American expat Basia’s life in India and her advice for would-be visitors and immigrants

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Basia Kruszewska

July 13 2006 

-Where were you born?
I was born in Poland, but my family emigrated to the U.S. when I was young. I am now an American citizen.

-Are you living alone or with your family?
I live in a company guesthouse. I am the only person living there full-time. Other co-workers from the U.S. come and go throughout the year, for periods ranging from a few days to a few months.

-In which country and city are you living now?
I live in Chennai, in the state of Tamil Nadu, on the east coast of southern India.

-How long have you been living in India?
It’s been two-and-a-half years now. I first came here in September 2003.

-What is your age?
51 years young

-When did you come up with the idea of living in India?
I have always been interested in living abroad. I was born in and spent the first 9 years of my life in Poland, then moved to the U.S., and also lived for two years in Auckland, New Zealand. When the company I work for asked me if I was interested in going to India, I didn’t need much convincing.

-Was it hard to get a visa or a working permit?
No. The company I work for has a branch in India. I came here with the specific purpose of working here. Other than some bureaucratic hassles with the Foreign Regional Registration Office (which requires a mountain of paperwork and multiple trips to the office), there were no problems.

-How do you make your living in India? Do you have any type of income generated?
I work full time as an Instructional Designer/Team Integration Manager for an e-learning company. I help develop content for online and print courses.

-Do you speak the local language and do you think it's important to speak the local language?
The most common language in this state is Tamil, although many people speak Hindi as well. I have a vocabulary of about a hundred Tamil words, but I can’t really communicate very well in the language. I would love to be able to do so. When I first came here, my intention was definitely to learn the language. But it just hasn’t happened. Tamil does not resemble any of the other languages I speak (Polish, English, some Spanish), so I’ve found it very difficult to learn. I’m a little disappointed that I haven’t learned more in the time I have been here. Many people here speak English though, so although I’d love to be able to speak Tamil, you can get by easily without it.

But it’s important for expats to be sensitive to and appreciate local customs. They are frequently fascinating and colorful. For example, I love the way women wear fresh jasmine garlands in their hair, and their gorgeous saris. Some of the customs regarding clothing feel restrictive for me, but I do follow them, if only to minimize staring. For example, although I live right on the beach, I’ve learned never to wear a bathing suit to the beach here – women go into the water with their clothes on, if they go in at all. And women rarely wear shorts on the street, so I try not to either.

-Do you miss home and family sometimes?
I don’t get homesick much. I have moved around a lot, and wherever I live, I consider my home. Sure, there are always things to miss, no matter where you live. When I moved from Connecticut to California, I missed having four seasons. When I moved from Texas to New York, I missed the magnificent Austin wildflowers. After I moved from New Zealand, I missed the charming cottage in the woods that I had there. In India, I sometimes miss the cooler, more livable temperatures of New York. I’m sure there will be lots of things I will miss when I leave India. But I don’t think that’s the same as homesickness, which I see as a longing to be someplace else. It’s more of an appreciation that every place has something unique, which leaves a void when I no longer have it.

I’m a person who loves traveling, writing, and taking pictures. One of my personal goals when I moved to India was to use as much of my non-work time as possible for travel throughout India and Asia. Since I’ve been in India, I’ve traveled to 11 countries, and seen much of India as well. I maintain a blog where I post my writings and pictures.

This year, I have also joined the rowing club at work. We work out six days a week, starting at 6 AM. It’s hard getting up that early every day, but I love the workout. Chennai is so hot that it’s difficult to do many of the physical activities that I loved to do when I was in New York, such as bicycling, hiking, or running. Rowing very early in the morning, when it’s a little cooler, makes it easier.

-Do you have other plans for the future?
I want to continue to travel as much as I can. Given the opportunity, I would travel to any country on earth.

-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?
I live in company housing. It’s a nice apartment near the beach. Before I lived in the company apartment, I rented a beautiful 5-room house, with a garden and two balconies, five minutes from the beach. The rent was the equivalent to about $200 per month. Most of my Indian colleagues thought that was very expensive; they would generally pay less than that. Even though the house was beautiful, there were things about it that would not be up to Western standards. For example, the kitchen was very rudimentary, and the place had frequent power problems. So if you want more Western-style housing, it will be considerably more expensive, and may be close to what you would pay in the U.S.

-What is the cost of living in India?
Some things cost much less than in the U.S., others are almost the same. It depends on how “Western” you want to be. Food can be very cheap if you stick with typical Indian fare from small local business, where you can get a good lunch for the equivalent of a dollar or two. But if you dine at Western-style restaurants, it will be close to what you would pay in the U.S., if not more. In grocery stores, imported food can be very expensive – I once paid the equivalent of $8.00 for a small packet of Philadelphia cream cheese, a staple that in the U.S. would have cost me about $1.50. Transportation is pretty cheap. I can take a taxi to the airport for the equivalent of about $4.00, whereas the same distance in the U.S. would cost me $30.00. On the other hand, air fares on Indian airlines and entrance fees to many cultural places can get very expensive, because the prices for foreigners are often much higher than for Indian citizens.

-What do you think about the Indian people?
The Indians I work with have been wonderful. They have been very gracious, hospitable, and have helped me tremendously in getting adjusted to a new country. I have several friends that I refer to as my “cultural counselors” because I turn to them when I have a question or problem. Such as:
“Someone left me a voice mail message in Tamil – can you listen to it and tell me what it says?”
“Help! I called the restaurant and asked them not to send my lunch order today – but instead they sent me two lunches.”
“The taxi company is calling me each night telling me my cab is ready. I didn’t order a cab. Can you call them and find out what’s going on?”

In general, the locals are very respectful of foreigners and frequently intrigued by them. When I walk around town, I frequently have people say hello, ask where I’m from, or ask to have their picture taken with me. On the flip side, there are the annoying street hawkers who assume all foreigners have money to burn, and will hound you for it.

-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in India?

Positives:
1) Very different from living in the U.S.. There is so much here that is fascinating to me. Lots of photo opportunities for a photography buff like me.
2) Very warm, gracious people
3) I love the colors of India – in clothing, flower garlands, temples – there is color everywhere.

Negatives:
1) Sometimes, even the simplest things seem complicated, partly becomes of the culture, partly because of the language barrier.
2) The trash in the streets is hard to get used to. It breaks my heart to see people tossing their garbage out the window of a train, and dumping plastics everywhere on the streets.

-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in India?
1) When you get frustrated with communication, try to remember that the problem is NOT that THEY don’t speak English. It’s that YOU don’t speak Tamil.
2) Go with an open mind. Don’t assume that the way you did it back home is the best/only way to do something.
3) Be prepared for things to not go smoothly. Everything will probably be more difficult than you thought. Getting electric/gas/phone connections for your house. Getting registered with immigration. Ordering a pizza. Calling a taxi. Nothing will be as simple as it was back home, where you knew the system and spoke the language.

hi

muthusarvanan's picture

dear madam
iam muthusravanan age 26 from chennai
iam living in india i would like to share some experiences from u madam how was the poland country becuse i would like to work ther
and i complete my master degree in M.S.W IN COMMUNITY development but now iam working as project planner in eye hospital in sankara netheralya can u give some idea how to get job in poland
with regards
thanks madam
muthusravanan

Looking for Dutch expats living in India

Lisan's picture

Dear Basia,

My name is Lisan Vermeer. I'm a Master student Business Administration at the University of Nijmegen in The Netherlands, and I'm currently writing my Master Thesis for the Master International Management. This thesis is about the training Dutch expats received (or not) before they were leaving to India, in order to determine an optimal training method and content for expats leaving for India. When this optimal training method is determined, expats leaving for India will be better prepared, which makes life in India easier for them.

For this purpose I'm looking for Dutch expats living in India who want to help me with my research. I would like to interview them for about 30 minutes about their experiences with pre-departure training, the Indian context and culture, and the challenges they encountered regarding the Indian context and culture. I will hold these interviews via phone or skype. Of course the participants get the results of my research, which might help the company they're working for to decrease the failure rate of expat assignments.

Unfortunately, it turns out to be very difficult to get in touch with Dutch expats living in India. Since you are living there, I was hoping that you know some Dutch expats, and that you want to help me to get in touch with them. It would really help me; I need them in order to continue with my thesis.

So if you want to help me, and if you know Dutch expatriates living in India, would you please contact me at lisan_vermeer@hotmail.com? It would really help me a lot!!

Lisan Vermeer

married to a wonderful man from India and trying to do an

chakraborty's picture

Hello I have been in India a short period of time as I am married to a wonderful man from Bhubanewar.

And even though the adjustment in work schedules has thrown me for a loop and the adjustment has been

rough I love India. We are doing the I130 as I have been quite ill here.

I hold a writing degree among others but do not know where to start to get work as a writer.

let alone some English speaking women to talk with. We have tried to find a place to rent but there is nothing.

I hope to hear from you

GerryRae

I like to meet different people.

arunmahender's picture

Hi Basia Kruszewska

I realy like the view you had on India(bangalore)...im a MNC Employee..im put in Malleswaram..ihope you have heard this place...if so please let me known..How do you feel bangalore now..do see any changes...

Awaiting for your reply....arunmahender@gmail.com
Thanks
Arun.M
9880524946.

reply

niceseo's picture

I have read this post, very carefully. I have found a beautiful experience from this post. I like to read all comments of Basia's. Her every reply is very clear and very much interesting. I like her interview very much.

I am Looking for some work.

Francis Lakra's picture

Hello this is Francis, from North-East India ( Assam), Now in Italy almost 2 years learning Italian, I am 29 years old, graduated in Arts, diploma in philoshopy and basic scout master training and one year of Teaching Experience in school. I love my country and culture, therefor I want to be back to my country and work over there. I know it is difficult to get work looking through my qualification, Therefor I need help and suggestion from the Expat. like you. I want to get some work as well as I want to do some diploma cours in computer.
Thank you.
Francis Lakra.
my e-mail frankshamlakra@ymail.com

Another American Who Lived in Chennai

jenkumar's picture

Hi...Basia. I am Jennifer. How are you?
I lived in Chennai (Tambaram) in late 99-early 00s. I studied and earned my master's in Madras Christian College.
I am happy to see another American who likes Tamil culture. How about the food? Do you like the food?
I am in US now. Happy to meet you.