A trained electrical engineer, a pastor, and a Bible teacher, Dr. Steven Guest was born in the US, but has lived in the United Arab Emirates for ten years, and has traveled extensively abroad before moving to India, where he lived for nine years. He is married and is a father of two adult children and a grandfather of five children. Steven and his wife now live in the Philippines.
What were your first impressions of the country? And has it changed at all?
First impressions, that’s difficult. I have had so many ‘first impressions’ of the country. On the first visit in 1999, I landed in Hyderabad, took a train, taxi, ferry, rickshaw, and jeep to reach my final destination of the East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh. The vastness and crowdedness of the city was a stark contrast to the rural beauty of the villages I visited near the coast. Then I had first impressions of Bengaluru, Pune, Delhi, and Allahabad on a two-week visit in 2009. Even after living in the cities of Abu Dhabi and Chicago, the cities of India “took our breath away” in terms of the noise, crowds, and pollution. After living in Bengaluru for more than six years, we are less “intimidated” by the cities and have found the country to be filled with dissonance and fascinating opportunities.
Coming from a completely different culture, there must have been some things that came as a shock, what were they? And how did you get over it?
Yes, there were many things that “shocked” us. Traffic was a whole new experience—even after living in the United Arab Emirates for ten years and traveling for months at a time in the Philippines. There is nothing like the traffic in India. The other distressing thing was the dirtiness of the cities and the total disregard for the general welfare/upkeep of the city. Traffic was shocking with its “unorganized” and chaotic “patterns.” We marveled at how, for the local population, it actually worked. I remember thinking one time that watching traffic in the streets of Bengaluru was like watching the activity around an anthill. So many people coming from each and every direction, yet no one seemed to get hurt, and all eventually made it to their destinations. We were able to “get over” our shock by living on a walled campus that was well-tended and cared for. The perpetual beauty and relative quiet helped us forget that we were living in India. As for the traffic, we never tried to navigate it by ourselves but walked, hired rickshaws and taxis, or took rides with friends so that we would not be a hazard to ourselves or others.
Traffic was shocking with its “unorganized” and chaotic “patterns.” We marveled at how, for the local population, it actually worked. I remember thinking one time that watching traffic in the streets of Bengaluru was like watching the activity around an anthill. So many people coming from each and every direction, yet no one seemed to get hurt, and all eventually made it to their destinations.
A lot of expats we’ve interviewed mentioned that it’s difficult to build genuine bonds in India. Was that true to your experience as well?
Not at all. We were able to develop friendships and other personal relationships readily in India. We were very saddened when we came to the realization that the Indian government was going to make it difficult for us to stay through the unwillingness of the Bureau of Immigration to provide the necessary visa and residence permit.
What would you say were the best and worst things about living in India?
The Best: definitely the people, even if there were LOTS of them. We were able to build meaningful and lasting friendships with many. We enjoyed Indian hospitality immensely (even if we did eat too much or even if the foods had too many spices and/or chilis). The Worst: had to be the traffic. Traffic chaos was compounded by the ineffectiveness of the government to maintain the roads to any standard of reasonable quality. Moreover, even when roads were relatively clear and smooth, the constant lane strictures and speedbumps that impede the traffic were an obnoxious source of harassment.
Do you think the expat community can bring an influence to the local community? If so, how?
Obviously, any person can influence his/her community for good or ill, whether expat or local. I would like to think that we made a positive contribution through our work and lives for the time we lived in India. Taking the time to enter into the culture of India is necessary to make a positive impact. Learning that “different” does not necessarily mean “bad” is a good way to begin to evaluate if our contributions will be accepted or rejected.
Tell us about the process of moving to India.
I had made four short term trips (approx. two weeks each in 1999, 2001, 2003, and 2009) to India prior to my transition to live there in Jan 2013. I visited India for a month in 2010 to interview for my future position on the faculty of the South Asia Institute of Advanced Christian Studies (Bengaluru). Then I returned as an adjunct faculty in February 2011 and October and November 2011. So, I had a pretty good idea of what I should anticipate when I moved in Jan 2013 to assume my full-time residential faculty role in Bengaluru.
Taking the time to enter into the culture of India is necessary to make a positive impact. Learning that “different” does not necessarily mean “bad” is a good way to begin to evaluate if our contributions will be accepted or rejected.
Let’s talk about working in India. What were the two most memorable experiences you’ve had while working here?
Over the course of the last nine years of living and working in India, I have had too many memorable experiences to accurately identify my two most memorable ones. Having traveled to the north (as far as Himachal Pradesh) and to the south (to Kanyakumari) and to the east (in Andhra Pradesh), there were sites that were breath-taking (mountain vistas, ocean seascapes, lush green jungles), we were able to appreciate the tremendous variety that is in India. But what left a lasting impression was the people of India—the friendships that we made would remain forever in our hearts.
What are your views on the work culture in India, especially in your industry?
Given that I worked for a Christian seminary, I fear for the Christians in India. The recent turn of events and the radicalization of many Hindu elements in society is a matter of grave concern. The abuse of power by the authorities and the majority rule that is uncharacteristic of a democratic, secular, constitutional government is quite worrying.
Did you ever get homesick? If yes, what did you miss the most?
I don’t think we ever became “homesick,” according to the common understanding. Obviously, when you live ten time zones away from family and the familiar, there are times when the differences are heightened, and the distance feels great. Being a world away from home when family is facing health crises, weddings, births, deaths, etc., can be difficult.
Any advice to newbies?
Take time to learn the culture. Read about the history of India. Engage in meaningful relationships with Indians and look for new experiences that can broaden your own horizons.