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Updated 3 Feb 2010

Theo Scheffler is a 35-year-old born in Cape Town, South Africa, now living in Hyderabad, India. He is an actuary and fellow of the UK, South African and Indian professional bodies. He is currently the Chief Actuary at Shriram Life Insurance. Theo has been married for more than 12 years and has a 9-month-old daughter. He writes the blog www.theoscheffler.com

Read more about the country in the Expat Arrivals guide to India or read more expat experiences in India

About Theo

Q: Where are you originally from?

A: Cape Town, South Africa

Q: Where are you living now?

A: Hyderabad, Jubilee Hills (Whisper Valley) in India

Q: How long you have you lived here?

A:  We moved 2 years ago to Hyderabad and stayed in Banjara Hills until about 6 months ago when we moved to a house in Whisper Valley (also in Hyderabad)

Q: Did you move with a spouse/ children?

A:  I moved with my wife and our two dogs. Our daughter was born after we moved to Hyderabad.

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?

A:  My employer (Sanlam) has a joint venture in India. I wanted to gain exposure to India – almost all of my training and experience is based on western practices and philosophy. However most of the developments and growth in the world economy will be driven from the East, and hence I wanted to gain exposure to the economy, culture and work practices in India. I am the Chief Actuary at Shriram Life Insurance (a joint venture between the Sanlam Group of South Africa and the Shriram Group of India).

About Hyderabad, India

Q: What do you enjoy most about living in India, how’s the quality of life?

A:  We really enjoy both the local people who are very friendly, as well as the expats who are also based here. Hyderabad has many advantages over other major Indian cities. The climate is much better because we don’t have the extreme humidity that the coastal cities experience. (The climate only comes second to Bangalore). The traffic is much better than some of the other major cities because the growth of the city has been planned well in that economic zones were created to direct growth outside of the main city.

India is a completely different world, culture and way of life. I enjoy the experience. The quality of life is good, BUT it is very different. You have to adapt to enjoy life – you cannot pretend you are still back home. If you come to India planning on living as if you are in the US or Europe you will probably not be happy. You have to be able to look past the dirt and poverty to see and enjoy the real India.

Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home?

A: There is a lot of bureaucracy that you have to comply with. Foreigner registration, visa extensions, etc takes a lot of time. India is hot, over-run with mosquitoes and the power supply is not guaranteed, and the standard of hygiene is lower than in most developed countries. 

What we miss the most from home: Friends & family, red meat, wine and a cooler climate.

Q: Is India safe?
A: Generally yes. We have never felt threatened as the local people are extremely friendly towards foreigners. Overall we feel safer in India than we do in South Africa.

BUT political tension have erupted recently to split the state we live in, into two. This led to several protests with some violence. Also around 2005/2006 there were also two bomb blasts (with fatalities) in the city.

About living in India

Q: Which are the best places/suburbs to live in Hyderabad as an expat?

A:  It depends on where your office is, but generally Jubilee Hills and Banjara Hills area because this is where a number of the expats live. However a number of newer developments are taking place in Gachibowli. I would recommend a community such as Whisper Valley where other expat families also live.

Q: How do you rate the standard of accommodation in India?

A:  Good. Expats generally live in large houses. Bathrooms and kitchens are a bit different from Western standards.

Q: What’s the cost of living in India compared to South Africa? What is cheap or expensive in particular?

A:  Certain things are much cheaper (e.g. staff to help and local food), but western-type / imported food, travel (hotels), etc are more expensive. Also accommodation is more expensive (for expats) compared to South Africa. Electricity is also fairly expensive (compared to South Africa) and is irregular. The cost of a generator should also be factored into the cost of living (as you do not want to be without air conditioning in the summer when most of the power failures happen).

Overall the cost of living is similar to South Africa, but it depends a lot on your accommodation and leisure activities (because leisure especially for an expat can be very expensive).

Q: What are the locals like; do you mix mainly with other expats?

A:  The local people are really friendly and welcoming. For me the people are one of the most positive aspects of living in India. I mainly mix with locals from my office, from the community (Whisper Valley) that I live in, and expats.

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends?

A:  Yes. There is an expat association called TEA (Twin cities Expat Association). They have a weekly gathering and this is really helpful for new expats as it is a nice social environment to meet other expats.

About working in India

Q: Did you have a problem getting a work visa/permit?

A: No – the main problem is to get a long one, or to get it renewed while in India. Generally work visas are only given for one year. For each visa you need to register as a foreigner (within 14 days of arriving in India)

Q: What’s the economic climate like in Hyderabad, is there plenty of work?

A: There is a lot of IT companies in Hyderabad. The city is also developing rapidly, so there will probably be work for scarce skills. We are currently the only life insurance company based in Hyderabad, so there will be limited jobs available for other actuaries.

Q: How does the work culture differ from home?

A: Enormously – it would take pages to describe. Basically the work week is 6 days (and not 5). The attitude, approach to work, meetings, etc is completely different. Generally it is a less pressured and less structured work environment. Your day is not dictated by scheduled meetings (as most meetings happen impromptu). To get a feel for the work environment I would recommend a conversation with an expat working in India.

Q: Did a relocation company help you with your move?

A:  No, but our local partner (Shriram) helped tremendously.

Family and children

Q: Did your spouse or partner have problems adjusting to their new home?

A: India is a bit of a shock to the system, but we adjusted quite quickly. We were however realistic about what waited for us in India. After our baby was born it was much tougher to re-adjust. Generally it is tougher for the spouse to adjust than for the person who is employed.

Q: Did your children settle in easily?

A:  Our baby is now 9 months old. She seems very happy and healthy. We were quite stressed initially that she would become ill, but that has not happened.

Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?

A: Most of our friend’s children are in the International School of Hyderabad. They seem quite happy with the school. However we have no experience in this regard.

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in India?

A:  Doctors are excellent, but hospitals’ standard of hygiene is not what we are used to. (We don’t have any concerns about the skill of the doctor, but would rather worry about contracting a different disease during the visit to a hospital). I have had to use one of the local dentists to get a tooth crowned and I was very happy with the service. In general healthcare is significantly cheaper here.

And finally…

Q: Is there any other advice you like to offer new expat arrivals?

A: Look past the dirt and the poverty and see all of the positives that India has to offer. It is easy to focus on the negatives which will make you negative. If instead you concentrate on all of the amazing things that India has to offer you will be a lot happier.

In India people have a tendency to tell you what you want to hear (not to mislead, but rather to please). This lead to a lot of unrealistic expectations being created and a number of foreigners might find themselves regularly upset because everything seems to happen later than promised. Keep this in mind and adjust your expectations accordingly. If someone tells you something will be done within 2 days – expect it to happen in 4-6 days. (Don’t get upset when things are behind schedule, otherwise you will be regularly unhappy).

Generally in India a qualified “yes” is a “no” in western standards. So if you ask if something will happen by Friday and the answer is “Yes, we’ll try”- then the actual answer is “No, it is impossible”.

A lot of “health advice” is given to expats on what to avoid. My advice is to get all of the recommended vaccinations and after that ignore the numerous precautions on what to eat and what not to eat. Your stomach will get upset, but you will adjust and then you will really enjoy India. Food is a major part of any festival or party in India – eat with the locals at weddings, festivals, etc. You will be surprised at how excellent the food is.

If you get the opportunity – travel and explore India. It is a fascinating country with an amazing history and culture and there are many amazing sights that have been preserved that are really worth exploring.

Learn a local language – it will enhance your understanding and experience of India. (English will work everywhere you go, but a local language opens up a new understanding of India).

~ Interviewed February 2010

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