Chennai, India Report of what it's like to live there - 08/05/11
Personal Experiences from Chennai, India
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
Connect in Brussels or Frankfurt to get back to Washington or New York. Do Brussels, as it's a nicer airport and with the USG that will get you on AA and Jet Airways. United does the Frankfurt run, and the flight service is mean and nasty. Jet Airways is a dream, but unfortunately, you cannot fly them all the way in to New York on USG funds.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
A 20-minute commute for USG folks to the consulate. For corporates, there can be some long drives. Traffic heats up fast.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
You'll spend more on these things than in the U.S., if you want U.S.-style quality.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Loads of stuff... breakfast cereals ($10/box locally), beef of all kinds. the list is long
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
A few McDonald's and KFCs around. Pizza Hut and Domino's are ubiquitous. Prices cheaper than in the U.S.
5. What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc?
Did you say meat substitutes for vegetarians? "Non-veg" is the alternative option in this town, if it's offered at all.
6. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Better than you'd expect, given it's India. Mosquitoes, but apparently none so far that have had any bad diseases. One individual in our community, who traveled very widely, did catch a mosquito-borne illness.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Through USG pouch. Slow, but 2-3 weeks just isn't as bad as it sounds.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
It is easy to find domestic help. They're typically not as reliable as some other nationalities we've worked with.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
The ATMs at one or two banks still don't like my U.S. bank's ATM card.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Catholic, mainline Protestant, evangelical Christian. Many Hindu temples and mosques, though I do not know whether they pray in Tamil, Hindi, English, Urdu, or Arabic -- maybe all of the above. I think Jewish folks in the expat community end up organizing their own events at appropriate times of the year. LDS is building something here and is already active in Bangalore. For Pete's sake, the Apostle Thomas is even buried here.
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
Loads of English language newspapers. If you like tabloids you're in for a good time. English-language satellite- and cable-TV is commonly available at a little less than you'd pay in the U.S.
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You can easily get by without Tamil.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
I expect it would be difficult. While some western cities are putting in sidewalk cut-outs for the disabled, Chennai is not even putting in sidewalks. Period.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
We take autorickshaws when necessary, though they're physically unsafe. The drivers are pushy, but not dangerous. Intercity trains are safe and ok, especially the Shatabdi to Bangalore. Some have taken the local rail transit without complaint, though just one look at those doorless wonders has made me wonder at their sanity. Local buses are crowded at a level that would make me worried about pickpockets.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
Do not bring a car. Get it here. India insists that it will only allow importation of right-hand drive vehicles; moreover, there is a tightening of environmental restrictions that is affecting even folks who try to import cars from Japan and the like. Also note that some cars cannot be repaired here. On the other hand, either start learning stick-shift, or look hard for an automatic when you get here. Consider buying an Indian car, they are nothing like the old Ambassadors that you'll still occasionally see.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes, at a little less than you'd pay in the U.S.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
Yes, good vets.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
I hear mixed reports. I have known several lawyers and others, whose services back in the West could have been outsourced, working locally with, well, outsourcers, at Western rates, nearly running the show after a very short time.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Expat men wear shirts and slacks, maybe blazers, maybe suits. Women have it tougher, they need to dress conservatively. Local women wear saris but you do not need to.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
No. Touch wood, that's more of a problem in the north.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Have had no problems. I understand it has the best air quality of India's Big Four cities.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
The temperature is 70-80F. and pleasant from November to maybe February. Other than that, hot and tropical. But strangely, not as hot and unpleasant as Washington in August. You'll get used to it. There has never been a day when I could not wear shorts if I chose.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
AISC has amazing facilities. Teachers are good, maybe not Philips Andover-good, but good.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
It's worth consulting with AISC about.
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
Yes, though I have not experienced it directly.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
At AISC, yes.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Not huge at the Consulate, but there are many expat workers here as well.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Locals socialize among themselves, in their extended families. Expats with families socialize with each other, it's about the kids; single expats have an OK time, but this is not partying India, Mumbai and New Delhi are on a completely different planet.
3. Morale among expats:
Strong among families.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Great, great, great for families with small kids, up through grade school -- great school, community pool, after-school activities, your driver can pick the kids up after school. HS kids get bored quickly. Singles get bored quickly: only one recorded instance of a USG person dating a local, in the 2-century history of the Consulate (kidding, but not much).
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Surprisingly, quite accepting of folks on all parts of the LGBT spectrum. A leader in India. I am not clear, though, what the actual dating possibilities are in those segments.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Well... they like whites, and they like males. Indian-Americans with north Indian ancestry may need to unlearn some of the things they heard about India before they came. Women will have an unusual, not to say difficult, time, as western skirts, shoulder-baring, etc., is all too much for Tamil culture.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Beach, beach, beach, but not all go. It's a 45-minute drive. Bangalore is great. Great place to tour India from. Chennai is not scenic in itself, but it's very liveable, and great for families.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Beach, swimming, food of a quality and range of cuisines that I understand exceeds even that of Mumbai, visiting Pondicherry, surfing lessons at Pondy.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Good food. Westerners often come and want to buy local South Indian clothes, though we have tried to resist -- the moment folks leave here, they realize they'll never wear the stuff again.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
The food is great -- if you like South Indian food, which is actually a range of unique cuisines, household help is abundant. The Consulate is well managed and well-resourced in contrast to five+ years ago. Locals are friendly, though keep to themselves on weekends.
11. Can you save money?
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
winter coat. Seriously. I made a mistake in packing, and mine is here.
3. But don't forget your:
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
Iruvar. (look it up.)