When I first started coaching, mostly European and American, expats, my biggest surprise was the common challenge that they had in making friends with Indians. This was a surprise to me as I had never met this particular challenge. After thinking about it, I realized why so many of them were facing what I never had to.
What I had forgotten is that, most expats come at a stage in their life where they are already settled. They have a family, a set of friends, a settled job…and that makes it harder for them to meet new people. I was lucky enough to land in Bangalore when I was a 23 year old student. In order to make friends, I went to what seemed, and proved to be, the best bar in town, sat at the counter and started chatting with the guys next to me. Easy to do when you are a 23 year old student but much more difficult when you are a 45 year old senior executive that works late hours and has a family to go back to at the end of the day.
I realized is that most interactions that expats have with Indians are work related. They work with Indian colleagues and employ Indian domestic help like maids and drivers. Because of the inherent hierarchical aspect of these relationships, it makes it difficult for them to enter a more informal, genuine relationship. However, this is not a fatality. Here’s a few things that I suggest for those who would like to make Indian friends,
1. Avoid the ‘expat enclaves’. Major Indian cities all have very high-end gated communities where most expats live. Most people say that these enclaves are “not really India”. I disagree with that statement. They are very much an integral part of the country’s landscape as more and more Indians aspire to living in them, but there are just not representative of what Indian city life looks like. These enclaves are copied on American gated suburban communities and have all the amenities for their tenants not to have to go outside at all. There are clear advantages to living in these communities as their are often free from a lot of the hassles from living in the city: permanent power supply, a fully equipped clubhouse, relative silence, danger free roads, proximity to the international schools…and other expats. I understand, and appreciate, why most expats feel more comfortable living in these communities, but the reverse side of the coin is that this gives them very little opportunity to take part in every day Indian social life. Living in town usually doesn’t have all these advantages but it allows a family to experiment every day life in an India city: making friends at the local park with your children’s friends parents, be invited for Biryiani on Eid by your Muslim neighbors, attend sports/dance/yoga classes with people from your neighborhood, etc.
2. Join a local association. Whatever your hobbies are, you can find local groups in major Indian cities. These are a great way to meet people that you know will share some common interest with you. Whether the Hash House Harrier, the local toastmaster’s club, the biking club, the golf club, the poker club, the rock climbing club, even your local resident welfare association. Joining these local clubs allow expats to meet Indians that they do not work with and does away with the hierarchical aspect of the relationship. Moreover, these local clubs are usually extremely happy to accept foreign members.
3. If possible, put your children in a local school. I know this is very difficult when children are already a certain age and that they need consistency in curriculum if they want to be able to join their home schooling system when they get back to their home country. However, it should be a lot easier for younger children. there are a lot of very good kindergarten and primary schools in India. Putting younger children in local schools allows them to experience a social environment that they might not find in international schools, probably learn some elements of the local language (even in English medium schools) and give expat parents an opportunity to meet the children’s friends parents too.
Living in an ‘expat bubble’ in India does not have to be a fatality, if you don’t want to. I realize that the suggestions I make above might not be easy to implement for everyone. These are just things that I can think about, I am sure there are plenty more. Feel free to add any of your suggestions in the comments below.