Work and volunteer in India

Expat in India: things I wish I knew before moving to India

India is one of the top 10 economies in the world. Its fast development, startup wave of the 2010s and growing middle class brought many international eyes to this market – from VCs to corporate giants, from startups to independent professionals looking to enhance their resume.

If you landed on this blog, chances are, I don’t need to sell you India expat experience. On whatever decision-making stage you are now, I’d like to share with you a piece of advice from being an expat in India. Here are some things I wish I knew before moving to India.

Cost of living in India as an expat

As a person from a developing country, that has lower salaries than in India, I wish I put more work and research in preparing for this experience. Living in a big city like Delhi or Mumbai isn’t as cheap as many would expect.

Overall, I would say you need to plan somewhere between 300 USD (~18000 INR) a month on a low budget side in small cities up to 1k USD (~60k INR) per month if you plan to live in A type cities with expensive accommodation, rich social life.

As a non-party person, I found you can stay quite comfortably on a budget in Delhi for 600 USD/month, in Navi Mumbai (which is quite some time away from happening Mumbai) for 500 USD/month, 400 USD/month in Kolkata.

Where these numbers come from: renting a room might cost anywhere between 100-300 USD/month on average depending on the city/district/state. There is also a one-time expense for furniture and amenities (think of taking care of gas, stove, water filter and other stuff you need in a flat).

Working 6 days a week leaves only Sunday for fun activities – so not that much of outing expense overall.

Food can be managed within 150 USD/month if you are a vegetarian with a tendency to cook at home sometimes. For a non-vegetarian, I would reserve 200-250 USD month.

Note I’m taking average costs. It is quite possible to spend 6k (~80 USD) per month on food (been there, done that) as well as eating daily in the restaurants and spend 400+ USD monthly.

I was commuting mainly by public transport, so my expense was roughly 1000 INR (~18 USD/month) in Delhi. If you are running for an office job offer, you might get a car with a driver.

Hey, if you are planning to travel around India (which will be a bit more expensive than living in a place), I’ve written a detailed breakdown of what money can buy you in India.

Night Delhi

Delhi CP view in the evening

Eating in India as an expat

When you are traveling in India, trying every day a new type of dosa/paratha and a gravy feels exciting. Talking about long-term – unless you are habitual to eating chilies as an independent vegetable, you might discover eventually some varieties of gastric issues. (I still recommend trying achaar though. In small quantities 😉

If you eat outside mostly, you might get an impression that local food is quite oily and spicy (and it is!). Nevertheless, if you try home-made food or cooking, India is a great place for a healthy diet! There are plenty of fresh fruits and veggies all year around.

Due to my awesome Indian friends who hosted me many times and numerous host families where I stayed during traveling, I had a chance to share with you an insider look into an Indian kitchen and interesting cooking habits.

If you are not into cooking, you can always ask neighbors, they might share the contacts of a cook around working in a few flats. Cook can really help you to be a bit healthier and respect your diet.

Read also: Food in India from a perspective of a foreigner

Renting a flat in India as an expat

Finding a good place is more challenging than it sounds. I can’t stress enough the importance to look for accommodation in advance. If you have an extra budget, I recommend taking help from a qualified agent. You will discover options in good districts tailored to your needs.

Alternatively, connect to Indians for advice. For big cities, there is a network of Facebook groups “Flat & Flatmates”. They exist in several cities of India and in some places they even have subgroups for areas: e.g. Flat & Flatmates South Delhi, East Delhi, etc. Even in posh areas you can get nice and budget accommodation.

Read also: Accommodation in India

Hauz Khas Delhi

Hauz Khas – one of the popular areas in Delhi for the outing, sports and parties. It is trendy, but it feels different to come here with Indians to photograph birds or play guitar… As if it becomes a different Hauz Khas when you live in the city…

Working in India as an expat – Understand the specs of work culture in India

India has a hierarchical society, where status often matters more than the personality. I think the main reason is a high competition in each area of life. Take education, for example. Imagine if a person gets any less than 98 % on exams, he or she will not get admission to certain Universities.

In some industries, there are thousands of people competing for one place. In many situations, it doesn’t really matter whether a person got his title in an honest way or by leveraging connections, in both cases, it was a tough journey to get there. People expect importance, authority, and respect for their status.

Read also: 10 lessons learned in India that changed my life for better

The Sir culture in India

One of the things I found interesting and controversial is hierarchical distance and at the same time family environment in the office. Though this post is about India, you will find many of the mentioned features in other Asian countries.

For instance, not everyone is equal in the company. As a rule, your Boss is not a person you address by friendly “First Name”, invite to a party and share a few jokes.

Any effort of being simple might be offensive. Part of my job description was to meet big market players and act important and suspicious. As my boss told me, if I am overly friendly and approachable, people will not take me seriously.

Though there are some differences between team relations in India in startups and big corporations, people address their seniors as Sir/Ma’am. Same works for elders in the team who are senior to others by age.

Beyond keeping the distance, you DO NOT want to challenge your seniors (even if you know you are 100% right) before you understand how things work in your office. For me, accepting the status of importance was the hardest.

No matter how “westernized” is your future boss, business partner or company, India functions totally different than the West.

It took me more than a year to understand what is happening around and more importantly why. If you come from the western culture, just pay attention to the way people behave and make decisions. It is not better or worse than you might have been used to, it is just different. As hard as it might be, try not to compare.

Read also: What to wear in India to feel comfortable and socially accepted?

Deadlines in India or the absence of them

Chandni Chowk Delhi

Chandni Chowk Market. It’s way after 9 p.m. but shops are still working, people move around carrying goods and trying their best to cater to the customers.

Be ready to expand your definition of deadlines and be flexible about the outcomes. In India, things happen, however at their own pace. Final arrangements can be canceled at the last moment, papers can be delayed for weeks or even months.

In most cases, things will not depend on you, so you don’t need to stress yourself about the outcomes.  There are many more local specifics to consider before coming, thus, I would advise to prepare yourself to Indian work culture in advance.

Consider job offers in India that have 2 days off

Most companies in India have 6 days a week working schedule. You might think of compromising with it for the sake of experience, though I wouldn’t advise you to do so.

In reality, many people don’t have a stable work schedule, from 9.00 to 18.00 for example. Normally work starts at 9 – 10 a.m. and it can finish late evening when all the tasks are done.

People in India do work a lot (50-60hrs/week), however, you might find them sometimes not efficient. Since there is no strict border between personal and professional areas in India, office colleagues of smaller companies treat each other as a family. They mostly spend their lives in the office.

People can order some snacks to the workplace and chat with each other for an hour or so. They know they will not leave home till the work is done. Many people seem fine to convert their free time into working time and vice versa.

Overall, one day off might not be enough for you. Moreover, as an expat, you would be interested to discover the cultural and touristic part of the country, because India has so much to offer just in every state. To sum up, you need time to explore.

Read also: Why I recommend Chandigarh for long-term travelers in India?

Learn the basics of the state language where you move

Small steps to understand local culture and language will open up people from a different side, some of the people you meet will become life-time friends)

Consider picking up the basics of the spoken language depending on the state where you are planning to live. While it’s true that you can get around India speaking just English, you might be missing out on many cultural insights and opportunities to connect just with anyone.

People talk among them in local language like anywhere else in the world. If you go into local markets and streets, village tourism, you will find many people who don’t speak English. They will put 100% effort into understanding you and helping you out, but your experience will be way smoother and culturally interesting with a handful of common phrases.

Talking about the office environment, it might get challenging to connect everything happening around. Sometimes, people will discuss your project between themselves in their language. They don’t mean anything bad, plus, you might not even be involved in the conversation so they could switch to English.

As a result, you might end up connecting the puzzles to understand the big picture. Beyond the ease of experience, many local people will appreciate your effort to try to understand their culture and language.

Nowadays, there are so many resources and apps to help you learn a foreign language and get a basic understanding of the daily conversation.

Find a stay in India in a happening area of the city

Expat in India pin

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The district, where you live, can significantly improve your quality of life in India. Parts of the city, where travelers and expats stay tend to be more developed and habitual to foreigners.

Though I strongly advise you to connect and befriend local people, there will be many situations where Indians will not understand you, since you come from a different background and reality.

Being surrounded by expats you will have a chance to share and learn from each other experience. Moreover, you might get new opportunities, social life, networking events you haven’t thought about. India is a country of opportunities if you stay in the right place.

During my first year in Delhi, I had no idea how much a living area can impact my experience. I’ve chosen to stay in a more local area of the city since it was closer to the office.

I have to admit I’ve met some lifetime Indian friends who made my experience brighter despite all the troubles. At the same time I understand, if I stayed in a different area, I wouldn’t encounter most of these problems in the first place.

Get that FRRO registration if you are coming for a long term stay

If you are planning to stay more than 180 days in India, get your registration in FRRO. There comes a small benefit with it – possibility to visit tourist places and attractions for a local price.

Your main goal, however, is to escape all unnecessary bureaucracy and paperwork in the future. Registration is free and can be done within one day during the first two weeks after your arrival in India. I had a case when I was late with registration because things got delayed.

Since I was living outside the city, different rules applied to my stay. I still remember numerous queues in the heat and running through government offices and bank to collect required papers. Do everything possible to arrange for registration on time.

You can find the list of required documents on the official government website before arrival because in some cases you will have to be creative to arrange all necessary papers on time.

Don’t hurry up to “fix” India

India is crowded, diverse, chaotic, culturally fragile – but somehow they make it work

Many people come to volunteer in India with a spirit to change the world. India faces many problems on local as well as the national level and for sure, even an individual can contribute and make an impact. Though this help might be different than you expect.

During your stay in India, you will face many situations with social injustice and illogical outcomes. Don’t hurry up with the best practices from other countries to solve these problems. Just give yourself at least 6 months to get used to local reality.

The truth is, you can’t make India a “western” country. Moreover, there is no need to do so. India functions in its own way. From outside it looks like total chaos, however, there is a system which more than 1 billion people follow.

Just think about the numbers: India unites over 1 billion people from all major religions in the world, belonging to different social classes and casts and speaking over 1000 dialects. Do you think such a diverse society would survive if there was chaos?

There are many cultural, religious, social problems in India as anywhere in the world. India changes and develops at a rapid pace, however in its own style. You will start understanding and accepting it, once you stop creating a bubble of your local reality here.

Once you adapt to the way India works, you will be able to perform and bring maximum value here.

Hope these tips will be a good starting base for people looking to come to work, intern or volunteer in India. If you find it useful, drop me a comment or message.

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