Even though I had traveled to India many times (over a dozen in my lifetime), when I moved there with my husband, I learned many new things about the culture. I had to adapt to new culture shocks, and learned that visiting and living in one place are two completely different things. Moving to rural India was definitely a challenge.
Due to circumstances, our stay ended up being shorter than planned, (just 3 months!). But in these three months, we had to learn to live like locals. We rented a small house from a local, we went grocery shopping, we went to the mechanic, we drove around on the motorcycle, we attended a local birthday party, and more.
So if you ever want to or have to move to rural India, here are some things to keep in mind:
15 Things To Know Before Moving To Rural India
Whether you’ve been to India or are heading there for the first time, you’ve probably heard of the most common culture-shocks that people experience: the massive poverty, the wandering animals on the streets, the smells, and the chaotic driving.
In this guide, I will tell you 15 things you should know before moving to rural India that you have probably not heard or read anywhere else. My husband and I would have loved to know these before we moved here; we learned the hard way. Let me spare you a bit of struggle.
One: Expect the Unexpected.
What a cliché! But this is coming from someone who has been to 20 countries and had been to India numerous times before moving here. I thought I had a pretty good grasp of what entailed to move here, but boy, was I wrong. Visiting and living somewhere are two completely different things.
Even though I knew very well about the poverty, the animals, the smells, and the chaotic driving, I still experienced numerous culture-shock moments I was not aware of.
Remember to expect the unexpected, and expect a whole new world to come knocking, and sometimes barging into the world you know.
Two: Don’t rescue adorable kittens.
Both my husband and I love cats, so when we learned that there were two stray cats hanging out in our backyard, we instantly wanted to adopt them. My plan was to start feeding them and slowly bond with them, but Josh has a more direct approach to doing things and went straight to trying to capture/rescue the adorable orange kitten.
Well, the rescuing was a disaster. The kitten became extremely aggressive and bit Josh hard enough to make him bleed. Yeah, yeah, we should have known better, but no person on Earth would see this kitten and think he could be evil in any way.
Anyway, we automatically had to worry about rabies. But India came to the rescue this time because we quickly found out we could drive to the local pharmacist and get a DIY rabies shot kit for 300 rupees (approx. $5 US dollars). In the US it would cost thousands of dollars to get rabies treatment for a human. I did research.
Three: Study Electrical Engineering.
I brought from the US my amazing Nutribullet for making smoothies. One morning, I was very excited to make my first fresh smoothie in India. I used a travel adapter to plug it in my Indian kitchen, I ran the Nutribullet and after a few seconds, there were sparks and a burning smell coming out of it.
I later learned that I also needed a 240v/120v voltage converter (which you can get at the electric shop or ebay) for appliances with higher wattage such as the Nutribullet which has a 600-watt motor. Or 900 watts if you have the newer version. I also recently learned that it’s ideal to use a converter with 1.5 times the wattage of your appliance.
So, keep this in mind for any appliances including hair dryers, that you want to bring.
Four: Patience is a virtue.
Mainly, don’t believe when locals tell you: “it will be ready in 5 days” or “I will do today” or “it will take two weeks.” (I hope you read those quotes with your best Indian accent.)
Basically, add 50% or more of the time to whatever they tell you. For example, if you order new custom windows for your home, ordered A/C, or a tailored dress.
Nothing is ever ready when you expect it, and when it has been so long that you forgot about it, it will knock at your door when you least expect it.
Five: Indian people don’t use verbal manners or have a sense of personal space.
“Please” and “thank you” are not amongst the common words of an Indian’s vocabulary because many times they think it is not necessary. They consider that helping a close one or a guest is part of their nature.
Also, when they are done saying what they needed to say on the phone or in person, they will skip any sort of goodbye and simply hang up or walk out the door. They are pretty straightforward in that sense.
Additionally, don’t expect much privacy or personal space. Indian people have a sense of community at all times instead of an individual kind of culture.
Example: one night, our two Indian friends entered our home without knocking, grabbed a chatai (a palm leaf floor mat), grabbed a beer, and started playing card games right there in our living room. True story. Also, while Josh was taking a nap in our bedroom, our maid went inside to grab the dirty laundry.
Six: Don’t be fooled by the children’s twinkling eyes and smiles.
For countless trips to India in the past, Indian children have always seemed innocent, full of joy and very fun to photograph.
When we settled down in India, we received a visit from a few of our neighbor’s kids. We offered them a soda, we hung out with them, I let them use my computer for a bit, they played with my hair, and they took me to one of their homes for chai.
Maybe we should’ve kept stricter boundaries because the very next day we learned that Indian children can lack some boundaries and discipline. Especially in rural areas. They will go through your bags and fridge if you allow them in your home, they will beg and scream your name for hours, and if you ignore them, they will try to break into your home by piling outside of the front door on a chair and somehow try to get the door to open. It happened to us.
Seven: Don’t wear that.
Shorts, tanks, short skirts, short anything, never again. I know it is hot out, but it is for everyone’s interest. You will need to adapt to being more covered even during really hot weather. Showing skin is disrespectful, it will attract a lot of unwanted attention, and even sexual danger. Always cover shoulders, cleavage, and legs below the knee. Should I specify this one goes to the women?
But don’t be disheartened. You will quickly fall in love with the colors and patterns and textures of Indian textiles.
Tip: go shopping for material and have some Indian tops, long skirts and dresses (to be used with leggings) made at your local tailor. Tailors in India are amazing, and once you try this, you’ll never go back to buying ready-made clothes.
Eight: Hire servants if you want to make your life easier.
They’re not a luxury, people. This is survival. After moving to rural India, it is going to be very difficult to have the freedom you used to have. You won’t be able to simply hop on the car and drive to the grocery store. You won’t even want to deal with the crazy roads; it’s okay and affordable to hire a driver.
It will also be hard to find all the ingredients you are used to, so hire a cook and learn new dishes from her. And since you jumped on the hiring bandwagon, give a job to another woman by hiring a maid/cleaner. Dust appears out of nowhere in India. It’s normal to hire (and I hate to say it, very cheap.)
Nine: “Namaste” is not a yoga spiritual word, it’s just a common greeting, and “chai” means “tea”.
In India, you don’t need to learn their language because English is widely spoken. But remember: English is the language of business, and Hindi (and any other local language like Marathi or Urdu) is the language of the heart. Try to learn Hindi and/or the local language. I saw many surprised smiles and chuckles from the locals when I threw in a few words in Hindi and Marathi.
Don’t worry, be happy! A simple yet powerful saying. Try to find the good things in your life even on the worst days. Know that this culture is infinitely different to yours and understand that you will need to adapt, or at least accept that things have to be done differently now and soak in all the good things about it.
Eleven: Pack wisely.
Don’t think that just because it is India it doesn’t get chilly. Remember to pack some light sweaters. And don’t think that just because it is the noisiest country in the world, you’ll find earplugs; trust me.
Also, It is very difficult to find foreign brands in India because of the limitations of Foreign Direct Investment. Everything is Indian, including chocolate and booze. So, if you have a favorite, bring it from home or buy some at the Duty-Free before exiting the airport and stepping on Indian land.
Twelve: Ignore local advice and get A/C.
You will be glad you did. We were slow to get it, and we were missing out!
Thirteen: Learn to wobble your head.
Do embrace the Indian headshake, head bob, sideways nod… whatever you want to call it. In fact, you don’t even have to try. You will start doing it automatically, it is as contagious as a yawn. If you don’t know what this is, you’ll find out soon enough.
Fourteen: Get out of the A/C and Explore.
For the sweet tooth: visit the local sweet shop where you’ll find the Disneyland of Indian sweets with flavors like cashew, saffron, almond, pistachio, chocolate, carrot, and multiple combinations. And try the ice cream too! I love saffron pistachio ice cream, and Josh loves the butterscotch one.
For the men: visit the barbershop. You have not experienced something like this service anywhere before. Included: scalp massage and a few other surprises.
For the ladies: visit the jewelry shops. You will be hypnotized by the astounding metal work and shiny gems.
For the movie buff: go watch a Bollywood film, even if it’s in a language you don’t understand. You can follow the storyline pretty easily and enjoy yourself plenty.
For the foodie: try Indian food as you never have. Josh and I have had some of the best seafood in the world in Mumbai. Personal favorites include tandoori chicken, butter and shahi paneer, chana masala, saffron rice, biryani, raita, and garlic naan.
Tip: avoid street food for a while. Let your tummy get used to the spices and unsanitary water, and this is putting it lightly. You know what I mean.
For the culture lover: experience the many festivals, ceremonies, and rituals that Indians are so good at. No matter which part of India, there are several festivals and holidays happening every month.
Fifteen: Accept or perish.
Learn to accept and love India and its people, or you will go crazy.
Note: This is my perspective and my experience living in a small town in rural India and which are probably not true everywhere in India. These are generalizations of moving to rural India in which there are obviously some exceptions.
Update 1/30/14: I changed the title from “15 Things To Know Before Moving To India” to “15 Things To Know Before Moving To Rural India” because I got a lot of comments of people saying that many of these things are not true everywhere in India (which is a bit obvious), but I wanted to clarify that all the stories in this post are true, and they happened in rural India, in the country of the state of Maharashtra.