Chennai, India Report of what it's like to live there - 04/02/23
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?
Not first expat experience. Have experience in Asia and Latin America.
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?
The trip to the US is a long trip no matter how you break it up (Doha, Delhi, London, Paris, Frankfurt), but the worst part is often just dealing with bad insfrastructure, poorly trained staff and large crowds at India's worst airport - Chennai airport.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What years did you live here?
5. 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?
Depressing. For such a challenging post in India, do not expect housing will compensate for choosing to come to India. Lower your expectations. Staff appear to be untrained and in my opinion, are not able to keep up with the workload due. I found repairs were often denied or would take several failed attempts to fix to a standard not seen elsewhere in the world. Expect your residence to reflect the same shabby and decaying infrastructure you see in the streets. Housing is extremely overpriced and so underwhelming. My residence was in what one visitor from the US called a slum, although it was not.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Most things were available but of varying quality. Grocery stores are small and unsanitary and you must look at expiration dates on products. You could get most products here but it takes a good day of visiting several stores. Imported products are best bought online from the US if you really need something.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Good detergent and cleaning supplies.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Restaurants are abundant, so are food delivery services such as Swiggy or Zomato. However, once you realize how dirty the kitchens and seating areas are kept you may just refrain from eating out, even at the hotels. Saw too many restrooms with waiters at nice restaurants who never washed their hands. It's a very dry state and buying alcohol is challenging.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Of course! Big fat rats, cockroaches and ants were everywhere, as are mold infestations. Mold was probably the more frequent issue with walls, furniture, clothing, storage items completely covered in various mold forms. I found the standard response was that this is why the high diff and this is all part of living in India. Hard to avoid infestations when the climate and outside infrastructure are so severe.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Pouch. It takes forever given all the delays in flights. It was up to a month on any given order. You just never knew. If you're an online shopper and rely on US products, don't expect this to be a bright spot or coping mechanism during your time in Chennai or you will get frustrated.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Household help is available but poorly trained and unreliable on so many levels. In general, low cleaning standards means you need to go back and reclean and redo their work. There's a gaggle of folks who have been working for the community for some years and seem to want to be taken care of, but dont want to do the work. Expect frequent absences for random reasons that never quite make sense and you can never really verify. If you're willing to clean, you can survive without and your house will probably be cleaner for it. If you do hire, don't be surprised if you find out they're lying to you about something eventually or one day they just stop showing up for no reason and then want their job back two weeks later. It was one of the most unreliable places to hire staff.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Not expensive but not exactly the best time or place to be visiting such facilities. Some people hired online trainers for minimal fees.
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?
India is a hard place to use international credit cards. No one seems to understand why, including your own bank or credit card company. So the consulate helped staff to open local Indian bank accounts because India cannot get their act together to use international credit cards.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
English is common here and you can attend religious services in English.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
None. Some people dolearn Tamil if you wish but it really is not needed even if you want to talk to an auto driver or a grocery seller.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
It would be a disaster living in Chennai. The same accessibility issues extend to working at the consulate or living in a residence/apartment. No way.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Taxis were dirty, no a/c, and often no seatbelts. It's not a great option compared to other cities in the world that have real taxi services, because you never know what you will get. Autos are cheap and easy, but hot and unusable during the monsoon rains due to floods and sewage water flowing in the streets of Chennai en route to work; you would not want to get splashed with that water.
2. What kind of vehicle(s) including electric ones do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, infrastructure, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car or vehicles do you advise not to bring?
Buy a right-hand drive car when you get there. There's no real parking lots in the city so do not bring a nice car that you do not want to ding up. You squeeze into weird parking spaces or give your car up to so called valet at some of the nicer restaurants due to poor urban planning and lack of space for cars.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Internet is cheap and available but goes out frequently. Many people had two lines with two different companies in order to ensure you always have coverage.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Local providers are fine. Do not buy mobile phones there. Iphones are same price in US and you at least get customer care in the US. The non-Iphones are often Chinese companies and who knows what they installed on them.
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?
The vets were doing the best they can in a country that suffers from terrible animal neglect and poor sanitary conditions. Just don't bring a dog here. The weather is so hard on them. It is hard to find domestic staff who are not afraid of dogs. Guards and maintenance staff have still not figured out how to not be terrified of dogs and it becomes a frequent nuisance given how often you can expect to have people enter your apartment. There are plenty of critters from cats to street dogs to cows and geckos that you can feed temporarily while you live here.
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?
Some spouses worked at the consulate in consular or management sections but don't expect it to be the most stimulating or inspiring work or mentoring your spouse will ever have. If work is important to your spouse, consider an embassy or someplace with more experienced section heads. It can be a bit of the blind leading the blind.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Work is pretty business casual compared to most work places I've seen. I see no reason one would need formal dress in this post.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
At first this city seemed safe but as soon as something happens to you, you realize that no one will ever come to your side and assist. This is a society of people who stand by and observe people doing all kinds of negative behavior from pooping on the street to littering and harassing women and they will never say anything. For women, rape is a real thing here in India and women are harassed. It's serious and it is obvious that women are often treated like second-class citizens. So, yes, there are real personal security concerns here that probably require women officers to be extra vigilant. In some cases it just means women probably do not go out as much as men do because they do not want to deal with it.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Health concerns were real here. From food poisoning to dengue to malaria and constant flu and viral infections, this place tests your immune system on many levels. E coli is common to hear about as well. Indians are also very unhealthy and when you are in large crowds it is unavoidable in airports or airplanes or stores to be stuck next to people hacking on you with no respect for personal space, even during a pandemic. Indian food is also very unhealthy so avoid trying to eat too much as it adds up to a lot of unhealthy unnecessary issues.
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?
Terrible. The air purifiers ran all the time and show how filthy it is. The dust and filth in the houses, coupled with the mold issues, can add up, too. During the rainy season you have to run your dehumidifiers and empty often or you will get mold on your clothing and storage. Black mold may grow on your walls and ceilings and cabinets. Management had this thing about not running conditioners too much but if you turn off your a/c and come home after a long weekend away, you can already have mold growing on items due to the dampness and humidity. It's a constant struggle to keep things healthy.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
That this may not be the place for you as there are way too many health factors you will not be able to control here.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Mental health issues cropped up due to isolation and trying to keep yourself and your people happy. The lack of a strong community and low morale triggers other mental health issues. Living in India is hard and the infrastructure and poverty will strain your patience and your mental health. The open defecation is real and the constant illness will also test your resilience. Leadership and management are not inexperienced in managing teams during stressful times in high needs posts so in general people feel like they are on their own. Most Americans seemed to hate it there, and from what I can recall, were unhappy to the extent of being miserable.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
It is a harsh climate all year long. It is hot and dry in summer and wet and hot in the winter. It is hard to escape the heat. It limits what you do outside. While the beach may seem like a nice attraction, the open defecation and raw sewage that runs into the ocean is a non-starter for many.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There were plenty of schools here. Indians enjoy private education so there appeared to be lots of schools.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
I would expect this would not be a post you would want to take special needs children, given the way we see other special needs children treated.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
It was a large expat community of Indian Americans. The other non-Indian expats were not thrilled to be in Chennai and they would compare to other places in India they had lived.
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?
It was very, very sleepy there. Indians are busy with their families and their religious duties and ceremonies and rarely engaged with us. The work community was not close and there were few opportunities to get together with others so no one really knew the whole community. Looking back, it is only now I realize how sad and boring that it was.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Definitely not good for singles. It can be quite lonely. Maybe ok for families but I would be worried about children's mental health. In my opinion, this place really wasn't good for anyone but some people just seemed to not know any better.
4. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
Caste is a really dangerous and unbearable thing there and leadership was unable to do anything to prevent staff from treating each other according to caste, which basically meant on a daily basis you witness people treating each other so poorly, with no repercussions. Veg, nonveg, Christian, Muslim, Brahmin - everyone had a label and categorized their friends and colleagues based on who is most like them and applied their stereotypes accordingly.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
No. India is very conservative. Even staff were super conservative and had no interest in learning about people not like them.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Women are treated poorly by males, no doubt. It is not even passive agressive. It is pretty overt. India is not a safe place for women to navigate.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Leaving and the trips you can take from India to other foreign countries. Though you still have to travel from Chennai airport which takes all the fun out of travel.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
There are no hidden gems in Chennai. It is hard to see the beauty here due to the greyness and the infrastructure is so bad that really no places are hidden or gems. The close proximity to other countries for travel was one of the bonuses for this posting. You don't even need to see Delhi or Taj Mahal. Go other places in Asia and give yourself a deserved break from India for a bit.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Nope. South India does not have the handicrafts or fun things that people like to buy in northern India. Quality of new items is low and artwork uninspiring and very religious. Go north.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
You're not in Delhi? Other than that, I really saw no advantages to living in this city. It's not a place you should come to if you think it will be interesting for your career. Mostly, people came here because jobs are available and they did not land something elsehwere.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
It could be so unfulfilling and uninspiring.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Happiness. This place just sort of sucked that out of many of us.
4. But don't forget your:
Memories and photos of great past jobs or assignments. You may need a reminder now and then that not all posts are going to be as bad as they were here. This too shall pass.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
No, you will be knee-deep in India when you get here. Don't try to understand it before you get here. Come with an open mind.
6. Do you have any other comments?
This city is not on people's travel, bucket lists, or dream workplaces for a reason. Do what many people do, keep your head low and just stay two years and move on with yourself.