Having lived in India for almost eight years, Ginalyn Makanawa, from the Philippines, now calls India home. She moved to Chennai seven and a half years ago with her husband and daughter, Sophia. She and her family moved from Cario, Egypt in 2011, when her husband was offered to be the executive chef of The Leela Palace, Chennai.
What was your impression of the country when you came for the first time in India? Has it changed at all?
My first impression of Chennai was not good. It took me eight months to adjust and accept that we were in India. The surrounding was dirty, animals (cows, goats, and pigs) were roaming on the street, the people were wearing their traditional clothing – saree for the women and the men wore lungi which looks like a wrap skirt. Plus, the weather was hot. There are three seasons— hot, hotter, and hottest. The one thing that is difficult to see is poverty. You see it everywhere. It’s an eye-opener for those coming here for the first time, and that made me appreciate the little things in life.
As time went by, I began to love the city. I made a lot of friends, and the availability of products got easier to find. I find the people so friendly and nice. I started to appreciate the beauty of my surroundings, especially during the festive season. And I began to love biryani!
As a family, we try to do our share of giving back by helping orphanages and starting livelihood programs for women in the village with the help of our local pastor. It took us seven and a half years to finally decide to move to Delhi. It’s nice to have a change of environment.
We find Delhi better than Chennai— the infrastructures, the greenery, and the weather, but not the pollution. And the South has better biryani than the north!
Did your expectations of India match with what was really out here?
When we found out that we were moving to Chennai, India, we got excited. We did our research and saw that the sea surrounds Chennai. Beaches and good seafood came to our minds. We even chose to live near the beach; it was just across our home. Unfortunately, it wasn’t what we expected. Coming from the Philippines, when we say ‘beach,’ we think of blue waters, swimming, and playing in the sand, but it’s not the same in Chennai. The beach was dirty, there was rubbish everywhere, and it smelled of pee!
We didn’t last long in our house. We decided to move out after a few months. But there’s something on the beach that we enjoyed, and we let our daughter experience it. They have those manual Ferris wheels that a man pushes for it to go around and also a manual carousel. Our daughter loved them and would go on those rides every weekend.
Do you think expats have an impact on the local culture? If yes, what do you think is yours?
For me, I believe that expats have a significant impact on Indian culture. People start to look more western, especially in Delhi. The restaurants now have different kinds of international dishes, and supermarkets now carry more imported items compared to before. Women are becoming more independent and vocal about their rights.
I guess the impact I made is when we started the women’s project in the village in Kancheepuram district in Tamil Nadu. We started a tailoring course with our pastor friend. The government certifies it, so when they finish the course, they get certificates and can get a job or start their own little business. We chose battered women, single mothers, and women with disabilities. We encourage them and tell them of their value and worth in society. Empowering women is my contribution, especially in a community where some don’t have voices and have no say at all.
What shocked you the most about India, and how did you get over it?
The biggest shock I had was the dowry system and arranged marriages. Because of these things, girls are not wanted, and they get rid of them even before they are born. People say that dowry is illegal, but people still do it. The girl’s family is always harassed for more money. I even see families educate their daughters, so it will look good on their CV or records for marriage. I can’t get over it. I volunteered to help an orphanage in Chennai that rescues unwanted babies, and most of them are girls. I see foreigners adopt the babies, and all I can do is pray and hope that these girls have a better life overseas.
After seven years of living in India, was this culture shock as challenging to manage as your first months here?
After almost eight years in India, you will get used to it and accept their culture. As much as we want to change it, we can only educate them, and some of them won’t even listen because that’s what they are used to. I guess with access to social media, it might affect their culture as the girls and women are exposed to the outside world and not just their own.
Have you ever been an expat in another country? If yes, how different is the experience between living in India and living in the other country?
We were in Cairo, Egypt, before coming to India. It’s a totally different world as the religion is mostly Islam, while here it is primarily Hindu. Muslim beliefs are so different from Hinduism. These religions affect each country’s culture and tradition. In Egypt, we can easily go out and grab a beef burger. They’re very common in fast-food chain restaurants. In India, you can’t get beef burgers. The dowry system is also there, but in Egypt, the men are the ones who give the dowry, unlike here. But in spite of these differences, they also have a lot in common. One of them is the close family ties. Egyptians are like Indians because they love having the whole family together, and they have a tight bond with each other. Both cultures are hospitable. They prepare a feast for their guests.
Many expats we interviewed said that building relationships is difficult in India, what do you think about this?
I guess that depends on where you are. When we were in Chennai, we had a small expat community compared to here in Delhi. There’s only one international school in the city, and all the expat kids go there. After dropping the kids to school, we all sit in the parents’ cafeteria and get to know each other. There aren’t a lot of activities in the city, so most of us do stuff in our homes and invite people over. We have barbecues, play dates for the kids, and even host parties just to catch up. It’s the close friendship we had that made Chennai a great place to be in.
If one mom is not well, a friend will offer to pick her kids up or make their dinner so the mom can rest. That is one thing I missed when we moved to Delhi. I’ve met a lot of expats but haven’t found one that I am close to. The good thing is, Chennai isn’t that far, some of our friends have already been to Delhi to visit and stay with us. That’s how close the relationship is. We even go on holidays overseas together.
Every expat I know who came to Chennai was not happy at first, but when they started to meet people, no one wanted to leave.
If one mom is not well, a friend will offer to pick her kids up or make their dinner so the mom can rest.
What are the best things and the worst things about living in India?
We have been in India long enough to love it. I love the food, the arts, and the people, especially in the South. We have traveled to some places like Agra, Udaipur, Kerala, Goa, Chennai, Pondicherry, Mumbai, and Delhi. Everywhere we go, you get to see and appreciate India more. It’s full of history, the old buildings, and palaces, the arts. Each place has it’s own style like the inlay marbles of Agra and the colorful fabric of the South. I also love the miniature paintings in Udaipur. I even took a short class on that. The food is different everywhere, and they all have their own special dishes that we all love.
I have more good things to say now about the country compared to when we first arrived. The worst thing is when we go to all these historical places like temples, forts, and palaces, we get disappointed when people don’t take care of it. We have seen palaces that are vandalized, and people leave their trash around! The worst is that they made it into a public urinal. I wish that people will be more disciplined when it comes to throwing their garbage.
Aside from the trash, it’s the way people drive. I don’t go out that much as I get nervous about how they drive. There’s no discipline, and they don’t follow the rules most of the time.
How have you been keeping yourself busy?
I like being productive with my time. I used to attend classes like painting, quilting, and going to the F45 gym every morning. I even studied and volunteered as a photographer at the American International School, Chennai, for five months! I also helped at orphanages. We have been in Delhi for three months now, and I’m slowly trying to figure out where I can spend my time, trying to connect with people who have the same interests as me.
Do you ever get homesick? If yes, what do you miss the most?
For me, its the other way around, India has been our home for so many years. If we go back to the Philippines or Australia, because my husband is from there, I can’t wait to come back home to India. I usually like to go overseas just to get my groceries, because buying the imported stuff here is so expensive. Once I get the things I need, I can’t wait to get back.
India has been our home for so many years. If we go back to the Philippines or Australia, because my husband is from there, I can’t wait to come back home to India.
We are grateful that we get to go and visit our families back home and are thankful for Whatsapp and Facebook. With these apps, it’s easy to be connected and be aware of what’s happening with friends and families.
Any advice to newbies?
Be patient, take time to appreciate the little things. The most important is to make friends. Join some expat groups, and from there, life will be easier as they have been here longer, and they will tell you where, what, when, and how.
A lot of people say that India impacted them in ways they never imagined. How would you describe India’s impact on you?
India has changed me a lot. Coming here has been an eye-opener. We see all kinds of people, especially the poor. I’m more appreciative compared to before. I remember when we arrived in Singapore, as we drove from the airport to the hotel, I told my husband, “Can you feel how smooth the road is?” When we go overseas, we enjoy spending time at the supermarket, seeing all kinds of food that are way cheaper compared to the shops in India. I have become more giving.