Chennai, India Report of what it's like to live there - 05/13/16
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?
Washington D.C., New York. No direct flights. Options available through London, Frankfurt, Dubai, Doha, and others.
3. How long have you lived here?
First of two years.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, military, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Family member of a government employee.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
There's a variety of housing, from single-family homes with yards to spacious apartments. I can't count the times I've heard the refrain, "this is the worst housing in the State Department I've ever seen." Quality does vary. It's all extremely spacious, though.
Traffic is heavy in the evening, but less so in the morning. Commute times vary from 10 to 30 minutes on average. Driving is crazy -- not traffic per se, but driving.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Produce is readily available once you find a good vendor, though seasonality greatly affects what's available. Imported produce is all but non-existent. Aside from paneer, cheese is extremely limited, and imported cheeses are often of low quality. Other imported products are available at two or three specialty stores, but goods are often expired.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Nothing worth shipping. The things I miss most are either not allowed in the pouch (alcohol) or perishable.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Restaurants run the gamut from very inexpensive (US$1.50 per person) to expensive (US$75 per person, usually in the finer hotels). Food safety is a major concern when eating out. Western chains are minimally available. Expect non-Indian cuisine to have an Indian flair: heavy sauces, and plenty of vegetarian options. Only rarely will beef or pork be served.
I do not care about fast food chains, but I enjoy exploring food, and Chennai doesn't have much. Restaurants tend to serve the same dishes. Cuisines here are not inventive. Compared to other major cities in India, there is very little diversity. Quality is often low.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Mosquitoes. Ants. Snakes.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Diplomatic pouch. No liquids over 16 oz. No flammable material (e.g., nail polish, cologne). No alcohol. Aluminum cans are okay. It takes about 2.4 to 3 weeks on average for mail to reach Chennai through the pouch.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Very inexpensive. People generally hire a housekeeper/cook, driver, and nanny if they have children. I generously pay a part-time housekeeper/cook approximately US$225 per month. Domestic help often appreciate overtime pay.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Gyms are inexpensive but pretty dismal. One-on-one personal training is also inexpensive, but the quality is mixed.
The best deals come from paying for 12 months' membership in advance. Expect to pay anywhere from US$200-$350 for an annual membership. Equipment tends to be old. Changing rooms, especially for women, are in poor shape. Towels are not usually included. Expect a lot of employees to be standing around staring while you work out.
There are no rock-climbing gyms. There is no CrossFit. One knock-off Spinning studio recently opened. Yoga is available.
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?
Not nearly as difficult as I had expected. Credit cards are widely accepted. Sometimes online retailers don't accept non-Indian-issued credit cards, but most brick-and-mortar stores take MasterCard and Visa, and sometimes Amex.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Language isn't usually the barrier. You can get by totally fine with English. But there are customs for navigating the city and India at large. It will be frustrating no matter what languages you speak.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Uber and another similar company, Ola, are very affordable. Both take some time to learn how to use with local customs, and both require a good deal of patience. Auto-rickshaws ("tuk-tuks") are cheap, but foreigners get gouged until you learn tricks for how to pay. Auto-rickshaws contribute badly to pollution and I would recommend people avoid them for that reason alone. I do not use other forms of public transit.
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?
Must buy local. There is a trade-off between getting a big car that will survive the crashes you will most definitely be in and a small car that is more maneuverable. Many people told me before arrival that a car is a must, but it's not true. You can get by with Uber, Ola, auto-rickshaws, and hiring weekend drivers with cars for longer trips.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes. We paid a few hundred dollars for a year upfront. I don't remember the cost. I'd estimate it's less than US$20 a month. Power outages cause the most Internet disruptions. The Internet goes down every few weeks, but we can reliably stream, make video calls, etc.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
An unlocked phone will work here with a local SIM card. Data is very cheap. You can pre-pay or post-pay for data at kiosks. I use Airtel and it has been pretty reliable all around India.
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?
In-home pet quarantine, 30 days. Surprisingly easy. I have managed to avoid vets and kennels, but if you ask around, you can find one or two decent options. Household help are sometimes keen to take on pet care for the overtime pay.
I had heard that "Indians are afraid of dogs," and that's just not true.
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. There is a bilateral work agreement, but don't expect anyone to assist you in leveraging it.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Western men mostly dress in Western clothes. Women typically cover their legs fully and shoulders. Local women's clothes are saris or kurtas and pants (similar to a pajama set). Western women almost never wear shorts, skirts above the knee, dresses, high heels, tank tops, or spaghetti straps. Men's street clothes can be whatever they want.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Day-to-day doesn't feel worrisome from a security perspective, but data show violence and terrorism remain high in India in general.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Food illnesses and mosquito-born illnesses are the biggest concerns. Expect to get a lot of vaccinations before arrival. Chennai is the only post in India where Americans don't typically take anti-malarial drugs, however. Dentistry is very good and cheap. A lot of people get braces, Invisalign, and other dental work done because it's so inexpensive. Other medical care varies. If you need surgery, you go 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?
The air quality wavers from moderate to very unhealthy. Be sure to view all available data and not just that collected by the U.S. government. The air quality is a major issue and limits our ability to exercise outdoors, walk outdoors, or bicycle. I can taste the pollution and feel it in the back of my throat if I'm outside for more than about five minutes.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Despite the steadily warm weather, there is a pollen season that can affect those with allergies. But the air pollution is a much bigger concern. It's easy to be vegetarian. Eggs are considered meat and aren't used widely in baking. Nuts are often blended into sauces. Anyone with a shellfish allergy will be fine if s/he eats vegetarian -- no surprises there. Food tends to be very oil-heavy. Fresh fruits and vegetables must be disinfected, and they are rarely served at restaurants. Most food is cooked.
5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
January to March is pleasantly hot (80s to low 90s Fahrenheit, maybe even 78 degrees at night), and always humid. April to July is very hot (100s, with "feels like" temperatures from 120-130F), and very humid, with occasional thunderstorms later in the summer. August and September are still very hot. October to December is monsoon season, with heavy, persistent rains and high temperatures. The temperature does not cool off at night.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
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?
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Medium sized, and morale waivers a lot. This is tough place to live. Management and operations staff at U.S. government offices are not the best, which affects morale.
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?
Making your own fun. Movies are cheap, but English-language films and subtitles are only available on certain days.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Families with young children seem to do best (that's a highly relative "best"), but there are continuous health issues for little children due to poor water quality (rashes and infections from bathing, swimming). Singles should avoid Chennai. It is not LGBT friendly either. The culture is very conservative with all arranged marriages and no dating scene. Couples need to make their own fun. Childless couples will find more to do in Mumbai or New Delhi.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Yes. Gender segregation is visible. Media portrayal of women is awful. That said, street safety for women is much less of an issue here than in other parts of India. Women generally do not get harassed. Staring is rampant, but it may be more a product of being a foreigner than being female.
Foreigners stand out big time. Chennai is not diverse. The region is at least 80% Hindu, with some Christians and a very small Muslim population. Buddhists are all but non-existent, and there is no synagogue.
If you are used to a diverse environment, Chennai is a real shock.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Saving money. Proximity to beaches (1.5-hour drive) with easy surf for beginner surfers. We also get massages regularly because they are cheap and reimbursable through certain U.S. health insurance providers.
India is great for photographers. It is not great for cyclists.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Chennai does not have much to do. Driving 1 to 1.5 hours south there are beaches that are clean enough for swimming and surfing. Beach access is often available through hotels if you eat lunch at their restaurants, book an appointment at their spas, or pay for a day pass.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
If you like to shop, you might as well furnish your whole house while you're here. Fabrics (table cloths, bedspreads, sheets, towels, clothing), hand-made furniture, rugs all cheap.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
it is inexpensive. Availability to travel within India, but out-of-country regional travel is more difficult than it may seem.
10. Can you save money?
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
Whatever anyone tells you about India (comments in this post included) is both true and not true at the same time. India is full of contradictions. The people are so nice; the people are awful. The weather is unbearable; the weather can't be beat. The food is terrible; the food is amazing. You need a car; you definitely don't need a car.
Plan your overseas travel ahead of time. You'll need those out-of-country trips to look forward to when things get rough.
Nothing makes sense. Don't try to understand it. Locals don't know what's going on either. You can't change India.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
No. (It wasn't really by choice in the first place.)
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Sense of fashion. Love of beer.