Stranger in a strange land: The expat experience in Bengaluru

Bengaluru has a sizeable population of expats. What are the challenges that they face in a city that is otherwise called the Silicon Valley of India? Here’s what some of them had to say.

There are things about Bengaluru that are easy to agree on: The weather is wonderful, the food is fantastic, and the people are omnipresent. But for foreigners living the Garden City, the pleasantries of this south Indian city can come with a price.

S2immigration, an organisation that helps visitors to India with resident permits, visa extension etc, estimates that there are 10,000 professional expats working in Bengaluru. Its booming IT sector, academic opportunities, and expanding economy has drawn people from around the world. According to expats, Bengaluru takes the cake for being the city with the most to offer. Danielle Edwards, a 25-year-old Australian, has travelled in and out of Bengaluru for the past three years. She says: “I would definitely say that Bengaluru is [India’s] most liveable city as it is affordable, easy to get by and has so many opportunities.” Michael (name changed), a 25-year-old from Ivory Coast and five-year-resident of the city says, “Bengaluru is foreigner friendly.”

City of opportunities

Many expats come to Bengaluru for the economic opportunities. Elena Flores, a Spanish teacher who has worked in Bengaluru for two years, states, “I find that this city is full of work opportunities for me. I have a very good job, and what I have studied during my college years, can be developed here.”

Many people see the chance to put their skills and hobbies to use in Bengaluru, as it is hard to overlook the growing IT sector, the need for translators, and volunteer opportunities. Elena also recently performed in Zor-The Dancing of the Gypsy Trail at Jagriti Theatre in Whitefield. She adds, “In my country, there are not much choices for me. Here my talents and skills are useful.”

Paula McClean, a nurse from the UK conducts free CPR training for citizens in Whitefield. Pic: Ritu George

The academic opportunities are also a huge draw for foreigners. With more than ten international schools and dozens of local universities, Bengaluru the city sees a rather constant inflow of students from all countries. Many youngsters mingle at the expat parties organised through Facebook groups. Such parties display how diverse the academic expat community is; Iraqi pharmacists, German professionals, American environmentalists, Nicaraguan astrophysicists, etc. Their studies keep them here for years at a time and these young adults take to Bengaluru culture with zeal.

Bengaluru, being the ‘Pub Capital of India’, provides many opportunities for expats to enjoy its nightlife. Bengaluru’s expats feel secure within the city’s borders. Benjamin Fosu, a 24-year-old from Ghana explains: “Security in Bengaluru is certainly better than many other places in India. I have no fear of roaming about the city, regardless of the time of the day or my current condition. A peace of mind is a free gift Bengaluru can offer to anyone.”

Also read: UK Nurse conducts free CPR training for people in Whitefield

City perceived safe for expats

Bengaluru has been ranked as one of India’s safest cities for women and most female expats can contest to that. Danielle says, “I’ve felt unsafe in other parts of India, but have never had anything too concerning happen in Bengaluru. I will happily go home alone at night and feel very safe. I think it’s a huge bonus to the city.”

For late night travel, the city offers a variety of private cab aggregators like Ola, Taxi For Sure and Uber. Many expats use them on their evening journeys home to avoid the trouble of searching for and bargaining with autos. These cabs offer an added sense of security because of their registered drivers and email records. The safety in Bengaluru is yet another plus for expats.

Also read: An open letter to auto drivers from a foreign college student

On the other side of safety, Bengaluru has become as notorious for its monstrous traffic. The options for getting around the city include footpaths, buses, autos and, for the courageous, two wheelers and cars. Driving on Bengaluru roads is akin to playing a game of Tetris with moving vehicles. Danielle says, “Driving here took me a little while to get used to. But my boss told me that I drive ‘like a pure Indian’; this was quite possibly one of the proudest moments of my life.” Expats are intimidated by the chaotic and cacophonic roads, so finding the method to the madness on the roads is a source of deep satisfaction.

Strategies to counter inflated prices

Every expat experiences the inflated prices and ‘broken meters’ when dealing with auto drivers. “I have developed my own strategies,” Elena states. “For example, if you tell a rickshaw driver that you are going to Whitefield, they may try to milk you. But if you tell them that you are going to Ramagondanahalli bus stop… and you talk to them with respect, they will perceive that you are not a ‘fresher’. Just try to react, bargain and discuss the prices the way Indians do.” The display of local knowledge or language often prompts a reaction of friendliness, so many expats do their best to use what they know.

Expats have developed their own strategies to face many of the challenges of living in a foreign city. Julian McGuire, a permanent Bengaluru resident from the USA and also a soon-to-be father, suggests, “As a foreigner, become friends with a local, and take him/her shopping with you.” Those who have been here for a long time either accept the prices as fair, or bargain with respect. Benjamin says, “Though some locals are smart and would want take advantage of you, the general atmosphere is pleasant. If I pay more for quality that’s fine, but not by persuasion, as some local sellers are fond of doing.”

Part of being a foreigner and standing out in a new environment, is going through the motions of proving you are not just a tourist. The extra money – Rs 10, Rs 50 or Rs 100 – that local sellers charge foreigners, add up after months and years of being here. But as more expats enter the city, the tide is turning in their favor. Shina, a Nicaraguan getting his PhD at IISc, says, “Generally I don’t see myself being cheated. Most goods have a price label on them and transport services are also standardised. So it’s actually difficult for anyone to cheat me since I’m aware of all that.”

Language, lifestyle are major social barriers

About 60% of India’s population is between the ages of 15-60, the same age group of most expats. The youth find their way to the pubs and mingle there, but the older professionals sometimes have a difficult time making friends with locals. Elena, 38, says, “Generally speaking most of the Indian women that are same age as me are married and have kids. They don’t have the same life that I have, so I don’t have a lot of things in common with them. So I usually go out with European people.”

The differences in lifestyle can make it hard for expats to immerse themselves within their communities and make friends outside of professional circles. Nelson Thomas Raja, an Indian who founded the Expat Help Group on Facebook says, “There could be more done to help the expats, by mixing them with the families in India wherever they live. They can probably network with other expats who had been living in India for several years before them.”

One source of frustration for all expats is the language barrier. The majority of the world’s cities have an easily distinguished dominant language. However, in Bengaluru, the diversity of the local languages pose a challenge. Expats can choose from Kannada, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, and English if they desire to learn a local tongue. “You don’t know who speaks what,” says Julian.

Most expats find learning an Indian language challenging enough and the multitude of options makes it even harder. Elena expresses her frustration with the diversity of Bengaluru’s speakers “…what language can you learn if you want to live in India? In Karnataka, locals speak Kannada, but not all Indians living here speak Kannada, they come from another state. Same situation regarding Hindi or Tamil. What language is best learnt if one is planning to live in Bengaluru for a couple of years?”

But not all expats let it faze them. Shina Adegoke, a five-year resident of Bengaluru from Nigeria, says, “Language is a barrier, but I won’t call it a big one especially within the academic environment. Most people communicate averagely well in English language.” The professional and academic arenas of Bengaluru speak English and expats find it easy enough to navigate everyday conversations.

Problem of Indian Standard Time!

However, the professional environment is not always what expats are used to. Although, the IT sector runs at a similar pace as other bustling cities, the locals seem to take a relaxed approach to the concept of time. Benjamin, a 24-year-old from Ghana studying at the Bengaluru’s Indian Institute of Science, says “Professional workers take too much delight in break times”. Expats complain about slow service at banks and hospitals, with desks left empty for hours and no one there to help. Some find it a bit challenging to adjust to Indian Standard Time, with meeting times set to “after lunch” and invitations for dinner “between 7 pm and 9 pm.” The relaxed notion of time can throw expats off the loop if they aren’t prepared for it.

Living in a bustling, energetic city offers expats of all kinds a chance to immerse themselves in the diverse Indian culture. However, this immersion doesn’t come without challenges. International students sometimes run into issues with their Indian peers due to differences in eating habits, hygiene rituals, and clothing choices. Annie Schide, a 21-year-old American studying at the Indian Institute of Science, recalls a funny story about a fellow international student being confronted about her hygiene habits. “It started with a note and ended in confrontation. It was upsetting then, but we laugh about it now”.

Nelson has this to say to expats on getting used to Indian culture: “India is a nation that revolves around ‘what people think’. It is a very sensitive nation. I would highly recommend that when you are coming to India for the first time, take the time to understand the cultural behaviour and religious values.” Bengaluru culture is uniquely its own; diverse, young, and evolving. However, it can be difficult for foreigners to get used to the traditional elements, such as the prodding questions from neighbours, direct stares on the streets, and the great interest locals take in their presence.

Increasing infra woes a cause for concern?

The challenges of not being able to blend in with the local people, sharing a language, and having family close by, push most expats back to more familiar places. Some build families and make Bengaluru their home, but most plan on finishing the work here and heading back home, always leaving a little piece of their heart here.

Many expats turn to their interests or hobbies to widen their social circles. Running events in the city often see significant participation from the expat community. Pic: Bangalore Ultra, Runners for Life 

“Bengaluru is a serene city with the perfect weather. Generally the people are friendly, open and always willing to offer a helping hand,” says Benjamin. “I would definitely move on after my job is done here. On the contrary, I would stay if I get myself an adorable bride,” he adds, as he laughs in anticipation.

Danielle says, “I am very excited about the future and what is to come, but also feel a sense of dread about leaving Bengaluru and India. Whilst I would love to return to Bengaluru at some point, I think that the way the city is growing and expanding might alter my decision. The pollution, traffic and constant construction sites can be taxing and isn’t the most pleasant environment to live in…In saying that, if the right opportunity arose, I would take it in a heartbeat.”

Bengaluru is likely to see an increasing amount of foreigners come and go as it becomes an international business destination. Some expats adjust to the organised chaos of this growing city and others fall ill with homesickness. But despite the challenges presented, it is undeniable the Bengaluru is a great place to live for people from over the world.

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