Chennai, India Report of what it's like to live there - 08/05/13
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?
This is our second. We have also lived in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
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?
Home base is Washington, DC. Traveling under U.S. government orders through United/Lufthansa from Chennai-Frankfurt-DC takes about 30 hours with layovers. Each flight is about 9-10 hours long. Other choices include going first to Delhi and then straight to DC. Or going through Dubai.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, military, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Housing includes Consulate owned and rented. Many of the 'houses' are split into two units that are Consulate owned. All true apartments are rented. Commute is usually 15-25 minutes to the Consulate. Nearly everyone lives near other U.S. Consulate folks.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Local varieties are inexpensive. Fresh produce is extremely affordable. Spices are too, so don't ship them if you don't already have them! Import items are very costly. Get them through the mail or put them in your consumables shipment.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Toilet paper, pasta sauce, tomato paste, pancake sauce, mac n cheese, cereal (by mail), baby foods and smoothie pouches, jam, molasses, apple cider vinegar (or other non-white vinegar), plastics wrap, ziplock bags, cat litter and food, wood furniture cleaner, apple sauce, corn meal, cocoa powder, olives, artichoke, heart of palm, maple syrup, corn syrup, refried beans. I would ship liquids and order others by mail. You can get a lot of those things here, but if they are Western-specific, you will pay a lot.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Domino's, McDonald's, California Pizza Kitchen (brand new), KFC, Pink Berry (brand new). There are other sit-down restaurants that offer good Italian, Greek, Korean, and American food. The selection has grown greatly since we moved here last year. Still has room to grow.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Mosquitoes carry dengue and malaria here. That being said, I don't know anyone taking malaria prophylaxis, including my family. We sleep under bed nets and use non-DEET bug spray when going outside, which is everyday. I switch to DEET family-type sprays when the mosquitoes are thicker than usual. Also, ants are a big problem. We are constantly in a battle trying to keep them out of the house.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
We use Diplomatic Pouch. So, we have to mind the 16 oz. liquid limit.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Household help is easy to find and inexpensive. You can hire a nanny or housekeeper or driver for about US$200-250 a month. We were lucky enough to find employees we were happy with from the very beginning. However, some people take a while before finding the right fit.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Yes, but I haven't used any of them. There is one at the Consulate that is OK. There are tons of places to take yoga classes. Many people also hire instructors to come to their house for yoga or personal training. This is a very affordable option.
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?
I use my credit card and ATMs throughout the city. However, the best exchange rate is cashing a check at the Consulate. I haven't had any issues, but I know a few people who have had their information compromised.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
I know that there are Catholic services in English at several churches, but the Basilica has reasonable hours (aka not 6am). Also, there are English services at the Mormon church. Not sure about others.
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
We have satellite TV (Tata Sky). It is OK and we keep it because one year costs what one month would in the U.S. But, we stream a lot of shows through our TV using an IP address blocker and netflix or amazon.
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You can get around with English, but I frequently need to use our driver or nanny to translate in Tamil.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
This is not a disability friendly city at all.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
I use taxis for longer trips and autorickshaws for short trips when I need to. Taxis are safer I suppose, but usually don't have working seat belts. They are safe enough for me to feel comfortable using them. Always use the meter in taxis and negotiate a rate with autos before taking off.
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?
You can't bring a car, so you either have to buy from someone who is leaving or buy on the local market and wait a few months to get your car.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes...ish. It depends where you live. We have 2 Mbps through BSNL. I know another family who has 8 Mbps through Airtel. That is about as fast as it gets right now. We pay about US$60 for home phone and internet.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
I have an iPhone and got a local SIM to use it here. If you want a cheap phone just for calls and texts, buy something here. Otherwise, buy it in the U.S. Smart phones are extremely expensive on the local market.
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)?
There are a couple of vets I feel comfortable with for basic care. We have neighbors or our housekeeper come to watch our cat while we are gone.
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?
Yes. I worked at an NGO for 7 months. If you have skills to offer, you can find a job. However, you must understand that the wages are much lower than U.S. equivalents.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Dress is conservative. At work, it is casual in the sense that you don't have to wear a suit everyday. And in public, most women I know don't wear short shorts or tank tops or the like.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Crime is very low here. I feel extremely safe here, especially compared to major cities in the U.S. Traffic is super crazy though and sidewalks (when they are there) are usually used for hawkers. This means people walk in the streets. Not pedestrian friendly at all.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Respiratory issues are common here. The doctors seem competent that I have visited, but the infrastructure is lacking. The lab testing facilities are clean, but the quality of results is questionable. Any significant health concern is taken care of via Medevac to Singapore. All women giving birth go back to DC or Singapore.
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?
The air quality is moderate to unhealthy. There is a lot of car pollution. And when it is dry, the dust is everywhere. Upper respiratory problems are common among expats. That being said, it isn't as bad as other major cities in India. The winds from the ocean seem to clear out a lot of it.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
The weather is almost dreamy from November-January. Of course, that is when the mosquitoes come out in droves. Otherwise, it is hot or hotter with small monsoons in June/July and October/November. The hottest months are May/June. Many people (especially locals) head to hill stations for cooler weather or get out of India during that time period.
Schools & Children:
1. 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?
Our son is 2.5 years old. He stays at home with our nanny. However, many children at this age are going to play school for 2+ hours a day. Sprouts and Alphabet are popular. There is a daycare (Grandma and Grandpa's) that I know one family is using and is happy with.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Sizable. There are quite a few Consulates and the car companies bring in a lot of expats.
2. Morale among expats:
It varies. Some people always have low morale. Some always have high morale. And most people go between those points at various stages. It often isn't an easy place to live, but there are positives about living here.
3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
This is a good family post simply because childcare is very inexpensive and good. There isn't really much of a nightlife. Nearly all marriages are arranged, so it is difficult for singles to date locals.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
There is an LGBTQ presence here in Chennai. However, it really isn't out in the open other than the Pride parade and the film festival held every year.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Yes, yes, and yes. There are tensions between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka for example, which is racial/cultural/religious based. There are occassional protests and sometimes isolated cases of violence related to these tensions. However, it hasn't been a huge issue since we moved here. Also, this is a very conservative and overtly patriarchal society compared to the rest of India. You have to keep that in mind...
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
For me, the food has been one of the biggest highlights. I love South Indian food. And now I can cook some of it!
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Visit the local temples and San Thome Basilica. There are swimmable beaches about an hour away. Trying south Indian food at different local restaurants is fun. Story Trails is a great tour company to learn about local things here in Chennai.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Rugs, fabric, antique furniture, jewelry, framing.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
The cost of living is extremely low when you are living on a U.S. salary. You can save a lot of money here. We travel quite a bit and have still managed to save. Also, the culture here in Southern India is so different compared to the rest of India, let alone the U.S. Also, it is swimming weather year-round, so all the Consulate kids learn to swim really young.
11. Can you save money?
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
I think if you ask me this question on different days you would get different answers... Am I glad we came here? Yes. Would I live here forever? No. It is a hardship post and you have to sift through the bad to get to the really good stuff.
2. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Tamarind City by Bishwanath Ghosh
Mother Pious Lady: Making Sense of Everyday India by Santosh Desai