R Deepthi had just returned from the UK after a three-year assignment with her company. One day, at a supermarket in the city, she found herself waiting to be called by the billing person only to realise that many others had walked past her, paid the bill and left the place. “If you live in the UK, the queuing culture becomes so much a part of your nature that you don’t even walk up to the billing counter at a store, unless you hear ‘Next please’,” exclaims Deepthi, general manager (human resources) with a company in Technopark. “That’s not all...” she adds, “courtesy is a big thing for the Brits, with ‘sorry’, ‘thank you’ and ‘please’ being used lavishly. I continued this after I returned to India and chose to ignore when people said, ‘Oh that’s for the English folks’. I felt good using these phrases and I still do!”
She isn’t the only women IT professional who has had to find their bearing in Kerala after stints abroad. For Manisha Narayanan, lead (human resources), Perfomatix Solutions, the biggest challenge she faced when she moved back from the US was finding a place to breastfeed her son, Advait, while travelling. “There weren’t proper bathrooms or diaper changing stations either. Besides, when we relocated in 2016, there were no malls or proper hangout places,” says Manisha.
She was not prepared for the culture shock either. “I worked as a volunteer in the US and interacted with people of different nationalities and culture, both professional and personally. I loved the work-life balance and the culture of freedom, flexibility and responsibility. Wellness was given top priority, so too the quality of life. But here, most women hardly find time for themselves. It is always about taking care of spouse, kid, parents, in-laws…,” she says. She was also taken aback by the fact that there weren’t many women working in managerial levels. “They are perceived as less productive than men in those positions. In fact, they are expected to take care of family, even if they are qualified,” she says.
In the case of Brinda Rani, general manager with a global IT firm, the challenging part was getting her two sons acclimatised to the lifestyle after they moved to the city from China. “They were reluctant to use the toilets here because they were used to spic-and-span ones there. They struggled in school as well. They studied in a British school, where teachers encouraged them to be curious. But here, though they had an international syllabus, there was the pressure of the curriculum, exams, shorter intervals and classrooms with more number of students. I still carry that guilt,” says Brinda, who worked in Budapest and the UK prior to her stint in China.
She adds: “You might be able to overcome cultural obstacles or be able to work and live in a completely different cultural foreign setting, but the same cultural competence becomes a liability when you return home. If you have experienced a new culture and the freedom of thought and self-esteem these cultures accord you and you add that to your personality, it may not be appreciated by the people you left behind. That can be extremely discouraging. So I often go for a blend of both.”
Meanwhile, returning to India was not so much of a struggle for Rekha Govind Menon, associate vice-president, SunTec Business Solutions, who lived in the US for 15 years. “Life was good there. Yet, we moved here mainly because we wanted our two daughters to be aware of their culture and heritage and more connected to their grandparents. Also, my husband and I wanted to be close to our parents as they were getting old,” says Rekha.
The transition was smooth for her because everything fell in place. “We didn’t have to compromise on our daughters’ studies, my husband’s job or my career. The city has also developed over the years with several options for shopping, transportation, food, entertainment, weekend get-aways and the like. It continues to be a welcoming city and people here let you be. Also, we get to celebrate festivals with our families,” she says.
Manisha says that she adapted herself to the situation gradually. “We came back because the advantages we had in the US were secondary when we thought about our parents. When I found it difficult to juggle office, home, parents, obligations, responsibilities and what not, my spouse stepped in and I learnt that I shouldn’t hesitate to ask for help from family or extended family. Also, many companies have started thinking globally and stress on work-life balance than ever before, adding freedom and flexibility as part of the company’s culture,” she says.
Embracing the world
However, these professionals unanimously point out that it is always better to travel abroad. “You may not be able to assimilate everything about a new culture. I struggled with language in Budapest, where nobody spoke English fluently and in the UK, where I had to deal with several English accents. China gave me a lot of new experiences, but it also took away a lot of things, like my kids grew up in an ecosystem without their grandparents and hometown. The experiences teach you to share your vulnerabilities and appreciate so many new things,” Brinda says.
That’s the reason why Rekha says she wouldn’t stop her daughters from going abroad. “They should travel to learn about the world out there. That will eventually make them better people,” she says.
Nevertheless, there is no reason for not coming back to India, she adds. Deepthi too feels the same. “In spite of an exciting and enriching experience in the UK, I did not wish to settle down there or anywhere abroad. It’s all about home sweet home,” she says.
Yet, they want to see a lot more positive changes in the city. “Thiruvananthapuram is now more like the good old Bangalore, but I don’t want it to become the present Bengaluru with pollution and traffic snarls. I wish we had better traffic regulations and people followed traffic rules. Man-made traffic congestion has become regular,” Rekha says.
While Brinda hopes to see more schools with international curriculum, Rekha and Manisha root for better air connectivity to and from the capital city.
“We can do a lot better in terms of courtesy and civility. However, it’s better not to compare. You can’t have every good thing over there in our place and vice versa,” Deepthi adds.
A fortnightly column on life in tech street