It can be hard to adjust to a new city, let alone a new country. From learning a new language, to understanding the culture and meeting people, the whole experience (though exciting) can be overwhelming. It can be helpful to turn to communities and groups in your new city to meet others who are going through the same experience. The Guangzhou Women’s International Club (GWIC) is one group in Guangzhou that strives to help Guangzhou newcomers adjust by offering community, social gatherings, and a chance to learn about other cultures from all over the world!
Sonal Verdia has served as president of the GWIC for the last two years, and we had a chance to speak with her about her experience as president. Read on to learn about how her life in Guangzhou has been impacted by the strength of this group, what GWIC offers its members, and how expat communities can offer a wealth of knowledge and exposure to new experiences.
What is the story behind GWIC? How did this community form and come to be?
The GWIC was founded in the 1980s by a small group of expat ladies who followed their husbands to China for a job. From a very old member, we hear that it used to be a group of 15 members — a huge difference from the nearly 400 members that we have today. The expat community at that time was very small and close-knit. The club members used to meet at each others homes for coffee, tea and other social activities. The trend still continues, but we have long since moved on to bigger and nicer locations. The club holds its monthly events at big hotels around Guangzhou and we participate in other activities like crafts, arts, cooking, mahjong, tennis, cultural exchange, professional women’s night out, and exploring around Guangzhou. We also have our in-house magazine Gazette, website, wechat groups and a wechat subscription account to help promote the club.
The best part here is that it is all managed by a group of dedicated volunteers who also happen to be our members.
Women from as many as 60 different countries come and exist beautifully in this amazing social club. I found the best and lifelong friends in GWIC ever since I arrived in Guangzhou. This club helps newcomers easily settle down in Guangzhou and give them something that feels like a home away from home.
How long have you presided over the community? What are some of your favorite memories with this group of women?
Its been 4 years now that I have served the club. I began as the Gazette editor, then became Vice President for 2 years, and have been President for the last 2 years. The expat community is an ever-changing one. People come and go all the time. June is the month when we say goodbyes to dear friends and August is the month where we welcome new ones. Working for our charity events like the holiday bazaar, shoe/bag sales, and the Gala brings a lot of joy. There’s a lot of time and planning that goes into these events. I’m so grateful to the amazing board members who allow us to keep the club moving.
Where have you lived in the past, and where do you live at the moment? What are some of the cultural differences between places you’ve lived, and your current place of residence?
I was born and brought up in the beautiful city of Udaipur in India, and I moved to Mumbai with my husband after marriage. My two little boys, husband and I moved to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam later on. HCMC was so culturally rich and laid back that we loved exploring Vietnam with our kids very much. Vietnamese cuisine is never to be forgotten. After a lovely two years we moved to the big, beautiful city of Shanghai. Both of those cities were miles apart. Shanghai turned out to be the most cosmopolitan city that I had ever seen. Yet it had its own cultural corners and old lanes that you could enjoy strolling down. We spent some of the best years of our lives there. I also worked on and off during these times. After 5 years there and a brief 1 year in Mumbai, we moved to Guangzhou. I couldn’t help but compare it with Shanghai and found out that the two cities are incomparable. The Cantonese style, culture and environment is totally different. As opposed to the very modern Shanghai, Guangzhou still has the Chinese culture more imbibed in its roots. It is the most beautiful and green city that I have seen so far — very good town planning and fusion of modern and retro in the whole city.
What do you look for in a community?
The first thing that I look for in any community is openness and interaction without borders. Having been an expat for more than 10 years now, I look for internationalism, open acceptance and non political exchange. I appreciate freedom of thought, and a respect for others faiths and beliefs.
How can women benefit from groups like GWIC?
The very first idea of GWIC is to promote social and cultural exchange. When you are in a country where languages, cultures, and systems are totally different from what you’re used to, then life becomes a challenge. Usually husbands and children get busy in office and schools, while a wife or mother is left to fend for the family and for herself. GWIC enables and offers numerous outlets for them. Not only that, but our professional women’s group interacts and benefits from networking as well. Just the feeling that you are not alone in this foreign land helps motivate women to stay happy and enjoy life, given the fact that women are more socially oriented then men. The more we interact the more we learn about so many countries and their cultures. For me it’s a very enriching experience.
What kind of work do you do outside of the group? Do you enjoy your lifestyle?
The Club’s activities are so deeply interwoven in my lifestyle now that it’s hard to distinguish. I also continuously network with the Chinese community here, regularly playing badminton with my Chinese friends, enjoying lunches with them and learning more and more about their culture. I am also a fan of Chinese art work and furniture and have very good friends who dabble and involve me in that. This also helps create a bridge between us and them and the feeling of peaceful coexistence. I definitely love my life and lifestyle here and always try to enjoy life as it comes to me.
What is something you’re passionate about in life? How do you fuel that passion?
Many people who are close to me call me a rebel and utterly feminist. Yes I do feel a lot about women’s empowerment and never pass on a chance to inspire women around me to follow their passion. I personally am very passionate about life itself and the amazing new things that it brings my way every day. There’s not a single day that passes where I allow myself to sit idle, from playing hard core badminton, to exploring the town on bicycle, enjoying Chinese food and long walks on the river promenade with my husband — I invest a lot in my days and time.
What have you learned from this community that you might not have been able to learn otherwise?
The first hand exposure to so many international cultures!!! Even if i took a world tour I would never be able to understand the underlying, original culture that every part of the world has. Deep down everyone is a human being and feels the same in their respective roles, we are no different inside and I love this idea. I am as beautiful, loving and strong as any other woman in the world.
Have you been an expat in any other countries? What are some of the positives and negatives of the ex-pat’s experience?
Being an expat for the first time in Vietnam was a new horizon for me. I never knew such a life existed in this world. The inner hunger to know more about a new country, especially one that also is not very popular in the world, made it all the more exciting. It opened a lot of doors in mind and created a high level of respect and acceptance to different diasporas of people. Living in a country whose first language is not English is very challenging to many but very thrilling for me. I regret the fact that I never properly learned Vietnamese. I’m too excited with the whole new idea of Expatism (yes that’s what I call it) I ended up only learning to count in Vietnamese from 1-10!!!
How is the role of women changing in today’s modern society? Is this something that you feel GWIC addresses as a community?
It is evidently clear that the role of women has always been a very important one in the society. It’s only now that women and their achievements are more highlighted and deeply appreciated in modern society. The role of a wife, mother, sister, daughter were never any less than any corporate big positions, and still are. So if we want to compare with the business world then we have women CEOs on almost all the big companies in the world, and on a smaller scale, many of the Consul Generals in Guangzhou are women. Modern society is accepting women in leadership roles more and more. This is due to education, independence and to very supportive men who have come a long way in their mindset, till today. The examples of Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Indira Nooyi, Rachel Carson, Marie Curie, Elizabeth Blackwell, Katharine Hepburn inspire not only women but also men to have an open vision. The list is endless and all we can do is tell the stories of these women more and more.
GWIC inspires its members to come out of their shells and do what they do best and do what they are passionate about. Many have worked on the board in different roles and used the experience to get good jobs. Many have become small scale entrepreneurs by following their passions, be it jewellery/dress designing, trading, teaching, cooking, touring new places, organising events etc. GWIC supports its members in their endeavors and helps them show and advertise their talent to many people outside our community. The club provides many opportunities for everyone to network internally and externally. We are very respected and well received in Guangzhou. I can proudly say that GWIC doesn’t need an introduction in the Guangzhou expat community.
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