From Ahmedabad to Sandringham: two worlds collide

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 12 minutes

When Sujal Shah first spoke to someone in New Zealand, it was in a Yahoo chat room.

The year was 2005: he was in Ahmedabad, India; she was in Wellington. Over three years and thousands of miles, the pair chatted daily, gradually building a connection that would prove much more reliable than that of their dial-up internet.

In 2008, Pooja returned to India to visit family and met Sujal for the first time. It was love: a year later, they were married.

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 12 minutes

When Sujal Shah first spoke to someone in New Zealand, it was in a Yahoo chat room.

The year was 2005: he was in Ahmedabad, India; she was in Wellington. Over three years and thousands of miles, the pair chatted daily, gradually building a connection that would prove much more reliable than that of their dial-up internet.

In 2008, Pooja returned to India to visit family and met Sujal for the first time. It was love: a year later, they were married.

A decade after that, Sujal and his wife had settled in Auckland’s own “Little India” with their two children and a small business.

It hasn’t been all roses, but to Sujal, life is what you make it.

Sujal hails from Ahmedabad, the largest city in the west Indian state of Gujarat and the fifth most populated in India. There, he lived together with his parents and older brother, along with his brother’s wife and children. It was a busy, happy environment that he remembers fondly. “It was such a great time living in a joint family, best for kids compared to nuclear families here where kids don’t interact with grandparents or cousins much,” he says.

With a father as a bank manager, Sujal learned from a young age that nothing in life comes easily. “I grew up in a very competitive environment; we knew that we weren’t born with a silver spoon,” he says. “We knew we would have to study hard to get a good job and make money.”

After he and Pooja married, Sujal worked hard to get a foothold in India’s prolific IT industry. He started out as a freelancer before launching his own web development business, eventually landing a full-time contract with a major New Zealand client: Cookie Time.

In Paraparaumu after first arriving in NZ

By that stage, he and Pooja had a five-year-old son, and they were ready to try their luck across the Pacific Ocean.

Sujal in Queenstown

Pooja’s family were based in Lower Hutt, so they settled first in Wellington. They later tried Queenstown, but, for various reasons, neither city felt right.

After obtaining permanent residency 18 months later, and with Pooja pregnant again, they decided to move back to India. “We wanted to be with my parents and have our second child in India, which we did,” Sujal says.

For the next few years, he continued to visit New Zealand to meet with his clients – mostly in Auckland – and found that he liked the city of sails. So, in 2019, they decided to move back – this time to Sandringham.

When the pandemic struck six months later, they realised they wouldn’t be leaving in a hurry. Fortunately, they had found their place. “I really love the community here, especially in Sandringham,” Sujal says. “I love the cultural diversity in Auckland. Everyone is super supportive.”

Finding community in Auckland

Around two-thirds of New Zealand’s Indian population resides in Auckland, mainly in and around Avondale, Lynfield, Hillsborough, and Sandringham.

Sandringham is home to many ethnicities and, with most businesses owned and operated by people of Indian origin, has earned the moniker “Auckland’s Little India”.

Sujal and Pooja at an Auckland Indian Meetup

It was here that the Shahs finally felt they could settle. They have made connections in the community and join them in celebrating traditional holidays such as Diwali, Holi, and Rakshabandhan. They also attend events at the local temple on Balmoral Road. At home, they enjoy cooking traditional foods and making Indian sweets to share with friends and their families. “It really helps our kids to know their culture and connect with our roots,” Sujal says.

Sujal was also a moderator for the Auckland Indian Meetup group on Facebook, which now boasts over 5000 members. Although COVID has taken its toll on the group’s social calendar, he has hopes for the coming year. “We used to organise meetups once a month, but after COVID, it was hard to have big gatherings, so there haven’t been any new meetups in the past ten months,” Sujal says. “But now that I’m working from home, I want to be more involved in the community and attend more events.”

With their two sons now at school, Pooja has been able to return to work. They have also launched their own business, 8bitbyte, which provides web development and other digital solutions for businesses.

Working in New Zealand is very different from India, Sujal says. “The work culture is very relaxed here with better work-life balance. People stick to the same roles for years which is rare in India.”

In August 2021, the Shahs were able to purchase their first home on St Lukes Road: no mean feat in Auckland’s competitive market. “We’re probably the lucky ones here, even though the housing prices have doubled compared to 2016 when we first arrived. The market is crazy, and I see a lot of families are struggling to enter it,” he says.

The rocky road of a migrant in New Zealand

With a solid career, a business, and a home, the Shahs have plenty to be proud of – and they are.

Sujal admits that being a migrant isn’t always easy: “Right from food, clothing, lifestyle, drinking, even day to day life is very different for us. I had to learn to talk about the weather! It’s hard when you’re so keen to meet and talk with more and more people but then you have to make an extra effort to make them feel that you are a part of them.”

Although vegetarianism is a way of life in India, it was clear this wasn’t the case in New Zealand. Around 38% of India’s population is vegetarian – the highest in the world. Meat consumption is among the lowest. This is largely due to the influence of Buddhism and Jainism, both of which emphasise ahimsa – respect and non-violence towards all living things.

As lifelong vegetarians, it took some time to adjust to the land of milk and honey. “I have never tasted or even touched meat or eggs in my life, so it was a big challenge in terms of food choices,” Sujal explains. “It is difficult for kids. My kids don’t even eat lollies with gelatine. No cakes at parties or at school.”

Compared to India, New Zealand’s options are somewhat limited. “I’m a big foodie and I love eating various Indian dishes. Food helps you to connect with people, but we couldn’t. No KFCs, McDonald’s, Burger King at all. McDonald’s in India sells 25 different vegetarian burgers but here, they have few options for vegetarians.”

Fortunately, Sandringham’s abundance of vegetarian Indian restaurants has come to the rescue: it was part of the reason they decided to purchase a home nearby.

Food hasn’t been the only challenge. Meeting people is still difficult. Sujal says this may be partly to do with age, but also partly to do with cultural differences. “I think the people who move in their early 20s can easily adapt to new cultures, but we moved in our 30s and it is really hard. We struggled a lot initially to try to make new friends. Even my kids struggle a lot to be friends with other non-Indian kids. There are absolutely no playdates, no birthday invites. But now they are used to it.”

“Becoming a true ‘Kiwi’ is unlikely,” he says. He feels he will never be a part of this culture, “even if I were to live here for fifty years.”

But immersion isn’t his goal, and he remains pragmatic rather than defeatist. For now, the family has everything they need right here in Auckland, and perhaps that’s all they need. “I think, at the end, every immigrant learns the fact that they will have to form a group of close friends and families who belong to the same country and part of the same culture as them. The struggle between wanting to learn and be a part of a new culture and keeping your own culture alive is endless.”

There’s one thing that’s unquestionable: his love for New Zealand. “New Zealand is flipping beautiful! I love the peaceful life here. Very safe, people follow rules and regulations which is great. It’s a fantastic quality of life – healthcare and education are good, the climate is temperate, cities are accessible due to their smaller size, and you can find an outdoor playground no more than 30 minutes’ drive from virtually anywhere. And Kiwis are generally very friendly by nature.”

His next goal is to bring his parents here to live, which will mean meeting the steep application criteria set by Immigration New Zealand: earning an income of $212,160 for three years. For Sujal, it’s just another challenge to work towards. “As a family, we believe in making tough choices today in order to provide our kids with a bright future.”

It’s that optimism that has allowed the Shahs to overcome every other challenge so far and will likely continue to be their driving force. Attitude, it would seem, is much more useful than the proverbial silver spoon. Life is full of dreams and aspirations, yet there has to be a solid plan in place to transform the fantasy to reality,” he says. “For people like me who tend to prioritise and plan ahead, the task is simple.”

The family at Mt Eden stadium

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