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US: The Enigma Of Arrival

Case studies -- accounts from four who moved recently to the US: the economy does matter, they conclude, and reflect on the pros and cons.

US: The Enigma Of Arrival

Moved from Delhi to the US in 2001
(name changed)

Networking. That is how Ashok says he landed up with a marketing job in a global telecommunications company in the US. Most technology companies in America have hired Indians, but predominantly they have been engineers and IT professionals. A chance job posting on a list-serve maintained by batch mates of IIM brought Ashok to America. Till then he had been content to work in a multi-national in Delhi, with a career-path chartered out and a quality of life ensured by an IIM education. But he had been getting restless; looking for international exposure, and that is what his new job gives him. 

"Here I have greater responsibilities, I am dealing with customers across the world- from China, Australia, Canada, India, discussing price points with someone in Singapore through a conference call. All this I did not have with my company in India. This global exposure is very challenging."

He describes his salary and lifestyle as extremely comfortable "…to set yourself in a new place is very easy over here. For instance to have all the amenities like car, TV etc is not easy in India at the initial career years, which it is over here. And it is not a function of your income. You can immediately buy a car, whereas in India many people will think of it only after a few years of working" 

But there is a trade-off. "The uncertainty that is here about a job is not there in India. Back home only if you did something really unethical do you lose your job. My friends there have a steadier career graph and the progression is logical and in the same company. Here the job insecurity has been increasing by the day and even though my lifestyle is very comfortable, I have tempered my life accordingly. I have postponed making decisions about buying a new car for instance" Also monetary gains that he had anticipated when his business unit met annual targets have not materialized due to the financial crunch in the company.

There is also the additional worrying factor that India's best business school has been slower in getting recognition in the US compared to the IITs. It's only in the last 5-6 years that more people from the IIMs have joined the American work force. Not having an American degree, Ashok feels is not an issue in his present company, but it may be when he is trying for a job-shift later down the road. 

Inspite of the intense job insecurity, Ashok says it's definitely been "worth it" for him to have moved to the US. "It's put me in a better position financially, enhanced my career and made me a player on a broader stage. Everybody strives for financial independence to- live off a fraction of the interest of your savings. And even though dollar financial independence is far, the rupee financial independence is pretty attainable for me". Apart from career and financial gains, there have been other aspects that "..I had only dreamt of in India. I have been doing skydiving, snowboarding, long road trips. I had tried to do skydiving even in Delhi, tried to find the details, but couldn't. And even if I had found it, I am sure it would have been too expensive"

Ashok is contemplating moving back to India or South East Asia in a few years. "When I first moved, I told people that I would stay in the US for a few years and then come back. People laughed at me and said once you go there no one comes back. But I think, if you want to bring up children in this country you have to accept the social norms of the country; the obsession with appearance, the intense peer pressure that I don't think is as strong in India. There is a cultural difference and you have to accept that, you cannot be a rebel. With an Indian identity, you are in the wrong land. Our ideas of work-culture, friendships are different. Of course you are caught in a bind. When you go back to India little things piss you off, the corruption at lower levels, the inefficiencies that you encounter". 

With the debate still being played out in his mind, Ashok is keeping his options open for now. 

28 years
Moved from Bangalore to the US in May 2000
(name changed).
A campus interview at Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore brought Mohammad to the US. He now works for a leading supplier of data and phone equipment. "The main reason for me was a better career, US dollars and a better lifestyle".

Having worked previously in one of India's biggest IT firms, he says "It was a maintenance project for a US based company. It's mainly services business in India - taking a part of the US project and doing development according to that. Or it's maintenance of products. So very soon it's extremely routine work. No Indian company does full product development. So you don't know what is happening in the larger picture. Here the work is good, I am working with the latest technology and making a contribution ". 

Having had a few years work experience in India, Mohammad however sees a difference in the company culture. "In India the company shields you during bad times. Losing a job is not so frequent in India. It's part of life here, I am sort of mentally prepared for it now". 

Difficult words from a man who is on a H1 work visa and recently married - still waiting for his wife to join him on American shores. " Because of 9/11,they have become stricter with the visa regulations and my wife's visa was denied. I am not sure, but it may have been because I am a Muslim. I did not anticipate this when I got married" Mohammad has applied again for his wife's visa and the American consulate is in the process of conducting a "security check " on his wife. " Earlier the process, if you applied from let's say Chennai, took 2-3 weeks, now it's taken more than three months, at least for me".

While the work that Mohammad does is challenging there is a difference in the structure of the organization. "There are more levels, hierarchy in Indian companies. You become a project leader in 2/3 years in India, then a project manager. Here there is a flat organizational structure. The promotions are much less, and for 10 years people have the same designations."

Social life is different too, he says. "Here you are mostly on your own. You don't know who your neighbor is. You say hi to them everyday, but you don't know who they are. You wish strangers here - that is the difference. And with no family and very few friends, you feel very isolated. But lifestyle is far superior with many amenities like microwaves, washing machines etc available to everyone." Mohammad also sees a vast difference in public spaces. "Unlike India, it's not a survival of the fittest here. People drive more sanely, there are queues here and people tend to help."

For Mohammad's new bride who is still in Kerala, important decisions have also been made. "She has an engineering degree but it will not be easy for her to get a job now because of the economy. Companies are not willing to sponsor your H1 visa anymore especially when US citizens and Green card holders are available and looking for jobs. So she has to study, do a MS again over here".

Waiting to decide along with his wife whether they should stay on in the US, Mohammad is also contemplating going back after 3-4 years. But " the work angle in India worries me. Research in software is limited and I am worried about the work that I will find if I go back. But this is a foreign country, you miss your family and my roots are not here".

Chitra Bonam 
25 years
Moved from Bangalore to the US in April 2002

Chitra Bonam wanted to pursue higher studies in the US. Growing up, she was surrounded by people who believed that Arts is for the weak-minded, for the ones who had failed all other intelligent avenues. Further frustration set in for her during her college years when she realized that not just the attitude towards Literature students but even the teaching of literature was dated and lacked any new perspective. " They were teaching pre-historic stuff especially in Southern India, professors were working with age old syllabi, and there was absolutely no new research into what they were teaching. I really got frustrated with the system." 

But her move to the US took a different route. She came on a dependent's visa known as the H-4 after an arranged marriage earlier this year. Her husband had moved four years earlier on work to the US. Having taught for two years in India and then pursued a coursed in journalism, Chitra expected to study further in the US. But the first few months turned out to be another ordeal. Things had changed after 9/11. She was told that she couldn't study on a H4 visa anymore. She would have to go back to India and change her status to a Student Visa and only then study in the US. So she looked around and tried to figure out what she could do next. And it came pretty easily.

"The internet and the low inter-state phone rates opened up a new world for me. Living near New York City, I found people much more accessible than they are in India. I could suddenly fix up interviews with people like Ismail Merchant and Azim Premji". One story idea followed another and now Chitra is getting well entrenched in the field of free-lance writing for Indian publications. The same editors who were once out of reach to her in India after she finished her course in Journalism from Bangalore, have become much more accessible to her through the net.

Having lived in the US for a few years during her school years, Chitra knew what to expect in terms of the big roads and fast cars. But what surprised her is the level of job insecurity that people live it - "In India, US is a distant land- you hear about recession, but it's just news. Here you live through it. The recession does matter here and the economy does matter. People in India think that once you get a job in the US you are secure for life. But here it's so easy now to lose your job. Your bank balance can go to zero and you have to start saving again. I never anticipated that there would be this everyday tension." But she clearly sees the flip side as well "..but here if you put in the effort, you will get it back. You will get results"

Chitra had also never given much thought to her personal mobility and freedom of movement in India. Plunged into a sub-urban American setting she soon found the lack of public transport frustrating. Lack of buses and taxis soon made the couple move to an apartment closer to the train station. 9/11 has also further complicated the simple process of getting a driver's license with special counters being set up for non-citizens. "Getting a driver's license has become much more difficult and longer now. Before taking the test they check the immigration status of both you and your spouse since INS (Immigration and Naturalization Services) is involved in the process now. So my husband had to take half a day off and stay with me throughout the written test- that's the rule. Also you can't just apply from any center, there are a few specific ones for H4s. All this has happened after September 11." After the written test there is a 3 months wait for the driving test, which completes the process. And Chitra is still waiting for that to happen.

Anurag Srivastava
27 years
moved from Pune to the US in 2000
A great job in an information and telecommunications services company brought Anurag to the United States. With a Master's from Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, Anurag was working in Pune when he moved to America. The simple answer to why he moved he says "The company I am working for is the best in the field globally. So for me the move was for my career. I am doing much more challenging work now- it was more software-oriented in India. Here it is more applications, research-oriented. Also in India when you are working in software it is usually on some US based projects, so you are part of the smaller picture, you don't know where your work is going. Also, if you want to do software research there were not too many options. But here you really are a part of the real process". 

Recommended by his college advisor, Anurag was more than happy with the salary and job he was offered. That is initially. "For a year or so it the salary met my expectations but now the bonuses and increments are not coming. There has been a salary freeze and also the annual raise that you expect, hasn't come. Also many good people have left, been laid off. And there is a constant fear of the axe falling on you. And that wasn't a part of the deal"

Anurag thinks people in India have a very different picture of the US. "Everyone thinks it's very hunky-dory and that lifestyles are very luxurious. But life is difficult here too. It's hard for people in India to believe that life is difficult even though everyone has a car here! Here you can be in your 30s and still lose your job. And the salary that you get is not too much, people don't make tons of money here, but that's what people in India believe. Like my brother in India who just finished his B Tech is hell bent on coming here. But I am trying to convince him to try and do his further education in India because lot of good work is also happening in India today."

For him it was difficult to navigate the system after the initial days of his move. " I didn't even know that you need to chose a primary care physician for your health insurance till the day I fell ill. I mean who goes through the bundles of paper the health insurance company sends you. Then I failed the driving test twice and with public transport so poor, it was crazy. Luckily I was staying with three other guys and one of them had a car, so we went to work with him".

The downturn in the economy has also brought about other changes in his life. For one, Anurag is trying to save more because of the fear of losing his job down the line. Secondly he is thinking of other future options, like enrolling for a PhD in an American university. On the darker side "you see anti-immigrant feeling starting in the discussions around you, on the debates in newsgroups - like Indians are stealing jobs because so much of the work is being out-sourced to India. So much of the work is going away from here. But personally I haven't felt anything directed towards me because I am surrounded by Indians, being in the high-tech industry."

But Anurag has no regrets about coming to the US. "I am content with what I have, but I don't mind going back. With my earnings I will be able to jumpstart my life. I will be able to buy a house, a car, which would have been extremely difficult with my Indian salary. I think I made the right choice. Now I know the reality, so I can peacefully go back".

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