The two types of Indian immigrants
“When an Indian professional becomes a ‘Non-Resident Indian’ in the United States , he soon starts suffering from a strange disease. The symptoms are a fixture of restlessness,anxiety, hope and nostalgia. The virus is a deep inner need to get back home. Like Shakespeare said, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” The medical world has not coined a word for this malady. Strange as it is, it could go by a stranger name, the “X + 1″ syndrome.”
“In other words if ‘X’ is the current year, then the objective is to return in the ‘X + 1’ year. Since ‘X’ is a changing variable, the objective is never reached. Unable to truly melt in the ‘Great Melting Pot’, chained to his cultural moorings and haunted by an abject fear of giving up an accustomed standard of living, the Non-Resident Indian vacillates and oscillates between two worlds in a twilight zone. Strangely, this malady appears to affect only the Indians – all of our Asian brethren from Japan, Korea and even Pakistan – seem immune to it.”
This is how R. K. Narayan (among my top 5 favorite novelists) described the Indian immigrant in a seminal essay he penned in the 1990’s. He was talking about a previous generation of Indian Americans of course. As I reflect upon my own immigrant experience (and those of my cohort) in America in the past 16 years, I have my own theory about two distinct types of Indian immigrants – one of them described perfectly by R. K. Narayan. The first type rapidly assimilates into the American social milieu and decisively lays down roots within the first 5 years – I call this group the laydown-rooter. I call the second type should-we for the simple reason that they are constantly (or periodically) asking the question “Should we return to India?” It is my hypothesis that the should-we group outnumbers the laydown-rooter by a huge factor.
The should-we haven’t internalized whether or not to settle down in America – that’s the reason why they are the more interesting group. Some profess to return after [x] years or based on some financial goal. Others want to ‘successfully do’ a startup (definition of success varies from person to person). Still others impose upon themselves a deadline tied to an older child completing a crucial age of 5, 6 or 7 years – in order to minimize the school transition and adjustment angst.
The should-we are further segmented into active should-we and passive should-we. Some of the active should-we take the drastic step of not buying a house for fear that they might be tied. In general, the active should-we are proactively looking for the right career opportunity in India. They also make regular trips to India which largely serve to maintain their fervor of returning to India.
The passive should-we are driven by inertia and have a romantic notion to return to India but they haven’t set a timeline yet. They don’t proactively look for career opportunities but are very curious about the doings of their active should-we brethren. The passive should-we also make regular trips to India but invariably find enough reasons for why it is still not a good idea to move to India. Thus the status quo continues and the quest to move to India remains unresolved for the passive should-we.
However, the future for the passive should-we group is not as bleak as R. K. Narayan depicts. Every year, an ever increasing trickle of the active should-we group is moving to India – providing social proof that the move can work – if done for the right reasons. Moreover, returning to India is no longer a career debilitating move as it used to be a decade or two ago. In fact, the move to India can also be a boost to one’s career. And finally, the move to India has become reversible – i.e. if it doesn’t work out (for whatever reasons), one can always return to America without losing traction on the career or life fronts. These are the reasons why active should-we are returning to India and passive should-we are becoming active should-we in increasing numbers.
Update (Jun 30): R.K. Narayan’s essay “India and America” from A Writer’s Nightmare: Selected Essays 1958-1988 has a more optimistic ending…
“The Indian in America who is not able to live wholeheartedly on this basis finds himself in a halfway house; he is unable to overcome his conflicts while physically flourishing on the American soil. One may hope that the next generation of Indians (American-grown) will do better by accepting the American climate spontaneously; or, alternatively, return to India to lead a different life.”