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Saying goodbye to India

Around this time next month, I will be on a plane back to the United States. My future feels bright, if not entirely solidified – at this point, there is a fair chance I may not have a job right when I touch down in the U.S., but will ideally have some final interviews scheduled.

Ironically enough, one of the quotes that stuck with me most this past year was simply pinned to a TCS cubicle in South Mumbai. The quote: “Take risks every day. If you fail, you can guide. If you succeed, you can lead.”

        

I’m generally weary of taking wisdom from corporate bromides, or anything pinned to cubicles. This particular quote was attributed to an Indian spiritual guru – I forget the name, and even now I can’t find the quote in any search engines (if you can, let me know). I think I was primarily struck by the distinction between “guiding” and “leading” – and how in reflection, so many of my proudest moments here simply came from taking the bull by the horns in day-to-day life.

There was the process of collecting rent money from my roommates every month, dealing with the landlord and ultimately coordinating our lease renewal with a registration agent. I had heard numerous warnings of cheating landlords and dishonest agents in Mumbai, and barring any unpleasant surprises in the next 30 days, I am happy to have navigated these tricky waters. If nothing else, handling landlords in my next city should be a piece of cake.

There was learning to cook with my fellow American roommate, who goaded me into developing some fundamentals I was sorely lacking. I am now moderately self-sufficient – if any of you need a killer chicken salad recipe, shoot me an e-mail.

And of course, there was my job – learning to be patient but persistent, learning how to motivate peers, and then just simply learning how to analyze financial statements and create marketing brochures. I am lucky to have a boss who was very clear in his expectations and very willing to challenge my comfort zone, as well as ambitious teammates who seem to genuinely enjoy teaching me Hindi.

The chance to exercise my thoughts on Project Firefly every month has been instrumental to my India experience, and I am extremely grateful to Daniel, Tamara, and the whole team for establishing such a tremendous platform. I have also appreciated the feedback I have received from readers, both negative and positive. For those who wish to keep reading and responding, I encourage you to check out http://startupbook.co, where some friends and I provide a fair bit of daily opinion, news and resources for entrepreneurial students and young professionals.

I hope this blog has been entertaining, and at least a tiny bit enlightening for those considering working in an emerging market or even just looking for a new career adventure. Feel free to reach out at bdoyle@cornellsun.com for any queries, travel tips, or that chicken salad recipe.

Best of luck to all of you!

Brendan

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Redefining "crisis" living abroad

When I first arrived in India, I began to stoke a fairly obsessive relationship with news cycles – blogs, newspapers and social feeds.  The need to stay connected intellectually to the United States was visceral, but I also found an interesting ‘meta’ experience seeing Western news outlets report on India. For the past few months, Mumbai has invariably been reported as dealing with ‘unrest,’ ‘crisis’ and ‘lockdown,’ but having gone through these periods myself, it’s pretty clear that most of the career professionals I work with adapt and move on – just like everywhere else.  

In November, politician Bal Thakeray died, and Mumbai was reported to be on the brink of anarchy. This was one event that actually did affect my normal routine – all shops were closed for the weekend, and more than a few people stayed home from their corporate jobs that Friday. Ostensibly, the shuttering of business was to pay respect to Thakeray, but my office teammates explained – somewhat amused -- that Thakeray’s influence was more akin to ‘the Godfather,’ and that his hired thugs were threatening to incite riots. Thankfully, nothing happened in my part of the city – about forty minutes from the heart of Mumbai – and I had a very boring weekend to myself with no grocery shopping, movies or bars.

 

If you were to have told me a few years ago that I would have my safety threatened by the death of a political ‘Godfather,’ I would assume that either I or the world had gone mad. However, the general banality of the death’s aftermath taught me that living life in a ‘crisis region’ – where anything is possible -- does not mean constant panic.

In December, a horrendous gang-rape in Delhi sparked international outrage and numerous reports of India’s intractable sexual harassment problem. Students and activists protested across the nation, and many Western media outlets declared a watershed political moment for India’s burgeoning middle class. One New York Times’ guest columnist, Sonia Faleiro, noted that in Delhi, “sexual harassment is as regular as mealtime.” Ms. Faleiro explained that moving to Mumbai when she was 26 provided her a more “cosmopolitan and liberal” working atmosphere, where sexual depravity is rightly unacceptable. To this end, I was proud to be a Mumbaiker – and I was also able to explain to family back home how sexual harassment was not a problem in “my city.”

This lack of personal effect, of course, is reflective of the ‘Mumbai bubble’ I live in – I know for a fact that the rape protests had wide-ranging consequences for India. But seeing the Western media define India is such stark terms made me rethink the power of communication, and my perspective as an expat.

Similarly, reading about catastrophes in the U.S. during the past year has given me an interesting view of America from the outside. I’ve seen my share of hurricanes in my hometown – but Hurricane Irene, to me, seemed like an entirely freakish event which belonged in a disaster movie. Exploding transformers in lower Manhattan, Wall Street flooding, the Atlantic City boardwalk blowing away --  Irene dwarfed any of India’s problems, and my teammates were subsequently very curious how my family was holding up. Luckily, the hurricane blew through D.C and Virginia with little damage, but I have multiple friends living and working in New York City, including one who had to evacuate his apartment in the financial district. The evacuation seemed completely unbelievable to me, but in talking with my friend, he had the same attitude I had during the multiple Indian crises – the unexpected happens, and professionals adapt.

Granted, my friend and I have been lucky to have only seen the ancillary effects of tragedies. There were many homes destroyed in Irene, and I’m still surprised that I never saw any protests of the Delhi rapes in my part of Mumbai – I believe they took place downtown. But my point is that ‘panic’ is not universal, and though certain regions may be more volatile, this does not conversely mean that people and organizations in those regions are volatile. I’m sure this is not a huge insight for plenty of well-traveled people, but for me, gaining this understanding of cultures has been huge.

For organizations still unsure of India’s stability as a place to do business – and there are many doubters – I would emphasize that the country’s resilience, particularly of the sprouting middle class, has no limits. India will certainly see more ‘growing pains’ – protests, maybe even violence – but these are necessary as the country tries to fill the shoes of an economic superpower. For the young professionals I work with, a ‘crisis’ situation in their city is never a reason to drop the ball at work.

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Becoming a World Traveler

Historically, I have not been a travel-buff. This may be incongruous with the fact that I moved halfway around the world for my first job, but as I’ve emphasized before, my primary aim in coming to India was career exploration.

Indeed, before coming to Mumbai, I had never left the United States, and was frankly baffled by anyone who noted one of their hobbies as “travel.” In my mind, the financial and time investment of simply sitting on an airplane or in a car for so many hours outweighed any clear benefit. So, with only about three-months left in India, I am surprised to say that I have developed a hearty appreciation for travel – from sight-seeing to walking tours to hiking – to the point where I may even pride myself a “travel hobbyist” in my own right.

Business travel, I should note, presents a set of opportunities and challenges entirely unique from “pure pleasure” travel. In my business travel, I have ventured to Pune and Karjat – both within several hours of Mumbai – as well as to Hyderabad, which necessitates a plane ride to the south-east. In Hyderabad, many office parks make aesthetic use of the natural boulders littering the flat, prairie-like countryside. Man-made waterfalls and rock sculptures decorate corporate campuses – sprawling affairs which reminded me of certain American West Coast offices I have seen, but would be entirely out of place in an economically-spaced city like Mumbai. One office building I worked out of held a cadre of geese and turkeys in cages, which staff tended to and periodically let free throughout the day. I only assume the point of these birds was to evoke a more natural campus atmosphere, although I still wonder if they served any deeper purpose for the grounds or corporate culture.

Travel for pleasure, of course, is harder to schedule. I have done quite a bit of weekend sight-seeing around Mumbai – everything from the historic Haji Ali Dargah temple in Worli Bay to the Gateway of India monument. However, my most extensive travel by far has been to Hong Kong – a trip as unexpected as it was enlightening.

When my two college friends began e-mailing me about planning the trip, I was skeptical of taking time off from work, and of what I would find in Hong Kong – I knew literally nothing about this “special administrative region” of China. As my two friends began to elaborate on their plans for the trip, I of course softened and surrendered to Hong Kong’s beckoning – or more accurately, my friend’s pleas.

                           

I arrived early on a Saturday, with 10 hours to kill before my friend arrived from Atlanta. My first major food purchase of the trip was a bacon cheeseburger – made with 100% beef, of course. After having been denied beef for more than half a year, the burger entirely lived up to my hopes – and was a nice precursor to the Ngong Ping 360 crystal cable-car sky tour of the city. The temperate climate and pleasant fog across the city was invigorating, and by the time my friends arrived – one from Wuhan, China, the other from Atlanta, Georgia -- I was ready to explore Hong Kong full-bore.

There are a lot of factors that separate Mumbai from Hong Kong, but I think two of Hong Kong’s most obvious assets are luxury malls and the “Mass Transit Railway” system. Indeed, Hong Kong’s abundance of high-end shopping centers dwarfs most cities I’ve been to in the U.S., let alone Mumbai – the city hosts 10 Gucci stores, for instance. Travel bags of Goyard, Cartier watches, a slew of French designers I couldn’t pronounce – the streets of Kowloon in particular had a serious fetish for fashion, and we lapped up the eye candy as only American tourists can.

The prices were luxury as well, so only once or twice did our “window-shopping” translate into actual purchases. Of course, there is a very clear line between the gold-plated watches behind the glass windows, and the knock-off Rolexes sold on the street. Tempted as I was, I avoided any impulse purchases of bootleg items – a faulty pair of headphones I once bought for seven dollars in Mumbai had taught me my lesson about the black market.

Hong Kong’s subway system – the Mass Transit Railway – is inspiringly great. I have a long, patchy history with subway systems –  as does any child of the Washington, D.C. suburbs – and have previously expressed my weariness of Indian railways, which are often over-crowded and over-rusted. Hong Kong’s subway cars, on the other hand, are reliably clean and provide a silky smooth ride. With trains consistently rocketing into stations every few minutes, I would estimate that it takes no more than fifteen minutes to get between any two given locations in Hong Kong.

We also spent a night in Macau – which didn’t quite live up to its reputation as “crazier then Vegas,” although to be fair we were there at a low-season for gambling – and took in Hong Kong nightlife with gusto. The city almost never failed to impress me with cleanliness, quick service and beautiful sights. By the middle of the trip, I was lecturing my friend – who currently teaches English in the mainland Chinese city of Wuhan – about my impressions of Chinese cities over Indian infrastructure.

At this point, my friend corrected my judgments – Hong Kong was effectively a British colony until 1997, and the “one country, two systems” government gives the region a different political system then mainland China. In other words, Hong Kong is not a good representation of a Chinese emerging market city – amongst other advantages, Hong Kong did not deal as directly with the travesties of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. As my friend noted, his experience in Wuhan is more akin to some of the frustrations I’ve found with the infrastructure and bureaucracy of Mumbai.

To reasonably compare Hong Kong to Mumbai, I realized, would be impossible, if for no other reason than the sheer breadth of historical context one would have to provide in explaining both cities. If nothing else, I am beginning to see the value in dissertations and extensive sociological case studies of cultures – the only way to truly judge a country in the present day is by looking through the lens of history and policy. Regardless, if we were to ever get into inevitably unfair comparisons of cultures, I would say that, spice for spice, I still prefer Indian food to Chinese.

Since returning to Mumbai two weeks ago, I have taken a break from traveling, although my American roommate and I are currently bandying about the idea of a Eurotrip following our leave of India in May. If anyone has suggestions for places to visit – or their own impressions on Hong Kong and other world cultures – feel free to respond to this post on Facebook, or on the Project Firefly site.

Best regards,

Brendan

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Holidays in Mumbai

I have rotated through approximately 10 roommates in the seven months I’ve been in Mumbai -- young professionals hailing everywhere from Peru to Kenya. As fates would have it, my current roster of roommates includes two fellow Americans, both of whom also work in my office. For us Americans, these past two months in particular were emotionally resonant, as friends and family in the United States celebrated the holiday season and splashed news of their festivities across various social networks. As I have learned, though, celebrations in India are a rich part of the culture, and even “foreign” holidays are honored with distinct Indian flavor.

The American “holiday season” arguably starts with Thanksgiving. For the past 22 years of my life, this holiday for me has entailed family gatherings with my aunt, uncle, and cousins in Northern Virginia – I knew it would be hard to replicate an American Thanksgiving amidst the hustle-and-bustle of Mumbai. The week of Thanksgiving got off to a good start, however, when my coworkers presented me with a gift certificate to a local department store, and a cake -- which doubled as a farewell-cake for a departing teammate. Their generosity in ensuring a memorable first “Thanksgiving away from family” emboldened me to think outside the box about my Indian Thanksgiving, and to be proactive.

Aiming for turkey-and-stuffing, my roommates and I booked a table at the most American place we could find – TGI Friday’s, located in RCity Mall in front of our apartment. Inviting another expat friend – an Indian-American originally from California – we ordered very “American” dishes, though not quite redolent of Thanksgiving – chicken quesadillas, alfredo pastas and chicken wings were the main fare of the night. My bison burger was a bit dry, although I’m not sure if that was indicative of bison meat or the restaurant quality.

Food quibbles aside, we had a fun night, and were excited to launch into Christmas season. To my surprise, Christmas in India is fairly widely-celebrated, despite the fact that Christians account for only 2 percent of the total population. By the first week of December, red-and-green tinsel and cotton snowmans adorned the office, and construction workers at RCity Mall erected a thirty-foot tall plastic tree amidst the fountains at the entrance.

                                                         

On Christmas Eve, I had the chance to participate in a community Christmas play, held amidst a Christmas festival in Hiranandani – a sort of “town square” for my Ghatkopar/Vikhroli neighborhood. I played the role of a guard, hammering Jesus on the cross – certainly not a star-making performance, but enjoyable nonetheless. The festival was memorable as well, as I had the chance to meet “neighbors” and garner a genuine sense of community.

On Christmas day itself, we looped Christmas music from my iPod speaker and ate dinner at a restaurant called Out of the Blue – an up-scale lounge with an intriguing “Christmas menu,” although we ended up ordering “sizzler” plates. Thai chicken may not be a traditional yuletide meal, but I appreciated the quality nonetheless.

New Year’s Eve was spent in the company of other expats at a friend’s apartment. The traditional countdown-to-midnight ended with fireworks across the city – a memorable end to a memorable year.

The triumvirate celebrations of Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Years were surprising, fun and touching, but possibly my favorite experience these last two months has been my teammate’s wedding – or more specifically, the reception. The ceremony was Catholic, and the reception was held in a large hotel ballroom – a venue which reminded me of my own cousin’s wedding after-party several years ago, in Florida.

Walking into the ballroom, attendees were greeted with chocolate truffles and shots of wine. Right as my teammates and I arrived, the wedding band struck up a rousing rendition of “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain,” followed by an eclectic selection of pop songs – ranging from the hip-hop tracks of Flo-Rida to the latest Bollywood singles. The food was deliciously Indian – pots upon pots of biryanis, curries and breads – although with an open bar for most of the night, the dinner had a decidedly Western flavor. Dancing ranged from ballroom to more informal party moves. Needless to say, the “raise the roof” fist-pump transcends all cultures, serving as my comfortable fall-back on the dance floor. 

                               

Similar to my experience with “Western” holidays, the wedding was a fantastic mash-up of Indian and American cultures – although because America derives so directly from other cultures, it’s safe to say the event was a bit of a world fusion. Indeed, part of the reason I have grown to love India so much is because the culture is so distinct. Even in celebrating Christmas, I am sometimes hard-pressed to identify where a respective ‘tradition’ originated – global advertising and cross-culture pollination make the season quite a sociological hodge-podge . But there is no such ambiguity when I am eating a spicy masala curry, or dancing to a Bollywood song – India has an extremely defined cultural identity, and the country is masterful at tastefully incorporating other nation’s traditions and stamping their brand on diverse celebrations.

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Brand Identity in Mumbai

Since India liberalized its foreign investment policies in 1991, franchises have been tripping over themselves to gain a market foothold in the world’s largest democracy. From the perspective of a “temporary citizen” such as myself, the globalizing effects of international brands setting up shop in Mumbai can lead to some very interesting “mash-ups” of heritage.

Certain American brands have inculcated themselves into Indian culture with a fair amount of graceful re-invention. The McDonald’s restaurants I’ve been to in Mumbai, for instance, feature the same tasty “Filet-o-Fish” sandwiches, and near-identical restaurant designs as their American counterparts. However, rather than beef hamburgers, the company offers sandwiches like the “Spicy McPaneer,” the “McVeggie,” and various incarnations of the “McChicken.” The fries tasted about the same – delicious -- although I passed on the opportunity to shake them in “Piri-Piri” spice.

Though tea has been a top-selling Indian beverage ever since the British colonial days, coffee has become increasingly popular – according to a recent Wall Street Journal article, Indian coffee consumption increased 80% between 2000 and 2010. The most ubiquitous coffee-shop is “Café Coffee Day,” a relatively bright-colored affair with loopy fonts on the menu and a variety of “brews and bites.” During my first few months in Mumbai, my guilty pleasure was their “Sizzle Dazzle Brownie” – an unabashedly Westernized brownie topped with marshmallows and cashews. Unfortunately, the particular Café Coffee Day near my apartment has chronically slow service, discouraging me from returning regularly.

         

I of course can’t extrapolate my experience with my local Café Coffee Day to the entire company, but I will note that the chain should be stepping up its game as they begin to compete with Starbucks, which opened their first Indian franchises in downtown Mumbai about two months ago. I have not been to the Mumbai Starbucks yet, although my roommate tells me it is as reliably efficient as any American location.

The Indian government generally encourages these international incursions, but there are still fairly substantial barriers to entry for foreign franchises. All international firms establishing themselves in India must essentially partner with Indian-based companies, such as the Tata Group or the United Breweries Group.

Indeed, before the Indian government restructured their role in the economy and opened up to foreign investment in the early 1990s, their close watch over foreign franchises did not always lead to fruitful results. Coca-Cola, for instance, first attempted to break into the Indian marketplace in the 1970s, until the Ministry of Commerce and Industry demanded the company reveal its secret formula. As the late Christopher Hitchens wrote, “Coke walked, rudely denouncing India as a basket case on the way out.” Of course, Coca-Cola couldn’t keep away from the tantalizing Indian marketplace for long – they re-entered India in 1993, and this year announced they would be stepping up investment in the country to $5 billion by 2020. Nothing washes down a spicy Indian meal like a cold Coke, in my opinion, although for the truly adventurous, traditional “masala sodas” provide quite the morning wake-up jolt. I also enjoy trying Indian-specific brand drinks, such as “Thums-Up” cola – a brand introduced in 1977 to off-set Coca-Cola’s absence, but eventually purchased by Coca-Cola to compete with Pepsi.  The taste of “Thums-Up” is fairly similar to generic cola, although it holds a stronger “kick” – which I hypothesize is meant to emulate masala sodas. My office cafeteria also sells “Nimbooz” – an uncarbonated lemonade beverage packaged by Pepsi and sold under the 7Up umbrella. “Nimbooz” seems to be patterned off the Indian preference for “salted-and-sugared” lemonade, although for my tastes, there’s a bit too much chemical.

         

These differences in product presentation are surprising, but often well-calculated, as companies seek to appeal their products to an entirely different culture without diluting brand identity. Regardless of one’s opinion on the nutritional worth of McDonalds food, I was fairly impressed they could take an Indian snack as provincial as aloo tikki – essentially a North Indian patty of potatoes and spices – and turn it into the mass-market “McAloo Tikki” menu item. To an extent, I am heartened that such extensive investment in market research and food science pays off – successful companies like McDonalds take the diverse Indian tastes seriously. At the same time, there is comfort and even commercial appeal in a universal product. At its core, a Coke is still a Coke on whatever continent you may land, and this brand trustworthiness is crucial – whether you’re selling coffee, hamburgers or soda.

Best,

Brendan

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Life After College - India Style

Before entering college, students have almost unlimited resources for advice on how to make the most of a University experience. As a recent graduate, however, I have found it surprising that there is so little published work on how to “survive” the first year out of college, in the iron grip of the real world. The first year after graduation holds challenges – and exciting opportunities – for everyone, but spending my new-found independence in a completely different country has presented its own set of learning experiences.

For many young adults, dealing with roommates is a rite of passage. I am currently living with four roommates, all below 30. I am grateful that they are all generally neat and considerate, and we get along very well. However, when five hard-working young professionals have to split time between only two bathrooms and one stove, some eccentric group dynamics are bound to arise. Adding to this general maelstrom is the fact that only two of us are native English speakers – the other three are from Brazil, Russia and Czech Republic, respectively.

 

However, besides the occasional bathroom-schedule conflict, I have thoroughly enjoyed absorbing my roommate’s diverse world viewpoints. My Czech Republic-roommate Ondrej, for example, is a wonk for economic and foreign policy, and has already enlightened me on such geopolitical intricacies as post-World War II Eastern Europe and the Palestine-Indian tensions. He recently bought me a book of Franz Kafka’s “greatest works,” hoping to give me some insight into Czech’s greatest author. I have lent many of my own books  -- including a few biographies of great American figures – in return.

Aside from learning about how to build healthy roommate relationships across different cultures, I also like to think I am learning how to be resourceful with my dietary options. In college, my “meal plan” was a mix of cooked dinners at my fraternity, campus dining halls, and frequent ham sandwiches I would whip up between classes. I was actually looking forward to post-college experiments with cooking – in particular, I had imagined myself embracing the thriving “local food” movement. My generation in particular loves to bolster organic, pesticide-free, healthy meals that support small farmers. However, seeing the dearth of choices in Indian “supermarkets,” I now understand that maintaining obsessive control over one’s diet is a near-impossible privilege in many parts of the world.

My market of choice, Haiko Supermarket, is packed with expats every Saturday morning, when I normally make my grocery run. Haiko absolutely satisfies the basic requirements of a food store, but having been spoiled with the culinary paradise of Wegman’s Food Market in New York State, I do pine for meat options besides Haiko’s two choices of chicken or mutton. My current favorite snack, tuna, only seems to be in stock about two weeks out of each given month. Fruits and vegetables are plentiful, although finding non-bruised fruit can sometimes be a challenge. With regards to eating “local,” the closest options I can think of are the cheap and popular roadside food stalls, offering everything from raw produce to specially cooked Indian snacks such as bhel puri or vada pav. These dishes are delicious, but for foreigners they can present some serious sanitary concerns – not to mention the foods are often deep-fried and very unhealthy.

Food quibbles asides, I have had opportunities in India which I’m fairly certain are not available to my recent graduate friends in the U.S. – such as appearing in Bollywood film productions. Most recently, I was recruited to work alongside several other expats in a commercial for a water heater company. I played one of several cricket players, giving a cricket coach a rough time during a game. After his hard day on the cricket pitch, the coach goes home, has a hot shower – courtesy of the water heater – and all is well.

 

In total, the filming took about 22 hours over the course of two days. We shot at a cricket stadium – Dr. D.Y. Patil stadium, which pleasantly reminded me of a U.S. baseball stadium, especially at night working under the stadium flood lights. In addition to meeting many other expats – including a large contingent of Russians – I also enjoyed watching the film directors and assistants at work. The directors were abrasive but effective – we finished the shooting early on Sunday and I was lucky enough to be featured in five scenes. I am told the commercial will be edited and on the air within the week – all I can hope for now is that they don’t edit my scenes out.

Though I doubt I will ever be given any speaking parts, I would still like to continue participating in Bollywood work as the opportunities arise. Bollywood agents enjoy recruiting expats for their “exotic” looks – not to mention the gigs generally pay well. These kind of exciting offers are like icing on the cake of my Indian experience thus far. I’ll always be able to buy beef in the States – hopefully “localized” beef, at that -- but when else would I have ever had the opportunity to be apart of “Bollywood magic?”

Best,

Brendan

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India: "Fallen Angel" of the BRICS?

As I’ve previously written, a large factor in my decision to come to India was the hope for valuable “growth market” experience. In essence, I was banking on India’s sustained status as a fast-moving and fast-developing global economic superpower. So, I was blindsided when – mere weeks into my Indian experience – economists and policy analysts around the world began to castigate the country as the “fallen angel” of the BRICS markets – and a dubious locale to conduct business.

Goldman Sachs economist and “father of the BRICS” Jim O’Neill noted in early August, as the rest of the world was focusing on the London Olympic Games -- “The country’s huge power blackouts highlight once more the scale of their challenges, and at the same time, ongoing economic indicators lead more to scale back cyclical GDP forecasts. In addition, they are the one BRIC nation that doesn’t appear to be here on mass in London. What is the matter with you guys?”

Reading O’Neill’s words, I had to question myself: Had I made the right decision to leave the relatively stable U.S. markets for the Indian economic firecracker?

I thought about my own acclimation to Indian infrastructure – both physical and bureaucratic. The most painful day of my four-months here so far was in my second week, when a colleague and I waited five hours in the Foreigner Regional Registration Office to obtain temporary residency status. The wait was exacerbated by the fact that a surprising amount of the bureaucratic work was done manually – with actual paper. I had to place my signature on numerous arbitrary forms during the waiting period, and watched office workers thumb through reams upon reams of documents and manuals looking for form numbers or protocol guidelines. I was reminded slightly of the United States Department of Motor Vehicles – a government office also famous for interminably long waits and endless paperwork.

That day happened to coincide with my first – and most severe – bout of food poisoning. Word to the wise, a poorly air-conditioned government office in the middle of Mumbai monsoon season is literally the worst place to get nauseous.

I did not experience the infamous July power blackout – which mainly affected Northern India and was the largest in history – but I and my roommates have had challenges with other public services. Trains here are famously over-crowded – at rush hour, full-on shoving matches are common to garner a spot in a rusty rail-car packed to the brim. Most native Mumbaikers I have befriended choose not to ride the trains, opting instead for their own auto-rickshaw, taxi or personal car. But for those on a tight budget, trains are the quickest, most economical choice – even if they are not the most comfortable. I have ridden on trains numerous times, and frankly have gotten accustomed to the jostling nature of a train ride. However, many of my roommates who have been here longer collect horror stories of trains breaking down, people riding on top of the cars, or scheduled trains not showing up at all.

Regardless of the accusations of overwrought bureaucratic processes or uncomfortable public transportation, I was still surprised – and saddened – to witness this perception of India as a “difficult” place to grow and start careers/businesses. I have thoroughly enjoyed my work here, and have met many other expatriates who are thriving amidst the challenges. One of my roommate’s frequent dinner companions is a former American military-man in his early 30’s who moved here to start his own cyber-security company – and business is booming. I have also become acquainted with numerous Europeans who work for well-respected corporate brands, like Amazon and Coca-Cola, and have been stationed in Mumbai to help lead their company’s expansion into the exciting Asian marketplace.

Essentially, India may hold unique challenges, but I disagree with its characterization as a “fallen angel.” As I have stated before, so many Indian citizens I have met are acutely aware of their country’s growing pains, and the prevailing attitude seems to be always ‘upwards and onwards.’ O’Neill’s comments may not paint the country in the best light, but I think the point may still be one of optimism: India is the world’s largest democracy, and if it can fill the shoes of an economic super-power, the world as a whole will benefit.

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Spirituality in India

A few weeks ago, after a night with some friends in South Bombay, I flagged down an air-conditioned taxi to transport me the short but densely-trafficked distance back to Ghatkopar. Just as we were about to reach my apartment, the taxi driver – missing more than a few teeth – lisped out, “You Christian?” I nodded in affirmation. Smiling, he motioned toward a small, colorful figurine of Vishnu, the four-armed Hindu God, on his dashboard. “This my Jesus.”

Aside from pleasantly surprising me with his use of English, the cab driver’s short-but-sweet metaphor got me thinking how my experience in India has been frequently defined by the deeply spiritual culture. The traditions and beliefs of Hinduism, in particular, seem to infuse every aspect of Mumbai daily life, from car ornaments to mealtime etiquette.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, Hindu temples broadcast recorded songs and chants regularly, adding to the already boisterous city noise levels. I find these songs distracting during the day, but hauntingly beautiful when played at night.  Hindu worships are loud and enthusiastic – characteristics which seem to suffuse the personalities of many locals I meet, particularly the rickshaw drivers who vigorously hum Hindi hymns and shout good-natured questions at me daily.

         

Vegetarian options are, of course, abundant. In many venues, the variety of veg dishes eclipses the choices of meat, which are limited to variations of chicken and mutton – including the particularly regrettable (in my opinion) “chicken salami.”  However – like Christians who only attend church on Christmas – plenty of Hindi followers can pick and choose their rites of religious devotion. When enjoying a buffet dinner with some colleagues, I noticed one friend savoring a roast chicken dish washed down with whiskey, while another nibbled on a vegetarian platter with a glass of water. I began talking with my vegetarian colleague about his religious dietary choices. Picking up on our conversation, my other colleague noted, “I’m supposed to be like him – no meat or alcohol. But…” He gave an indifferent shrug. I was also drinking alcohol and eating meat, and of course understood my colleague’s point– India is no theocracy, and like America, the spiritual lives of citizens only overlap professional or personal lives as much as one allows.

Another ubiquitous symbol of religion here is the swastika. Within my first 24 hours in the city, I deduced fairly quickly that the symbol decorating so many Mumbai cars and storefronts must hold a different meaning then the insignia of Nazi Germany. Indeed, the Hindu swastika is seen as a symbol of Ganesh – the elephant-headed, pot-bellied “remover of obstacles.” I have an admittedly limited knowledge of the canon of Hindu deities, but have nonetheless taken a particular fondness for Ganesh. He is a regarded as a beacon of good luck and prosperity, particularly for businesses. The presence of a tiny Ganesh figurine on one of my coworker’s desks may be comparable to framed Christian psalms or miniature crosses in American cubicle

I have highlighted the Hindu aspects of culture here, but the city is also home to Muslims, Christians, and a bevy of expats bringing with them there are own varied spiritualties. I’m interested to hear other’s experiences with the religious life of India, especially Mumbai. How much does Hinduism influence the city and its people? Are there even larger forces at work?

Look forward to hearing from some of you,

Best regards,

Brendan

Brendan Doyle's picture

Pollution in Mumbai

A common topic of conversation among my fellow ACE associates and I is how our homelands differ from Mumbai. Many of us bring up the work interactions -- my peer from Brazil claims that Indian work relationships are more formal than Brazil’s -- and the eating habits -- Indians almost always eat with their hands. The contrasts are a mix of good and bad, but the one unanimously negative aspect of the culture we all are equally fascinated and disheartened by is Mumbai’s staggering pollution problems.

Stepping out of the Mumbai airport, one of my distinct memories is immediately stopping short of breath. The air seemed thinner, like I might start coughing if I tried breathing too deeply. Looking out the window on the taxi ride to the hotel, I noticed every block seemed to harbor at least one house-sized pile of trash. A dumpster overflowing past the point of comedy lay about twenty feet from the perfectly clean business hotel Tata provided for me the first two weeks. Pollution, I would quickly learn, is hard to escape in India.


When I moved to my office in Ghatkopar -- a busy business district of Eastern Mumbai -- I was relieved to find that the streets seemed relatively clean at first blush, if not a tad muddy from monsoon season. But living here now, behind Mumbai’s largest mall, I find trash piles springing up everywhere. My daily walk to work -- about ten minutes -- is regularly impeded by knee-high blockades of plastic wrappers and tossed food from roadside stands. Certainly not the most inviting sight to start the day.

The trash is also an implicit cause of another problem throughout Mumbai: stray dogs. No matter how many times I was told to “expect wild animals” by travel nurses, I still am weary of walking by the collar-less “Indian pariah dogs” roaming the Mumbai streets, feeding on trash heaps and occasionally tussling with each other. The New York Times ran an excellent piece this week on India’s stray dogs, which last year accounted for about 80,000 bites in Mumbai. I think any foreign traveler would be frustrated to see such blatant pollution exacerbating a dangerous wild animal problem, and question what policies are being adopted to address both issues.

      

In fact, Indian leaders are acutely aware of their country’s pollution problem, initiating a string of environmental legislation and court orders in the past decade. Of course, I don’t expect the overall trash situation to visibly improve much during my year-long stay -- the most I can do is keep clean my own personal space, and love the city for all the positives: beautiful views, beautiful architecture, and fantastically friendly people.

One fellow expat explained to me that us Westerners subconsciously learn to take shorter breaths while staying in India. Adaptive mechanisms or not, I don’t cover my mouth and nose nearly as much as I used to on a daily basis– if nothing else, I am confident I will return to the States with a stronger stomach.

I am always curious to hear other people’s opinions, particularly regarding these volatile environmental issues. How do other cities’ cleanliness compare to Mumbai? Feel free to send your own thoughts or questions via the Project Firefly website, Facebook or Twitter.

Best,

Brendan

 

Brendan Doyle's picture

Working in India

My birthday, July 13, landed on a Friday this year. I was amused to find that “Friday the 13th” is regarded as a generally unlucky day in India – one similarity the country shares with the U.S. – and my coworkers reminded me of this fact leading up to the day.  Regardless of the inauspicious circumstances, my work teammates did their best to ensure a comfortable and happy first birthday in India, coming by my work station to shake my hand and enthuse, “Many happy returns of the day!”

Right as I was about to check out of the office, one of my supervisors motioned that I should stay for a few more minutes.

“For cake,” he explained.

Sure enough, five minutes later another coworker brought in a beautifully decorated small chocolate cake. My teammates and other people in our work space sang happy birthday, I cut the cake and for the last twenty minutes of the day the “Business Development Room” served as a makeshift party space.

The birthday with my coworkers is fairly representative of the overall work atmosphere at a leading Indian IT firm – my fellow associates, and even the firm leadership, are friendly, fun-loving, and helpful. This is a far cry from certain complaints I’ve heard from other expats, bemoaning that Indian work places are rigidly hierarchically structured, full of tedious work and a minimum of personal space. My time in India so far has not been all peaches and cream – as detailed in the last post – but I consider myself lucky that I have had nothing but a fantastic experience with my work, coworkers and professional development.

As a “Pre-Sales” associate in Life Sciences, my teammates and I essentially communicate with biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies to help them understand the opportunities available with the firm’s IT and outsourcing services. The work I’ve been exposed to so far has incorporated marketing, numbers analysis and general salesmanship, although at this point, I am still on a steep learning curve regarding “life science” industries. The companies we work with are, I find, constantly evolving, merging, acquiring and innovating, and their dynamic nature has made my day-to-day assignments very interesting.

Of course, there are little details of work etiquette that give me constant reminders I am not in the States anymore. After trekking through the morning rains, the common practice here is to lay open umbrellas on the ground to dry. This is fairly inconsequential, although our “Business Development Room” looks quite unique when there are multiple open umbrellas strewn on the floor every day.

Security checks are frequent – although the high-security is also a function of the confidential technical work the firm performs for many clients. To enter the office, I first show my photo ID to security, then swipe the ID card in two separate identification readers and show my laptop to the security guards so they can verify the issue number, before putting my bags through an x-ray conveyor and walking through a metal detector myself. Photography is prohibited in the office, and in certain firm's offices across India, “smart phones” with cameras are not allowed either.

The cafeteria food is perfectly fine by my standards, although those who can embrace spicy food will generally have a wider variety of choices. One fellow first-year associate has lost almost thirty pounds since arriving in India four months ago due to his aversion to spice. I am also fortunate to have a relatively small team of seven associates – we eat lunch together, as well as sharing a mid-afternoon “snack” usually consisting of dosas and samosas.

                       

My teammates are hard-working and conscientious, as I expected. Almost all are under the age of 30, most have MBA’s or another advanced degree, and all are acutely aware of the challenges their upwardly-mobile country faces as it moves towards economic stability. They frequently inquire how I am adjusting to Indian life, and happily give me suggestions for landmarks to visit, bars to check out, and methods of dealing with ever-fickle rickshaw drivers (the main tip: be assertive). From our Monday morning conversations, I have gathered that they all enjoy full social lives outside the office.

The aspect of work I am happiest with, however, is my team’s degree of cooperation and respect. My teammates have made eminently clear that we are all working towards the same goal, and everyone is quick to help with each other’s challenges and embrace their peers’ success. This teamwork can certainly be attributed to good leadership from our team leader – who gave me “The Last Lecture: Lessons in Living,” by Randy Pausch, as a birthday present. However, I think the friendliness and helpful attitude imbued in many parts of Indian culture are major benefits for business teams here as well – benefits I am particularly grateful for as I continue to acclimate to life in Mumbai.

As I’ve mentioned, I am very lucky to be working with a supportive team, and I would be interested to hear other stories of work life in India. Feel free to comment on the Project Firefly website, Facebook page or Twitter with your own experiences and opinions.

Best,

Brendan

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