Returning to India, the NRI dilemma

July 15, 2004

In a world where all actions have to be justified by hard logical reasoning, there is little room left for ambivalence or dilemma. This is especially true when it comes to NRIs wanting to return to India. The issue of whether to return has been debated and re-debated for years and very few, if any, have really found a general compelling reason one way or the other. This is because it is an extremely complex topic involving economical, cultural and emotional issues. By sharing my personal experience I hope to share some insights in to this complex issue. There was a time when I, like all my friends in IIT, dreamt of going to the States for higher education, getting a lucrative job and eventually living the so-called American dream. This was 1988. The way to go was to apply to a university. I got in and by August '88 was ready to leave. Very few asked why I was going. The reasons to go were considered perfectly rational - good education, good jobs and a good standard of living - so obvious that they were not even worth asking. No dilemmas.

Like all first generation immigrants, I encountered the usual roadblocks to adjusting in a new country - financial, emotional and cultural. A meager scholarship had to be used for tuition, rent, food as well as once-a-year trip back home. It was hard but there were several people like me and somehow, we all managed to survive. And eventually thrive as we all ended up with good jobs. The emotional adjustment was relatively easier as we got over the initial homesickness. However, the cultural adjustment was a much longer one and ultimately there were very few who was truly at ease with the American culture. The cultural gap is far bigger than what Indians expect before they arrive. For example, our food habits, topics of conversation, ways of recreation were all quite different. But these were all considered the usual hurdles for a first generation immigrant and therefore never questioned.

Time always seems to fly for everyone, but when living a fast-paced American lifestyle this cliché couldn't be truer. With work, home, spouse and kids with no relatives or domestic help, you tend to live Friday to Friday. And before I knew it, I had already lived in America for over a decade. Like all the Indians I knew, except for very few exceptions, I went on to get a green card - a signal that I have finally 'settled down'. Again, this remained largely unquestioned, unchallenged. When asked on rare occasions, I parroted the usual reasons: poor career prospects and living standards in India. Returning was left more as a vague option - to soothe parents and elders in the family - that would be considered if somehow things changed dramatically. No dilemmas.

But like several others, I nurtured a hidden - almost secret - desire to be able to return one day. This was kept close to my heart but whenever I disclosed this to others I ended up getting really confused. What is the rationale behind this, some would ask. Is it to renew family ties or bring up children in an Indian culture? Is it some vague longing for a past that was left long behind? Or worse, is it some far fetched ambition to serve your country and make a positive change? The very idea was often ridiculed. Horror stories of people suffering after moving back were told as proof of this fallacy. Then there were others who were more ambivalent. Their hearts longed to return but they hadn't figured out how. Some of them planned to work for a few more years and then decide - maybe after completing a new degree; maybe after saving a few more dollars; maybe after having kids. It was popularly known as the'X+1 syndrome'. It was so confusing that I would keep debating with myself but rarely bring it up with others.

And yet, the desire to return seemed to grow stronger everyday. It seemed to grow in some irrational corner of my mind which I knew could never be touched by reason. The only way to deal with it, I thought, is to experience it. So one day, I decided to talk to my boss about the possibility of moving to India and setting up a local branch of the US-based company I worked for. He ignored it initially thinking that it was a passing phase. But when I persisted, he listened. I began to plan a business trip to India to assess the best location, the potential risks and rewards and cost of setting up an operation in India. This was December 2001. By April the next year I had already submitted a business plan to my CEO and got it approved. I had to move back to India by June 2002 on a 2-year assignment. We had less than 6 weeks to pack and leave!

Those 6 weeks were one of the most interesting moments in my life. Having endured the 'X+1' syndrome for years, I felt almost shocked to have to move back so suddenly. On one hand I felt like sitting back and contemplating on the huge change that was about to happen. And on the other, I had almost an endless list of things to do - closing accounts, selling cars and furniture, making travel arrangements, getting kids vaccinated and completing all remaining projects at work. And last but not the least, attending farewell parties. There were so many people who came to visit us during these few weeks, it was unbelievable. There were a wide range of reactions - from sadness that we were leaving to rejoicing in the fact that we were returning to India. Many of them mentioned that I was really lucky and given a similar opportunity they would do the same.

But without exception they all asked the big question, WHY. Is it because of family reasons? Or, is it because of the bad job situation in the States? Or, is it because of September 11? It was as if the catastrophic terrorist attacks could be used to justify almost anything. Now, I was in a big dilemma. What if I said I had no hard reasons? What if I said that I was returning to a place where I felt I belonged? What if I said that I was following my heart - for a change? Would that be too vague, I thought. Finally, I decided to dodge the question. I told them it was a unique career opportunity with an option to come back in case things did not work out well. They all nodded. It was the most rational reason I could come up with. It was best to avoid any debates at this stage, I thought. Besides, I knew no hard reasons existed. May be I'll figure it out one day after settling down in India.

Avijit Goswami in Pune

The views of this column are the author's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of NRI Online.

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