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What to expect when moving to Delhi - Advice from an expat and cross-cultural expert

Updated 23 Jul 2012

I was speaking recently to a couple who arrived in Delhi just under a month ago and realised how much my husband and I have learned during 10 years of living here. They will be living near us, walking distance actually. I asked if she would like me to show her around “my side of town”. There was excitement in her voice as she introduced me to her husband as someone who knew: restaurants that deliver (including one with delicious baba ganoush), an air-conditioned grocery store with carts and a combination of Indian and imported products, an alternate route to get home when traffic is bad, a park for walking, monuments to explore, and a bakery owned by Canadians. They were devouring the bits of information.

After coming home I thought about how each person’s needs are different. That couple enjoys going out for brunch. Brunch places in Delhi are pretty much limited to five-star hotels. I’m thrilled that McDonalds has introduced the Egg McMuffin but that’s hardly called brunch. I love the toasted English muffin, egg, cheese and chicken sausage sandwich. Someone else might be looking for athletic facilities, night life, or a school for the kids. My husband and I enjoy walking. It is a great way to explore the city (during the cooler half of the year). We discover things that we completely miss when we are in a vehicle and we burn off some of the pounds that we’ve added because we truly enjoy Indian cuisine.

We think of ourselves as pretty much at home here. However, this last October we had an experience that made me say, “How did it take us so long to learn this!!”  For years I had been told “Divali (the festival of lights) is just like your Christmas.” It is similar in many ways; homes are decorated with lights, special food, and especially sweets, are prepared, gifts are exchanged, and families and friends get together. However, we discovered a difference; in my home country stores are closed on Christmas morning  and everyone has done their shopping beforehand; no one would think of going shopping on Christmas morning. So, we had never gone to a market on Divali morning, because “Divali is just like Christmas”. This year we picked up our camera and decided to go roam through our local everyday market. We got there about 9am as things were just opening up. The streets were lined with vendors selling marigolds and green leaves strung for draping. Sweet shops had extra tables set up outside to handle the demand. Small tables displayed clay pot diyas (a simple oil lamp), murtis (idols or statues), and powdered colors for creating rangoli (a decorative design on the floor). Everyone was in a festive mood. We sipped a 5 rupee cup of Chai-walla chai, and we were invited into a home to see their decorations. It was a magical morning and next Divali I plan to go out again. It's these simple experiences that make living in Delhi so special to us.

So, what do you want out of your Delhi stay? Perhaps you are coming reluctantly and just want to survive. Perhaps you are adventurous. Or maybe you aren’t sure. Some battle between wanting to stay in their safe zone and wanting to venture out. Some move for career purposes and focus mostly on work. Most of us want to enjoy both our work and the hours in between work. I think the best advice I can give is not specific, as in try this restaurant or visit this particular hill station, my best advice comes more as attitudes to embrace:

Adapt – Delhi is not going to adjust to you. Your life here will be different. Get that in your head right now. And then make an effort to notice all the good things in your new life. When we first moved and I was tired or frustrated with some Delhi experience (perhaps being stuck in traffic on the way home from our kid’s football practice), I’d smile as I picked up the phone and say, “Grocery delivery service rocks,” and then give my order to the local store, a time-saving service I never had before Delhi.

Enjoy the opportunities – You’ll have so many new experiences; enjoy them. We have met such interesting people, both Indians and other foreigners. We have travelled to Himalayan mountains and Kerala backwaters. I’ve made a friend with an Indian lady with a son who has autism. She has started a school for differently abled children. She inspires me.

Don’t expect too much all at once, but usually one opportunity leads to another. Take the opportunities that come your way (with some discretion) and see where you end up.

Relax – Don’t be overly uptight. Car seats and hand sanitizer are great; let them serve you rather than you becoming a slave to them. Delhi’s traffic usually moves slow enough that accidents are nothing more than fender benders (exceptions include late night and travel on the new multi-lane expressways). As for germs, some research indicates that exposure to germs builds one’s immunity so you or your children may turn out healthier than if you had never been exposed.

Don’t be overly suspicious. Some Indians will cheat you. I felt better after I learned that my Indian friends also get cheated. But many Indians will offer you good service at a fair price and some will go out of their way to give exceptional service. If you are in a situation where you know someone is overcharging you and you have another option, take the other option. If you get taken every now and then, don’t sweat it, and don’t get angry. You are more likely to get good service if you can make them laugh than if you yell at them.

Understand – Besides my personal enjoyment of Delhi, I want to understand the world that I have entered. Understanding helps me to respond appropriately. We have taken a “Walk into the Streets” tour offered by an NGO working with street kids. A personal and appropriate response to human need is part of living in India. We took a guided walking tour of Varanasi on a recent trip to better understand Hinduism as it is practised in the river city. India is complex. I will be learning for a lifetime and I enjoy the learning.

Know yourself – There is nothing better for knowing oneself (except perhaps marriage) than living abroad. I see things about myself, my values and my assumptions that I never saw in my own country. Also, know your limits and needs. I don’t like crowds and I know that if I go to the mall during peak hours I will be frustrated. I enjoy going in the morning.

Add value – Look for what you can give to Delhi during your stay. Can you build bridges of understanding through friendship? Can you contribute time or money to a local NGO? Participate in the Walk for Cancer? There are many ways to give.

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