Living Fabulously Abroad: One woman’s guide for Pinays moving overseas

Donna Avellana Künzler. Photo courtesy of Frances Sales
Donna Avellana Künzler. Photo courtesy of Frances Sales

Working overseas or immigrating remains the dream of many Filipinas, but very few appear prepared to handle the drastic changes that it will bring.

Enter Donna Avellana Künzler, a writer and finance professional who has worked overseas for the past 20 years. Thanks to her experience living in Singapore, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland, Avellana Künzler wrote the self-published, 130-page The Overseas Fabulous Pinay: A Modern Filipina’s Guide on How to Thrive Abroad. The book, which was launched earlier this year, gives helpful tips about how women can live fulfilling and happy lives far away from the Philippines.

Expect to learn almost everything: from the tedious task of preparing necessary documents, to making new friends in a foreign land, and even dealing with the inevitable homesickness. It’s breezy but informative, leading the Nonfiction Book Awards to give the book its gold award in June.

Coconuts Manila interviewed the Switzerland-based Avellana Künzler via e-mail, and she explained how the book came to be and her thoughts of living overseas.

Why do you think your book is necessary, considering that Filipinas have been leaving the country for work since the 1960s? 

I believe my book is relevant given that half of the one million Filipinos that go abroad yearly are women.  Women who go overseas both by choice and mostly out of necessity, to seek a better life and provide for their families.  Filipinas who mostly have not even traveled outside the Philippines before or even lived on their own.  Filipinas who mostly have not had any interactions with foreigners and who have not been exposed to other cultures.  Filipinas who courageously go even if they don’t know anyone, have not been to where they are going and do not know what to expect. Filipinas who feel homesick, helpless, and alone.

So yes, I firmly believe that my book is needed more than ever so these Filipinas can benefit from my knowledge and learnings.  I also want my readers to realize that going abroad is not just about working and earning money.  They should see it as an opportunity to better themselves by knowing more about other cultures; expanding their network; appreciating diversity and learning about inclusivity when you are the foreigner; seeing how other countries are run and how citizens get involved; and more importantly, to not forget to love one’s self.

The book's cover
The book’s cover

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Can you tell us about the book’s inception– what led you to write it, how did you find a publisher, and now, with the pandemic going on, how are you promoting it?

Four years ago, after I got married and as I was about to turn 40, I was feeling nostalgic about my colorful single life, and at the same time, I was longing for a way to give back and make an impact.  So I thought of writing a book. I initially wanted to write a fiction novel that will tell stories of my years of living abroad.  However, thanks to my consulting background, writing recommendations, and checklists felt more natural– so I switched to writing a self-help book.

I came up with the book title: The Overseas Fabulous Pinay: A Modern Filipina’s Handbook on How to Thrive Abroad.  With that, the concept of the Overseas Fabulous Pinay (Ovfabpinay in short) was born.  I wanted something close to OFW- which is Overseas Filipino Workers and since I wanted to project a strong and positive feeling or image of a Filipina, I chose the word Fabulous, which essentially means extraordinary, wonderful.

I did a lot of research to compare traditional publishing and self-publishing. I  eventually chose to self-publish my book because I wanted to have full control over the content of my book and I also wanted to publish my book quite quickly– before or just within months of giving birth to my daughter.  I had a full-time job so the time I had for my book was really limited and my thought was, if I don’t complete my book within the timelines I expected, then I would probably not have been able to publish the book at all.

With the pandemic going on, it’s really difficult to promote my book. I promote mostly thru social media posts (Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn).  With my PR partner, we expect more features, book reviews, and interviews with media and bloggers in the coming weeks.

What was your husband’s reaction when the book was published and when you won an award?  

He was very happy and proud of me.  He knows how much effort I have put into writing and producing my book. He was also my first proofreader, so he’s like an honorary member of my book production team. As someone who has also lived abroad for a number of years in different countries, he recognizes the relevance of my book.

What do you find fulfilling as a Filipina living and working in Switzerland?

I do take pride in the fact that in all places I resided in, including Switzerland, that I was able to get a job and move to the country through my own merits because of my relevant professional experience, skills, and technical competence. Moreover, for Switzerland, that I managed to stay for 10 years in a country where English is not the main language, build my network of personal and professional contacts, and basically made it my home.

What’s the difference between working in Singapore vs. Switzerland?

Huge difference. Where do I start?  I lived in Singapore for almost 5 years (I last lived there in 2005) and in Switzerland, as I mentioned for 10 years this year.  Both countries are small (5.8million population in SG, 8.6million in CH with both having expats account to roughly close to 25%),  but have a high cost of living and yet can provide an outstanding quality of life.

I think first, is the work-life balance culture.  There seems to be more awareness of having work-life balance in Switzerland, and taking regular long holidays every summer and winter is the norm. Plus, legally more annual leave is granted in Switzerland (20 days).

Second, there’s no stigma around working part-time.  At least my perception in Asia is that part-time is not preferred or seen as career limiting.  In Switzerland, you will find that it’s acceptable if people do not work 100%, role permitting.  Many job listings will state 80%-100% as a workload requirement.

Third, language.  In Singapore, it’s very easy to get by since English is one of the official languages.  In Switzerland, English is not an official language.  Unless you work for a multinational company or in a global role, learning the language would be a prerequisite to be able to integrate and be competitive.  [The] language would either be German, French, Italian, or Romansch depending on the region.  And if you happen to be in the Swiss-German region like me, it’s harder to learn high German (the official language) because the Swiss actually speak their respective Swiss German dialect.

Fourth, in Switzerland, it’s more male-dominated in general in the corporate world, and also there are hardly any Southeast Asians.  As a Filipina, you can definitely stand out.

Fifth, relationships with local colleagues.  In Singapore, I find that local work colleagues are more open to foreigners and generally open to fostering friendships with foreign colleagues.  That is totally different in Switzerland, where there is a clear separation of work and personal relationships and they rarely cross over.  The Swiss are generally friendly but they are a tough egg to crack.  There is a famous saying that it’s hard to have Swiss friends but once you are friends with a Swiss then you are friends for life.

I’m sure there are a lot more but these are the main ones that I can think of for the moment.

Are you working on other books? Any upcoming projects? 

I definitely have a plan to publish more books as part of the Ovfabpinay series, but I have not started working on them yet.  My focus at the moment is to widely promote my first book and to establish my author platform through my social media account, blog, and podcast.  As a sub-project, I also started The Ovfabpinays podcast wherein each episode, I feature a Filipina who is an embodiment of an Ovfabpinay- confident, sophisticated, proud to be Filipino, and makes the Philippines proud.  I will have my 9th and 10th episodes live on Instagram this month.

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