Chennai, India Report of what it's like to live there - 06/18/14
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?
No, fourth assignment and we have lived in East Asia, SE Asia and Europe.
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?
Washington, DC; about 20 hours with a connection in Frankfurt or London.
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?
Most people live between 15-30 min from the Consulate. A mix of houses, apartments and duplexes, many significant and recurring maintenance issues. Most of the properties are old so just plan on spending a lot of time dealing with maintenance.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
This was one of the worst parts of our tour. You can get veggies and fruits for cheap, they need to be washed thoroughly but if that's all you want you are in luck. Everything else is a nightmare. There are two main expat stores (at least) one of which Amma Nana. The shopping experience is terrible here: crowded, dirty, imported goods that are overpriced and often out of date. Their cold section clearly isn't cold during the frequent power outages and as such we don't buy any meat or dairy there. In reality, if you want to eat something other than veggies and rice, you need to stop at at least three different places and hope you can find a good protein supplier that you trust. It's not easy so use your consumable shipment.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Consumables, syrup, black beans, cereal, sun tan lotion.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
KFC, Subway and Dominoes are all readily available. There are local places that sell dosas for next to nothing and are worth a try. Food poisoning is a real risk no matter where you eat.
There are more and more five star hotels who have great offerings, but of course are pricey. Very little in between basic food and luxury. South India cuisine is heavily dependent on rice and getting good, quality protein is a real challenge.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
So many ... the most dangerous are the mosquitoes; we had a serious dengue problem a few years ago, which seems to have abated for the moment. Our house has ants in the hot season, mosquitoes in the rainy season and all kinds of spiders and other interesting creppy crawlies throughout the year, including wasps!
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Consulate pouch takes a few weeks.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
This was another challenge, readily available but extraordinarily specialized. We had a gardener, driver, nanny/cook and housekeeper. Oh the drama, be careful who you hire, say good-bye to your personal space and boundaries and buckle up for an adventure. Depending on the size of your family you will need some staff to help you navigate the daily grind of living in India. My advice, find good people, pay them well (find out the average wage and pay more), pay OT and listen to them, they have seen countless foreigners flounder in India and they have good advice if you take the time to listen, many people don't. Also expect drama, fights among the staff, requests for loans and all kinds of other things, it's all part of the package.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Very basic one at the Consulate. Hotels have them available but are fairly costly.
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?
No problem; Citbank ATMs are around the city and safe and easy to use. No problem with credit cards.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Yes, just about all.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
None, a few words are appreciated but this has to be the easiest country to live in without speaking the local language.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes, people without physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city. Infrastructure is horrendous, no sidewalks, trash everywhere, power outages are common, so when there are elevators you might get stuck!
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Trains are fine, cheap and a fun way to see the country. The stations themselves can be chaotic but once you do it, it's easier the second time. There are taxis, most people hire personal drivers. Auto rickshaws are everywhere and cheap (although they will try to charge foreigners more), they are not the safest but easy for short trips. Buses are not recommended.
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?
It has to be right hand drive and by far the easiest thing to do is buy one from a departing expat.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
No, another big headache, some people are lucky, we were not. Internet was incredibly unreliable and slow, it was not too expensive, maybe US$25 per month. I hear things will change for the better but I'll believe that when I see it.
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?
No, with the big caveat that if you can work from home and get a good internet connection then maybe.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Many - help is needed in so many ways.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Business. Given the climate, men can often get by without a tie and jacket.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Personal security is fine, the biggest threat is traffic and dengue.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Oh so many, dengue is a serious issue and as mentioned earlier our community was struck hard a few years back. Food poisoning is also a major threat and happens quite often. Malaria is an issue in the rural areas but not so in Chennai. Sanitation is lacking in general, and diseases spread quickly, especially during the rainy season.
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?
It's fine, nowhere near as bad as Delhi and probably as good as DC.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Hot, hotter and hottest. A few months out of the year are bearable (Nov-Feb), the rest is misery.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
AISC has been great. Like any school there are a few downsides but for us it was one of the main positives of our tour. The school is continuously getting better and facilities are top notch. Teachers, on the whole, are good and academics are very good.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
Some but not the school's strong suit. They do try.
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, many options, some people enjoy the local formats (strict, route learning, cheap) we did not, we would recommend AISC if you can afford it.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes, through the school - basketball, soccer, track and field and swimming to name a few.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
If people have a connection to India (family or otherwise) or if they are fascinated by Indian culture then typically their morale is good. If people don't have those anchors then generally speaking morale is not so great. This is not an easy country to live in, constant noise pollution, garbage, weather and illness are all a challenge, plus it's far from home and there is not a lot going on here. If you come in with the attitude that it's going to be tough then you might pleasantly surprised.
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?
House parties, pool parties, going to five star restaurants.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
For families it's good if having a good school is important, saving money, having a large living area etc. It's not great for people who love the outdoors and there are real health concerns. For singles, I think it's pretty rough, nightlife here is not good, but if you love to travel you can always escape. I think married couples who are interested in India or who have a family connection to India, do the best.
4. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Yes, big time with gender. Plenty of material to readily available to read up on before you arrive.
5. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
We have loved the regional travel opportunities and saving money. We have also enjoyed the school, AISC, which has improved quite a bit in the past few years.
6. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Travel to Kerala and take a houseboat tour or go to the beach. Plan escapes, they are needed. If you are interested in Indian culture, South India has a lot to offer.
7. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
There are antiques and shopping in Pondicherry and Southern Tamil Nadu; we spent a lot of money on travel and were still able to save.
8. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
You can definitely save money here, that is a big advantage. There is also a lot of regional travel opportunities, such as SE Asia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Gulf. If you are interested in Indian culture then of course there is a lot to see and experience. Chennai is also on the ocean (Bay of Bengal) and there are a few decent beach resorts that make for good weekend get aways. Kerala is an easy flight away and should be visited as well.
9. Can you save money?
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
I wish I had understood the health challenges a little more.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
4. But don't forget your:
Sun tan lotion and anything you think you'll need, you cannot get everything here. Also bring your patience.
5. Do you have any other comments?
I wrote this review to contrast some of the sunnier previous reviews. Some people come here and love it, but most who I have known over the past three years have struggled with serious up's and down's. There were some great times but life here is hard and people should know that coming into it and not expect it's going to be easy. The people who thrive here either have an India connection or have just come from somewhere worse, and those places are few and far between. Don't get me wrong, not everyone here is hating life every moment of the day, people adjust and follow their hobbies, or get in shape; they cope. It's just not a place where most people want to come back to, the frustrations are many. I am glad my family and I were here and admire the persistence of the people who live here. We have made some great friends both among locals and expats and learned a lot about the culture which we appreciate.