Lisa Marks is an American expat living in Delhi. She moved to India with her husband in August 2013. While Lisa has experienced a degree of culture shock, she has embraced the opportunity to live in a new country. In her interview with Expat Arrivals, Lisa provides insights into the challenges of being a trailing spouse in a country as diverse and eclectic as India.
Lisa is currently busy working on her forthcoming website called Under the Skin.
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: I was born in America and the last place I lived was London. I’m lucky to have dual nationality though anyone listening to me would think I am just British but I’m proud of my US roots.
Q: Where are you living now?
A: New Delhi, India.
Q: When did you move here?
A: August 2013.
Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?
A: I moved to India with my husband.
Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: Having lived abroad before I’d been angling to leave London and my husband got offered a job in India. We couldn’t turn it down. I guess you could call me a trailing spouse, but as a former magazine journalist who writes for fun I don’t need an office or a working visa. Right now in between scrubbing my own floors I’m working on a book and a website I’m setting up, neither of which need permission from the Indian government. As long as I have my laptop I can work. I previously lived on a Thai island with no internet and managed to work, in fact a lot of what I’m doing now started from that time, when I also couldn’t work. Just because you don’t have a visa doesn’t mean you can’t work but it’s a good excuse if you want to use it.
Living abroad in Delhi
Q: What do you enjoy most about Delhi? How would you rate the quality of life compared to your home country?
A: Comparing Delhi to London is like comparing day to night, I think part of enjoying life somewhere different is not to compare it to anything. Delhi is full of contradictions and glimpses of the old India mixed in with aspirational India. So far the contrasts are keeping me interested as just going out is an experience.
Q: Any negatives about Delhi? What do you miss most about home?
A: My freedom. To wear what I want, and to get up and get dressed without thinking about what I am putting on and whether it is appropriate and where I am going and how I am getting there because in London that wouldn’t be so much of an issue. As a woman here you need to consider your safety and being mindful of your dress and your actions. It may have been fine to go out at night dressed in your shortest, tightest outfit and most precarious heels back home but I’m not into the idea of doing that here. I once saw the reaction a young girl wearing rather tiny shorts and a vest top got in Connaught Place and I just thought why invite trouble your way. Truly, I wanted to go up to her and wrap something round her. The longer you live here when you see someone dressed like that the more surprising it is and if I am staring what reaction is that going to get from the opposite sex. I don’t see Indian women dressed like that so I don't think as a visitor in India it would be OK either. .
Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life in India? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: For me,having a foodie and certainly not vegetarian husband to placate is challenging and a visit to the supermarket was my first experience of culture shock. There was no meat aisle, wine aisle, ready meal aisle or cheese aisle. I had got so used to grabbing cooked chicken back home and that isn’t happening here. So it took a little while to find trusted meat suppliers and to hunt out fine wine. In fact, this is an ongoing mission.
Q: What’s the cost of living in Delhi compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: The cost of living here is low especially bills and vegetables and produce are abundant and cheap, but where you pay is if you want to buy imported products and wine. Dinner and drinks at Delhi’s amazing hotels are also equivalent to London prices but you get what you pay for.
Q: How would you rate the public transport in Delhi? What are the different options? Do you need to own a car?
A: I think our lives would be easier with a driver, we don’t have one and so that can be difficult, so if you can hire a car and driver do it. We use auto rickshaws a lot but when going out late at night we’ve used a driver we know and I think that is the way to go. I haven’t been on a bus or the metro yet but my husband rates the metro highly. Compared to London travel is very cheap.
Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in India? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: I personally, as a woman, would not linger by myself in Connaught Place and it’s alarmingly easy to get lost there. Furthermore, the touts make it intimidating for the first time visitor. I’d advise women on their own to be vigilant and know where they are going and to try and avoid getting into auto rickshaws on their own at night. I’m still finding my way here but Delhi at night can be intimidating. Sort out transport you trust and if possible the old saying safety in numbers is a good way to go here.
Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Delhi? What different options are available for expats?
A: I’m by no means an expert and my home has a very traditional bathroom and kitchen but the beautiful floors make up for that. There are modern homes out there but you might have to pay the price for them. Our home came with the job and not having to pay rent is a good thing here where rents can be high.
Q: Which areas/suburbs of Delhi would you recommend for expats to live in?
A: I’d live in Vasant Vihar or the Defence Colony if I had the choice.
Meeting people and making friends in Delhi
Q: How tolerant are the locals in India of foreigners? Is there any obvious discrimination against particular religions or women etc.?
A: In the area where we live there are not that many expats so we have encountered a lot of stares whilst we’re walking around carrying our shopping bags. This could just be because they expect expats to have drivers. People are curious and you need to expect to be looked at.
Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends in Delhi? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: We’ve met people through my husband’s work but we’re still doing that, and have joined Internations, an online expat group that meets in Delhi, so we’ll be going to one of their events soon. You have to give it time. Settle in first and realise you cannot do everything at once. Making yourself a new life and new friends takes time and effort.
Q: Have you made friends with locals or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends? Any social/expat groups you can recommend?
A: We mainly mix with other expats, but they come from all over the world. I am trying to use Internations and Delhi Network to meet other people as well.
About working in Delhi
Q: Did you have a problem getting a visa or work permit? Did you tackle the visa process yourself or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: I had a problem with my spousal visa and my dual nationality complicated matters, so I had to get it on my British passport. The visa process is lengthy and we didn’t have time so if you can give yourself time to get the visa sorted and don’t assume you’ll just get it. I got mine finally three days before we left so that wasn’t fun. All foreigners have to register within the first two weeks of being in India, which is totally not what you need when you are trying to settle in. Get passport sized pictures taken before you go and be prepared for a long wait in a crowded room. You could tell who had been there before as they had their heads down with a good book. If you can get help with the visa do so, as my husband’s work had us in and out of there in an afternoon. I’ve heard it can take days.
Q: What’s the economic climate like in Delhi? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job there? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: I know the restaurant scene is flourishing. Delhi is a city of foodies so if you work in this industry and have a bright idea this is the right place to be. Eat and Dust was a blog written by an expat, now she’s got a book deal, and if that isn't inspiration I don’t know what is.
Q: How does the work culture in India differ from home? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in the city/country?
A: Expect longer hours and a six-day week is normal here.
Family and children in India
Q: Did your spouse or partner have problems adjusting to their new home in Delhi? Do you think there are any specific challenges for a trailing spouse?
A: For a trailing spouse the attitude seems to be that you have it easy as you don’t have to get up in the morning and go to work. No, you don’t but you have to set up the house whilst your partner struggles to settle in and at the end of the day they don’t have the time or the energy at the end of the day to do it for you. You have to be the strong one holding them together, whilst they learn a whole new way of working. I was sat in a hotel room researching where to go to buy what we needed to turn an empty flat into a home. It was a full time job setting up our home and still being a support to my partner. I think it must be harder if your partner is at a high level as you have to be ready to go and entertain.
Q: Did your children settle in easily? What were the biggest challenges for your children during the move?
A: I’m not lucky enough to have children yet but my husband’s predecessor had two children whilst living here.
Q: Is there any other advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: Be strong, make your own mind up, trust your instincts and accept that expat life is going to be different, you aren’t going to be able to live the same life as you did at home, with the same foods and attitudes. Embrace it, eat Indian food, and just take every day as it comes. There will be good days and bad days and that is to be expected. If you wanted your life to stay the same why move countries. Even if it wasn’t your choice if you look hard enough there will be something you can find, or some place to go that makes you happy. All you need to do is find it.
~ Interviewed July 2012