Sunday, February 04, 2007

i'm an englishman in new york!

i'm an alien, i'm a legal alien
i'm an englishman in new york

these are the lyrics of a song by sting. these words came back to me recently during a discussion with a friend (who was not born in india but whose fore-fathers/mothers were indians about 2-3 generations back). she mentioned that even though she feels uncomfortable with the crowds and the noise and the pollution in india, she still feels home when she is in india. she feels safest when she is in india. she doesn't feel she is an alien.

another good friend recently visited pakistan and was also in islamabad on work. his older relatives, when they knew he was going to visit islamabad, had asked him to visit certain places that they could remember of when they were still living there. now my friend was born in india and had never been to pakistan before, but he mentioned that visiting this place of his fore-fathers was an emotional moment for him.

my wife and i get asked often, especially when our friends coming visiting from abroad, why we did not choose to emigrate to some other country. when we looked at this question and analysed what we truly felt about it (beyond all the obvious answers like 'india is today the true land of opporunity' and that 'we can afford a much better lifestyle here than in any other place in the world') we realised that the one single most important reason was that we did not want to live anywhere we would feel even remotely like an 'alien'.

now i can understand people like me (and i am sure there are many of you who feel similarly) feeling so strongly about this. i think it could be explained by the fact that i was born and have been raised on concepts like patriotism, pride for our country, etc. but what i cannot understand are the feelings that my friends were talking about!

1. do you think if i spent enough time in a foreign land i would be able to overcome the 'alienness' that i believe i will feel?

2. do you think that after a few generations the individuals born in another country will slowly lose their 'indianness'? would india only be a vague notion in their minds but a place they would rather avoid visiting or moving to?

i am sure many of you who read this posting are either first/second/nth generation indians living in other countries. i would like to know your 'take' on this. and i am sure the others would also like to know. so please send in your comments.


Anonymous said...

Hi Guru:

A very nice and non-alien insight, indeed! Why I say non-alien is because many of us, including myself, have thought, discussed and argued about this at some point of time. I have a few of my cousins who have been based abroad for a few generations now, while their children dress up and speak like foreigners, it is up to the families how they bring up their subsequent generations... What I mean is best stated as my responses (purely personal notions) to your following questions:

1. do you think if i spent enough time in a foreign land i would be able to overcome the 'alienness' that i believe i will feel?
ANS: We always seek affinity and a sense of belongingness / acceptability, especially when in alien surroundings. While it is definitely possible to adapt to an alien nation, its culture, its life-style & people, one finds it very difficult to actually become an integral part of the foreign land. We may say or feel whatever on the exterior, we must accept the fact that probably India / Indian subcontinent is the only place where most foreigners 'feel at home' and made it their 'home'. It is because of the deep rooted values and our culture. We accept all! But the same can't be said about other countries, where though we may have been residing for generations, we still are categorised as 'Indians / ethnics / Asians or whatever else'. The world outside, is quite prejudiced even today, Let's face it! In short, although a small section of the foreign society might love to accept you, you'll still in some way or the other will continue to remain an alien!

2. do you think that after a few generations the individuals born in another country will slowly lose their 'indianness'? would india only be a vague notion in their minds but a place they would rather avoid visiting or moving to?
ANS: People can lose their accents, change their food-habits, their sense of dressing, their choice of religion, but what one can't change is their innate value system. What is this value system? No, it is nothing that our politicians, moral policemen often harp about. It is about how you conduct yourself when with others. Somehow, I have been a strong believer in the fact that it is entirely upto us how we in-grain these values, or rather sensibilities in our progeny. The immediate surroundings do play a key role in shaping up of a child, it is also largely dependent on how that child is taught to perceive it and deal with it. You can't lose yourself, else you will suffer from what they call an identity crisis: 'ABCD - American Born Confused Desi' :o)

With all our idiosyncracies, fallacies and short-comings, we Indians are truly rich as far as culture and values are concerned and should not lose them! And hey most of the strong economies run because we Indians / Asians are the mechanism behind them!!! I would hate to settle aborad though I will only go there for a few years to collect a good deal of booty!


Manasi said...

I strongly feel that if a person is confident about oneself and clearly knows one's capability in making a positive difference in any given situation, such a person will never feel alien / out-of-place anywhere... be it india or abroad. The 'alienness' that most indians feel abroad has more to do with their perception of their life's wholesomeness with respect to the host country's environment and culture. And this perception gets updated dynamically with each passing day - complete with its crests and troughs.

People intuitively develop ways to combat influences that are unpalatable to their perceptual well-being as an Indian. For example, some form a cohesive passive-regressive group with other Indians so that it acts as a social support system to help avoid the awkwardness one feels in socializing with the usual people of the host country. On the other hand, some Indians aggressively change their lifestyle, lose accents, religion preference, and all things considered as 'hallmark' of desis only to immerse onself into the culture and the language of the host country. A vast majority of Indians constructively oscillate between the above extremes and become very successful in adapting to the host country's culture while still retaining their Indian-ness.

Its not as much a discussion about 'will i' or 'wont i' after x number of years abroad. The currents swim deeper than the psycho-makeup of the individual and his/her socio-economic status at the given point in time. Frankly speaking, if Indian-ness is seen as a burden or as a heritage not worth holding onto, then 'all roads will lead to Rome'. Otherwise I am fairly certain that you can take a man out of India but can never take India out of a man.


Guruprasad said...

hi manasi :

what you say is very insightful.

i have noticed another trend among a lot of the peers who have gone to foreign shores to build up their careers/lives/fortunes. as soon as they have kids and especially when the kids are ready to go to school, they suddenly feel the need to come back home to raise their kids in the environment they grew up in or believe would be more conducive to the children.

and some of those who have moved back have also honestly confided that it made a lot of economic sense moving back since they are able to get jobs here which pay at par with the jobs they left behind; and they have a lot more options with a lot more job security!

Manasi said...

Unfortunately, more often than not, the very same people who want to raise their children in an environment similar to theirs do not feel confident enough about their life in india post a living-abroad experience.

It is true that life in a developed country is a huge convenience and an experience that will not arrive in india for maybe another 50 years. I often hear people wanting to hold on to their NRI status for the sake of their social circle back in india.

My boss keeps telling me that i should not go back to India and if i decide to go back indeed, i should seriously think about having kids in the US so they can get the US citizenship which would do them 'good' in the years to come. But her 'good' is not my 'good'. Plus who knows if the USA after 30 years would still be the same USA as i see today.

I know what i feel and I feel strongly about my home, whichever way one may define it!


Anonymous said...

You had posted two questions.

I personally feel the age of a person plays a vital role on where he lives! Those who have come to USA for postgraduation and the rest who have been sent by giant corporates , happily continue to stay here. There is yet another group of people who run shops here sponsor the entire family , the members suffer doing jobs that they never would even dream of doing it in India!! to make a living , easily get into problems , but know nothing can be done now!!they cant get back to India as they have not made any fortune here rather spoiled thier family name and fame!!

The rest , so called good fortune job holders, having enjoyed good money and the comfort that comes along with money ,are afraid to come back that hard work is impossible from their side.!! getting the green card and citizenship for comfort and enjoyment ,realise very late what to do now? By now the children donot want to go back to India for various reasons! We want our children to be in the limelight in every field, but he or she should not decide his future , marriage and his life. We may say things have changed. Yes, no doubt but a very very small percentage only.Such people living abroad want a life of India? Its not possible in all aspects.Even the adult parent is unfit to stay in India. Away from India people enjoy being an Indian.what for? There is a guilt feeling in such people so they try to adopt Indian culture and values. I have seen the adults who have changed their attitude after getting a green card!! This is my 8th visit and I do mix with lot of Indians both South and North Indians,

The parents ,at the request of sons & daughters decide to stay in US , they all repent now. I do not want to commit that mistake as I have no charm in settling here ! I donot know my Prarabdha?/

Of course majority of Indians are sincere, hardworking and intelligent. No doubt doing well. My personal opinion is inspite of the great good comforts I donot want to stay here. at any cost. I love & like India. I dont need any fortune. The percentage of people settling in India is very very less!!

All of them feel alien but will not declare!!

The next question generations staying here , I have observed live a very comfortable life and say nothing or talk nothing about India . People stopped visiting even.

We will lose our freedom, identity and self respect here in case we settle down here.

Whatever said & done they have an attitude we are Indians but India did not give us the fortune!! They never thought in the reverse what have they given to India??

Gowri Ramakrishnan