Chennai, India Report of what it's like to live there - 10/14/14
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 - Mexico and Tanzania.
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?
DC - about 20 hours total, connecting through Frankfurt or New Delhi.
3. How long have you lived here?
2 years (2011-2013).
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?
Housing is located in the city mostly 15-25 minutes from the Consulate and 30-40 minutes from the school. Combination of free standing homes and apartments, and most were clustered so you had consulate neighbors nearby.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
All the basics available locally and inexpensive. More familiar western brand foods (cereals, peanut butter, chips) are much more expensive and harder to find. As a consumable post you can plan for many of the things that you really want from the States. Fruits and vegetables were plentiful and incredibly cheap, but do have to be cleaned before eating. Refrigeration is questionable in almost all of the grocery stores but a few suppliers of meat were pretty reliable and used by everyone.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Olive oil, peanut butter, maple syrup. You can get just about anything you would want but it will cost you.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Domino's, Papa Johns, KFC, a very questionable McDonald's in one of the malls. Best fast food was dosa and idly at preferred local restaurants (even for kids who don't like spicy food, the plain dosas are a big hit)! I believe a few more chains have made it since we've left (Hard Rock Cafe and California Pizza kitchen.) A fair amount of good restaurants with varied menus, mainly at the nicer hotels in the area, but can be pricey.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Mosquitos! Dengue was a particular concern. We always slept with mosquito nets and the mosquito "bat" was our best friend. Ants were insidious, and you quickly learn to keep everything they might get into in sealed tupperware, zip locks, and in the fridge or freezer.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Pouch - usually took 2-3 weeks to get mail.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Household help is inexpensive. Many people had a housekeeper and/or nanny, and a driver. Salaries were increasing but when we were there it was about US$200 for a full-time nanny or driver. CLO keeps a list of people that have worked for consulate families in the past, and many employees hire help based on these references.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Small gym at the consulate, many people do yoga here.
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?
Credit cards were OK at the big hotels. Mostly cashed checks at the consulate and used cash whenever possible. Only used the ATM at the consulate.
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
None. Knowing a few introductory phrases is nice to know for every culture, but most people know English. Your nanny or driver are wonderful translators if needed.
6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Definitely - no side walks, and lots of uneven surfaces. Even if there is an elevator, there's not a guarantee they will be in working order.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Auto rickshaws OK for short distances, but know your route and bargain beforehand. Taxis also OK when needed but most don't have seat belts or AC. Safety is always a question but everyone uses taxis.
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?
Cannot import cars so have to buy a new car (which can take a few months) or purchase one from someone leaving post.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes - of varying quality and cost.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Bring a cell phone if you can. Even basic phones are pretty expensive on the local market.
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?
It can be and was done but salaries are really low and paperwork can take time. Definitely doable if you really want to but not that common.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Yes. A few local organizations can point you in the right direction to a reputable organization.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Business casual for work. For women, covered shoulders and knees was a good rule to follow when out and about around town but you could wear less conservative things at expat gatherings if you wanted to.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
We felt very safe here. As with any city, you should always be aware of your surroundings, and use common sense.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
OK for basic care, but for anything serious people were med evac'd to 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?
OK - better than some other cities in India, but still lots of dust and vehicle pollution.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Hot, and hot and wet. The weather is decent from November - January but this also overlaps with monsoon season when mosquitos abound (see below).
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
American International School of Chennai (AISC) - we had a great experience with the elementary grades.
2. 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?
A few decent local preschool options. Our youngest attended a local preschool (Alphabet) that we were happy with. Compared to the facilities at AISC, all the preschools paled in comparison but the children were happy and they were relatively inexpensive (by U.S. standards). Most people with young children had a nanny as well.
3. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Good experience with elementary level after-school activities, not sure about more organized sports at higher levels; some friends tried local classes but quality and reliability varied greatly depending on the day.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Mid size, mostly from Japan, France, and Korea. Majority of expats (other than consulate families) live outside the city closer to the school. Morale varied greatly during our two years there - fluctuated from high to relatively low - depending on the time of year/people around.
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?
Dinners out at nice hotels and some restaurants (since Chennai is dry, alcohol is only available if a restaurant is attached to a hotel). Lots of house parties and pool gatherings. Movie theaters are really nice and inexpensive (American and Indian movies shown).
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Families with young children and couples seemed to do best. Singles had a hard time due to lack of dating scene (South India is a very conservative culture and hard to break into, most marriages are arranged). Social life revolved around house parties and dinner/brunches at nicer hotels around the city.
4. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Regional travel opportunities - within India and internationally (Thailand, Singapore, Sri Lanka), friendships made within the expat community.
5. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Drive about an hour south for swimmable beaches, visit Mylapore Temple, take a tour with Story Trails.
6. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Lots of crafts and fabrics.
7. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Travel in India and region, rich culture, friendly people.
8. Can you save money?
Yes, but that can easily be spent if you travel a lot.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes. India is not the easiest country to live in, but if you go in with an open mind and accept that there will be inconveniences, it can be an incredible adventure. We enjoyed our 2 year assignment, and were happy to leave when it was done.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Winter clothes, spices.
3. But don't forget your:
Sunscreen, mosquito repellant.