Silicon Valley is the centre for innovative technology and home to more than 2,000 tech companies. High-valued tech companies such as Google, Apple, eBay and PayPal, among others, have greatly contributed to America’s reputation as a global leader in technology innovation and in making the industry the fourth largest of the US economy.
The US has also one of the highest number of overseas Singaporeans. With at least 1,200 Singaporeans working in Silicon Valley, the Bay Area has the largest community of Singaporeans as compared to the other regions in the US. As labour mobility is considered a norm in this age of globalisation, there will still be an upward trend of Singaporeans venturing abroad, especially to places that can offer them good opportunities and prospects.
For Zannath Bee, 41, she took the opportunity given by her employer to transfer to their US headquarters in 2015 to explore the vast career opportunities the country has to offer. Against the backdrop of an ongoing pandemic, how does she cope with being more than 13,000km away from her family in Singapore?
She shares her experiences with the Karyawan team.
Q: Could you tell us more about yourself and your family?
Zannath: I come from a very big family. My parents have 15 children and I am the third youngest child in the family. My hobbies include taking long walks in nature, travelling around the world to experience different cultures, culinary flavours and sceneries, or just lounging on the sofa watching my all-time favorite TV shows like Friends and Frasier.
I started my first job 20 years ago in customer service and since then, I have held multiple and varied roles in sales administration, project and portfolio management as well as business operations.
Q: When did you start working in the US and what work did you do then?
Zannath: I started with PayPal Pte Ltd (Singapore) in February 2011 before relocating to the Bay Area, California in September 2015. I was a technical portfolio manager for PayPal’s Risk and Compliance team. As a portfolio manager, I worked with various stakeholders from the Business Unit, Product, Engineering and Programme Management teams. Partnering the Technology team, my primary role was to prioritise, manage and oversee the execution and delivery of our risk and compliance roadmap.
When the opportunity arose for me to move to the PayPal corporate headquarters in San Jose, I jumped on it for a couple of reasons – a chance to work at the mother ship and being close to all the action, and more importantly, the prospect of vast career opportunities to explore both within PayPal Inc. and in the US.
Q: What does your job entail and what is your typical work day like?
Zannath: I switched to a business operations role in July 2018 where my job scope spans across headcount and budget management, creating and managing executive scorecard metrics, implementing communication strategies, and employee engagement which includes event planning.
A typical day starts at 9am and ends at 7pm for me. There is a lot of flexibility for me to juggle my working hours as required. For example, if I had the occasional night meeting with my colleagues in the Asia Pacific region, I would start off my day a little later the next day. I engage a lot with my peers and the leadership team on a daily basis, so I am usually in meetings or discussions during the day or running around planning an event.
Q: Did you face any culture shock when you first moved there? What are some of the major differences between Americans and Singaporeans?
Zannath: Honestly, not as much. I have been to the PayPal headquarters in San Jose multiple times on business trips prior to my move, and as such, I was familiar with the culture here. Learning and understanding the way things work in the US, setting my expectations, being flexible and having the ability to adapt, as well as having a support group consisting of family, friends and colleagues have greatly helped me adjust to my new environment quickly. The one thing that I have not yet adjusted to is the obligatory tipping culture here in the US. I still find myself taking out my phone calculator or doing quick mental calculations when the bill arrives after dining.
There are two major differences between Americans and Singaporeans. First, personal space is very important to Americans and they will not hesitate to tell you off if you are encroaching into their space. Second is the concept of working from home. American employers are supportive of this policy, whereas the concept is still quite foreign in Singapore based on my experience.
Q: What would you say is your biggest challenge at work and in your day-to-day life in the US that one would probably not experience in Singapore?
Zannath: Having full attendance or participation in meetings between the hours of 4pm and 7pm. A lot of employees leave the office early to pick up their kids from school due to their very strict pick-up rules and the distance they have to travel to beat the crazy traffic in the Bay Area. As such, you would need to plan for meetings earlier during the day or later in the evening. Night meetings or calls were never a thing for me when I was working in the Singapore office.
Q: We hear stories about Muslims and Asians living in the US facing racial or religious discrimination. Have you faced any such challenges while living and working there?
Zannath: Alhamdulillah, so far I have not been subjected to any racial or religious discrimination. The Bay Area has a diverse ethnic population, and racial and religious tolerance is pretty good here. Most companies are equal opportunity employers and have a zero tolerance policy towards discrimination. Currently in the US, bias and discrimination are more rampant towards the Black community. The situation has recently escalated prompting the Black Lives Matter movement and protests around the world.
Zannath with her colleagues
Q: What are the common misconceptions that Americans have of Muslims? How have you had to overcome them?
Zannath: A common misconception is that Muslims are very conservative and close-minded. In my first year, there were countless times where I had to remind some of my colleagues that I am a Muslim, just because I do not don the hijab and socialise freely. Americans are generally very accommodating and will take the time to understand you if you explain and help them learn about things they are unfamiliar with.
Some time back, while getting lunch at our office cafeteria, my colleague asked me if I knew what halal food tastes like. There was a sign beside some of the dishes indicating they were ‘halal’ and she thought that it was a flavour! She had never had a Muslim acquaintance before. So after that incident, I made an effort to educate her about halal food and answer her questions about Islam.
Q: How do you cope with being away from family and adapting to a new environment on your own?
Zannath: I miss my family all the time, especially during birthdays, Ramadan and Hari Raya. I stay in touch with family and friends in Singapore through regular video calls and chat messages, and I make yearly visits back to Singapore. Having a support system here in the US is very important. Thus, I have made new, close friends who are now my “family”.
Apart from keeping myself busy with work, I make the time to distract myself with new hobbies and interests. In the last four years, I have picked up a love for gardening – I am growing my own herbs and vegetables – travelled to more countries, and visited more places of interest.
Q: With the current COVID-19 situation in the US, how badly affected are you by the pandemic?
Zannath: Shelter-in-place order in California started in early March and since then, I have been working from home. Being indoors practically most of the time, sans the once-a-month grocery trip to the store and daily walks around the neighbourhood, I do miss hanging out with my friends and being outdoors. I am staying positive and cannot really complain as I am very thankful to still have a job considering there are millions in the US who have been affected and are out of jobs.
Q: What have been the highlights of your career or life in the US so far?
Zannath: Taking on bigger and more leadership roles at work, being an independent and more responsible person as I learn to fix things around my apartment by myself, and going for long road trips after I learnt to drive in 2016.
Q: Do you have any advice for Malay/Muslim youths who want to pursue a career in the US?
Zannath: My advice for them is to be ready to work hard. Do your homework and be realistic with your expectations. Be flexible and adapt to the society and environment around you, but never lose your identity. Always touch base with your family and friends. Fully explore what the country has to offer in terms of job opportunities, beautiful landscapes, and a myriad of ethnicities, cultures and traditions.
Q: What are your future plans? Do you intend to continue staying in the US or are you planning to return to Singapore?
Zannath: I see myself being in the US for the next ten years at least. There is still a lot that I have not explored, be it for work or leisure. Insya’Allah, I will return to my family someday as I still consider Singapore my home.
1 NIRMAL, G. SINGAPOREANS IN SILICON VALLEY URGED TO CONSIDER GROWING OPPORTUNITIES AT HOME. THE STRAITS TIMES. 2019, APRIL 20. AVAILABLE AT: HTTPS://WWW.STRAITSTIMES.COM/WORLD/UNITED-STATES/SINGAPOREANS-IN-SILICON-VALLEY-URGED-TO-CONSIDER-GROWING-OPPORTUNITIES-AT-HOME
2 AMELIA, T. RISING NUMBER OF SINGAPOREANS BORN OVERSEAS. THE STRAITS TIMES. 2020, JANUARY 2. AVAILABLE AT: HTTPS://WWW.STRAITSTIMES.COM/SINGAPORE/RISING-NUMBER-OF-SPOREANS-BORN-OVERSEAS
Nur Diyana Jalil is currently an Executive at the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA) who manages its social media, events and publication. She loves to read, travel and write occasionally.
Photo credit : Ms Zannath Bee