Going to live and work in India - first time living out of U.S.
May 16, 2016 9:29 AM   Subscribe

I'm so excited to have the opportunity to live a personal dream - living and working in another part of the world. I'm going to Bangalore, India on business for several weeks and possibly months. I've never lived outside the U.S. before and I've never been to India. So I have a lot of questions.

The basics
What experiences should I be sure to have?
What should I NOT talk about with people I meet?
How would I hire a part-time personal assistant? Someone to help me haggle in markets, do business tasks like printing or research, and advise me when I'm not sure about culture and customs.

And a couple questions from ignorance...
I have shoes and a work bag made of cow leather? should I not bring those? What do Indian business men wear?
I'd like to bring hard-to-find treats to India (like snack-size m&ms). What would my new colleagues enjoy as an exotic treat from America?
Do people work out at gyms in India?
And, of course, how do I meet new friends?

And finally,
Any advice for keeping mental health while working too many hours in a new land?
What am I not asking?
posted by jander03 to Travel & Transportation around India (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Mod note: Couple comments removed; lets keep this more at the level of "based on my experiences in India" and not so much "I heard a thing about India".
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:30 AM on May 16, 2016 [5 favorites]

My work experience in India ended about 10 years ago, but here ya go:

Experiences: Get lost in Bangalore. There's a vibrant pub/club culture that I found entertaining. Restaurants vary from extremely upscale to greasy-spoon diner, and they were all excellent. Don't be afraid to order anything (except Pepsi masala, which is just Pepsi and spices shaken in, and the waiter later told me I'm the only person in the history of the place to order it). If you can travel to other places like Goa, Kerala, Mumbai, Delhi, or up north to a hill station like Shimla, do it. Bangalore is a good slice of India, but there's so much more to the country. Take in a local cricket match if there's one going on. I ran a 7k road race while I was there and it was BONKERS.

What should you not talk about with people you meet: I don't know. I found the whole concept of "love marriage vs arranged marriage" fascinating, and now that I look back it might have been a touchy subject, but everyone seemed happy to discuss it. I was curious about various religions and cultures (Sikhism, Islam, Hinduism) and nobody seemed like I was asking anything inappropriate. I think just come from a place of genuine humility and people will be cool with whatever topic you bring up.

Personal assistant: We had a guy, a fixer basically, and he was AWESOME. He would buy stuff for us while we were at work and have it ready in the car when he picked us up to take us back to the hotel. Things like Diet Coke, cigarettes, pre-paid calling cards, whatever. I don't remember how we found him, but if you can find someone like this, it was totally worth whatever we paid him. I know we paid him a lot more than the market rate, because when we left 6 months later, he told me he now has enough money to fully pay for college for his three kids. Awesome.

Leather: I don't think it's a big deal, but I'm not an Indian Hindu. Hopefully someone else will chime in.

99% of the Indian businessmen I worked with wore the same thing I wore in the office back home. Mostly business casual. Khakis, button down shirt (long or short sleeves), conservative shoes. Sometimes a tie. Sometimes a sport jacket. Some women wore more Western clothes, some wore more traditional Indian clothes like a salwar kameez or whatever. Occasionally I would work with someone who came into the office in a dhoti kurta or whatever. I bought a few of these and would wear them sometimes, but mostly our office culture was business casual.

Snacks: ZOMG THE WEIRDEST (to Americans) DORITOS FLAVORS ARE IN INDIA. So I would say "Oh hey guys, you like Cheetos and Doritos too? Check out SPICY NACHO FLAVOR or whatever. Indian snacks are the absolute best, or worst, depending on your palate. They're definitely not bland. I LOVED buying new snacks and trying them. Never boring. Nestle has a HUGE presence there, so all of their snacks and candy will be there, as will Nutella (and stuff like Nutella), but everything will taste slightly different. I definitely remember not finding a lot of dark chocolate. Everything was milk or hazelnut chocolate.

People absolutely work out in gyms. There was a gym not too far from our hotel (which also had a good gym) where my boss hired a personal trainer.

I met all of my friends either at the office or in pubs.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 10:45 AM on May 16, 2016 [3 favorites]

The Do's and Taboos books include sections on India.
posted by brujita at 10:47 AM on May 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh, I would also try to fill up weekends by making myself available to coworkers to just hang. So we would take in a movie (all seating is assigned seating, so check your ticket, don't just sit anywhere), or go try a new restaurant, or drive to the next town for a cousin's wedding, or over to their parents' place for dinner, or go hiking on some random trails, or check out this interesting temple a few hours away, or doing shots and playing playstation. Just whatever really, as long as I wasn't alone in my hotel watching TV (however, watching a game of kabaddi is pretty rad, especially before someone explains it to you).
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 10:57 AM on May 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Actual Indian here. Cow leather is fine, there's this weird disconnect where eating beef is OMG AWFUL but nobody gives leather a second look. That said, meat in India is (generally) terrible quality compared to what you get even in the US, so I would avoid it (Caveat: I started eating meat in France and am therefore spoiled.) Stick to chicken and fish, run like hell from anything claiming to be beef... it's usually buffalo.

Honestly, most common American candies are available in India, so I would try and stick to local treats if I were you. I know I would be much more interested in, say, NYC black and white cookies than generic M&Ms. Also, if you like specific brands of energy bar and such, take those along; most of what I found in India was VILE.

One thing I would recommend is... make sure you give yourself time to acclamatise. India can be a HUGE culture shock, especially for someone who's never been outside the US before. Relatedly, most Indians will happily talk about anything under the sun (expect all kinds of personal questions. Really, they don't mean any insult; we're just a nosy bunch.) Do NOT, however, be that asshole American who thinks that just because it's from the West it's better. That's just not going to end well.

And yes, people work out at gyms! Talwalkar's is the chain I used to go to when I lived there, and I really liked it; there's much more personal attention than you'll be used to in the West, and even personal training is MUCH cheaper.

spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints' suggestion above re: hanging with coworkers is excellent; Indians, in general, are a friendly bunch who love showing off our culture and/or dragging our friends along on escapades. Plus, it's always better to have someone along to explain WTF is going on.

If you can get your hands on it, I would recommend Edward Luce's In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India as a really good, really accessible primer to my sometimes batshit country. He's an excellent writer and one of the few exceptions to my 'books by white people about India are garbage,' rule, because for one thing, he's an actual journalist who's lived here a long time, not some hippie Eat Pray Love type on a quest for enlightenment.

Re: mental health, I would schedule regular breaks, and also phone calls and Skype calls home. Bring a stash of your favourite food and drink, maybe a couple of objects that remind you of home for when the loneliness hits.

Meds and stuff are much cheaper and easier to get in India, but take a small supply of your preferred OTC drugs of choice for all basic ailments. Not all pharmacists speak English and you don't want to be miming diarrhoea or whatever at three in the morning. Also, double check your vaccines. And DON'T drink the tap water - it's really not potable without being filtered. Aquaguard or bubbletop is what you want to check for in restaurants if you don't want to drink bottled water.

I've heard good things about the Culture Shock: India books, with the caveat that there's not really one Indian culture (I'm from the south and had much more culture shock in Delhi than I did in France or the US) so you might want to check for something more Bangalore-specific. Off the top of my head, Indian culture tends to be more hierarchical and definitely a bit more... divided along gender lines, for lack of a better word, but that's also very company-specific.

Also! Indian English can be a real hoot sometimes, so try and get familiar with it - there should be articles on the Internet to get you started. I'll never forget the look on my friend's face when I called a car boot a dickey... Oh, and speaking of cars. In India, unlike the US, road rules are treatef more like suggestions, to be followed at the whim of the driver. Also unlike the US, there is an actual functioning public transport system, and some of the newer buses even have signage in English, so you should take advantage.

... and I'll shut up now. Good luck, you'll have a great time!
posted by Tamanna at 11:47 AM on May 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

I worked with and in India (in Bangalore) for several years.

I think the question you're not asking is: how do work practices differ from the West?

The answer to the question you're not asking is: the West works pretty strictly to a "complete X tasks by time Y" culture, and this doesn't necessarily travel with you over the Pacific Ocean. I could write an entire essay on the myriad of ways this will mess with you and the impacts it will have on your work practice (and when I say "your", I do not mean that "your" way is necessarily correct - it's important to understand that "your" way is one of many different ways in international business, and yours is no more correct - it's just different (and this is a very easy thing to nod your head at - it's completely different in practice when you're bashing your head off the wall because your projects appear to be veering way off course and deadlines are in jeopardy)), but suffice it to say that it is very important that the folks you are working with fully understand your intentions, and getting feedback - e.g. having someone to confirm back to you that they will meet you at time X at place Y, or provide deliverable A in time-frame B - is a good start. It's not foolproof - there's no "answer" to how you manage this problem (which in itself is typically Western: see a problem, try to solve it) - it's just the best you can do.

On the flipside, what is more important in Indian business than task completion in a specific timeframe? Relationships/ connections/ family. Expect to be asked very forward questions about marital status and - if you don't have them already - why you're a 32 year old male without kids. Make time to have coffee/ lunch/ dinner with everyone you can, in particular senior folks (and accept all invitations to do so).

On another note, don't forget that India has a heavy British influence from the period of their rule, and the Brits *love* candy, so don't expect to be ahead of the curve when it comes to sugar (e.g. India has real Cadbury's chocolate, not the fake stuff made by Hershey's).

Finally, the thing that I think always surprises Westerners: when you go to a restaurant, don't expect them to have all of the things on the menu. It's kind of a metaphor for the expectations I described above w/r/t/ tasks and time: we expect that all the items on a menu are 100% percent available, and will arrive in a timely manner, whereas in India it's not only OK to not have items on the menu, but also your meal may take any amount of time to arrive (i.e. as an alternative to conceding that they don't have a menu item, the restaurant may well send someone out to get it, thereby taking ages for your order to arrive). Roll with it.

Oh yeah, and if you haven't done so already, watch some (contemporary) Bollywood movies. Shah Rukh Khan is essentially one of the world's biggest movie stars, and knowing who he is (and he's *everywhere* in India) is a good start. I'd recommend Veer-Zaara as a good introduction.

Feel free to mail me if you have other questions.
posted by 7 Minutes of Madness at 11:55 AM on May 16, 2016 [4 favorites]

I considered myself reasonably well travelled when I went to India the first time, but was so dead wrong! Calcutta gave me quite a case of culture shock, perhaps heightened because I was staying with my husband's family.
Seconding the fact that India is a country of many cultures, and so learning a few phrases both in Hindi and in whatever the native tongue is in Bangalore would be a lovely gesture. The people I met in Calcutta were quite taken when I busted out my (extremely minimal) Bengali.
That said, don't assume everyone in Bangalore is *of* Bangalore and speaks that language. There were non-Bengalis I met in Calcutta who've lived there for 40-50 years and still don't speak Bangla.
If you're a fan of meat, definitely try the lamb/mutton/goat before the beef when there's a choice. Even better if you can adapt yourself to a vegetarian lifestyle, which is very common there.
posted by dotparker at 1:42 PM on May 16, 2016

I've only been to Bangalore once, but it struck me as one of the least* Indian places I visited in my entire trip. The tech sector and rapid economic growth seemed to have given the city a distinctly progressive/modern outlook (especially when compared to somewhere like Chennai).

*even the least indian places will still give you quite the experience, i did not say this to imply that you wont have an interesting or authentic experience.

When i visited Bangalore i was staying with family, and had just come from a rather long stint eating very strictly vegetarian (no eggs even) diet. I was treated to some pretty solid bacon that first morning, which i had not seen outside of hotels anywhere else in India (apparently B-lore is somewhat famous for its pork). Maybe im misconstruing this example into a larger narrative of how unlike other parts of india i have visited the city was. All of my impression left me thinking you would be perfectly fine wearing leather around what felt like a very modern city.

One think that most Americans fail to consider about India is that it is far less monolithic than we might think from the outside. Just as there is no one "typical" american, Indians are divided into any number of groups based on religious, regional, linguistic groups and they love talking about it - my in-laws can literally sustain hours of conversation on nothing more than the observations on how various people are speaking or acting in ways that are stereotypical of some group to which they belong. Pointing out difference is not impolitic in a way you might be surprised by.

That said, i would marry this advice with the advice already offered about not assuming everyone (or even most people) you meet are native to Karnataka or Bangalore. One right provided for by the Indian constitution is free movement within the country - a force which has had extreme and undeniable impacts on all cities as large numbers of people are attracted to financial opportunities that take them a long way from home. (Bombay, for example, endured many years of fairly active violence as a direct result of tensions between native born folks and in-movers they saw as taking away opportunities). Definitely ask everyone you meet where they are from and how/why they came to be where they are - you'll hear some interesting stories.

Food is one of the primary ways i like to experience the world, and i can almost guarantee you will see several sides of indian food not well represented in the US (where almost all indian food is really representative of specifically Punjabi food from the north). I would also suggest you check out a chinese place while you are there - chinese indian food is its own universe and well worth a meal (ask a colleague where they go - they will have opinions, for sure).

Finally, indians definitely work out at gyms (ive been doing some research for a trip were taking soon and there is even a crossfit box in my mother-in-law's not particularly swanky suburban Delhi neighborhood).
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 2:05 PM on May 16, 2016 [3 favorites]

Indian here, who's lived in the US for the past 9 years.
1) As others have said, I think you'll find that Bangalore is a pretty cosmopolitan place. There are oodles of restaurants and pubs, and definitely many gyms.
2) There are very few things that are off limits for conversation in India. Political and religious discussions are generally fine, and quite common really, though you should obviously avoid directly insulting any religion.
3) India has a different approach to secularism to many other countries - rather than ignoring all religions, the state tries to recognize them all. You'll make friends quickly by remembering to wish others on their special days. Unlike in the US, say, it is not inappropriate to wish a Hindu Merry Christmas, for example.
4) US candy is not much of a novelty any more so I would avoid that and stick to special regional items as noted above.
5) Men will generally wear long or short-sleeved shirts and slacks. There is no expectation that you wear traditional Indian dress, and few Indian men wear it except on special occasions nowadays.
6) Indians are generally pretty food-obsessed, and even those who have not stepped into a kitchen in years are capable of endlessly debating the best place to get kebabs or the ideal recipe for fried potatoes.
7) Indians are much more heterogeneous than they appear from the outside. Realize too that your sample of Indians met so far is extremely skewed if you have not visited India before - generally higher caste, more educated, more likely to be vegetarian, speaking more English, more technical etc. You would do well to remember that if you have language challenges, so do many of the Indians you meet as there are 20 different Indian languages and more than 200 dialects. Indians not understanding each other is expected and accounted for. English and Hindi are the generally the lingua franca however.
posted by peacheater at 6:28 AM on May 17, 2016 [3 favorites]

American, who has visited India for work regularly over the last few years, including Bangalore. This doesn't answer your specific questions, but a few things that I don't see mentioned above and may be useful:

1. My Indian colleagues and business vendors seem to spend way more time on the phone then American professionals do. They'll send an email and then follow it up with a phone call immediately, which is not considered obtrusive. Get a local phone as soon as possible and be prepared to use it.
2. Transport is frequently challenging for me, depending on where I'm staying. It's great if there's a taxi stand nearby - I can grab a taxi and it's relatively cheap to have them wait for me while I do errands. Otherwise, I end up Ubering which can be stressful because they want to call me and have me give directions, which I can't do because I don't speak the language and I don't know where I am. (This has been mostly in Delhi - maybe Bangalore is different). Not to mention traffic. Hopefully, your colleagues can help you get comfortable and find a way that works for you.
3. Confirmed doesn't always mean confirmed. I hate to stereotype, but this happened to me and my Indian colleagues so many times. Be prepared for 'ready on Tuesday' to turn into 'come back tomorrow.' If it's really urgent, it seems to be acceptable to express unhappiness about this, which sometimes leads to 'ok, I'll have it for you tonight.'
3. Sometimes the newness and foreignness of India can overwhelm me. I try to stay somewhere that feels like a comfortable retreat, so I feel refreshed before I venture out again.

Caveat that this is just my personal observations over a three year period as a business visitor. I am sure that your co-workers will be able to help you out much more.
posted by oryelle at 9:19 AM on May 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

I went to Bangalore for work for 8 weeks about... wow, 4 years ago now. Jeez. Anyway, other people have covered a lot of important stuff, so I will just mention a few places that I enjoyed visiting on the weekends. My company has big enough operations in BLR that it employs drivers for associates visiting from the U.S., which is really a must in my opinion. You absolutely do not want to be trying to drive yourself around. I would think someone from your company or the company you are working for would be able to help you find a driver?

Anyway, here are the tourist highlights I remember:
1. Weekend trip to Mysore. Lots of stops along the way to visit smallish towns and various temples.
2. ISKCON temple. I'm not a Hare Krishna, but it didn't feel like that was a problem --- it's a very tourist-oriented place.
3. Lalbagh botanical gardens. I'm a big sucker for unfamiliar plants, so I don't know if this would be as interesting for everyone.
4. Bangalore Walks tour. So interesting! Might not be as good if you are going to be there when it's super hot --- we were there in late winter.
5. SPAR Hypermarket at Mantri Mall. I suppose this isn't a tourist destination per se, but I love visiting new and different grocery stores. (I even enjoy just going to a different grocery in my own city than the one I might usually go to, so I guess keep that in mind when considering this recommendation.) Also, the indoor mall is alive and well in India in a way that it hasn't been in the U.S. for a long time, which is an interesting throwback experience. Even if you're not into SPAR, the mall has a food court and a movie theater, both experiences recommended above.
posted by slenderloris at 4:56 PM on May 17, 2016

Oh, and on your question about treats --- by far the biggest hit from the selection we brought was chocolate-covered fruit, like this or this.
posted by slenderloris at 5:03 PM on May 17, 2016

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