Each year, more and more Australian research students are travelling to India to collect data for their respective theses.
Nonie Tuxen is a PhD Candidate in the Interdisciplinary and Cross-Cultural research program at the Australian National University, and has recently moved to Mumbai for ten months where she will be researching middle class Indians’ desire for an overseas education.
Asia Options caught up with Nonie to chat about living and researching in Mumbai, how she ended up there, how she went about obtaining a visa and some of the pros and cons about living in India’s most populous city.
Why did you decide to travel to India?
I have always been fascinated by India, I think it started with Butter Chicken when I was about seven years old. In Melbourne, I worked in Indian-owned businesses, specifically, Indian restaurants and a privately owned vocational education provider, throughout my undergrad and honours years. I think that these experiences back home cemented my interest in Indian culture (and food!).
I first travelled to Mumbai on a whim in 2010 and have been coming and going since then. I have travelled a lot, done some NGO work and was also at the helm of an online radio start-up called The Dabba. All of these experiences have now culminated in me doing a PhD that is concerned with India and overseas education.
How did you go about obtaining a visa to live and research in Mumbai?
In order to get a student visa, you need a letter of offer and enrolment from your host institution (in my case Tata Institute of Social Sciences). I had this in the pipeline for some time because the institution needs time to do the paperwork and issue the letters. Original copies of the letters seem to be an important point, so it is one less hurdle if you have original signed letters.
Then you will have to go to the High Commission and get the application pre-approved. After this, you will go to VFS, which is the service provider that facilitates visas applications and issuance in Australia, and submit the application. It takes about ten days to get the visa once the paperwork is submitted to VFS. Another friend had issues getting a student visa over the Christmas period, so it’s worth keeping that in mind considering our academic year starts in January and lots of people leave for research around then (especially scholarship holders).
PhD students should also apply for student visas apparently – research visas are too hard to get and it’s perfectly fine to conduct research on a student visa if your home university is here in Australia.
How did you go about finding accommodation?
I’ve always been lucky enough to have been taken in by various friends over the years, like a stray puppy! But most people that move to Mumbai either rent their own apartment or live as a Paying Guest (‘PG’), which typically means you rent a room within a family home. Lots of people find this a bit restrictive though; often the family will expect you to be home after work and not stay out late. Smoking and drinking are definitely no-nos. Meat consumption can also be an issue if the family is vegetarian.
Most people use a broker to find an apartment. Brokers are can be very helpful, but it’s important to make sure that they come recommended as someone who is honest. There are several Facebook groups where you can ask about accommodation (Bombay Expats and Mumbai Expats being the main ones as far as I know) as well as social gatherings and events. Apparently there are also serviced apartments starting to pop-up that are very reasonably priced and less hassle.
What are the biggest positives of living and doing research in India so far?
The number one positive is that I have made so many friends; coming back to Mumbai these days feels like returning to a second home. Not only do I have a lot of friends in India, but I also have amazing friends scattered all over the world who have all shared experiences with me in India.
The main positive of conducting research in India is the joy of talking to people to learn their stories, as well as learning about a multi-billion dollar industry. It’s nice to learn about some of the small cogs that help this international industry turn.
What have you found most difficult about living and researching in Mumbai and what tips do you have to get through them?
I try not to reflect on these. But I guess the climate and environment can be very challenging, and on certain days I find going outside utterly exhausting. In Mumbai, after about three weeks of being here I get a cough from the dust and pollution that sounds like I’ve been smoking a pack-a-day for 40 years. Some of the smells take some getting used to, and coming from Australia it can be stressful to be in crowds and traffic almost constantly.
There are days where you have to fight for everything: fight for a rickshaw, fight to get on the train, fight to get your participants to be at scheduled meetings, fight the heat, fight the pollution. Those days are the worst, but I find they are fairly rare for me nowadays. After a certain period of time you learn to adjust, and to expect the unexpected.
Living in India is very much like entering a new romance. At the beginning everything is exciting and novel. Then, the sheen wears off and you might become a little disenchanted, but, if you stick it out, it becomes like a comfortable old chappal (sandal): familiar and normal. I guess you can take the negatives as negatives, or you can think of them as an inevitable and integral part of the experience.
Do you have any other advice for people wanting to work, study, intern or volunteer in Mumbai or India?
Be open to an experience that is challenging; India will challenge you in ways that you have likely never experienced. This might sound weird, but I think it’s important not to try to control your environment too much here. Don’t expect things to work the way they do back home, be prepared to push a little and be persistent, but rest assured that things almost always work out in the end.
The people are lovely and the culture is vibrant. The food is delicious and diverse, and you will almost certainly get sick at some point. But that’s all part of the adventure. Be prepared to see people suffering and living in poverty. But also look for the smiles on their faces, and know that it’s not always as bad as it may look from the outside.
Also, make sure that you make friends with locals. One of the best things about spending time in India is meeting and getting to know its diverse people. English is widely spoken, or better still you can try learning a local language. Most importantly though, people are always up for a chat, which makes it easy to communicate.