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Expat Advice: Culture Shock in Mumbai, India

What is the name of the city or town that you are reporting on?

Mumbai

Did you receive any cross-cultural training for your move abroad? If yes, was it before or after the move?

I had already lived abroad in Denmark and Panama so was experienced in the "how to be an expat" part, but nothing prepares you for India/Mumbai until you get there and try to do your day-to-day life.

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If they speak another language in your new country, do you speak the language? If yes, did you learn the language before you moved or while abroad? If no, are you planning to learn the language?

Thankfully, English is spoken quite a bit, there are lots of really good western style bookstores (Crosswords or Landmark) with tons of English so fumbling here and there is tolerable. Hand gestures and animal noises when buying food get a good laugh from the locals too.

Were you worried or concerned about culture shock before you moved abroad?

Yes, and was dreading the move because at the time my sons were just under 2 yrs and 4.5. I knew India was on the list of one of the least kid-friendly places to be an expat. That said, was very excited to learn how to cook real Indian food.

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How significant was the culture shock you experienced when you moved abroad?

Huge--mostly in the food shopping area because the sanitary conditions are a nightmare. I lived in Bandra and we were shown HyperCity--pretty nice hypermarket/homestore, but that was 40 minutes (with traffic) each way to our apartment. I knew there was just no way I had to travel that far to get eggs and milk and then was told about Pali Market, went with a friend knowledgeable about where/who to buy from and just accepted this is India. One bit of warning to those with small blonde children--especially girls: you WILL have strangers trying to touch, take pictures and even kissing your kids. I wish I could say otherwise, but too many friends have caused near riots on the public areas (not in the expat areas) with their blonde kids. Stay where the expats are or put a hat on the kids so the locals can't see the hair color. The locals are so excited to see these unique children, but it can get aggressive with people trying to take pictures. It's incredible.

Expats often talk about going through the "stages of culture shock." Examples include the honeymoon phase, the irritation-to-anger stage, the rejection of the culture stage, and the cultural adjustment phase. Do you feel like you went through these or any other stages as you settled into the new culture?

I went through an irritation stage until we got into our apartment and got a "new normal" and could do a bit more exploring of our area. After that adjustment, the worst things that grated were the lack of green spaces, the claustrophobic feeling when walking on the streets and time spent in traffic. However, auto-rikshaws are cheap/fast and everywhere in Bandra for shorter journeys. Plus, you can get home delivery for EVERYTHING! I ordered 95% of my groceries over the phone which significantly cut down on that irritation time in traffic spent doing errands. Our vendors were amazing, knew very quickly what our usual items were, and let us know when they had specials. The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in India. Honestly, success in Mumbai becomes an attitude thing. You have to accept the beast for what it is since you can't change it or you'll be absolutely miserable in Mumbai. Join the Breach Candy beach club or Waterstones, or the Marriott, women's coffees/int'l clubs and you'll meet lots of other people going through the same things.

What, if any, were some of the changes you noticed in yourself that might have been caused by culture shock? These might include things such as anger, depression, anxiety, increased eating or drinking, frustration, homesickness, etc.

I got more patient, believe it or not. India can sometimes be so insane with lack of common sense (people just stepping into traffic without looking!) that many reoccurring things just become funny/jokes. We came up with our own saying "SFI"as in "So f***-ing India" and just let it go.... Now that I look back, I can really get a good laugh when talking to friends who are still there and who've left. We survived!

What are some things you appreciate most about the new culture?

The food. The food. The food. The amazing things you can get in the markets/shops from scarves to carvings to jewelry. People are very friendly if you smile when asking for help. My friends who helped us adjust that became the closest we've ever had. Oh, and Bollywood. Its absurdity/dancing is just a lot of fun and I bought a few movies and will keep up with the celebrities.

What are the most challenging aspects of the new culture?

Traffic, pollution, food quality if you eat western style (forget pork, cheese and beef unless you're prepared to pay a fortune at a quality places like Sante's in Bandra, or the 5star hotel delis). Beef anywhere else is buffalo, pork is....not good. Cheese barely exists past the (fantastic) paneer. Maybe you can get cheddar, but not much else.

Did you "commit" any embarrassing or humorous cultural blunders? If you did and you'd like to share them, please do tell!

I asked if our neighbor's daughter would want to babysit some evenings to earn some money (thinking she's right across the hall--her parents home in case of emergency etc). She was keen, but her mother was horrified and said her daughter was too lazy to do that! When I told my friend, she laughed and said child minding at is a very low level job and I probably insulted them. I apologized and made cookies the next day.

Do you have any advice or thoughts about culture shock you would like to share?

If Mumbai is a first time out, you will have homesickness on top of culture shock to deal with. The former, in my opinion, is almost harder than the latter. My first country as an expat was Denmark and I hated every minute of it and kept comparing it to the US. When I calmed down a bit, I realized Denmark was never going to be like home and treated it like an extended vacation. Mumbai experienced as just a couple instead of parents would've been much easier and a lot more fun since you can travel and who cares about time spent in cars. With kids, it is a big commitment but doable. We were there only 1 year (expected 3 but with economic crisis was cut short), and now being out a year (currently based in Latvia which we love), I can really look back with fondness.

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Comments about this Report

dasamitabha
Nov 27, 2010 12:29

I am an Indian who has been living outside India for a long time and after staying in 7 countries across Asia, Europe and Africa, I just relocated to Mumbai a few months back. I don't know much about the member who wrote this report, but I assume she is an American woman. I believe her report is a really well written one, barring a few here and there which I wouldnt exactly agree with. The 'SFI' thing is funny and kinda insulting to an Indian, but Americans were never famous for caring for others sentiments. But her 'pork and beef' story is very real and the home delivery of vegetables is definitely recommended. I live in Bandra myself, know the Pali Hill market and agree to most of what she has narrated. I didn't know about the blonde hair thing, but something tells me it might be very true. Overall, India is a big challenge with traffic and hygiene conditions really pathetic, the noise levels incredibly high and cleanliness a major issue.

guest
Dec 13, 2010 19:04

Great!, Thats the best way to take care of homesickness and culture shock. get of the couch and travel. learn and take everything in. openmindness is a must and realizing that you are the alien are all part of learning to enjoy an ex-pat lifestyle.

guest
Jun 30, 2011 00:48

That's an interesting story. Here in Delhi you actually can get even Parmesan cheese; just found some yesterday in Reliance Fresh, though not every store might have it. Hated Denmark? Expensive it is - I was near horrified when I came there first - but otherwise fairly OK. For me at least. Wel,, everyone has his or her own perception. For me, things like peace of mind matter more, so Denmark is OK as it offers much of that peace of mind. Your positive experience with the auto-rickshaws is interesting, too, as to my experience very few foreigners (and nor many more Indians) made good experience with auto-rickshaws. I try to avaid them whenever possible because of the over-charging and the near constant hassle with them, not to mention the fact that they are open and one can arrive dusted or soaked, depending on the day. India is developping fast and every now and then some new good come here from outside; just as Parmesan cheese recently. But then, trying the local food has something going for it, too. With the vegetarian food, not much can go wrong, especially if you make sure all you eat is deffinitively and thoroughly dead; thus boiled or (deep)fried so that no germs survived.

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