Help me Understand India and the Indian Culture

Well, our company has finally pulled the trigger and will be outsorcing several hundred jobs to India. As part of the group of people who will help manage the relationship between our company and the Indian company, it will be important for me to know the Indian culture, learn about international travel (esp to India), getting visas, hosting our Indian partners and a whole host of other challenges.

I feel I have an advantage over any of my peers because I can tap into the international brain power of the SDMB.

So, I’ll be going there on rotations (as will some others), and they’ll be coming here as part of the biz relationship. Mostly, we are going to work in Bombay (where I’ll live in Mahape) and maybe Madras.

Any help would be appreciated. Thanks SDMBers.

First off, India isnt that intimidating of a country. (Most) everybody speaks english. The one thing I would advise you is to get used to eating indian food. (Go to a restaurant somewhere around where you live).

Dont even THINK about driving in that country though, the traffic everywhere is pretty much comparable to New York City traffic, with the exception that they have donkey’s, cows, and elephants mixed in with the cars. Labor is cheap, hire a car and a driver.

Nowadays, anything you can buy here…you can buy there. So dont freak out and raid a Longs Drugs before you leave.

Visa’s are granted for 10 year periods I believe, and cost you $60 dollars. Obviously…they must be obtained at the indian consolate nearest your area. Not too difficult to get, but I’ve heard that the Indian Consolate has got terrible customer service (not terribly unlike our own passport office IMHO)

Hmm…as per culture. I havent even grasped the entire concept of their culture yet. Its sort of a mish-mash of everything! Just do a google search for “Indian Culture” and see what comes up.

Oh god, and make sure you’re flying Singapore Airlines or something else comprable all the way into India. Indian Air and Air India are HORRENDOUS (sp?).

Hope i answered most of your questions. If you’ve got any other specific ones…let me know.

Drink bottled water; be prepared to get a few stares when you travel to India; everyone speaks English so you don’t have to worry about that… and I’ll second the Air India comment. Basically don’t bother :wink:

I’m trying to figure out where Mahape is - I’ve lived in Bombay 18 years, and I’ve never heard of the area! I’m guessing though that it’s in the suburbs, where most BO operations for companies are located.

Bombay is by far the most professional city in this country as far as work ethic is concerened, so settlng down to work shouldn’t be too difficult for you. Language obviously won’t be an issue…

I really have to hit the sack now; I’ll post again tomorrow morning… but ask away, and I’ll do my best to answer your questions!

I got freaked out when I went there by a few things: the sheer volume of people; the grinding poverty; the hustlers; the staring. Once you get used to these things, you’ll find it very, very interesting. And the food rocks!

I recommend reading the books Karma Cola (debunking the mysticism that Westerners get all het up about), Midnight’s Children (fictional account charting Indian independence) and, if you have time, A Suitable Boy (enormous fictional saga that covers many different strata of Indian society). Also, the history and culture sections of the India Lonely Planet book are very informative.

Oh my GOODNESS I am so jealous! Need an assistant? Er, I should say, wanna pay for an assistant?

IANAIndian, but Indian culture is absolutely fascinating to me; I spend a lot of my free time finding out as much as I can and can’t wait to go.

Of course you probably know by now that India is a huge honkin’ incredibly complex country with, actually, dozens of cultures, and if you try to learn everything about everywhere you may just drown in information. It’s roughly analagous to “European culture” – there are some constants, sure, but what’s true for Spain ain’t necessarily so for Sweden, for instance. You might be best off being selective for info about Bombay and Madras.

It certainly can’t hurt to read a good synopsis or two of Indian history. You may want to pay special attention to recent history, especially Independence and Partition, since understanding something about those events may do the most to help you avoid saying something offensive, and may also help you understand more of current politics.

It’s also probably a good idea to learn something about Hinduism, Islam (especially as practiced there), Jainism, and Sikhism. Not to focus on all the theologies and grand ideas, but more the cultural effects. Also about the caste system as it stands today, which is to say, it’s officially illegal and generally recognized as a social evil, but still has a degree of influence, especially socially.

I strongly recommend finding an Indian friend, preferably one from Bombay or Madras, to prep you some before you go. It might be especially nice to learn to eat without utensils in the Indian fashion; as I understand it, this is one of the easier things you can do to put people at their ease. Most of the Indians you will work with are probably familiar with using utensils at table, but that doesn’t mean they all enjoy it (or, of course, that they all don’t). I can’t remember the source, but I once read a lovely little essay about a man whose Indian host was delighted to learn he would eat with his hands, and so the host could “put away the heavy artillery” (meaning the silverware) and stop worrying about being so formal. I enjoy eating with my hands, but I need regular practice to be able to do so without involving my left hand, which is supposed to stay mostly in your lap at meals.

You might like reading Culture Shock: India. IIRC it’s pretty business-traveller oriented. Any Indian Dopers out there read it who could offer a review?

I like najniran’s suggestion to try Indian food at local restaurants (assuming you aren’t already a fan), but I’d also note that Indian food is vastly more varied than typical Indian restaurants in the US would indicate. Typical ones here focus on dishes from Rajasthan and the Punjab (tandoori dishes, heavy but yummy sauces made with cream and yogurt, lots of fried items) and adjust them to an American palate somewhat. South Indian food is very different. I imagine in Bombay you can probably find any kind of cuisine you like, Indian or otherwise.

My favorite “cultural information” site is Kamat’s Potpourri. Excellent essay material and great photos.

My mother, a forestry professor who has frequently been a consultant in India, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan, found that the biggest obstacle for her to overcome was the differences in how important hierarchy and status are there. One does not put forth one’s brilliant ideas on one’s own; one lets one’s boss do that, if at all. She found that “collaborative groups” and “brainstorming” were very difficult in mixed-status groups, especially if the participants had working relationships outside the context of her projects.

Another stumbling block for many Americans that I’ve read about is the idea that it may be not only vaguely shameful to do work that’s “beneath you”, it may also be offensive, in that you’re taking work away from someone else. Example: Boss spills his coffee. Boss should not necessarily clean it up himself. Boss should let the cleaning person do that, even if it takes much longer and even becomes a hassle. The idea of “rolling up your sleeves and working right beside the regular guys” that Americans admire in a leader isn’t much shared, in practice, though of course there are exceptions (Gandhi pushed on this issue and made some headway, as I understand it).

Here’s a tidbit I found particularly germane, as I’m an allergy sufferer: most Indians consider blowing one’s nose on a hanky or Kleenex, and then sticking the used article back in your pocket, to be unspeakably gross. Apparently it’s more acceptable to clear your notsrils, one at a time, into the gutter (or at least throw away your Kleenex immediately). Can anyone confirm this for me?

I’ve heard that one of the outstandingly difficult things for Americans in Bombay is the unceasing pressure of people EVERYWHERE. I read an essay about trying to fall asleep in a room with the windows open to catch the breeze, hearing the families sleeping on the street below snoring and chatting and, well, living.

Can you tell us what kind of work you do, Philster?

On the whole I found people to be very warm and friendly, and very gracious hosts. Mumbai is pretty cosmopolitan so while you may get some stares, it won’t be anything like a trip into the countryside where Westerners are less commonly seen. People are generally too polite to tell you if you are making some social gaffe, so it’s good to try reading up on various social situations before you go. I have a book somewhere at home about doing business overseas - I’ll post the title tonight. Be prepared for a lot of questions about family that would seem a bit personal to us Americans, like details about spouses, siblings, children, careers and so on; it’s standard ice-breaking conversation there and nothing bad is meant by it. (If I had a dime for every time I got quizzed about why I was 37 and still not married, lol…)

Definitely do not attempt to drive on your own. Not even us New Yorkers drive with such abandon, although Bostonians may come close. :wink:

The visa situation may be different for you from what najniran posted, since the 10-year visa is meant for tourist visas and you would be going on business. If your company doesn’t handle getting the visas for you, be prepared to spend a day doing it. The New York consulate requires you to drop off the application in the morning (long lines waiting for this) and come back late in the afternoon to retrieve your passport (goes very quickly).

Realize that the prices of most things are negotiable and learn to haggle. A good rule of thumb is to ask what the merchant wants and start by offering him half that; then the two of you keep going back and forth until a price is settled. As a Westerner you will always pay more than the locals, but don’t settle too quickly on a price just because it would still be cheap by American standards. The merchant may look very irritated at the end of the deal, but if he’s agreed to it you probably got yourself a fair price.

My best advice is to be patient, especially when dealing with bureacracy of any kind. Things just do not happen as swiftly as they do here in the U.S., in part because many hands (literally) will get involved. I remember once trying to exchange some traveler’s cheques at a branch of the State Bank of India in Delhi and having the process take nearly two hours because 6 different people got involved (one to call the home office for the exchange rate, one to get the forms I had to fill out, one to make photocopies of my passport, etc.). Traveling between cities can also be an extended process (trains being several hours late and so on).

If more questions come to mind, fire away. :slight_smile:

I appreciate the response so far, and read every word intensely.

I am at work at will have more questions to post later, but I really respect the effort and detail you guys are providing.

As for my line of business…well, maybe I’ll post later after thinking about it. I work in let’s say ‘financial services’ for a large US based company that might not want it known just yet that we are outsorcing. I actually think it’ll be a 60 Minutes or 20/20 type story before the year is over. It may be quite controversial.

You might be able to determine my business from other posts, but I am not here to advertise, just learn!

What if I travel with female coworkers? Are there things women should keep in mind?

Philster, there are things women in particular need to keep in mind. It’s unfortunate, but a number of factors have led to a perception held by some people (of course not all) that Western women are, how shall I say, of generally loose morals. Again, some of this may not be as much of a big deal in Mumbai, but to be on the safe side:

It’s a good idea for women to dress modestly - watch how much skin they’re showing between neck and cleavage, bare legs, etc. Modern young Indian women wear a lot of Western-style fashions, and leeway for Western styles and attitudes will be granted, but your female colleagues will most likely be dealing with a more conservative older generation and need to keep that in mind. Also, while folks who have grown up in the cities may be more casual in general about such things, you may be surprised at the number of people you encounter who grew up in a small village and still hold more traditional views.

More traditional Indian men will not touch a woman they are unrelated to, out of respect. This also means no hand-shaking. It’s best for your colleagues to wait to see if a hand is extended before they do so; if it isn’t, a simple nod, or the folding of hands for a “namaste” is fine. Side note: I never met a hand-shaker who had a firm grip; it was always fairly limp. Don’t know if that was related to my gender or not.

As funny as this may sound, I would suggest that your colleagues not smile too much, at least not broadly, with new acquaintances. I discovered that a broad smile of the kind I would usually use here at home could be interpreted as flirtatious. Once people know you better of course it’s okay to relax a bit.

I would also recommend adopting a subdued, but NOT subservient, attitude. Most people, men included, do not have the kind of forward attitude in discussions that Western business folk tend to have. In my experience, such forwardness in a woman is viewed as particularly off-putting; although your Indian contacts may never say a word about it, the damage will be done. Your colleagues will earn more respect by quietly but firmly making points, and respect is what they will need in getting the job done.

I’ll post more as I think of it.

Oh, and to help get a glimpse into Indian views of politics, world events and whatnot, it’s interesting and informative to read the news. I think your Indian colleagues will be surprised and pleased if you have some idea what is happening locally and can at least ask questions about it.

The Times of India - Has news items from individual cities as well as national coverage. Check out the readers’ comments you’ll sometimes see at the ends of articles as well.
The Indian Express
Hindustan Times - A bit gossipy, sort of like the NY Post, but still interesting.
The Financial Express - Exclusively business-oriented news.

My sister worked in India and was sent there by her company to organize things, much like your’re doing, she said that the local men who worked for the company had a hard time taking directions/orders from her until she threatenened to get them fired. I supose they couldnt accept that a woman was in charge of them. Also the stares if your female, men grabbing themselves etc. I’ll ask her about other things she found while there. What I do know was that after a while she got used to it and had an enjoyable time but in the beginning, I was convincing her not to quit her job and come home which is what she wanted to do as she found it very frustrating to be sent there to get things done and not having the cooperation.

A friend of mine is an ethnic Bengali who was adopted from India as a very small child. Her mother is a white American woman who had lived in India for a couple of years and learned Hindi, and they still go back every year to visit.

Her mother told me that usually they get treated very well, but there is staring, and sometimes people will wander up and take a picture of her and her daughter together. One time, several young men asked her to “pose sexy” on their motorcycle so they could take a photo – she told them off in Hindi, saying she was old enough to be their mother and by no means was she posing sexy on anyone’s motorcycle.

According to her mother, Indians are very surprised to meet a pasty blonde woman who can speak Hindi fluently – “I’ve scared many a cab driver” she told me once with a wink.

Almost forgot!

Get used to using those damn squat-style toilets. Muhahaha

(Sorry, that may have been TMI - but its relevant).

My dad always told me: if you can drive on the streets of Bombay, you can drive anywhere. :smiley:

Avoid trains and buses, unless you’re up for a rugby scrum in order to board them. When you take an auto-rikshaw, negotiate the price prior to hopping on, and like anywhere in the world they’ll hike up the fares for foreigners. But I always enjoy the rikshaw rides (except the major fume inhalation bit).

I haven’t been to Bombay in a while, but the last time I visited they had just opened loads of huge shopping complexes around every corner. So if you feel uncomfortable shopping in the street markets and all, then just pop into a megastore.

What’s the airport like?


OK, first off… squat-style toilets you WILL NOT find in Bombay!!Maybe in Madras, but I can’t say for sure. But not in Bombay.

Food wise, Bombay has plenty of joints together serving pretty much every kind of cuisine, so even if Indian food doesn’t suit you, you need not worry. Madras will be a lot more difficult.

You will get a second glance from pretty much everyone you pass by in Bombay, but real staring you’ll get only if you’re a hottie. Or dress like one. Otherwise the city is pretty used to foreigners.

More later, once I get to the office. Looks like I have sweveral misconceptions to clear up here!!

I’m a man, and I get the limp handshake, too (I was just at my Gujarati friend’s wedding this past weekend, and shook hands with a lot of Indians).

Indian TV is reasonably good as it goes. English is a common use language, as other posters have mentioned, and this is reflected in local TV as well. There are very few free to air channels [only Doordarshan?] which comprimises about 3 channels I think. All hindi though so you should definately get cable. Almost everyone has cable so it shouldnt be a problem to arrange. Its arranged through your local cable operator. IIRC the major cities in India are moving to a conditional access system, so certain, mainly english, channels are now being moved to being pay channels from generically available over the cable network. This involves getting a seperate set top box etc. The channels involved are AXN, Discovery, CNN, All of Star TV’s english network and so forth.
The details for Mumbai may be slightly different from what i have outlined, but in that case i hope someone will correct me.

The International Airport in Mumbai is a pretty reasonable airport all things considered. Especially compared to the rest of India’s transprt hubs. Its clean, reasonably well designed, spacious and semi-logical in its layout. A lot depends on the time of your flights arrival, as there is a definate peak period in which up to 3-5 flight land within a quarter hour of each other, and there are times when theres no scheduled flight in or out, for up to two hours. The peaks generally involve inbound US flights, so you may not be able to avoid them. Immigration is generally fast, and its moved to a US style single immigration line from the old pick your counter and line up method. IIRC there may not actually be a seperate foreigner queue, in fact im pretty sure there isnt. Customs can be a bit of a hassle in terms of long line, but if you dont have anything to declare, its generally just a matter of putting your bags through the X-ray and moving on. The airport is located a fair bit out of town, but I have no idea where Mahape is, so i couldnt give any better idea. Take an hour as a ball park figure to get into the city center. You can do all the usual stuff through the terminal easily, though I think you probably are likely to have transport provided by your employer.
In fact the only real beef i have with Chatrapati Shivaji International Airport [the official name] is that the terminal is about 15 minutes taxi time away from the runway. And the occasional dog running around on the taxiways meaning you have to wait 10-15 minutes to be sure its gone.

I dont know what the other posters have experienced, but I have frequently used Air India to fly from Hong Kong to Mumbai, and found them to be on par with major airlines like Cathay Pacific. A lot of the negative connotations associated with the national carrier is due to their old ways of having nearly every fligh delayed at a minimum. It is not so anymore. They function as well as any other major carrier nowadays.
Internal air travel is a bit different though. Its generally a bit expensive.There isnt a budget internal airline, as the industry is still very regulated. There are a lot of choices available some with a better reputation for safety then others. So there really is no need to be tied to Indian Airlines at all.

Hope this helps.

John Keay’s India:* A History* and Stanley Wolpert’s A New History of India are both adequate survey texts of Indian history and are both widely available in decent bookstores. Both are a little “chatty”, Keay more so, and both seem to be based largely or wholely on secondary sources ( no crime for a survey book, of course ).

Of the two Keay’s is bit bigger, detailed ( especially fopr the pre-modern era ), and more modern in conception, so is likely a better single-volume choice.

  • Tamerlane