For Love and Money: Second-generation Indian Americans 'Return' to India
By Sonali Jain
October 27, 2010
The grapevine was abuzz in Anand's extended family in New Delhi. They speculated that having lost his job in New York, Anand had moved to Mumbai temporarily, at least until his career path in the United States would be on the "right" track again. After all, why would US-born and raised Anand move to India unless compelled to, when so many in India aspired to move to the United States?
"My chachi [aunt] actually thinks I got fired from Infysoft," noted Anand with an expression that conveyed both amusement and exasperation. "She said, 'Your dad said you were doing 'good' and you quit and came here? What's up?'"
Anand is part of a small but growing number of second-generation immigrants who are moving or considering moving to their parents' native countries for professional and personal reasons.
Studies suggest that the emerging economies of the parents' homeland may encourage the children to make an economic investment there. In addition, many among them want to learn more about their parental homeland, ethnicity, and heritage.
The data presented here are drawn from a larger qualitative study on the 'return' of high-skilled, second-generation Indian Americans from the United States to India. This article discusses their economic and personal reasons for 'return.' Note: The names of all respondents and the companies they work for are pseudonyms.
Indian Immigrants in the United States: 2008 Data from the American Community Survey
Total number of Indian foreign born
: 1,622,522 (54.8 percent men).
: 6.9 percent were minors (under age 18), 73.5 percent were adults of working age (between 18 and 54), and 19.5 percent were seniors (age 55 and older).
When they arrived
: 43.4 percent in 2000 or later, 29.9 percent between 1990 and 1999, 15.0 percent between 1980 and 1989, 9.0 percent between 1970 and 1979, and 2.7 percent prior to 1970.
Share that are US citizens
: 54.8 percent.
: 73.6 percent of Indian-born adults age 25 and older had a bachelor's degree or higher.
: 16.4 percent.
Main states they live in
: California (18.7 percent), New Jersey (11.6 percent), New York (8.7 percent), Texas (8.1 percent), and Illinois (8.0 percent).
For more detailed data, see the Spotlight on Indian Immigrants in the United States
I conducted in-depth, semi-structured interviews with 48 second-generation Indian American professionals with US citizenship living in New Delhi, Mumbai, and Hyderabad, India. Eight of the 48 'returnees' were entrepreneurs who had established their own companies of varying sizes.
Forty-three of the 48 respondents held Person of Indian Origin (PIO) or Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) cards. Both statuses are based on Indian ancestry and allow status holders to live and work in India. The remaining respondents were on journalist, diplomatic, or employment visas.
I held preliminary conversations with several second-generation Indian Americans in India during July 2007. Research was subsequently conducted in two phases, during the summer of 2008 and the spring of 2009. At the time of writing this article, I continue to retain contact with over a third of the sample through email and phone conversations.
The respondents were born or raised in the United States before the age of 12. They are the children of the largely professional Indian immigrants who entered the United States between 1965, when changes in US immigration law made skilled migration from Asia and other parts of the world possible, and the early 1980s. In 2008, about 460,000 US-born individuals had at least one parent born in India, according to data from the US Census Bureau's American Community Survey (see sidebar for more details on Indian immigrants).
The parents (usually fathers) of second-generation Indians generally entered as high-skilled professionals, graduate students, or under the family reunification scheme, sponsored by post-1965 immigrants. With two exceptions, the respondents in this study grew up in professional, middle-class families in the United States. The majority of respondents was raised in California, New York, and New Jersey, where their first-generation parents continued to live.
In general, respondents were graduates of prestigious US universities and/or had worked in internationally recognized organizations prior to 'return.' They found jobs in India using professional and school-based networks. Because they wanted to experience India as independent, unsupervised adults, respondents in general did not prefer to live in cities or towns where their extended family resided.
Most commonly, they worked in the information technology (IT), finance, and media sectors in India (see Table 1).
Table 1. Employment in India among Surveyed Second-Generation Indian Immigrants
|Entrepreneurs [IT (4), real estate(1),
retail (1), jeweler (1) nonprofit (1)]
|Finance and microfinance
* Sector in which position was held at the time of interview in India.
Source: Interviews by Sonali Jain, 2008 and 2009.
Because it was difficult to obtain data on the number of second-generation 'returnees' in India, the sample was not random. For example, the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs could not provide this information. Difficulties in finding a representative sample due to the unavailability of official data also resonate with most other studies on second-generation 'return' migration.
To obtain as diverse a sample as possible, respondents were recruited through various sources, including email listservs, professional networking associations for American citizens and expatriates, and expatriate clubs in the three cities. The sample size was expanded through snowball sampling, a method where referrals from initial respondents generate additional respondents and so forth.
The study focused on respondents who had been living in India for at least six months prior to the interview, so they could reflect on their adaptation process.
Most respondents moved to India at the end of 2006 and early 2007. On average, respondents had lived in India for approximately 25 months at the time of the interview. Their mean age was close to 30 years and included approximately equal numbers of men (22) and women (26). About 30 percent of the sample was married, a majority to Indian Americans like themselves. Two respondents were married to Indians born and raised in India.
Studies on second-generation migration often describe individuals as 'returning' to the ancestral homeland. I use human geographer Anastasia Christou's definition of return: "relocation to an acknowledged homeland." The respondents in this study similarly described themselves as "returning" or "going back" to the homeland.
In recent years, literature on second-generation migration to the parental homeland has emerged, usually with the expectation that 'return' is long term or permanent in nature. These include studies on diverse groups including Greek Americans 'returning' to Greece, British Caribbeans to the Caribbean, and Japanese Peruvians to Japan.
However, second-generation 'return' migration is not new. Anthropologist Takeyuki Tsuda shows that previous movements often resulted from factors such as ethnic discrimination and persecution following the dissolution of empires, multiethnic states, and colonial regimes. For example, he notes that Germany's defeat after World War II caused the expulsion of 12 million Germans from Eastern Europe, many of whom then settled in West and East Germany.
While he does not deny racism or persecution, Tsuda argues that contemporary ethnic return migration flows tend to be driven by economic pressures, even if the dissolution of multiethnic states and empires sets them in motion. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, ethnic and religious minorities within former Soviet states were able to 'return' to more developed homelands, for example.
What is also different is that in an era of globalization, some second-generation immigrants may not view 'return' to their parents' country of origin as permanent. Of course, those who possess the social and cultural capital to take advantage of opportunities in two or more national contexts and/or hold dual citizenship or legal status are likely to have greater mobility choices than those who do not.
In my own study, over 75 percent of the sample expected to return to the United States in three to five years. I know of two respondents who returned to the United States in less than two years; at the time of interview, only three respondents planned to live permanently in India.
Background on India
The 'return' of the second-generation must be understood in the broader context of India's economic and political environment, which encouraged many of the respondents to even consider moving there.
Indeed, against the backdrop of India's rapid economic growth — which has averaged more than 6.5 percent each year over the past 10 years — estimates suggest that the number of first- and second-generation Indian immigrants who are relocating to India is rising.
In 2004, The New York Times reported there were 35,000 "returned nonresident" Indians in the Indian city of Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore). In 2009, The Economist noted that between 2003 and 2005, approximately 5,000 tech-savvy Indians with more than five years' experience in America returned to India.
A 2010 report by the World Economic Forum in collaboration with The Boston Consulting Group found that in 2006, 32,000 second-generation Indians born in the United States or Europe returned to India. Although the report does not define return in temporal terms, it observed that the availability of challenging job positions, strong demand for experienced workers, and the promise of economic growth were crucial in creating such reverse talent flows.
These numbers have likely risen in the intervening years, although the Indian government has not released official data on either first- or second-generation returnees, at least at the time of this publication.
Moreover, Vivek Wadhwa, a columnist for BusinessWeek.com and a professor at Duke University, speculated in 2009 that due to the recent recession in the United States, "over 100,000 Indians and as many Chinese will return home over the next 3-5 years." In his two-year study of Indian and Chinese returnees, Wadhwa found that while the expiration of their US visa caused some returnees to depart the United States, the most significant factors in the decision to return were career opportunities, family ties, and quality of life.
In addition to economic factors, the Indian government has also actively sought to forge ties with overseas Indians in the last decade. Management professor Tarun Khanna notes that this has not always been the case. Historically, India shut out its diaspora by "…deeming only resident Indians worthy of contributing to India." Khanna states that a balance of payments crisis in 1991 compelled the government to rethink its attitude toward its diaspora and turn to it for capital.
In 2000, the Indian government formed a High Level Committee on Diaspora. In 2003, it declared January 9 Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD) or Non Resident Indian Day. It has since then dedicated the first week of January to welcome overseas Indians "home" — attracting an estimated 1,000 delegates in 2009 (down from a peak of 5,000 in 2003) — and highlight their accomplishments.
Since 2004, the Ministry for Overseas Indian Affairs has run a three-week internship called Know India Program (KIP) for second- and subsequent-generation Indians between ages 18 and 26. The aim of the internship is to promote awareness of India and familiarize participants with the economic progress the country has made.
Most respondents had no knowledge of the KIP internship or the PBD day but affirmed that the introduction of the PIO card in 2002 and OCI card in 2006 made it easier for them to live and work in India.
According to the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs, 399,169 persons received OCI status between OCI's launch in 2006 and March 31, 2009. To the best of my knowledge, no information is currently available on the numbers of PIO or OCI card holders by generation or citizenship.
Economic Reasons for 'Return'
All respondents asserted that the availability of exciting professional career pathways in India was an important factor in influencing their 'return' migration decisions.
Respondents observed that in India they worked in the middle to upper echelons of management. Many pointed out that they held positions that would have taken them five or more years to achieve in the United States because such opportunities were simply unavailable to persons of their age and work experience.
Another common assertion was that they found challenging opportunities in India because of the emergence of new industries, such as retail and media, and subsequent lack of skilled talent.
As Anurag, who worked for a multinational IT company in Hyderabad explained, "There's a huge shortage of leadership here." He did not find this surprising: "India has matured very fast from a business perspective, so you don't have tons of experienced professionals to lead."
Indeed, numerous business journals confirm that despite its booming economy and vast population, India faces a looming shortage of skilled talent.
For example, a 2008 article on Economist.com declared that despite the global slowdown, in countries such as China and India, "When any skilled workers are laid off they are instantly snapped up by other firms. Finding good managers who can work internationally is still especially hard. There is also an acute shortage of finance, research-and-development, and engineering skills."
Respondents explained their 'return' decisions by describing "pull" factors such as professional growth opportunities and the excitement of working in the emerging Indian economy. Typical statements included, "There is nothing wrong with the US, I just wanted to experience India" and "I wanted to challenge myself professionally and develop myself personally."
Their desire to relocate to India was not due to "push" factors such as unemployment or a fear of job loss in the United States; most had quit good jobs before moving to India.
In addition, respondents did not attribute the existence of a "glass ceiling", racism, or discrimination in the United States as motivating them to 'return' to India. To the contrary, they spoke fondly of the United States and how they missed their family, friends, and multicultural lifestyle.
Thus, the economic rise of India was a necessary condition in facilitating 'return.' However, as argued below, it was not a sufficient condition, as they 'returned' to India to explore their identity, culture, and heritage.
Personal Reasons for 'Return'
As human geographer Russell King and others suggest, while economic motivations are often a key reason for initial migration, emotional attachments tend to figure strongly in return decisions.
Confirming this viewpoint, this study's findings suggest that second-generation Indians moved to India because it was their parents' homeland and they retained or hoped to deepen their emotional attachments to the country.
Respondents were specifically asked whether they had considered moving to other emerging economies, such as Brazil, Russia, or China, to pursue comparable professional pathways.
Almost all of them emphatically said they did not want to work in these or other emerging markets. They observed that apart from being culturally and linguistically dissimilar, they had no personal attachments to these countries.
In reflecting upon their return decisions, respondents noted that maintaining ties with India and Indian culture when growing up in the United States gradually strengthened their ties to India over the years. While the intensity of their experiences varied, recurring themes included parental efforts to take them on homeland trips and teach them the native language.
Several of them also spoke of attending dance and music classes and being raised in an environment that emphasized Indian culture, traditions, and Bollywood dances and movies.
While respondents did not profess nostalgia for the homeland in motivating their 'return', they did express a desire to learn more about their language and culture and reconnect with the Indian aspect of their Indian American identities.
A common thread in respondents' narratives was a strong desire to experience living in the country as independent adults. Family trips to India over summer holidays, many argued, did not count as truly experiencing the country. For example, several respondents noted how extended family invariably treated them as "special" individuals who must be protected against the heat, sights of poverty, and street food, particularly when they were younger.
Some also wished to understand what was wrong with India for their parents to have migrated to the United States; others wondered why their parents refused to retire in India, a country they had left some 40 years back, despite their deep attachments to the country.
Importantly, their stage in the life-cycle factored in their migration plans. A majority of the respondents remarked upon how they were young, single, and financially stable; they enjoyed greater flexibility and freedom in choosing where to live and work. For other respondents, the desire to reconnect with India occurred upon marriage.
Their migration choices will no doubt continue to evolve as their situations change over time and many of them make the transition from singlehood to marriage to raising their own children.
Still, decisions to 'return' tended to be met with parental disapproval. Echoing approximately 90 percent of other respondents' views, Piyush noted his parents' reaction to his decision to relocate to Mumbai:
"Oh, they were not happy at all. Not happy at all. I think their thought is they worked so hard to come here — what are you going back for?"
In examining returnees' motivations to relocate to India, findings suggest that dramatic changes in India's economy were a necessary, but not sufficient, condition. Emotional attachments to India "pulled" them there and also explain why respondents appeared disinclined to move to countries like China or Brazil.
Respondents shouldered greater professional responsibilities and rose up the corporate ranks; they believed working in India would strengthen their future job prospects. Experiencing India as independent adults also allowed them to discover themselves, just as they were discovering India.
As noted previously, most respondents planned to return to the United States in three to five years after moving to India. Since my original interviews, some of the respondents in this study extended their stay in India because of the economic downturn in the United States and/or reported they were enjoying their professional and personal lives in India and so saw no reason to return to the US within a stipulated time frame.
Future research might employ a longitudinal and cross-generational perspective to gain deeper insights into the lives of the second-generation in the ancestral homeland. It is very likely that their migration trajectories are shaped by transitions they make from one stage in the life-cycle to another, changes in socioeconomic conditions in sending and receiving countries, and parental decisions on where to retire.
Christou, Anastasia. 2006. American dream and European nightmares: experiences and polemics of second generation Greek-American returning migrants. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 32:5.6.
Economist.com. 2008. Business in Asia: You still can't get the staff. November 20, 2008.
IANS. 2009. 1 lakh Indians will return from US in next 3-5 years. The Economic Times, March 2.
Jain, Sonali. Forthcoming. The Rights of 'Return': Ethnic Identities in the Workplace among Second-Generation Indian-American Professionals in the Ancestral Homeland. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.
———. 2010. For Love and Money: Second-generation Indian-American Professionals in the Emerging Indian Economy. PhD diss., Boston University.
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