‘My Story’ shares the experiences of an Indian living in Switzerland. Meet Rejina Sadhu who lives in Basel, Switzerland. A mother of two kids, a neurobiologist who is passionate about her job, she has several interests and hobbies and recently co-authored a book of women-centric short stories.
TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOURSELF
I am a neurobiologist-turned regulatory writer who wakes up every day with a ‘to do’ list in her head that may or may not finish by the end of her day. As a mother of two school-going children with busy schedules, I am generally rushing from one place to the other to complete the tasks on my ‘to do’ list. I love my job and am passionate about diversity and inclusion. I co-lead the ‘Working Parents Connection’ employee resource group for my firm in Switzerland. I am also active in the parent advisory board of the local daycare provider in my commune. Along with 19 women of Indian origin around the world, I contributed towards a collection of short stories ‘She Speaks’*, which was recently launched on 8th March 2019 (International Women’s Day).
Q: WHAT BROUGHT YOU TO SWITZERLAND?
When I was at TIFR** Mumbai, my favourite topic of discussion was, ‘PhD – Where? What is the best place to get a doctorate degree in natural sciences (preferably neuroscience)?’ Switzerland was among the top countries that we considered due to the excellent PhD programs. My husband, then fiancé, was considering job options between Johns Hopkins, USA and FMI, Switzerland. I had not applied to any US universities, so we made a conscious decision to go to a renowned university in Europe.
I started my PhD in Pharmazentrum in Basel and my husband joined FMI for his doctorate. After one year, my PhD supervisor received a Professorship at the University of Zurich and our entire laboratory moved to Zurich. The group became part of the Zurich Neurowissenschaft Zentrum (ZNZ), a collaboration between ETH and the University of Zurich. I continued to live in Basel and commuted every day to Zurich.
Q: DO YOU LIKE IT HERE, WHAT DO YOU LOVE AND WHAT WOULD YOU CHANGE (IF AT ALL)?
I am a Malayali, born and brought up in Mumbai. I married into a Bengali family. Growing up in a very culturally diverse cosmopolitan city was not enough to prepare me for Switzerland. Switzerland was in many ways different from India – geographically, culturally, climatically, culinary aspects and many more. Despite all the differences, the country grows on you. The friendly atmosphere in my lab and the friendships that developed during my PhD helped me adapt to life in Switzerland. Life as a PhD student was very challenging, but full of fun, too. I went on to do my post-doctorate in Basel and then embarked on my current career as a regulatory writer.
My husband and I saw the distinct advantages of living in a safe city, rich in art and culture, with many activities and myriad possibilities to develop as a family. The structured and organised way of life in Switzerland really appealed to me. We have our group of friends – and the families we came to know through Swiss Puja became our extended family. Basel’s unique location with France and Germany as bordering countries added more zing and variety. Easy access to parks, forests, mountains, and lakes is a bonus.
My husband and I have been in Switzerland for more than 17 years. We began to build our lives as a family in Switzerland. Our children were born here. They know our friends from our university days, our respective jobs, and our neighbours. They have built up their own network of friends. The children went to a bilingual daycare center and learned to speak both English and German, while they learnt Bengali at home. Though these days there are many possibilities of familiarising children with the cultural heritage of India, I still struggle to find proper classes that impart knowledge of more varieties of Indian classical music and dance in Basel which fit with school time tables.
Q: HOW DO YOU MANAGE TO BALANCE YOUR ROLES AT HOME, IN YOUR PROFESSIONAL LIFE, AND YET CONTINUE TO PURSUE YOUR INTERESTS?
Growing up in Mumbai brought me face-to-face with ‘everyday’ heroes. Mumbai taught me that if you think you can, you most probably ‘will’ be able to do it. Having a full-time job in a highly competitive environment rife with deadlines whilst trying to be a wife, daughter, sister, sister-in-law, daughter-in-law, aunt, friend and ‘Rejina’ at the same time is not a mean feat. In the local trains of Mumbai, in gorgeous verdant Kerala, amongst teachers, colleagues, family and friends in many other places, I saw many of my ‘everyday’ heroes who juggled all these roles. They inspire me to stretch my limits. I may not be successful every time, but I do try.
Being a mother of a very busy 10-year-old and a curious eight-year-old keeps me on my toes. My husband, also in the Pharma sector, travels most of the month for work. Although I work full-time, I am lucky to have flexible hours. This gives me the possibility of ferrying my children for their extracurricular activities, participating and assisting in their tasks and events, watching movies, swapping stories and singing with them.
These days, I indulge in my passion for books, colours, food, art, music and dance by integrating these in my family pursuits as much as possible. Involving my children in preparing for festivals and special occasions gives me multiple opportunities to cook up a storm, decorate, socialise… it also gives my children the opportunity to learn and imbibe cultural and traditional aspects. Designing and prepping with my husband and children are always a lot of fun with a bit of drama. I find writing, reading, music, cooking, baking and decorating cakes very therapeutic.
Recently, we got our garden allotment and, under the expert guidance of my husband, I am honing my green thumb and developing some serious biceps.
For developing as an individual or bringing up a family one does need a village. Without the support of friends, colleagues and family, it is not possible to juggle a multitude of tasks. I am blessed with amazing consortia of villages. A big thank you to each one of them!
I do not think one can find a balance so easily with the innumerable tasks and roles at hand. However, one can always strive to be the best of what one can be in a moment in time.
Q. ANY WORDS OF WISDOM TO HELP FELLOW EXPATS INTEGRATE?
I might sound very pedantic or clichéd but most points that enhance integration are straightforward. Respecting the country you live in is the first step, closely followed by local language skills. Picking up a new language is not easy, but is worth it. Communication and mutual respect are key to integration.
A good way to know one’s neighbourhood is to participate in the activities/events of the local clubs (Verein). I would recommend finding out how one can contribute to the local community. There are always many opportunities to volunteer. Parents with children in Swiss local schools could help by assisting in school advisory boards or sports/adventure/hiking clubs. Try to support local businesses by shopping in your village or commune. Attend the markets, fairs, festivals, and familiarise yourself with the traditions and culture. Try the local food and explore your surroundings.
A ‘Gruezi’ with a smile goes a long way.
Rejina is a neurobiologist-turned regulatory writer who wakes up every day with a ‘to do’ list in her head that may or may not finish by the end of her day. As a mother of two school-going children with busy schedules, she is generally rushing from one place to the other to complete the tasks on her ‘to do’ list. She loves her job and is passionate about diversity and inclusion. She also recently contributed towards a book of short stories called ‘She Speaks’.
* ‘She Speaks’ showcases an eclectic ensemble of experiences and is available on Amazon worldwide.
**TIFR: Tata Institute of Fundamental Research
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here belong solely to the writer. We do not undertake any financial/reputational impact or other obligations/liabilities that may arise from the content.
Hi Rejina, it was wonderful to read your article.. I am a lawyer and have recently moved to Basel from Mumbai with my husband and 2 kids. Whilst I’m currently on the lookout for a job, it was encouraging to read your take on integration with the local community (we read a lot about people being lonely in these western countries and I think the point about contributing to your local community makes sense). If you ever have the time for a coffee and chat, please do let me know and I would love to meet up.
It was so nice to read about your wonderful life journey….👍