Sensory overload? They're lovin' it
Sriranjitha Jeurkar meets a new and growing bunch of expatriates, who are determined to soak in as much of India as possible during their stay here. They also take delight in sharing their unconventional, strange and startling stories.
These days, when Rudolf Eichele cooks for close friends, he likes to try new combinations: fries served with dal makhni, or dosas stuffed with ham and cheese. These are just a few of the dishes Eichele — a German national who is now the Executive Chef at the Leela Palace Kempinski, Bangalore — has been inspired to create by the country he now lives in. “I also make tomato shorba, and serve it with rice and chicken tikka. At first, my friends used to think it was very strange, but all these recipes have been received very well,” he says.
Eichele’s Indo-Western recipes best tell the story of a person who is German by birth, but feels quite at home in India. The combination is unconventional, strange, and startlingly apt.
Eichele is one of the many expatriates who have chosen to work in India — some are here to explore the country, some for ‘new experiences’ and some others, to learn more the country of their origin. The fact that the recession hasn’t hit India as badly as it has the Western countries also seems to be an important factor — like it was for Vir Kashyap, a person of Indian origin, who was born in Dubai and has lived in several countries, including Canada, Spain and the United States. “This is a place that has high growth and many business opportunities. It’s exciting to be here; the growth is not slow or quiet, like it is in the United States now. Though I have never lived in India, I am of Indian origin, so I felt it would be advantageous to live here,” he says.
Many expats say that the announcement of their decision to move to India fetched them unfavourable responses at first. Kashyap, who is now the COO for the babajobs.com portal in Bangalore, remembers how his friends tried to convince him that it was not a good idea. “I got these responses from people who had been to India over 20 years ago, and who didn’t have a good idea of what the country is like now. But that’s what they believe India is like,” he recalls.
Rienke van Niewland, a social scientist from Holland who moved here with her husband two-and-a-half years ago, remembers that her friends reacted negatively. “They said, why do you want to go there, it’s smelly, crowded and backward. Which of course, for parts it is, but they have never experienced the other side of India.”
The one thing most expats say that no amount of research and information could prepare them for is the sheer number of people in India. Tom Murphy and his family first visited India in 2006 before deciding to move here. He remembers his first impressions of India: “We were struck by the huge number of people here.”
Bombay-born German national Andrew Hendrian, who returned to India with his family after living abroad for 27 years, says that his wife (who is German) had a tough time getting used to seeing a huge number of people, even in small spaces. “That is the biggest culture shock. And in fact, even though I am from India, I was taken aback when I returned here. I remember the last time I went to Germany on work, and I wanted to ask someone directions to the nearest restaurant. I had to wait twenty whole minutes for someone to come by. In India, that would never happen,” he says.
Life in a new country comes with its own adjustments; some adapt more easily but others take more time. The Murphys (who moved to India with their kids, who were then aged 4 years, 2 years and 18 months old) say that they took only three months to completely settle into their new lives. “And now that we are back in Minneapolis, we miss our Indian friends and family everyday!”
Expats, whose workplaces co-ordinate their move, find that it’s a smooth ride; others, who have to arrange things for themselves, find that it’s not so easy. “There is no timing here. You can never ask why, when or how things will happen. Things can go very fast, or they can go very slow. You have to be very patient and hopeful- that is the key,” says Jean Michel Jasserand, a Frenchman who has set up an Italian restaurant in Bangalore.
In many cases, it is the women who find it harder to settle in, as they move from a liberal to a conservative society. Dave Prager, one of the authors of Our Delhi Struggle, a popular expatriate blog, says that soon after they began living in India, his wife learned the importance of using scarves, not just to protect her mouth from the fumes or her head from the sun, but to protect her chest from the eyes of staring men.
Rienke van Niewland recalls an incident that occurred when she first went out wearing shorts. “All the people on the road were either laughing, or staring at me. So I stopped dressing that way.” She also says her frank ways of speaking were not always appreciated. “There are times when I thought I was straightforward, but the other person thought I was aggressive. This kind of directness is not appreciated. But here, I’ve noticed, people don’t mind asking questions about one’s salary, rent, children, etc — in the Netherlands, we believe that these things are very private, and discussed only with very close friends!”
Unlike the stereotyped, snooty expatriate who comes to India only to take refuge in the comforts of an airconditioned apartment, venturing out only when absolutely necessary, these expatriates are determined to soak in as much of India as possible during their stay here.
Rienke has travelled all over the country — the number of states she has visited in the last two years is probably more than the average Indian does in his or her lifetime — and enjoys capturing the “Real India” on her SLR camera. “India offers wonderful
opportunities for me to practice my photography — the landscapes, temples and festivals are a photographer’s paradise. Most people also don’t mind if you take photographs of them. It’s great,” she says, gesturing to the framed photographs that decorate the wall of her living and dining rooms.
Jasserrand, who has been in Bangalore for eight years now, loves his dosas, uthappams and North Indian food, which he indulges in at least thrice a week. He admits he thoroughly enjoys Bollywood movies like Monsoon Wedding and Dhoom. “I watch a Bollywood movie at least once a month,” he says. And this year, he’s done something new: watched a cricket match for the first time in his eight years in India. “I had never watched a cricket match before. This year, I watched the IPL and followed the Bangalore team. I need to watch a bit more, though, to understand all the rules,” he adds.
Whether it is watching Bollywood movies, trying out roadside pani puri, or travelling to the “real India”, these expatriates are having the complete experience.
Tom Murphy, chronicling his Bangalore experiences on his blog The Loud Americans, writes: “Every day is an adventure. Going to work or school or the grocery store can be a sensory overload of new smells, sights and adventures. We have seen donkeys riding in rickshaws, the word ‘chicken’ spelled in 10 different ways, potholes that look like small craters, blue blue skies and green green palm trees. We have also see one of the seven wonders of the world, some of the worst poverty imaginable, visited two other continents (not to mention seven new countries), countless temples, ruins and ancient cultural locations. The diversity of experience here is so rich, it’s unbelievable.”
Vir Kashyap probably echoes the sentiments of most expats when he says, “It’s hard to put your finger on what exactly it is, but this is such an exciting country to be in. When I go back home, it feels empty. Once you get used to India, the weather, the people and the constant noise, nothing else seems so exciting.”
Resident of: Bangalore, since 2009
Why India: We’ve only been here 16 months, and we’ve already taken four holidays with our kids! During my other postings, we would go on vacation once a year. Here, there is so much to see, so much to do. Many of my expatriate friends who were here earlier are pleading with their companies to send them back.
The adjustment: My wife, as a German, is used to driving on the autobahn. Here, she refuses to drive. She tells me that if she drives, she will either end up getting killed, or kill someone. But the moment we go back to Germany, the first thing she does is to rent a car and hit the road.
The experience: This year we celebrated Holi for the first time. My wife and children enjoyed the whole thing. And my wife tells me: if you had holidays for all the festivals celebrated in India, then I’d be very happy, because you’d hardly go to work!
Resident of: Bangalore, since 2004
The adjustment: India is a country with a lot of people and it can feel very crowded and noisy at times. I still struggle to accept people that jump red lights or jump the line. I find this extremely disrespectful, but since everyone does it, you’ll end up having very high blood pressure trying to fix it. As a Scandinavian, I was also very uncomfortable with all the service and support you get. We’re used to doing literally everything ourselves since this kind of help is very expensive in Northern Europe.
The experience: I see funny episodes every day and there is such much scope for misunderstandings, even between locals, that it never ceases to amaze me. I had once visited the southern parts of Tamil Nadu and we went to a very local restaurant. They tried to warn me about the spicy food, which I took great offense to and told them to challenge me. The chef must have thought I was up for the challenge and probably collected all the spices of Southern India and cooked it into the food. I was numb for days and even my Indian travel companions had to throw in the towel.
Resident of: Bangalore from July 2006 to January 2009
The adjustment: Family time in the United States is centred around the family having a meal together at the end of the day to relate their experiences. In India, the opposite is true: the working spouse does not get home until late in the evening, when the children are in bed. So, we had our family time in the morning, during breakfast.
The experience: We made a conscious decision to immerse ourselves into the culture and surroundings. So, we did not feel out of place. We adapted to the new living situation in about three months. We then felt like we had been in India forever and were able to navigate through the different cultures and languages.
Resident of: Gurgaon since January 2010
The adjustment: The most difficult adjustment has been not driving. Though I have access to transportation and a car whenever I need, it’s an adjustment to have to rely on another person for that transportation. In the US, only the super wealthy have drivers, so I often hear comments from home about how nice it must be to have someone to drive you around.
However, I really miss being able to go to my garage, hop in my car, and run a quick errand by myself.
The experience: When we were here in 2005, we were on our way to the Cochin airport. A caravan of buses passed by – it was taking the Pakistan cricket team to the airport. Our driver decided to slide in behind them and follow them all the way. I asked him if he thought it was a good idea, and he said, “Yes, of course, we’ll get there faster.” What I viewed as a potential security issue, he saw as a faster means to get us where we needed to be. Not surprisingly, we had no reason to worry!
Resident of: Bangalore, since 2009
The adjustment: I work with a lot of chefs from Tamil Nadu. I try to pick up their language. If I say “ille ille”, they have a hearty laugh.
The experience: Not too many people get an opportunity to even vacation here. I’ve got a great chance to work and live here. When I leave, I can confidently say that I saw India, and I know India.
Resident of: Bangalore, since 2008
Initial impressions: We come from an Australian premium resort town with a cap on its population – which is completely the opposite of what we see here. The tallest buildings back home were just three-storeyed. In India, though, it’s totally different!
The adjustment: Getting things done can be difficult. Even buying food here takes so much time. In Australia, when we had a party for ten, we would go to a single place and buy the food, drinks and other supplies. Here, we have to go to ten different places...
The experience: I was invited to a wedding, where at least 5,000 people had been invited. In Australia, you invite 20 or 30 people, have dinner with them and send them on their way. The budget for the wedding we attended here would have easily run a small country!
Rienke van Niewland
Residents of: Bangalore, since 2008
The adjustment: I’ve noticed that people here believe that it’s very important to get married young and have kids soon. In the West it’s okay if you’re older and single, or if you don’t have any children.
Also I find it difficult to understand the concept of arranged marriages. And Indian weddings have many pujas, with all the fire!
The experience: This happened when I was volunteering with an NGO. We were having lunch, and I wasn’t used to eating with my hands. I looked around and tried to do it the way the others were. The kids saw that I was doing it differently and began to laugh at me. Finally, an eight-year-old kid taught me how to eat with my hands!
Resident of: Delhi
The adjustment: I read a lot of novels about India, saw a lot of Bollywood movies, took advice from my Indian friends, so was quite well prepared to this life in India. It was not so hard to adjust.
The experience: I am learning Hindi, to help me have a better understanding of the culture as well and it's so helpful in my daily life. When I speak Hindi, many smiles blossom on lips!
Resident of: Bangalore
The adjustment: It’s more difficult to be fully independent here. My Hindi is limited. Just moving around is difficult, because things shut down early, and restaurants close before midnight. There is a general lack of spaces, there aren’t enough places for you to just hang out in – but that’s developing.
The experience: The work-life balance here is great. People work six days a week, but also have a good amount of time to spend with their family. People here have deeper connections.
Dave P & Jenny S
Residents of: Delhi
Why India:The food! Our dreams were cumin-scented back in New York City. When the opportunity came to live in the land of the food we loved so much, we jumped at it.
The adjustment: Little things really got to us at first. We spent many fruitless days trying to figure out where to buy superglue, believe it or not.
The experience: We learned a modest amount of really bad Hindi. We would practice with strangers by saying things like, “Mera naam Dave hoon. Ab guessa hai? India subzi acha hai!” They would always laugh and then talk to us in English. And, of course, we learned some very nice swearwords. Without a doubt, we’d do it all over again. We can’t wait for our visit in September.
(Note: They’ve left India, but their book ‘Our Delhi Struggle’, same name as their blog, will be released soon.)