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Stereotypes abound but these 11 things you didn’t know about NRI women could surprise you!
The very mention of an NRI (non-resident Indian) conjures visions of luxury, an Indian who lives in a foreign land where everything is in abundance and life is a bed of roses. An NRI woman, in particular, is seen as something of an alien when she lands in India. A hint of an accent, foreign clothes smelling of expensive perfume, paranoia about her children’s food and safety. Indeed, we all have a certain stereotype in mind. So let us look at what the average NRI woman is like, someone who is very different from what Bollywood blockbusters portray her to be — living in palatial mansions, riding in chauffeur driven Bentleys and celebrating every occasion on the scale of a mammoth wedding!
Instead, let us talk of Indian women who left Indian shores to join their husbands or to study or work. Let us talk of someone like me, people like my friends, relatives and acquaintances, who are Indian women living outside India in various countries across the globe; a very wide range of women with varied experiences who somehow tend to get stereotyped.
There are several luxuries that come with living outside India, especially in a rich country like the U.S. That is the prime reason why Indians have moved there- to make money. So, yes, the NRI woman may have a nice, large house and fancy gadgets. But, apart from a few countries like Singapore and the Middle East, most NRI women have to do their own housework. There is no domestic helper to clean that large house. In countries like the U.S. and in Europe, labour is expensive and one just has to do everything without outside help. Cleaning services are available but only the rich can afford this regularly. Right from vacuuming upstairs, downstairs and the staircase to washing the dishes (dishwasher if you are slightly better off, but that needs loading and unloading too), doing the laundry (no ‘dhobis’ to do the ironing), putting out the garbage bins after segregation of the rubbish – one has to do it all on one’s own. Even in times of illness and other troubled times, no one will bail you out and there is no escape from hands-on housework. One just has to crawl out of bed, put the kettle on and survive on Pot noodles or something similar.
No cooks or chapatti-making lady helpers amble over to cook the meals like they do in India. Several NRI women I know cook mass meals over the weekend and freeze them. Batches are then taken out on various weekdays at the end of a tiring day at work. It sounds a bit sorry, but this is a very NRI survival skill especially in the west. In fact, plenty of couples do this activity over the weekend where the husband will help in equal measure peeling, chopping veggies and all 4 cooking flames have pots simmering away in the organized preparation for the week ahead!
No cooks or chapatti-making lady helpers amble over to cook the meals like they do in India. Several NRI women cook mass meals over the weekend and freeze them. Batches are then taken out on various weekdays at the end of a tiring day at work.
For the longest time, the NRI man has been a much sought-after match, a prize catch. Getting married to one was a sure way of flying overseas and settling there. But not all countries have easy laws and until recently in the U.S., a woman married to a man with a green card had to wait years until she could move too. I’ve known a couple who had to live away from each other for at least 3 years before the wife finally got a visa for the U.S.
Besides getting a visa to live, there is also the work visa that remains elusive for so many women who move out of India. For someone who used to have a great career back in India, to be sitting at home in a foreign country without being able to work at what she was trained to do can be frustrating. There are several women in that situation and a lot of the times, the option is to simply wait. Of course NRI women then learn to make the most of their time. There are opportunities to volunteer, to explore the new places, new friends, learn new skills, to learn to cook unknown and foreign dishes and so on.
Yes, it’s a fantastic opportunity to find yourself in new country with unlimited possibilities. But for those of us who got married to a NRI and relocated abroad, this vision came crashing down. The biggest eye-opener is that some basic degrees obtained in India are not recognized in many countries. So wives who have followed their husbands out of India, often have to start a career from scratch.
Several wives have to dumb down and take up a job well below their qualification level back in India. An example is a friend of mine who worked as a Chartered Accountant in India with a multinational company and earned really well. She emigrated to the UK, only to find that she could only work as an accountant. She had to pass exams before she could work as a chartered accountant.
A relative of mine did her Masters in Pharmacy in India and was on her way to earning a PhD while she worked as a lecturer in a college. She moved to the U.S. to join her husband. She could not initially work for a few years and then had to take her pharmacy exams in the U.S. before eventually being able to get work.
A dentist friend of mine migrated to the U.S. to join her husband after getting married. In the U.S., she worked as a dental nurse, struggled to pass the qualifying exams there, even bringing home a motor to practice her dentistry for the exams. Finally she passed her exams, but due to some hitch worked as a dental hygienist for another few years before finally practising as a dentist! Another friend of hers in another U.S. state had to join dental school for the last 2 years to get the American DDS degree. All this because a BDS degree from India is not recognized in the U.S.!
All the women I’ve mentioned above have gone on to jump over all the hurdles and now have reached where they truly deserved to be and the success is even sweeter. I remember being jobless and ogling at the creams and in Boots (a chemist shop’s chain in UK) and wishing I could buy all that stuff with my own money one day. I did indeed fulfill my dream. Up until then I just used the testers and refused to squander my husband’s money on these little luxuries.
Several wives have to dumb down and take up a job well below their qualification level back in India. An example is a friend of mine who worked as a Chartered Accountant in India with a multinational company and earned really well. She emigrated to the UK, only to find that she could only work as an accountant.
There’s no doubt that living abroad means that we do not have the responsibility of looking after parents and in-laws who are back in India. In contrast, many women in India have to look after their older relatives whether in joint families or otherwise. However, living away from India and away from ones family, NRI women feel tremendously pained and guilty from not having the opportunity to physically take care of their elders.
In turn, they also miss out on the support system that parents and in-laws provide, especially during times of crises and when childcare is required. They miss the companionship. Parents and in-laws do visit short term, but as winter nears, they depart for India. A whole new support system has to be built comprising mainly new friends, seeking out a trustworthy child-minder/babysitter and of course relying on the husband to take on equal responsibilities of the home and children.
Sure, there are things that you do not get with in India like less crowds, less pollution, tons of facilities. But there are plenty of challenges thrown in too. In the west, the cold weather is a major constraint and the fact that one has to fend for oneself at most times unless it is an emergency. One has to learn to drive, fill petrol in the car, check the air and fill air in tires, learn to assemble furniture, overcome the biting frost to remove thick layers of ice off the car and no one to rescue you.
One has to learn to survive minor illnesses with no one to fuss over you, because even friends do not always live close by or have the time to come around with a bowl of hot khichadi. In fact loneliness is another factor to contend with. Neighbours will greet you but mostly keep to themselves. There is a lot of silence around and it can be scary living in a large house. Loneliness can be depressing too, coupled with the cold. One really has to make an effort to reach out and make friends with people whether Indian or not. One has to learn to be sociable, participate in potluck dinners and generally go out of the way to stay connected with other humans.
Neighbours will greet you but mostly keep to themselves. There is a lot of silence around and it can be scary living in a large house. Loneliness can be depressing too, coupled with the cold. One really has to make an effort to reach out and make friends.
The holidays are a short time when NRIs get to come to India, travelling several hours from a very different time zone. The plane journey itself can be a challenge, especially when a child gets motion sick or gets blocked ears and cries all the way through the 10 hours. I cannot even describe the feeling when a child asks “are we nearly there yet?” 5 minutes into the journey and every 5 minutes thereafter! After landing, there is the jet lag to contend with and although it seems like a lot of fuss, it is not. Add to that, when a child gets a tummy upset or exaggerated reaction to mosquito bites, is it any wonder that we carry wet wipes, bottled water and insect repelants? We want to make the most of our time in India and hence the precautions, even though it seems like a lot of fuss over nothing.
In our defence, when we bring suitcases full of goodies for relatives it does seem like we’ve had it easy. But sorry to disclose the secret that we have been shopping for these goodies from last year, waking up early to catch the post-Christmas and other seasonal sales at dawn to get the cheap bargains. Nobody even knows what the credit card bill will be like when we get back home; that is after paying the mortgage and car loan.
As an NRI woman, you do not have to face what your friend in India faces. There is virtually no eve teasing, in the west, one can wear whatever one wants without anyone staring. But there are crimes against women and we are equally vulnerable. Healthcare is good, but one comes up against medical conditions one has never heard of in India, like eczema, cradle cap, glue ear and food allergies, which add to the challenges of parenting outside India.
Also, giving birth to a child in the west is very different from having one in India. There is less pampering, none of the post-natal Indian massages or special post-delivery diets. Unless your mother or mother-in- law comes over for the delivery, women are just expected to get on with things with none of the strict home confinement that we do in India. You just have to bundle the baby up in warm clothes in a pram and take them to the baby clinic every week to be weighed and so on, juggling everything on your own. You learn to cope using various aids like pacifiers and child harnesses. Above all, you learn to fend for yourself. Dads learn to participate actively- not just coochie cooing but changing nappies and helping with feeds. For many working women, expressing milk and freezing it becomes a routine when they return to work.
Whether we like it or not, in order to fit in with our new country, we have to adapt. Our dress sense changes due to a different climate, the need to avoid standing out too much so we can blend in at work and just so that we look like everybody else. After having children, there is a constant struggle of cultures, trying to remain Indian and yet letting the children fit in with the country they are born into. We try to get our children to speak our Indian language and know about our customs, but somewhere down the line we can never be totally Indian. Neither can we totally shed our Indianness. Every individual does what suits them best, but yes, we NRI women adapt culturally and that is what makes our lives more enriching. For example, we celebrate the diametrically opposite Diwali and Halloween with equal enthusiasm, sometimes even just days apart.
We NRI women adapt culturally and that is what makes our lives more enriching. For example, we celebrate the diametrically opposite Diwali and Halloween with equal enthusiasm, sometimes even just days apart.
Almost true. There is just you and your husband in a place outside India and that is blissful. No relatives to disturb you or interfere in your life. However, not everyone may experience this. Often, NRI men come to India for a short period, a quick arranged marriage after a ‘look-see’ meeting and a wedding within a week. The woman has no idea what to expect from her partner about whom she doesn’t know much. In fact, it can be hard to find out much about an NRI unless you have common friends or hire a detective to find out about his past. For a woman, it can be a shock to discover facts about her man that were previously unknown and although a lot of arranged marriages can be like that, if one is in a foreign country, it can very upsetting. There are organisations to turn to for issues like domestic violence and the police and social services do help, but being away from India, one has to cope on one’s own and that can be a harrowing experience. There is no ‘maika’ (parental home) to run to and returning to India may not be as easy as one thinks, as even buying a ticket to India could be problem.
Well, we may not always know what the latest fashion in salwar kameez is, but believe it or not NRI women are very clued in to what is happening in India. We have our mothers, mothers-in-law, sisters, sisters-in-law and friends back in India and are aware of the ground realities. Besides, we were brought up in India ourselves and know what being an Indian woman means. Most of us have Indian television channels and we watch more than just the entertainment programmes. With the Internet, there is no way we can live in our NRI bubble. We are as sensitive to the happenings in India as anybody in India is. We may appear to be armchair critics sometimes but isn’t that the case with many of us who live in India too, who feel strongly about various issues but feel like they cannot do anything? It may appear as if we have left India behind because of where we live and how we appear. But wherever we are, we will always be affected and moved by anything that involves Indian women.
We are as sensitive to the happenings in India as anybody in India is. We may appear to be armchair critics sometimes but isn’t that the case with many of us who live in India too, who feel strongly about various issues but feel like they cannot do anything?
For us NRI women, our lives are different from our Indian women friends back home, but life itself is the same. We have ups and downs, failures and successes, tears and laughter in varying degrees. It’s just that we experience them in a different place.
Yes, we are non-resident Indian women. We do not live in India, but India certainly lives within us.
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