Expat Voices

Expat Voice: A Steep Learning Curve

Moving to India from the United States came with its set of challenges and pleasant surprises, says Gurugram-based Christina MacDonald.


Christina MacDonald moved to Gurugram (earlier known as Gurgaon) from the United States in September last year and now works for an insurance technology company in the city.

“My fiance Punit is of Indian origin. He lost his job due to the H-1B visa changes. We could have got married but then marriage should be an emotional decision and not transactional. So we decided to move to India,” MacDonald, who is getting married next month, tells Little India.

Born and brought up in Maine, MacDonald talks about her life in Gurugram, figuring out the Delhi market in a month, and more:

Life in Gurugram

A lot of our friends are either America-born Indians or expats. So I would hear their stories of how life in India would be. I was told that everyone in Delhi speaks English, which is not true. It’s been incredibly difficult to communicate as knowledge of Hindi is required, at least in NCR.

Work has been interesting and easy. The insurance technology industry is booming. Fortunately, most of the staff at the company I work for speaks English.

I learnt to appreciate home-life here. We spend most of our time at home and meeting friends. There’s anyway not much to do in Gurugram except going for a film or spending time at a mall. There are many off-road locations where you can go for weekend trips. Delhi has some gorgeous parks. You see people doing yoga or running in the morning at Lodhi Garden. It’s beautiful.

Ups and Downs

Travelling is a nightmare. Traffic is bad. I still face trouble getting a cab. I call a cab and then tap someone who looks friendly and request him/her to explain the location to the driver. The area I live in has upcoming societies but no landmark. Most of the time, the cab drivers are also not familiar with the new roads. Explaining the location to them in Hindi without a landmark can be quite a task.

You need to be careful when you go out to drink here. You don’t need to put your guard up but just be a little smart. Men can be a little aggressive. For a single girl, it’s not safe at all.

Food has been easy to adjust to. I can cook Indian food. I have had just one stomach infection. Thank god!

However, opening a bank account took three months. It was really difficult to get all the papers in order and file taxes as well. Also, I didn’t know Diwali would last three weeks.

I’ve traveled to other states, like Goa, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. It’s gorgeous. I look at the forts in Rajasthan and I think, “This is five times older than my country.” It’s just humbling and so beautiful. It’s nice to see that the culture is still preserved here.

Making Friends

It’s extremely difficult to make friends here organically. In New York, you can just buy someone a drink and have a chat and make friends. It’s very common and normal. Americans, in general, are very welcoming and eager to meet new people.

Here, it’s different. You need to know someone or have a connection in common to be able to talk to other people. You can either meet someone’s friend or not be able to talk to anybody at all. If you are at a friend’s party and you walk up to someone and introduce yourself, you are met with an angry, furrowed brow. The person is quite confused as to why you are talking to him/her.

However, friendships here are very strong unlike in the United States. It’s easy to have a 100 friends, but to have, maybe, five good ones takes a lot of time and energy.

Christina MacDonald at a wedding in Delhi.

Serving Dinner

Serving dinner is quite different here. During the first three months, I was being served wherever I went. It felt weird because I am used to serving myself as that’s the norm in the United States. When guests come over for dinner, they help out in the kitchen as well. We then place the food on the table and eat together like a family. Here, it’s different. People don’t understand that it is very normal for me to stand and cook food with them. They feel uncomfortable. 

In the United States, we enjoy a couple of drinks and then get done with dinner within half an hour. Here, people say that they will come at 7 pm, but they turn up at 9 pm. Then, you first serve starters and then dinner and then you need to offer it to them three times.

So Punit and I took the best of both worlds. We offer them a drink when they arrive. If and when they are hungry, dinner is on the table. They can just take their plates and serve themselves.

Skipping Queues

I still don’t understand why people skip queues. It is very rude. We were buying samosas once and it was very crowded. Suddenly, a guy just came out of the blue, put his arm in front of my face and jumped the line.

I was furious and clearly told him that he should respect the fact that there are other people waiting in line long before him. Now, I know when to intervene when such situations arise.

‘Hinglish’ Lessons

We have a cook and one maid. I didn’t need that luxury, but Punit explained it to me beautifully.

The economic statuses in India are different from that in the United States. There is a need for maids here. This is their job, and they will do it whether you hire them or not. When you see the amount of dust that settles in the house in Gurugram, you realize that employing a maid to clean the house is a necessity. It’s like an industry in its own.

I didn’t think it was right to mark out separate plates for the maids. At our house, they have tea out of the same cups as us and sit with us at the table for a few minutes before starting work.

Both the maids are Bengali but they speak Hindi. The cook can speak a bit of English as well, and we have our little “Hinglish” lessons every day. It’s too much fun.

Delhi Market

In the first weekend of my arrival, I went to Sarojini Nagar market and bought curtains and cushions for our apartment. Within the first month, I had figured out the whole Delhi market. I have a tailor I go to for my clothes, a guy I visit for fabrics. I know someone to help me with pottery. Everything is locally sourced. The quality here is unbelievable.

I also went to the chaiwallas and local vendors and eateries. So I had a very authentic and local experience in the first month itself. There was a wedding in February for which I went to the market and told the shopkeeper what kind of fabric and embroidery I wanted and how much I would pay for it. By then I knew the price of everything so it was easy.

Amazing Experience

I’ve become a little more relaxed. Nothing works me up anymore. I prepared myself quite a bit before moving to India. I learnt to be happy and just accept things the way they are instead of cribbing. You go through a hard time when moving countries. Things happen. You need to learn how to deal with it.

It’s been an amazing experience so far.

The interview has been condensed and edited.

Expat Voice is regular column on expats in India. Email us at expat@littleindia.com to nominate yourself or another expat for the column.

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