When I ask my kids if they like living in Mumbai they find it hard to answer. They still miss their neighborhood friends in Germany and the giant trampoline in our backyard. They also don’t really understand the question. Why are you asking, they seem to be thinking, when we can’t change anything about it anyway? They’re still young, so they don’t have the ability or desire to rationally compare Mumbai to other places, and their answer basically depends on whatever mood they’re in.
Still, I think it’s fair to say they’ve settled in well. There are several great things about their life in Mumbai: a top-notch school, for starters, with facilities that 99% of other schools can only dream of. They’ve made lots of new friends, most of whom live in the same building complex we do. We have a large pool and they love swimming. Life is very affordable in India, so we often splurge on gifts and do as many movie outings and trips to the beach as we feel like.
But there are some glaring disadvantages to living in Mumbai as well. The air pollution is problem number one. My 5-year old daughter immediately needed an inhaler to adjust to the air, which didn’t bother her but made me feel like an inadequate parent. She doesn’t need it anymore and the AQI has markedly improved since last year, but still.
Green spaces and playgrounds are hard to come by—we all live in apartments, nobody has a yard. Hiking in nature is possible but you have to drive out of town for hours. The luxury apartment buildings we all live in do a decent job at providing entertainment for all ages, but it’s still nothing like a real park or forest. We live in a highrise, not a neighborhood.
Income differences and poverty are also an issue. My kids can’t really describe the feeling they get when they see dirty children sitting in the middle of the street, but they definitely have questions. It’s not something they seem to get used to, and perhaps it’s good they don’t. Sometimes, when I’m trudging down some busy commercial road with my kids and take in all the chaos, the endless amount of people, noise, traffic, colors, shops, smells, I hardly believe it’s real.
I don’t think there’s a definitive answer to the question if it was a good idea to move my family here. The advantages don’t cancel out the disadvantages. Just because we live a bit like kings here doesn’t mean it isn’t also unhealthy. Making new friends doesn’t necessarily take away the feeling of missing old friends. And India is very different from the US—the golden standard according to my kids because they have family there, it’s clean, and there’s Target (!).
Personally, I couldn’t believe how kid-centered Mumbai is when I first arrived. It’s a big bustling city, but the expat bubble we live in is very focused on doing things that will make children learn and have fun all the time. The kids are invited to fancy birthday parties almost every weekend. The school organizes cultural events, and the consulate takes care of Halloween and Christmas celebrations. Their social calendars are as busy as ours!
I regret the things they lost by moving from Germany to Mumbai—the ability to bike to school, play in the snow, eat bland food. But they have a lot of new opportunities here. When they’re not doing interesting after-school activities like sports, crafts, band, yoga or dance, they’re going to each other’s apartments to play computer games, run around the building doing nerf gun battles, have movie nights, sleepovers, or play dress up with dolls in their sprawling bedrooms. If the parents aren’t around to arrange all of this the nannies will, while serving their favorite snacks and cleaning up after them (we’re working on that, but our efforts have been fruitless so far).
Personally, I was a bit worried about how spoilt our kids would become in India. The only kids they really interact with are other expat children and local kids with (sometimes extremely) rich parents. These families have multiple nannies, cooks, and drivers, and the kids get anything they want. My son has a friend who “never wears the same pair of shoes twice.”
When we travel, the kids get away with everything. Indians universally adore their big blue eyes and their liveliness, vendors bestow them with little gifts. The only thing they ask in return is a photo op, which my kids feel lukewarm about. Still, it’s nice that kids aren’t merely tolerated, like in the countries we come from—they seem to bring joy wherever they go.
It’s too early to tell, I think, if India was a good idea to bring kids, given their ages (6 and 9). I think they’re young enough to crave mostly a normal life, predictability. But I also like to think that, exactly because they’re young, getting to really know another culture, one as rich and omnipresent as the Indian culture, adds a ton of value to their lives. How could they not become more openminded and resilient by living in India for three years? How would I teach them this by living in white and privileged enclaves like Berlin, or North Virginia?