Welcome back and other discussions

It’s been about a month since we returned back. Over the course of the past 3 weeks or so, we have met several friends and I have met some ex-colleagues, in person and on phone/IM/FB chat.

The conversation typically goes like this: “Oh, you are back? Wow, welcome back. What happened? What didn’t work?”

Given that we learned a lot, my instant reaction is to go over the details on how things were just not working out for any of us. With some friends whom we meet over drinks and dinner (where we have time to discuss), I in fact do go into the details. With others, I have to resort to a generic “lots of stuff, we should meet up and talk about it”. My concern is that I don’t want to convey that it was a snap decision; there was a lot of thought given to the various options we had and it was not an easy decision to move back.

For some of the folks asking the question, there is a deeper thought process — they want to move to India at some point. If I know that, I feel like I should give them a list of tips and tricks and do’s and don’t’s. I feel like giving them some heads up to the stuff that we didn’t know of, and also convey that despite knowing what’s going to come one simply cannot fathom what’s coming until they go through the experience themselves.

I suspect this will continue for some time, until we meet up with most of our first-level contacts, and until then, we will re-live all our pain points over and over again 🙂

Moving back to India? Some tips, tricks, suggestions and gotchas

Now that we have decided to move back, I have been thinking hard, really hard about what could have been done differently, what could have changed our experience, and in general, how I can help anybody else in our place.

So here are some tips, tricks, suggestions and gotchas. If you are reading this and have any additional points to add, please let me know and I will gladly update the list.

  • First and foremost, find a place to live close to the person you are closest to in that city. If not in the same complex, find something that is less than 15-20 minutes of drive time. Ideally, walking distance. You may not pop into their home all the time, but it sure is a huge help when you need to find the nearest/best hair cutting place or a reliable plumber or grocery stores to avoid, etc.
  • Be ready to become dependent. I am not talking about losing independence because you may have to move in with parents or in-laws. I am talking about being dependent on domestic help of various kinds – full-time/part-time servant, driver, the guy who presses your clothes, grocery delivery, etc. All these service persons are available, for relatively low cost too (esp for “IT” salaries), but most of these tasks are not doable without them. Usually there is no dishwasher, so if the maid does not come, you end up having to wash each thing by yourself. It is very dusty, so there is no way you can go more than a day or two without dusting the whole place. Driving is extremely stressful, so you do need a driver for most of the day. And so on. So be ready to give up your independence (in that way).
  • Even though cities like Bangalore are “built for the expat” as in they have communities catering to expats, services built to address expat needs, etc., I would strongly urge you not to live life in India as an American (or any other country person). You decide to move to India, live like an Indian. You will get extremely frustrated if you live life like an American. Don’t get fooled by the setup. Underneath, it is all Indian, no matter what the façade looks like.
  • Related to the above point, don’t try to live in a bubble too much. Don’t protect yourself by living in air conditioning, drinking only bottled water, etc. After the initial few weeks of transitioning, just let go. Roll down the windows and take in some of the diesel smoke. Have normal “RO” water at good restaurants. Let the kids into the community swimming pool. The sooner you blur the line between “there” and “here”, the better. Of course, you need to use discretion like eating at roadside stalls but not drinking their water, but in general, live outside the bubble.
  • If you have a choice between an extremely large complex with plenty of amenities and a small complex with basic amenities, choose the  latter. I know it may seem counter-intuitive because if you live in a big complex, the chances you will make more friends are higher. However, what we noticed was, the bigger the complex, the easier it is to not meet the same people more than once or twice, ever. If you are in a smaller complex, I feel there would be a better chance of actually getting to know the neighbors.
  • Service providers are not responsible. Just keep that in mind. They have no sense of ownership, no attention to detail, and most importantly, no sense of responsibility. A plumber may say he is coming at 10am but won’t show up all day and will never even call you that he cannot make it, and worse, won’t apologize for either of those issues. Just know that the biggest issues will arise when you set up various services. Typically you won’t need to interact with these guys on a day-to-day basis. However, as I experienced, it is extremely frustrating when pretty much every single service provider repeats the same crime – being late or not showing up, doing an incomplete job, providing incorrect updates or instructions and in general doing what would be considered an unsatisfactory job. Just be ready for it.
  • Give up your politeness. When dealing with any service provider including servants, drivers, waiters, parking garage attendants, watchmen, etc., don’t be afraid to be what you may consider borderline rude. Being bossy is always better than being polite. If you notice that the other person is someone who can handle politeness, you can turn down the volume on the bossiness. The general rule of thumb is if you don’t indicate that you are running the show, they will. And you don’t ever want that to happen. I must admit, this was one of my biggest challenges. I simply could not behave like that.
  • Some logistics – get proof of residence established early. Address verification is a big deal and if you don’t have a local address it would be hard or impossible to get any service started. Keep 100s of passport-sized photos of  the entire family ready. Well, not 100s, but dozens at least. You need them everywhere, just like the proof of residence. Make sure you have an ID proof that shows residence too. California driver’s license did not fly in some cases for me, because it did not have proof that I am an Indian. 😩 Finally, make many photocopies of these various proofs.
  • Save yourself the trouble and get an automatic shift car. I know there are advantages in a manual shift, biggest being a cost advantage, but my left leg is screaming for rest after maybe 10 minutes of driving in a stop-and-go situation. Which happens all the time. An automatic shift car will give you the much needed relief when driving around in traffic.

These are just some of the thoughts that I could collect. I may keep adding to this  list over the next few weeks.

I realize that this may be something every person who returns to India may write, but I didn’t want that to stop my contribution. Hope this helps 🙂

Lack of attention to detail, exhibit 223

I wrote something earlier about how I felt frustrated with the lack of attention to detail with most Indian service providers (and software developers).

Our elevator recently got new wooden/laminate flooring. All good, except it seems like the goal was to “cover most of the floor” and not “do the flooring”. See how they have left about an inch off the edges? It’s not like they are going to put some sort of cover there. The flooring has been like this for 3 days now.

Sigh.

New flooring in elevator

“Almost complete”

Telling?

We are on a small vacation. At this resort, one of the service staff asked my son where he is from. Without batting an eyelid, he said “America”.

I was a bit stunned, actually. We have not told our kids about our decision to move back, so it is not like he had a hint at all.

This does reinforce our hunch that the kids are not settled here at all, and are reacting negatively in their own ways (being more cranky, being different in behavior than they were, etc.).

Again, just wow at what happened.

It is time to move back

Yes, after 5+ months of being in India, we have decided (after some weeks of discussion) that we are going to move back to the US. It was, for obvious reasons, not an easy call to make.

The decision was made because we got the letter from our kids’ current school about registering for the next year, and since we were unhappy with how things were going here, we had to start seriously considering the options.

Some of the options we considered were moving to Bombay where our entire network is, staying put for a few years, or moving back. And we thought, all things considered, that moving back would in fact be the best option. Nobody has seen the future, but as far as we could see, it seemed like for all of us, it would work out well.

We have learned a lot here in the past several months. We have enjoyed many of the things we came to enjoy, like being in the same time zone as our parents, being closer to home, the convenience of having domestic help, getting things done by someone else (car wash, car drivers, etc.) and such. We have also, of course, been frustrated a lot. I have written about some of those examples in this blog earlier. The wife has even more examples of things not working out well for her.

And of course, the kids. They really miss their friends there. They are unable to connect with their classmates here like they had connected with their friends there (naturally, it takes time). There is not a single day that goes without them remembering their friends and something they did with them “back in Santa Clara”. They don’t protest the life here directly, they are too young to express it. They have changed for the worse instead, in terms of their behavior. They are more cranky, they are more dependent on us for the smallest of things, they have regressed a lot.

No idea about the timing when we move back, but it has to be before the school ends there so that we can at least enroll the kids for the next year. I have to think about my job too. Will keep that topic off the record for a variety of reasons.

The venture/adventure was worth it. Anyone who is planning to move, I strongly recommend actually doing it and experiencing it themselves. The adaptability and the comfort level will naturally be different for different people, so it is best to do it yourself. And if it does not work out, IMO it is definitely ok to cut your losses (so to speak), and wrap it up.

Which is what we are doing.

Attention to detail and ownership. Or lack thereof.

So, I have now spent two months in India and about a month in my own place. Across several products and especially services, I have noticed two trends which really bother me. Sadly, both of these are deeply imbibed in the culture and I don’t see how the habit will break.

First is the lack of attention to detail in 99% of the work that gets done. I am not only referring to things like building an apartment complex, or painting the walls, but I had also seen it earlier in terms of software deliverables in the workplace. There is a strong tendency to “get it done” but absolutely no regard to getting it done *right*. As a result I see paint splattered around the edges, some last-minute electrical wire roundabouts making it look ugly, incomplete code, badly washed cars, etc.

Some ideas I have about how and why this may be happening: first, the people who work on these things are not completely invested into the final output. They are paid for their work and that is in no way tied to the success of the final product. More often than not, the money they get is more important than the customer satisfaction scores (if ever there were such a thing that gets measured). Going back to an earlier point, the incentive for the workers in the trenches is just to complete the task at hand and move on to the next.

The second pattern I dislike, and do so even more than the first, is the lack of ownership. The two are tied closely, of course, but still needs to be called out separately because I have reacted a few times and have realized it is only for my blood to boil. For example, I have been using a service which allows you to book a car driver for a certain number of hours for a fee. I have had several drivers come late and as a result I have had to miss or cancel some meetings. I have tried to reason with the drivers that it is bad that they are 45 minutes to an hour late. Almost invariably, the response is a shrug of the shoulder, and some mumbled explanation about traffic. Everyone knows the traffic is bad in Bangalore, so if they really cared to be on time, they’d account for it. Most of these guys have a two-wheeler, so it’s not like they really get stuck.

To take matters to the next level, when our direct-to-home satellite installer came 6 hours (yes!) late for his appointment, I actually cut some money out of the payment I made to the retailer. He tried to reason with me that the cut would come out of his pocket and I tried to tell him he should pass that penalty off to the installer. His response left me speechless: “they won’t ever change”. This is after 30 minutes of arguing with me that the small percentage that I held back, was actually a big deal to him.

Both of these aspects of service providers as well as product teams is disheartening. I can understand missing some things because we are human, but this habit of being satisfied with “good enough” is a worry. A big worry.