My Adventure Working In India
Where would you consider spending a year or two of your life, should the right job opportunity present itself? Many people would list aspirational destinations, such as Switzerland, Canada, Australia, Singapore or Hong Kong, which are very popular with expats due to factors such as English-speaking working environments and the allure of a favourable lifestyle. According to the annual survey carried out by expat networking platform Internations, Taiwan is the new place to be, claiming first place ranking out of 67 countries. Countries are ranked according to the quality of life and the affordability of factors such as healthcare, as well as the financial situation of expats living there. Malta, Ecuador, Mexico and New Zealand make up the top five, with Nigeria, Greece and Kuwait coming in at the bottom. Nestled between China at 48 and Denmark at 50, my family ended up working in India, the 49th country on the list and somewhere I found fascinating.
I remember the defining moment when my partner calmly dropped into the conversation that he had been offered a year’s secondment to his employer’s Chennai office. As casually as one may say “shall we grab an Indian tonight?”, he was rather nonchalantly suggesting that we spend a year in one of the busiest and most confronting places on earth. As casually as one may say “yes, I’ll take a Balti please”, I nodded and agreed. In a blur of rabies vaccinations and promises we would use plenty of hand-sanitiser, suddenly we were off.
When you think of working in India, the conflicting images come thick and fast, such as ramshackle streets and colourful Dravidian temples, open sewers and succulent dishes, revving engines and uplifting Bollywood music. The stereotypes are true, but add soaring temperatures, a cacophony of endless car horns and a few million cows, this is why many people find India so strangely intoxicating.
As a foreigner, Indian office culture is often highly frustrating and sometimes rather baffling. There are some traditions in Indian offices, which seem to be a hangover from the British colonial days, such as employees needing to clock in and out using manual time cards. Paperwork in India can be daunting and even simple processes, such as applying for a mobile Sim card, can involve laborious forms in triplicate, requesting details such as names and parents’ occupations, and providing six or seven passport photos. One female expat friend told me how the same puzzled security guard would ask her who she was every day for a whole year, as she entered her building.
As the only foreigner in his office, my partner made a concerted effort to fit in with his colleagues. He embraced the Indian tradition of eating the delicious food provided for lunch by his employer, copying his colleagues as they dexterously dabbed and scooped their food in their mouths using their right hand. After a week, he was complaining of a repetitive stress injury to his thumb.
Gender diversity proved to be an interesting topic while working in India. According to the Wall Street Journal, at 27% of the population India has one of the lowest female representation in the workplace. In sectors outside of agriculture, women typically account for less than one in five employees. Times are changing, however, and The Times of India reported in 2015 that there has been a 196% spike in the number of women graduating with technical degrees. When interviewing applicants to build up a new software development team, my partner observed that many of the female candidates seemed to score comparatively better on the technical tests, and demonstrated superior multitasking skills. This could potentially be due to many females needing to work harder to prove themselves in what is still regarded as a male dominated profession. Females are also often expected to juggle a greater share of home commitments with their career. We heard many anecdotal tales of expats hiring talented females and then losing them out of the workplace as soon as they married, due to their domestic situation. As an outsider to India it is very tempting to come into the workplace on a moral crusade to fix social inequalities, yet quickly hit a wall of deeply ingrained issues relating to work culture. On a positive note, we met many Indians from the emerging middle class, such as doctors and engineers. They were examples of social mobility in action as India modernises, having better career prospects than their parents’ generation through improved literacy rates and access to higher education.
For couples or families moving abroad to places like India, it is likely that one of you needs to assume the role of “trailing spouse”. This term refers the daily challenges faced by the non-working partner, as they struggle with day-to-day life in a foreign environment, while also facing potential loneliness and/or resentment as their partner’s career develops at the expense of their own. Far from being a negative experience, our family’s year working in India gave me the opportunity to take my career in a different direction, establishing myself as a freelance writer. Indian life can be extremely unpredictable, such as schools closing due to monsoon floods, or sudden strikes and political demonstrations. In this case, the flexibility of the gig economy, coupled with India’s excellent mobile coverage, served me well.
Looking back on our secondment to the 49th country, we benefitted in many ways from the experience, not only from a career perspective but as individuals. Working in India is highly confronting and presents its daily challenges, such as language and cultural barriers, political uncertainty, rabies, sanitation levels, malaria and the lack of personal space. Sometimes you can do nothing but stand in a pool of your own sweat and mutter profanities when things don’t go as planned. But conversely, there are many positive aspects to expat life, with the warmth and generosity of Indian people leaving a lasting impression. Outside of work we had many adventures and defining moments, such taking an express train from Mumbai to Goa, traveling coast to coast by minibus and climbing fortified valleys in Rajasthan. We also met a man in the Himalayas of Sikkim, who had never seen a Western child in person. Living there certainly taught me to embrace the absurd chaos, and look at first world issues with a different sense of perspective. Having given me an even greater feeling of Wanderlust, I think I’m going to need a bigger Pinterest board!