Margot Bigg Offers Advice on Living in India

1. What are some of the best reasons for relocating to India?

moon living abroad in india cover featuring a marketIt’s a fascinating place to live, and there’s always something interesting going on so you are never likely to feel bored! It’s also going through changes very rapidly, not only economically, but also socially. Privatization in India didn’t happen until the early 1990s, and middle-aged and older people there grew up with a single, state-run TV station, Indian-made products and services, and—with the exception of the fortunate classes who were able to travel abroad and attend elite schools—very little exposure to the outside world. The younger generations have grown up with one foot in the “old India” and another foot in a global India, and they are inadvertently leading a cultural shift of a magnitude not experienced in the West since the late 1960s.

2. What surprised or shocked you when you first arrived?

How cold it was! I’d been to India before, but never to Delhi in the dead of winter and I only had one jacket with me! I had to rush out to buy warm clothes the next day! The southern regions are tropical so the temperature is relatively warm year-round. The North is another story—and while homes in the West are designed to keep you warm and cozy, Indian homes are constructed to keep you cool. It’s usually cooler inside than it is outside, and I sometimes find myself going outside in the winter just to stand in the sun and warm up!

3. Name some local customs newcomers should be aware of.

First, there’s a misconception that Indian women don’t shake hands with men. This definitely holds some weight with older generations and the rural poor, but in most business situations it would be rude not to shake hands with a female colleague! Also, it’s customary to always offer somebody something to drink when they enter your home or workplace. Most newcomers are pretty careful about the water they drink in India, but in most middle-class homes and virtually all offices, the water will be filtered or purified—Indian people aren’t immune to tap-water bugs, either! So accept it, it’s the polite thing to do! If in serious doubt, you can always ask for a boiled cup of tea instead.

4. What’s the best way to meet people and make friends?

That really depends on your age group. The under-40 set are pretty active on social media, so just join a few groups on Facebook or a city-specific expat network and you will end up meeting people pretty quickly. No matter what your age, going to events is always a good way to meet likeminded people. The big cities all have their own editions of a Time Out magazine, and details for most events can be found online or in the arts sections of local newspapers.

5. What do you consider essential items to pack before moving to India?

Certain specialty foods are hard to find, and if you have any toiletries you simply can’t live without, you may want to pack a few extra bottles. Some prescription medications are not available in India, even under a different name, so check ahead. Women will want to note that tampons with applicators are not available.

6. Should someone find housing before they leave or look around upon arrival? Are there any great housing resources newcomers should take advantage of?

Unless your company is providing you with something, it’s better to look upon arrival. Otherwise, you risk getting seriously ripped off (unless you are moving into a housemate situation). The first place to look is with your local expat club or website. Otherwise, the best way to go about finding housing is by consulting with an agent in the neighborhood you want to live in. He/She will have the inside scoop on what’s available in your preferred area, but be prepared to pay an agent fee equivalent to one month’s rent.

7. What’s the best way to manage your money in India? Any tips on opening a bank account?

Your company will normally help you open a “salary account”, which is essentially an interest-accruing checking account. Your company will have a tie-up with a bank of their choice, and this account will be used for the direct deposit of your monthly salary. If you want an additional account, it’s best to go to one of the international banks (e.g., HSBC or Citibank) when possible. You’ll normally need your passport, a residence permit, and a proof of address, plus a couple of passport-sized photos.

8. How much money would you suggest someone set aside before moving? What are the initial costs?

That entirely depends on your lifestyle. In a big city, a student or young person could easily move to India with about $500-1000 in hand, and still have plenty left over at the end of the month. However, if you want to get a luxury apartment and are bringing your family over, you may need upwards of $5000 for the first month, or more! It all depends on your housing budget, really. The equivalent of three month’s rent, plus a couple hundred dollars per person for food is enough. Naturally, if you plan to buy a car, you will need money for that too.

9. In which fields is it easy for a foreigner to secure a job? Any tips on getting hired?

All industries that require educated people are easy to get into; as long as you have at least a bachelor’s degree you should be able to find something. So many industries in India are short of qualified employees, especially in the areas of language translation, technology, and outsourcing. Unfortunately, the Indian government now requires that foreigners earn a minimum of USD 25,000 per annum to work in India in most types of jobs, which is an exorbitant amount by Indian standards, at least for young professionals who want to work in local companies. However, this regulation has been criticized by leaders from many industries, who understand the need for a global workforce in a global economy. So let’s see how long it lasts! Note that this requirement doesn’t apply to language teachers and translators, embassy staff, or chefs.

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