexpensive, and particularly helpful to working mothers and women to whom the chores and childcare might otherwise disproportionately fall. I didn’t touch my laundry or wash a dish or clean my house even once, and this experience was echoed across my peer group. I really, really did not miss scrubbing the toilet in the bathroom I shared with two girls in San Francisco, while paying over twice the amount in rent.

Mumbai bears the dubious honor of India’s most expensive city. Nonetheless, the cost of living, and the relative cost of specific goods and services, is much lower than in San Francisco. Once you understand which goods are relatively expensive, e.g., imported alcohol, and which are inexpensive, e.g., salon services, you’ll be able to access any number of goods that you could have never have afforded back home. Speaking of home…

It’ll soon feel like home.

Despite considering myself ‘location-agnostic’, I cried when I left Mumbai. It took a few months of adjustment, but I couldn’t be happier that I made the leap! I know I’ll be back.

My roommate’s cat Stella and I (almost) holding hands at home in Bandra. I miss her!
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