Living in India can be confusing for expats, and can take some getting used to. Some expats arrive in India with visions of living in an exotic Asian country, only to find themselves in urban, developed surroundings, although certain infrastructural problems do exist. At the same time, there’s the incongruence of living in a country that is to a considerable extent modern and driven by technology and global ideas, and yet retains many local, traditional, and often conservative ideas and practices.There is also the fact that India has an incredible amount of diversity within it – there are 29 states and seven union territories, and each of these has its own culture (often several different cultures); there are also the vast differences between rural India and urban India, and even between the four or five major cities like Mumbai and Bangalore and the smaller cities like Lucknow and Nagpur.
Advice on how you should and shouldn’t behave in India often fails to mention the context in which it is applicable – to say that you shouldn’t try to shake an Indian woman’s hand, for example, is somewhat incomplete. In the big cities, and especially among young professionals, everyone shakes hands with everyone else, regardless of gender. Depending on who you’re meeting and in what situation, it might actually be considered rude if you shake hands with the men and not the women.
Nonetheless, here are five things you should almost universally avoid doing in India.
Eating like the locals
Yes, one reason to be an expat is to live a different life, to soak in local culture, and one of the best ways to do this is with food. However, be cautious – street food is often not the most hygienic, and even some restaurants aren’t as particular about hygiene as they should be. Indian spice can also be too intense for some expats. People who have grown up in India can deal with this, but many expats can’t. For at least the first year, don’t be too eager to eat like the locals. Don’t be embarrassed about choosing home-cooked food or a slightly expensive but reliable restaurant over a cheap and exciting-looking option. Ease yourself into it, and get into the habit of eating plenty of yogurt – the good bacteria will help you deal with anything bad that gets into your system.
Buying goods at the quoted price
Like we said, a lot of advice has limited applicability – and this bit doesn’t apply to the large, “proper” stores. The prices here are almost always fixed and final. However, at almost any of the smaller stores, including roadside stalls and informal and semi-formal markets, prices are flexible and bargaining is expected. These vendors will always quote a higher price than they actually expect to get, and as an expat, you will receive the highest quotes.
Trusting public transport too much
Again, this depends on where in the country you are. The Delhi Metro, for example, is highly efficient, convenient, and reliable. However, in most parts of the country, train and bus services, if they exist, are extremely crowded and difficult to use. Taxis and local auto-rickshaws are often difficult to find, and they frequently turn down customers. If you’re lucky enough to live in a city where taxis and autos are easy to find, you should still use a map to make sure that you don’t get lost or taken on a longer journey to increase the cost.
Relying on a “yes”
This applies almost universally, except perhaps for very specific corporate environments that are used to doing global business. In most other situations, Indians will agree to a request even if the chances of following up on it are extremely remote. It’s not rudeness – in fact, it’s done in an effort to not be rude. Saying you can’t or won’t do something is considered rude.
Paying attention to beggars
Ignoring people is difficult to do, even for many Indians. However, begging cartels aren’t simply urban legends, and by giving to a beggar you will usually be giving to a cartel. We also seriously mean it when we recommend ignoring beggars – a single word or even a look in their direction is usually interpreted to mean that you will succumb if they persist. You may feel terrible, but if you really want to help, find an organization that’s doing good work with an underprivileged group, and donate to them, or even try to volunteer.