Thursday, June 22, 2017

Kochi native Savitha Venugopal has co-written a book about the experiences of expatriate women in Singapore 

Photos: Savitha Venugopal (left) and Sushmita Mohapatra; the cover of the book; dazzling Singapore

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Kochi-born Savitha Venugopal flew to Singapore with her husband, Sanil, in June, 2013, she was full of optimism. Sanil had just secured a high-paying job in the IT industry, and, as a journalist in India, Savitha also expected to get a good job.

And in her first week itself, Singapore lived up to all her expectations. “It is a very neat and clean city,” says Savitha. “Everything worked and moved on time. Whatever paperwork we had to do was smooth and easy.”

But soon, Savitha hit a roadblock. Since she had come on a dependent visa, she was not allowed to work as a full-time staff. So Savitha looked for freelance opportunities, but those were hard to come by.

It was at this time that she met up with her former journalistic colleague, Sushmita Mohapatra. “We were talking about facing the same problem of not finding suitable work,” says Savitha. “It was a frustrating period. Then we discovered that there were other highly qualified women, who came to Singapore and discovered that they also could not work.”

That was when they got the idea to write a book about the experiences about expatriate women. This has just borne fruition. Published by the Singapore-based Marshall Cavendish, the book is titled, ‘Dear Ms Expat: Inspiring Tales From Women Who Built New Lives In A New Land’.

The book documents the lives of ten women, of varying backgrounds. So there are two Australians, two Americans, and one each from India, New Zealand, Austria, Switzerland, Tunisia, and United Kingdom. “The selection was done based on how interesting the stories were,” says Sushmita. While Sushmita wrote five profiles, Savitha did the others. “We edited each other's chapters so that there is an uniform style,” says Sushmita.

For Savitha, the most inspiring story was that of Carolyn Soemarjono, who is Singapore’s first boudoir photographer. She left school at 16, in a small town in Dubbo, in Australia. Then despite her lack of educational qualifications, she reached the top at multinational firm, Proctor & Gamble. Then she got married, had a child, and thereafter got divorced. Then she dated a colleague, who moved to Singapore and Carolyn followed with her daughter. She was doing well when she was laid low by ovarian cancer. Following extensive chemotherapy over two years, she recovered and discovered her passion for photography.

Carolyn’s life was the most inspiring for me,” says Savitha. “And despite having done so much, she kept asking whether her story is worth it. I found it quite amazing that she was so humble.”

Asked about their conclusions, after finishing the book, Sushmita says, “There are many misconceptions about what expatriate life is like. People tend to think it is an easy and luxurious life. You can travel easily all across Asia. But there are a lot of struggles: cultural, emotional, and professional. However, Indians find it easier to adjust. For the Americans and the Europeans the difference in culture is very stark.”

As for Savitha, she missed the emotional support system back in Kochi. “I missed my friends, parents and relatives,” she says. “In Singapore, this network is missing completely.”

Asked to compare Kochi and Singapore, she says, “Singapore is extremely neat and clean. Unfortunately, garbage can be seen in many places at Kochi. Singapore has a lot of open public spaces where you can just hang around. In Kochi, there are very few public spaces. And women are much more safer in Singapore. I can go alone for a late night movie, without any problems.”

The book will be available for Indian readers on Amazon in September. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

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