Passage to India
By By Jack Boulware
Following the high-tech outsourcing boom, many American expatriates are making the move to Bangalore for work. Aside from steady employment, such relocation offers a variety of privileges — and the experience of a lifetime.
The Leela Palace hotel sprawls over nine acres of lush gardens, an extravagant structure of gold-leaf domes and ornate ceilings. On Sundays, the hotel’s Citrus restaurant serves its “Grand Sunday Brunch Buffet” smorgasbord of international cuisines and gourmet desserts. A feast fit for visiting royalty. Except the people waiting 30 minutes in line are definitely not royalty. They look more like high-tech workers. Which, in fact, they are.
Each Sunday, the Leela brunch attracts a crowd of expatriates from all over the world: America, Canada, Britain, Ireland, Australia, Japan, Germany, Brazil. Most have followed the high-tech outsourcing boom here, chasing jobs that are disappearing in their home countries. Aside from steady employment, such relocation has other privileges. An IT employee can’t begin to afford such luxuries back home. But in Bangalore, the Silicon Valley of India, it’s perfectly normal to wake up after a night of discos and enjoy a four-hour feast at a five-star hotel. And that’s a typical weekend for Jeffrey Vanderwerf.
The 28-year-old American moved here last September to work for Microsoft as a communications trainer, helping call-center staff improve their English and phone skills. Call a customer-support line, and you’ll likely be speaking with one of his students. Vanderwerf knows outsourcing to India is a contentious subject, but it’s been directly beneficial to him and has given him his job. In a sense, he has outsourced himself.
“To be quite honest, my life here is quite comfortable, since the cost of living is substantially lower than in, say, Minneapolis,” he says. His annual salary: about $12,000.
Vanderwerf is not alone. Bangalore is said to grow by almost 4,000 residents every day, the majority working for multinational technology companies, from Infosys to Sun, IBM, and Google. Over the course of the next five years, U.S. businesses will relocate an estimated three million jobs to India.
The media is filled with cautionary news stories about outsourcing. Politicians berate each other over the sucking sound of jobs lost overseas. For Americans caught in this global economy crossfire, moving to Bangalore could be a bittersweet experience. But it’s not. Life in Bangalore is just different.
ON FIRST IMPRESSION, the city of more than seven million can be overwhelming. But for IT workers, this is the land of opportunity.
Cecilia Villalon works as a content production engineer for Intel Technology India Pvt. Ltd. Her first few months here were very different from her previous life in Portland, Oregon. “I was extremely nervous and scared,” she recalls. “I remember my hand shaking as I reached to get breakfast at the hotel restaurant. I couldn’t believe that I was actually in India and this was to be my home for the next year.”
Electricity would go out at least once a week, and she spent the time sitting in her darkened apartment playing with her puppy. She eventually bought a power inverter to back up electrical devices,
and she learned to use VOIP (voice over Internet protocol) to make cheap phone calls to friends and family back in the U.S. Within a few months, she’d adjusted to her new life.
None of the Americans interviewed for this story know each other. Expats in Bangalore tend to meet and socialize most easily with expats from other countries. It takes longer to befriend Indian people, but the connections can eventually turn into solid relationships. And there is no language barrier: Thanks to the legacy of British colonization, everybody speaks English. The atmosphere is relaxed and polite, but assimilating into another culture is always an ongoing process.
“It’s very easy to make friends with foreigners,” Villalon says. “It’s a little different with the locals. Because I have very Asian features, at first they do not think I am an American. Until I start to speak and they hear my accent.”
“No matter how long I have been here, I will still appear to others as a foreigner,” says Susan Chopra, a software usability engineer from Michigan. “Some days, the endless stares get particularly frustrating, and I wonder if I will ever feel like I truly belong. I am optimistic, though, that having a job and networking with people in my field will change this.”
Chopra meets many locals through her husband, who is Indian. To connect with other expats, she attends weekly meetings of the Overseas Women’s Club Bangalore, which gathers for coffee every Thursday at The Leela Palace hotel.
“Most of the Americans I’ve met have been through the OWC,” she says. “This group has close to 400 members from all over the world. It’s a really great source for networking with others from overseas.”
Another frustrating adjustment is the local concept of time. In Bangalore, hours are fluid. “There is a completely different pace here,” says Vanderwerf. “When someone says they’ll meet you at 1 p.m., for example, they might show [up] anywhere between 1 and 3 p.m.”
Setting up one’s house is another shock to the system. Things taken for granted in the U.S. require more effort in Bangalore. When an apartment is advertised as “unfurnished,” that means no refrigerator, stove, or washing machine. Expats must either purchase or lease appliances, along with basics like chairs and beds. Preparing meals at home means that all food and dishes must be rinsed in bottled water. And despite the city’s reputation as a high-tech hub, Internet access is alarmingly slow.
“It may sound silly, but for two people in the software profession, having a good connection is pretty high on the priority list,” says Chopra. “In our first apartment, we had a broadband connection that, in actuality, gave us speeds less than that of a modem connection.”
Many of the high-tech jobs are concentrated in industrial parks like Electronics City or the International Tech Park Bangalore, both of which house more than 100 companies. Commuting to work means a daily journey through horrendous traffic. Some expats drive scooters or take taxis or public transit buses. Others, like Cecilia Villalon, take a three-wheeled auto rickshaw.
Those who can afford it will buy or rent a car, and then hire a driver to navigate the labyrinth of roads. Arman Zand, a vice president with Silicon Valley Bank India Advisors Pvt. Ltd., owns his own car and hires a driver for daily traffic, but he drives himself at nights and on weekends.
Formerly of San Jose, California, Zand sees the city as having some similarity to the Bay Area’s high-tech boom. “The level of energy and entrepreneurialism reminds me of Silicon Valley, 1999,” he says. “Venture capitalists, service providers, financial institutions, and young entrepreneurs are constantly roaming the coffee shops and hotel lobbies.”
In some districts, Bangalore eagerly embraces the tech generation in the manner of cities like San Francisco and Seattle. The air is rife with the chatter of cellphone conversations, and laptops fill the Café Coffee Day shops, India’s equivalent of Starbucks. Invitations for web design and programming classes flutter on bulletin boards. But outside the gates of the gleaming tech campuses, it’s back to India. “The obvious difference is the infrastructure,” says Zand. “It’s hard to ignore what goes on outside of the business climate.”
LIKE MUCH OF the rest of the world, Bangalore’s urban landscape adopts an increasingly American flavor. Expats who need a taste of home can stop for a quick meal at KFC, McDonald’s, or Pizza Hut, which serves a Chicken Tikka pizza. Modern shopping malls carry familiar Western brands like Lee, Van Heusen, and Louis Phillipe, as well as Indian goods and unmarked electronics products. An exchange rate of 43 rupees to one U.S. dollar guarantees Americans more spending power. Clubs play the latest hip-hop music, and a Hollywood film will open in a 1,000-seat theater the same week as in the States. Women now wear jeans and shirts on the streets, alongside the more traditional saris.
But it’s Bangalore’s boisterous nightlife that really gets the expats out on the weekends, particularly along dense arteries like Brigade Road and MG (Mahatma Ghandi) Road. While other major cities like Bombay and Delhi offer discos for drinks and dancing, only Bangalore features actual bars, earning it the title “Pub Capital of India.” Nearby universities feed a steady stream of local students to keep things lively. Locally based Kingfisher brewery keeps the city’s pubs well-stocked with Indian beers. Expats can slide into a bar to socialize and watch a World Cup cricket match. There are pubs devoted to Irish, Scottish, British, Egyptian, German, karaoke, and New Orleans jazz atmospheres. The NASA bar is shaped like a space shuttle, and the Underground borrows its ambience from London’s subway system. Western-style discos like Spinn, Club Inferno, and Club X are packed with dancing young people and may feature basketball courts, swimming pools, and artificial monsoons. Spinn even celebrates America’s Independence Day with an annual Stars-and-Stripes-themed party. And the next morning, there’s always brunch at The Leela Palace or Taj Residency Hotel.
During their free time, American expatriates explore the city and surrounding areas. Arman Zand plays tennis, goes to movies, and has visited the Taj Mahal. Cecilia Villalon says she likes to hit the shopping malls because “I feel like everything is on sale for me.” Susan Chopra takes cooking classes and is learning the Hindi language. And everyone keeps up with news in America through the Internet.
Joanna (last name withheld) has lived with her husband in Bangalore for eight years, raising their young daughter and helping run a content-development firm. She likes to get out of the city on the weekends, taking short trips to spas and the Bangalore Bannerghatta Zoo. However, her expatriate experience is somewhat different than most. She’s witnessed the city’s phenomenal growth over time, and notes that shopping malls and big grocery stores were virtually nonexistent four years ago. Her family loves living in India. But, she says, socializing with American expats doesn’t always depict the most flattering view of her homeland.
After having a recent lunch with four American expat families, she and her husband later realized how the conversation had turned into a “dump on India” session. “Complaints about the roads, the lack of planning, the lack of customer service, just dump, dump, dump,” Joanna says. “We both reflected [on] how, often, when we get together with Americans, it becomes a dumping session. But in our minds, and even in our hearts, we could only reflect on being thankful for the opportunities we have here.”
Like all expatriate tech workers, Americans will follow the jobs, which, for the moment, means they are happy to stay in Bangalore. The weather is always beautiful, hovering between 60 and 90 degrees year-round. And the experience of living in another country opens the eyes to other cultures, as well as allows for a more philosophical view of your home of origin. When asked if they would move here again if given the chance, a resounding yes was the answer.
“We are a product of our experiences, and this experience will definitely have a lasting impact on me,” says Chopra.
“I can’t even begin to spell out the creativity that can come out of a developing country like India,” says Joanna. “The sky is the limit. It is a great place if you are a pioneer type.”
Regrets are few, says Zand of his time in Bangalore. “If I could do this again, I would drag one less suitcase to India. You can find everything you need in the local mall or supermarket.”