As their fate becomes increasingly uncertain, a growing number of Indian immigrants are packing up and heading home.
|As the unemployment rate edges perilously close to 9%, the highest in 25 years, foreign professionals have become the frontal casualties of the U.S. recession. Since nearly 40 percent of all H-1B visa holders are from India, the mounting layoffs are hitting Indian American professionals particularly harshly.
Niraj Sathaye (name changed to protect identity), an H-1B visa consultant for a major New York City firm, is among the tens of thousands of Indian professionals whose life has been upended by the current financial crisis. Sathaye was laid off in February, forcing him and his wife to sell or give away possessions that were too big to carry, and return to Mumbai from Jersey City in a matter of weeks.
As their fate becomes increasingly uncertain, a growing number of Indians in America — both temporary workers and permanent residents — are packing up and heading home to India.
That, in fact, was the original NRI dream — to find financial success in America and one day settle in India. But as decades went by, few Indians actually returned home. In recent years, as India’s economy boomed, and more recently as the U.S. entered a recession, that dream is not so elusive after all — for some, it’s in fact the only realistic option. The R2I (Return to India) movement has drawn some of the best and brightest Indian Americans, including such entrepreneurial luminaries as Sabeer Bhatia, founder of Hotmail.
But after years, or even decades abroad, home can be strangely unfamiliar. As more Indians take the plunge, is the reality of moving back living up to its promise?
Home(s), sweet home(s)
“Why come back to India? It was a very silly reason, but I used to always tell my husband that I don’t want to die in the U.S.,” said Sima Mehta. After living in the U.S. for 11 years, which included a stint running her own import/export business and giving birth to two children, the decision to go back was easy for Mehta and her family.
She first came to the U.S. in 1995 with her husband, who had been granted an H-1B visa to work in the tech industry. Although they eventually earned the coveted green card, the couple recently returned to Bangalore from Sammamish, Wash., to pursue an offer from Yahoo. They now live in a villa — complete with a swimming pool and tennis club — in a housing complex with other American “expats” who made the shift to India.
Although the Mehtas returned for a specific job opportunity, they frame their decision largely in emotional and cultural terms. Mehta cites a common refrain amongst her peers — her parents were getting old, she wanted her children (now 3 and 7) to understand Indian culture, and above all, America could be a lonely place.
“I was never able to penetrate the day-to-day American life. I always felt like a foreigner,” she said. “I think Indian people are very informal. We don’t have to call and make appointments to meet people. We just walk in. (In the U.S.) I lived to my next door neighbor for eight years, and I can’t even tell you what the inside of her house looks like.”
But Mehta acknowledges that her U.S. experience has changed her expectations in India. “You have to be able joke about the silly things that happen, because a lot will. Then you’ll be able to enjoy India more,” she said. “I know so many Indians here who have come back and absolutely have not settled down .... You can’t go there and say, okay I’ve become American, so I’ll hate everything about India.”
Mehta’s perspectives are likely to hit a nerve among many returning NRIs. One of her close friends has decided to go back to the U.S. in the next few months. Some returnees are finding that adjusting to the move, especially for children, isn’t as easy as they might have hoped. Both India and they have changed during their stint abroad.
“We knew this wasn’t going to be a smooth ride or piece of cake for us. But it’s like you’re never happy; the grass is always greener on the other side,” said Sweta Patel, who moved last year from Folsom, Calif., to Bangalore.
She had immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 18 to attend college. After graduating, she went to work for Intel, got married, and settled in Sacramento. Her parents eventually made the move to America, too, which made it all the more surprising when she and her husband decided last year to move to Bangalore, where she telecommutes to her old job at Intel in California.
Her two-year-old remembers her life in America with surprising detail. “She was looking at me after a couple of days, asking, ‘Where are my friends?’” said Patel. “She would actually remember names. We would go out and meet people, and she’d be thinking she’s about to see her old friends.”
To smooth the transition, Patel and her family moved into an apartment complex that’s popular among former NRIs. Aside from the amenities that remind them of the U.S., it provides a community with whom they can share stories and experiences.
“It makes a difference that people have lived abroad,” said Patel. “I don’t like people just barging over to our place …. In fact, my maid has had to tell some people who have just shown up that I’m busy and they have to stop by later .... Even with the maid, I hated the fact that there was somebody in my house 24/7.”
Unlike Patel, Tanuj Vohra moved back from the California Bay Area to Bangalore with his family a few years ago because of a work opportunity. He started with IBM and now works for Microsoft India. Microsoft’s 54-acre campus in Hyderabad might easily be mistaken for its Redmond, Wash., headquarters. But Vohra senses the difference on a daily basis, especially when it comes to his kids.
“My kids are constantly interacting with other kids here. In the U.S., it’s fairly typical that unless you have planned activities, you are cooped up in the house watching TV or studying or playing video games,” he said. “But everything has pros and cons — you can talk about the health issues here, as well the cleanliness.” His children have struggled with so many allergies and illnesses since returning to India, that the family is actually considered returning to the U.S.
Although Vohra’s kids have the option to attend Indian schools that follow the U.S. educational system — right down to the Halloween celebration — his wife is keen that they receive American schooling. Their kids might still be in the early stages of their education, but the Vohras are looking ahead. “The bigger resistance for my wife was not about moving here (to Hyderabad), but about what we would do after this. Would we have to go to a different city in the U.S.? Could we go back to the Bay Area?”
Even though his move “was not driven by family or any of the reasons that usually bring people back,” Vohra says, the fact that his parents are getting older is a major reason to stay in India. But on the flipside, his wife’s family is in the U.S. and is likely to need care at some point too.
The Vohras will revisit the possibility of moving again, because his job in India is only guaranteed for three years: “We’ve developed a nomadic lifestyle for now, after selling our home in the Bay Area. So I don’t know where home is,” he said. “But it’s India for now, so we have to make the most of it while we’re still here.”
A home on the other side of the world
Unsettling as moving back to India after spending years living and working abroad can be, the global economic crisis is buffeting Indian techies working in America. Demand for H-1B visas from American companies fell 30% this year, with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) receiving only 45,000 applications for the 65,000 available visas, unlike last year when the quota was exceeded in a single day. Adding to the weak demand are the layoffs at many of America’s blue chip companies, which upended the life of Niraj Sathaye, the New York City consultant who was forced to pack in his entire life in the U.S. and return to India within a month.
In some respects, the Sathayes were lucky. They don’t have kids to worry about, and they have professional skills that travel well. When Sathaye first lost his job, he and his wife Ambika were planning on moving to Dubai. But the financial crisis had taken a major toll on the city, so the Sathayes decided to return to India, where they have family and friends to help them get back on their feet.
Sathaye does not rue his dilemma: “The H-1B process was clear and we knew its limitations. But the work experience in the U.S. was tremendously valuable and it provides us with leverage in Asia to prosper.”
Unlike previous generations of NRIs who permanently settled in homes and communities abroad, Sathaye sees himself as part of a new Indian nomadic class: “If the next opportunity is in the U.K. or Jhumritaliya, we will go there. In that regard, you can say we are mercenaries.”
“People have always moved to places of opportunity,” he said. “But while the U.S. will always be a beacon of opportunity, other countries have started competing with it .... For us, moving back to India is an option.”
In contrast to earlier NRIs, he says: “The current generation is from a more confident India, and therefore does not suffer from an inferiority complex that people leaving India in the 1970s and 1980s had in general.”
Filmmaker Meghna Damani can relate vividly to her experience. Damani’s documentary Hearts Suspended tracks her struggle to find work, community, and “a sense of belonging” in New Jersey as an H-4 visa holder. This is the visa granted to spouses of H-1B workers, which allows temporary residence in the U.S., but prohibits employment of any kind. It reinforces some of the pitfalls of the H-1B program.
Damani has since become a permanent resident, but she feels the H-4 visa hindered her emotionally and economically: “Here you get your confidence from work, because there aren’t many other forms of interactions.” Many H-4 visa holders become entirely reliant on their spouses since their ability to make friends, use their education and work experience, or have basic independence is restricted.
The H-4 visa has economic implications as well. H-1B employees are often the sole bread-winners in their families because of H-4 work restrictions. Losing a job is always devastating, but it can be even harder in a single-income household. This is the position in which the Sathayes found themselves.
Former H-4 spouses find it particularly difficult to re-enter the workforce on their return to India. Damani says, “You have this huge gap in your resume, and you’ve lost years of your working life.” Although she decided to stay in the U.S., Damani feels she has fallen behind her friends in India when it comes to things like owning a home or starting a family. The decision to stay is a gamble — she may never have the life her friends are leading in India — for better or for worse.
“If temporary workers decide to go back (to India), and if they own a house in U.S., they’ll have to either sell the house or rent it out – both of those things are hard to do in these times. In the few weeks following the announcement of the first round of layoffs at Microsoft, rents of units (in the area) dropped quite a lot, because of a sudden rise in vacancies ... Most of those units are still vacant.”
Like Damani, he feels trying to build a life in the U.S. can be a long and unpredictable journey. However, for him, the decision is clear: “Thanks to the global economy that we live in, if things are bad in the U.S., they aren’t going to be much better in India anyways. So if you haven’t been laid off yet, it’s better to fight it out here than go back and start more or less from scratch there.”
Staying afloat in changing tides
Emigrating to the U.S. has changed dramatically since 1970s and 1980s, which brought the first major wave of Indian professionals to the United States. Increasingly, Indian American professionals feel they are transient — in immigration parlance, nonimmigrants. They are in a state of limbo, ready to pick up and move wherever the economy or work takes them.
When it comes to temporary workers, “this is uncharted territory in a lot of ways,” said Kelly Kopcial, a Foreign Service Officer at the American Consulate in Chennai. “In the past, if someone were laid off or told, ‘We’re not going to renew your contract’ while their H-1B was still valid, they could just find another job. Now, the jobs just aren’t there.”
Author Rajesh Setty, who maintains the blog “Life Beyond Code,” has spoken with temporary workers during lecture tours and is acutely aware of their vulnerabilities during this harsh economic period. He says that while professionals from India are fortunate to have opportunities at home, they still experience angst: “There’s the uncertainty of getting adjusted, of wondering, ‘What will other people think if I move back? Will they think I am a failure?’”
His sentiment is shared by Sathaye: “Migration is not a new trend. My moving to another country to find work is no different from an American moving from New Jersey to Seattle or my parents moving from the village to the city.”