Life of an NRI woman living in Brisbane, Australia: Panchali Konwar Gohain

Continuing our international series of Indian women settled on foreign land, in our third feature story, Anusmita Dutta talks to Panchali Konwar Gohain who is settled in Brisbane, Australia since 2012. This 39-year-old MBA in HR and Marketing graduate is working as an Information and Resource worker in Micah Projects. Anusmita jots down some fascinating social, economic and emotional facets as shared by Panchali, who had to relocate to Australia post marriage.

Sharing with you Panchali’s honest, yet strong and optimistic story of unlearning and learning lessons in life. From a government employee in India to a newlywed, volunteer, professional and an entrepreneur in Brisbane, her journey is truly intriguing. 

Text by: Anusmita Dutta

Marriage ushers in a new beginning. It is said that marriage is a life-long commitment which allows you to to see life through different lenses. This holds truer when the union makes your life take a 360 degrees turn as you join your spouse in a faraway country. A whole new set of people around you with their almost incomprehensible accent, a new culture, new set of rules and regulations at every step can rattle many women. But the strong-willed take the challenges in their stride and soon find their groove in the new situation. Panchali, as you will know soon, is one such lady.

Panchali left behind a comfortable life and coveted government job in India when she joined her husband in Brisbane, Australia after her marriage in the year 2010. In a frank tête-à-tête, she talks about her initial days in a new country wherein she faced challenges at every step. Whether it was overcoming the teething problems as a newlywed to taking up odd jobs just to get an entry into the job market, to dealing with racism and discrimination at the workplace are just the tips of the iceberg.

Panchali Konwar Gohain at the IndiPride Market at Teeyan Festival

Panchali Konwar Gohain at the IndiPride Market at Teeyan Festival

As a newlywed in a foreign land

Panchali reminisces, “To be honest, the initial days after moving into a new country with a totally different culture was a bit overwhelming. Since my husband was just finishing his studies and was looking for a full-time job, we had to live in shared accommodation with one more couple and the owners living upstairs. This was a totally different experience for me. Being from a well-to-do middle-class family, I never had to live in shared accommodation before. It was a bit hard to adapt to this at the beginning. But the best aspect of being a part of that set up was, that I found a family away from my own family with the owners whom we were living with. They were very warm and accommodating and made me feel at home. I will consider it as a blessing because, had we not started our lives from there, we wouldn’t be where we are right now, in our own home, investment properties and stable jobs. All thanks to them who guided us in every step of our life here in this alien land. We owe them a lot and we consider them as our godparents.”

As if the challenges are less, there is an emotional void too that one feels when one is so far away from family. Was it emotionally challenging to be away from family when she settled in a foreign land that too as a newlywed?

Panchali puts her thoughts across honestly, “It was extremely hard, especially the very first few months after landing here. Since ours wasn’t a conventional love marriage and we didn’t get to spend much time with each other before our wedding due to the long-distance, trying to adjust with each other, knowing about each other in a foreign land without a support system was not that easy. Initially, I was terribly homesick, missing my close friends, trying to adjust to a new culture and a new language. Moreover, I was starting from scratch in my career and also trying to figure out my responsibilities as a new bride. Everything put together it was all too overwhelming for me.”

Busting the myth

We can only imagine how some times, living abroad can have its share of ups and downs. There are challenges to be overcome at many levels. Yet, the general impression is that living in western countries is very easy due to the availability of first-class amenities. We wanted to know from Panchali how much credence the popular opinion holds.

In a forthright manner, she negates the common myths surrounding NRI women in various aspects of life in a way that is, realistic. Not just that, she also shares how having the right expectations can help overcome some of the pain points of living abroad. So what are the myths? She adds, “That we have a very easy going, glamorous life without having to carry the baggage of living with our families or in-laws and earning in dollars and life is actually a dream and full of parties, wherein the reality is just the opposite. Here both partners must work and have a double income to lead a basic comfortable life as the cost of living is very high here.

Panchali also shares that there is usually no domestic help that we’re so accustomed to in India. She explains, “Even if you manage to get cleaners to come and clean your house once a fortnight, which we have just managed to accomplish after living in the country for eight years, it’s not cheap as you have to shell out an hourly rate of AUD 25- AUD 30 per hour of cleaning. So you can calculate how expensive that is.”

Sharing snippets from her daily routine, Panchali adds, “We work all the time, as we do not really have domestic help. Almost everything you have to do on your own which includes cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, washing, laundry and looking after your kids.”

Learning to drive, working & entrepreneurship

Driving is an essential and mandatory here and not a past time hobby or luxury. You will need to learn how to drive to be independent.

Panchali, who was a public relations officer at Guwahati Municipal Corporation, in Assam, had to restart her career from scratch in Australia. Since the past eight years, she is working for a community-based organisation in Brisbane. How has been many her journey on the career front so far we ask her. Panchali narrates her journey.

“Well, in my case, it was relatively easier as I, fortunately, got a chance to start as a volunteer with the organisation I am with currently. I was working as a volunteer for a few months and when there was a vacancy in the organisation for a position, I was asked to apply for the job and that’s how I got through. Of course, you will require the right skill sets for the right job, irrespective of whether you are in India or abroad. I also have a side hustle more like a hobby, my small jewellery and accessories business which I have started here just last year called IndiPride. I specialise in handcrafted Indo-boho statement jewellery specially made in India supporting local artisans and promoting local talent from India.

Are there enough job opportunities or business avenues in the city she resides in?

“Job opportunities are limited here in Brisbane as it is a niche market and the city is gradually developing compared to already developed, bigger cities like Sydney and Melbourne. Starting my own venture wasn’t hard but rules and regulations are way too many to comply with. And again you have to do everything on your own as every little help you seek costs dollars! It’s hard to sustain a successful venture as the market size is not as significant as in India and so it’s not an easy market to have businesses up and running here. The retail industry is massively hit by online shopping all over Australia as the businesses are struggling to cope up with rent and overhead costs. Also, labour costs are extremely high here.”

Doing a job and having her own business is quite an achievement indeed. So, what are the qualities and attitude that helped her achieve so much, we were curious to know. Panchali let us on the secret of her success mantra, and of course, it had a lot to do with her innate humility and willingness to learn.

Panchali with Apsara Ali-Bharatnatyam fusion.

Panchali with Apsara Ali-Bharatnatyam fusion.

Keep learning and unlearning

Panchali shares, “You have to be constantly learning and upgrading your skill sets and need to be very flexible in your attitude. There is dignity of labour in this country, so no job is big or small. Yes, to start with and to make a mark for myself I had to overcome my share of challenges. Leaving a high paying, recognised state government job in India to landing in a foreign land and starting my career from scratch was hard. I started off as an Admin Reception worker here and had a tough time attending to phone calls from people we support at our organisation who have various disabilities.  So taking their calls, understanding the Aussies accent and the slangs and vice versa was very difficult. There were many times I was verbally and racially abused over the phone as I had a different accent than theirs and they had difficulty understanding my accent. My early days were tough to adjust with a new work environment, trying to mingle with new people, juggling between different offices in a day without having a proper fixed desk was extremely challenging. These are few of the many challenges that I faced, but I was fortunate to be a part of a great organisation which is proud of its diverse work culture and very supportive of its employees.

I slowly started learning their way of culture and their lingo. Moreover, being open-minded and taking one day at a time and counting my blessings that I have a great job with a wonderful work environment helped me tide over things.

I started showing my skills and expertise and in no time I was recognised as a valued employee and was offered full-time employment in the organisation. I brought in my own authenticity and mingled with our clients (the people we support) and shared my knowledge and pieces of my Indian culture. I started getting involved in community development and group activities with the people and had Bollywood workshops to teach and train them on Indian culture and had them perform on-stage performances in one of our national events here in Brisbane. I love taking challenges and I feel I continually grow if I have challenges to overcome and life becomes more meaningful.”

With so many years away from living away from home, does she still feel an emotional void? The smart lady has found a way to overcome any emotional void by building her circle of love around friends and colleagues who are her support system. She considers them a blessing in her life and calls them her “friends and sounding board in the truest sense whom I can reach out to when in any doubt.”

Panchali also gives us a peep into her social life and other activities in Brisbane and we have to say she is one helluva busy lady.

Bihu nasonis with Bengal Beauties

Bihu nasonis with Bengal Beauties

Staying involved with the Indian community

“We are involved in our own small Assamese community here and catch up occasionally. That way we don’t miss out much on our culture and we try to have get-togethers during our Assamese festival time and celebrate Bihu together.” As I mentioned earlier, I love dancing and learning new forms of dancing. I was training in belly dancing in a renowned belly dancing institute here and had the opportunity to showcase our performances on their annual events. I have been actively involved in showcasing our traditional Bihu dance to the wider community and have gotten the opportunity to perform on various platforms in the group and solo performances as well.

I am part of a theatre group called “Australian Indian Theatre” over the past four years and have played various roles on stage. I have also been taking an active part in various other stage plays such as dance drama and mythological plays and dance performances over the years.

“Have a flexible mindset and try and adapt gradually to their way of culture. Take your time, trust the process but at the same time don’t forget your roots. You will miss your culture, your identity, your language, your own people after moving to a foreign land and it is a scary and overwhelming feeling to start with but you will be fine.

Get your basic driving lessons if you don’t drive yet as it will be easier for you to get your license here and be independent.

Learn to be independent and come with an open mind as you wouldn’t land in your dream job soon after landing and the market scenario is very different here than it is in India. You will have to devote time in doing odd jobs or even serving as volunteers before getting into the proper workforce. The best part is you can change your career path and choose an entirely different career if you want to and far more easily too than you would do in India. You will just have to do short-term or long term courses.

Cultivate a hobby or develop a new skill as there are ample opportunities here for side income or side-hustle as they say. It’s hard to sustain in on single income ( if you are married and have kids) so be ready to work and earn your living and contribute. There is no support system here like your family, relatives, close pals so try to be interdependent and make good quality friends who add value to your life.”

As I wind up our conversation, my mind veers to the adage “survival of the fittest”. In a difficult world, only the fit survive and do well. This is because to overcome the odds, one needs to have a fitness of body and alertness of the mind. If one’s mind is alert one detects the challenges fast and also finds ways to overcome them better. This is what Panchali did as she became ready to make every effort to understand her new environment and took constructive steps to overcome the difficulties.  She didn’t stop at learning the mundane stuff alone and worked hard to spread her wings into unchartered territories which gave expression to her hidden talents. Today, Panchali made her life fulfilling by wearing many hats that bring out the best in her as a woman. Isn’t it exciting to be doing so much?  We are proud of you lady!

Please Note: All views and opinions are purely of the interviewee. 

Share your story:

If you’re an NRI living in any part of the globe and would like to share your wonderful stories revolving around food, travel and family, we’ll be happy to publish. Send us your original write-ups in MS Word along with 4-5 good pictures to [email protected]

Anusmita Dutta

Anusmita Dutta

About our writing program student:

Anusmita Dutta
Anusmita Dutta works as the Content Head in GetAConnect.in. She started her career in the e-learning industry but moved on to writing in the print and the web medium as well. She is also a Spoken English Tutor and a children’s storyteller.

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