NEW DELHI I am asked almost every day, at work, at the market, at my daughter’s school: “Why did you come back?”
My answer is always the same: I didn’t. I was born in the US, as were my husband and daughter.
We had never lived in India, although we certainly felt connected to her. Our parents were all born here and made their Westward migrations in the 1960s (my in-laws) and the 1970s (my parents).
As I crossed the Atlantic East on Continental Airlines Flight 82—a non-stop New York-New Delhi flight that has revolutionized both immigration and business—it dawned on me that I am the same age as my father when he went in the opposite direction. Yet, unlike the India he left, the one I encounter is less worth escape than embrace.
He left in 1971, an Assamese mining engineer who believed he could make better money and a better life in the US. I left on 16 November 2006, a Washington, D.C., journalist intrigued by a country where media, and many other industries, for that matter, were booming.
Human resources managers say we are in demand, that we can help be the change agents in an evolving India. They say we can serve as translators between where India has come from—presumably rooted in the nostalgia and memory of immigrant parents—and where India is going, presumably the efficient ways of our West.
Following a fundamental lesson in economics imparted by parents and powerful business leaders alike, we have journeyed here in pursuit of opportunity. After a lifetime of being asked just exactly where we are from, where home is, we abandoned our land for the one our parents once did. Yet, because absolute abandonment is no longer necessary, even possible, in our small and wired world, our migrations redefine the notion of home itself.
This represents an important shift in a global economy. My parents, for example, went years without hearing their parents’ voices because only one aunt had a phone in the 1970s Assam. Contrast that with my daughter, who spends weekends before a web camera and on a mobile to hold virtual meetings with relatives from Chicago to Jamnagar.
India’s successful services sector has been built on the notion that its workers can interact with all those places and many more. Intentional or not, a 24x7 work culture has resulted, from Blackberrys on the dining table to laptops in bed. And as work dictates where home is, whether we identify ourselves as Indian or American matters less than how we define ourselves through our jobs.
You might know people like me in your workplace. We enunciate, then denunciate, to be understood, sometimes even resorting to a bad Indian accent in the language we consider ours. We ask what words such as “upgradation” and “maths” mean. We might avoid the same water you drink, the same dhabas you love, the same spicy street foods that make life worth living.
Like India, I am in transition. I invite readers to share our journey. Week after week, I intend to dissect our balance and definition of family, work and self.
Despite HR’s claims that India gains from my entry, I expect to derive benefits as well. Besides wanting to do more than witness India’s growth, our move was rooted in the emotional. Indeed, the unconditional love of family, the desire for authenticity and, yes, even the street food lured. We might yet debunk jokes that NRI stands for Not Really Indian.
“I want to go home, Mommy,” my 2-year-old said just a few weeks ago.
“We’re here,” I said, weakly.
I wished desperately to tell her that confusion over where home lies would end soon. But I couldn’t lie. Who knew three decades ago, as my parents prayed for my prosperity, that I would end up finding it in the place they couldn’t?
Two and a half months after we moved here, my daughter has made friends at school and the park. Perhaps she has accepted that home is a different place now. Or, perhaps, just as we who have come “back”, she will keep fielding the question of exactly where home is—both from herself and others—and that alone will force her to keep looking.
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