*Written by Aditi Balasubramanian and published on “tabla!” (a weekly English language newspaper in Singapore) on October 6th, 2017*
This is the story of two Singapore residents. Ms. Vidhya Nair is a third generation Indian Singaporean. Ms. Nomita Dhar moved here twenty-three years ago from India and made Singapore her home. Their interactions here have taught one more about India and the other more about Singapore.
Ms. Nair, who has lived here her whole life, likes to describe herself as being a Singaporean first, causing her “Indianness” to become a bit “diluted.”
Her family has roots in Kerala, but engaging with expat Indians gives her more knowledge about India as a whole.
“A lot of the time, when you live outside of the country of your origin, you are exposed only to the microculture of the specific geography where your grandparents came from, whereas when you mix with people who come from all over India, you realize how varied the country is and how there are many cultures within the mother culture. It helps you embrace the fact that you are an Indian in a much larger way,” she said.
In simple terms, it helps her “identify with her core” by re-discovering her “Indianness”.
There’s also a cultural divide between the expats and local Indians because the more recent arrivals tend to be “city” Indians as she puts it and the ancestors of the Indian Singaporeans mostly came from villages.
But there is still a sense of relatability.
“The funny thing is that it is actually easier to relate to the Indians today because in some ways all our problems are similar. We are all living in an urban environment and leading an urban life, so there’s a similarity,” she said.
Food played an important role in Ms. Nair’s journey of rediscovery. She is a member of the Indian Women’s Association(IWA), whose membership is composed largely of Indians who have moved here in recent years. Given her interest in food, Ms. Nair was persuaded by the IWA to start a club involving food. With two others helping to get it running, the Gourmet Goddess club was born.
Reminiscing about one of its events, she said members were told to bring any dish with mango in it. “It was during the mango season and it was fascinating to see the different dishes involving mango from various parts of India,” she said.
She decided to bring a Southeast Asian dish, a favorite of many Singaporeans: Thai mango salad.
To Ms. Nair, the venture has been the proverbial melting pot of cultures in Singapore for Indian women in Singapore. “It was a coming together of women and learning from each other about the diversity of the culinary culture of India,” she said.
The experience helped her learn more about Indian food ingredients and their health benefits. “The food gave me a window of understanding to other Indians and their culture,” she said.
It also helped her recognize which part of India people were from by looking at their food. For example, sambar is from South India, and North Indian Kadhi is part of the Gujarati Thali.
Ms. Nair has also been helping Indian expat women grow their businesses from home-based startups to full-fledged businesses. “My approach has largely been to encourage their businesses by supporting them in terms of sales, ” she said.
She buys the products and after using them, she starts promoting the products through word of mouth and social media. “I find many of them knowledgable about their wares and am quite motivated by their zeal to do things for themselves and their sense of pride in their own abilities,” she said.
Ms. Nair engages Indian expatriates and new Indian citizens in areas of her work too, like when she was volunteering at the Indian Heritage center and running the docent training programme under the Friends of the Museums.
She was also the principal of the Singapore Fine Arts Society and since August this year, she has been head of the Global Indian International Cultural Centre, which is affiliated to the Global Indian International School.
For those on the other side of the divide, moving to a new country has its challenges. And so was it for Ms. Nomita Dhar when she moved here with her husband in 1994.
Said Ms. Dhar, a Kashmiri: “There were very few Indians that we knew and so we had to make friends with people of other races. No doubt this was outside our comfort zone but we found that the people were warm and accepting of foreigners.”
She said her first neighbors were Chinese. There was an old Chinese lady who did not speak any English. But this lady helped her with various things, like buying fish and even invited Ms. Dhar and her husband to a Chinese New Year’s dinner. “We were invited on the first day which was rare, and we didn’t know whether it was for family and friends but they shared food with us and it was very beautiful,” Ms. Dhar said.
There was almost no verbal communication, just simple gestures and actions which made them feel very warm and welcome.
Over the years, Ms. Dhar and her family received much help from their neighbors who were mainly Chinese. She remembered the time her firstborn was sick and her Chinese neighbor gave her a TCM cream that had an immediate healing effect on her son.
When Ms. Dhar, a journalist, decided to start her own publishing business, she was not very confident and wondered whether she would succeed. That was when she met Ms. Eileen Tham.
“She ran a printing business and she taught me how to do invoicing, how to deal with clients and everything. She even printed my first magazine. And I shared an office with her for several years,” Ms. Dhar said.
Their friendship continued and when Ms. Dhar had her second child in 2000 Ms. Tham took special care of her. “She was like family. They were all like family. These were all different people at different stages of my life who have come forward and helped us be a part of the society and helped us in a big way.”
When Ms. Dhar opened a new business in Orchard road, another Chinese friend helped her settle down. “None of these relationships are motivated by money. Everyone who helped us didn’t expect anything in return. These relationships are related to love, to be able to welcome someone who is new to the country and each of these experiences have been wonderful,” she said.
Ms. Dhar had some advice to those moving into Singapore: “Get deeper two or three levels from where you are, and try to understand this place and feel this place. The country gives you as much as you give to it.”