Chennai, India Report of what it's like to live there - 08/05/18
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?
I lived in Europe previously working for a Fortune 500 firm.
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?
East coast of USA. About a full day of travel with a connection in the gulf (shortest route) or via Europe.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, military, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
International assignment with my organization.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
150 square meter flat with 3 bedrooms. The building is new but poorly constructed. No green space. Noisy (never-ending street horns) and cave-like inside. frequent power outages. commute times vary depending on when you leave home (most folks seem to work 9-18 or 10-19, so if you avoid those times -- not too bad). folks living in the expat areas along the ECR can have longer distances to cover depending where their work place is.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Cheap if you shop where the locals go and stick to local food which is all sorts of rice and spice dishes. Tropical fruits are fresh, wonderful and available depending the season (mangoes, jack fruit, guavas, pineapple, papaya, and banana). I never knew I liked mango or road coconut water so much! Vegetables are not popular and harder to find. Besides chicken, meat is hard to obtain and beef or pork almost impossible to obtain. Eateries and shops advertising "beef" are usually selling water buffalo (aka -- Bangalore beef). Lovers of vegetarian and spicy Indian food will be very happy here. Meat-atarians and those who don't like the local cuisine will suffer.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Wine and spirits, as the selection is poor, expensive and limited to state-run TASMAC shops. Be sure to hit duty-free when before connecting to Chennai.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
You have 3 general choices for restaurants in Chennai - 1) South Indian, 2) North Indian, 3) Pan-asian (Chinese/Malaysian/Thai/Vietnamese/Indonesian with an Indian twist). Some places advertise themselves as "multi-cuisine" and offer all of the above including South and North Indian, and pan-asian.
That said there are some American fast food chains are available -- subway, burger king , pizza hut, and even Krispy Kreme donuts are all popular. Only places at 5 star hotels will offer overpriced alcoholic beverages. No one really offers beef.
Swiggy is a popular food delivery service, if they can find your home.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Ants, lizards, and mosquitos at certain times of the year. All are controllable.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Courier. Fedex. Local post is slow and a bit challenging and best for domestic use.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Inexpensive and about $300 a month for a full-time employee. I had hired a maid, but had problems with theft and absenteeism and have been managing on my own since with a part-time maid only. I prefer to drive myself or use Uber. Some folks manage on their own and other expats I know (particularly families) are running "Downton Abbey" at their residence with nannies, gardeners, drivers and maids at some significant expense. Don't be surprised if hired help asks you for large loans as you are the wealthy expat. Any hired help will likely require some hands-on training.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There are some gyms available, some hotel offer packages as well. I know a few people who run on the beach.
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 ATMs and credit cards. Amex seems to work best online. Be sure your cards do not have international transaction fees. Also be wary of businesses offering "dynamic foreign exchange" - which is a total scam; just pay in local currency never choose dollars or Euros.
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?
You are good to go with English. Probably best to learn a few words of Tamil for fun and as a courtesy.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Absolutely. There are no sidewalks and few elevators. I do not have a disability and find it challenging sometimes.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Uber and Ola are great and cheap and highly recommended. Tuk tuks are also good but you need to know how to bargain. The new metro is very cheap and safe but still under construction with limited stops. I have not used the buses.
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?
Best to buy a car in Chennai. Best bet is the popular Toyota Innova or a local model; Tata or Mahindra which is easy and cheap to service. Not a good idea to buy an expensive car here, as imported cars carry HUGE import duties. With any luck, your company will supply you with a company car and driver as part of your package and you don't have to worry much about this.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes but frequently cuts out after a storm. After the Cyclone of 2016, I only had internet access at the office for about 2+ months. Be sure to pay your bill on-time as the internet company will not extend you credit and will cut you off right away.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
I kept my home phone and plan and use my work phone which has a local number.
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?
I have heard some horror stories about animals in quarantine for months.
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?
Spouses are typically stay-at-home or do remote work by internet.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Volunteer opportunities abound but you have to seek them out.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Business suit and tie. Outside of work men and women tend to be covered and dress conservative and loose. Shorts are a no go unless you are at a resort.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Very little. Chennai is a very safe place compared to my home back in the USA.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Tropical diseases such as dengue, zika, malaria. Food poisoning is also a big concern. You will likely be sick at one point when you first come here as you are not use to the local germs. Be sure to carry hand sanitizer with you as bathrooms do not always have soap.
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 varies throughout the year but is never great. I can usually smell the air pollution everyday.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Be very careful with your food and come inside when the air pollution gets bad.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Cabin fever and nowhere to go. Be sure to get of town once in awhile; trips to Bangalore, Hong Kong, Singapore, or Dubai particularly if you are here without family. I had one friend based here by his company for a year who was miserable; his wife refused to come and he ended up in a divorce by the time he headed home.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Always hot. January through June are the worst and hottest months. Monsoon rolls in during November and sticks around through December.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
I don't have kids that go to the international school but heard its really nice and VERY expensive.
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?
Small. Despite all the international companies here, there are not a lot of expats. Bangalore seems to have a better expat scene. A lot of car companies here and some consulates.
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?
I know a few expat families but there is not a lot of socializing for me in Chennai. Best to just have friends come visit or take lots of trips out of town. Most of my local colleagues from work do not want to go out after hours and there isn't really anywhere to go. You will feel odd being alone at a restaurant.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
There is no nightlife or scene for singles here. Everyone is in arranged marriages. The culture is very conservative. You can go out to eat, go to the mall and catch a movie, maybe the odd cultural event or so and that's about it. Netflix is a God-send. Couples and families tend to do much better.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
It's as good for the LGBT crowd as it is for the singles. This place is best for families and couples regardless of preference.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Very conservative and homogenous Hindu area. Overall, there seems to be some inequalities and prejudices within the local community but I have not been exposed to it nor understand it very well. In general, I avoid talking about religion or politic, but the same could be true anywhere.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Wonderful and interesting ancient culture. Tons of opportunities for travel within South India or in the neighborhood of South and SE Asia. Lots of low-cost airlines. Many folks frequently go to Sri Lanka, Bangkok and Singapore.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Trips to the beach resorts on the ECR. A few nice restaurants in some of the 5-star hotels. Cheap spa services.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Yes. textiles, silks, oriental carpets, wooden furniture galore - stock up here!
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Ability to save money. Cheap travel within the region. Nearby beaches. Awesome local motorcycles: Royal Enfield.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
Be sure to negotiate your expat package carefully. The taxes and bureaucracy are significant here.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
I was assigned and didn't have a choice. It's ok but I can think of a lot of places I would rather be.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Taste for beef, thirst for a good glass of wine, and desire for a nightlife.
4. But don't forget your:
Sunscreen, Netflix and sense of adventure.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
There is a lot of great literature and movies about India; I'm not sure where to start.
6. Do you have any other comments?
The people of Chennai are incredibly friendly and despite the difficulties here, I have enjoyed my time. memories for life.