It’s Melbourne Cup Day. The sweep has been drawn, the champagne is flowing and a sea of hats hover above the 400 guests. The only catch is, this celebration is 10,000 kilometres from Flemington.
With cows rather than horses parading the streets and a cacophony of rickshaw horns replacing the crowd’s cheers, Delhi’s ex-pat community is revelling. Sprawled across the Australian High Commission’s lawn the annual charity brunch is a taste of home in the otherwise exotic new lifestyle.
The event is hosted by the Australia New Zealand Association Delhi (ANZA) and whilst being a highlight of the social calendar, President Heidi Griffiths acknowledges the life of an expat in India is not all champagne and parties, a lesson she has learnt in the nine years she has lived in India.
“I pictured myself living in a grand house with peacocks in the garden and we moved to a high rise three bedroom apartment on one of the noisiest streets in Mumbai.”
“I arrived with a thirteen month old and a three year old and I really missed the outdoor lifestyle that Australia has. The freedom we have to go for a bike ride or go for a walk. That was probably the biggest change, you have to adjust your whole lifestyle to an indoor environment.”
After moving to Mumbai and then Delhi for her husband’s work in construction, basic chores became an everyday struggle. Questions such as where to buy groceries or to get a haircut and even basic necessities such as whether the water was safe enough to wash the children in were just some of the unknowns Ms Griffiths endured in the early months. Having the ANZA support network, now more than 30 years old and with 180 members, was invaluable.
“I knew they had a playgroup which was perfect for my kids at that age and it was where I was able to meet some other people. You need someone to guide you. You are a visitor to the country so you need to be respectful and of course there are lots of things you don’t like initially or find really confronting. I think having fellow countrymen around you helps bridge that gap a bit.”
These fellow countrymen certainly keep busy with the Henry Lawson Bar a hub for expats and their families every Friday night and there are regular events to watch football grand finals. On the day of our interview Ms Griffiths was preparing for the middle school parents social (she’s the parent representative) as well as her role as president of ANZA and a member of running clubs. For Ms Griffith’s children, life in India is all they have really known.
“This is home. They go to a great school with a great international community.”
“I wish I was more open minded when I arrived. You walk around saying it’s not like this at home, well of course, you’re not at home. It is all just learning curve.”
“The whole idea is to have an adventure and to do something a bit different.”
An adventure quite aptly sums up Shaun and Jennifer Star’s lives in Delhi after they moved from Sydney five years ago. Ms Star runs an NGO, Tara.Ed, whilst Mr Star was the recipient of the Australia Asia Prime Minister’s Endeavour Award to study at India’s best law school and work at an Indian law firm.
“I had been working in India about two years before but on a very ad hoc level and it got to the point where I either had to continue with my archaeology or really make the effort to make Tara.Ed grow. So I asked Shaun, ‘will you marry me and move to India?’ And he said no. Then we got married and moved to India.” Ms Star laughs.
“We literally got married on the Saturday and moved to India on the Tuesday. Shaun took up his scholarship and I was working on Tara.Ed.”
Despite Ms Star having previously spent time in India, relocating their whole lives and setting new roots was not without considerable challenges.
“The fact Jen had been here a few times before certainly gave her an insight into what India is like. Having travelled to India for a short period however is so completely different to actually moving here. Moving here and settling in had it challenges. From things you wouldn’t think would be difficult like paying fees for university without a bank account was extremely tedious, renting an apartment took a long time.” Mr Star says.
“If we weren’t married we would have had even more difficulties because if you are not a married couple you cannot get an apartment.” Mrs Star adds.
Once the pair had waded through the mire of bureaucracy they had to learn to live a new Indian life with their inconsiderate neighbours.
“Once I had a running singlet hanging up on the balcony and a monkey came up with their damn opposable thumb and took off with my Lorna Jane singlets. There is a very well dressed monkey hanging around somewhere.” Ms Star chuckles.
“We are the only foreigners in our area. When we first went to the markets it was a bit of a shock for the locals. But now they are used to us. We rent an apartment on top of a house. Our landlord lives in the house downstairs and the top floor is our apartment.
“Our landlord was a lovely fellow but I got in the lift and was holding a big box of pots and pans and he said ‘are you going to make Shaun lunch’ and I said ‘no he can make his own lunch’ and he was horrified,” Ms Star reflects as the couple laugh.
For humour is a necessity in a city of 21 million people.
“You need to have an open mind. The moment you realise you are not going to change India and although it may feel you are hitting you head against the wall sometimes, just go with it. Otherwise you will go insane. You learn a lot more if you just go with the flow and go along with India’s journey,” says Shaun.
“The moment you stop converting rupees to dollars, you stop noticing cows on the road, then you are pretty much settled in.”
The recently released HSBC ‘Expat Explorer 2015’ survey sings the praises of India for expats in terms of comfortably settling in. Whereas the global average for expats feeling at home in their new country within the first year was just 48%, India blitzed the competition with a 62% satisfaction rate. India also ranked in the top 10 countries worldwide for family living. However, India did have a higher percentage of expats having difficulty integrating within their local community. For the Stars, however, their work gives them the benefit of having a wide circle of friends.
“We’re not characteristic of normal expats. The beauty of having worked in Indian law firms is that we have some great friends on the expat side by virtue of being part of the expat community but a lot of our good friends are Indian lawyers and educators and that has been a really important balance for us.”
“We’ve had the balance of being able to click in with the expats because we can relate to these guys on a lot of levels. But we’ve been very much settled here as locals in locals jobs,” Mr Star says.
For Jennifer and Shaun, the opportunities provided to them in Delhi and friends they have made have been invaluable and an experience completely unattainable in their old lives in Australia.
“We originally came for 18 months and every year we say, we’ll just do one more year, we’ll just do one more year. Again in February this year when our visas expired we said, ’we’ll do just one more year.’ But I think it will be ‘one more year’ for a few years yet.” Ms Star says.
“Australia is where we are from but India is now home. “