Sunday, June 24, 2012

Reverse Migration: A Personal Note

I have written about this before, once rather optimistically (see here) and then, after couple of years of emails and dialogues with people who could or could not return, with more caution (the second article here). Since then, a number of things have changed, including an worsening of the economic climate worldwide and slowing of growth and employment opportunities in India. In fact, the conversations about India has become significantly downbeat, even despondent these days, and the enthusiasm about return among Indian expats, if the microcosm of a community that I live inside is any reflection, has somewhat waned. Hence, it seemed appropriate to return to the conversation one more time.

Admittedly, there is a personal story here. I personally maintain deep links with India and would want to return. My story is somewhat typical: My father lives alone in India, and my brother, who used to live with him allowing me the independence to travel, passed away. I feel worried, guilty and simply unhappy to leave my father on his own, though he may actually be enjoying his unattached life. Besides, I carry around my Indian identity with me - talking about India and spending most of my time with other Indians and travelling to India very frequently in the last few years. So, that I shall return to India, regardless of the challenges involved, is almost decided.

However, in another sense, my story is also slightly different. I came to Britain as a Highly Skilled Migrant, but my intent was to study: I just could not afford to study full time and pay the punitive fees British universities charge overseas students. So, I had to find a way to come to Britain, earn a commensurate income, get the opportunity to study by only paying the 'home' fees and part time, all of which has now happened. There is a bit of unfinished agenda - that of travelling around the world - but my mindset remains more like a student residing in a different country than someone who has come to settle. 

In summary, it is easier for me to go back to India in comparison with many other migrants, who has transferred their identities more fully to their adapted countries. I could not: My personal life was so turbulent during the years I lived in Britain that my focus remained firmly on my family in India during these first few, crucial, years of the migrant existence. What I wanted to do, work towards creating a great education institution, remained more valid in the Indian context than Britain's, where the education landscape is far more matured. And, my thinking was almost always shaped by the Indian opportunity: When I worked for an e-learning company exclusively focused on the UK market, I would plead the case for international partnerships and expansion, thinking how we can unlock the opportunities in India with the methods and technologies we employed here. 

Despite all this, when I think of reverse migration, I have come to expect little. While I talk about return, I have come to expect this to be as challenging as migrating to another country. I have realised only by taking nothing for granted, I can possibly make this journey a success. I have understood that the opportunity in India is actually its domestic demand, and hence, the returnees like me may have to learn the trade all over again as we adapt to that market. I have also understood that most Indians are almost contemptuous to the returnees (unlike the Chinese): People who never left project it on account of love for their country rather than their particular family circumstances or desires, and treat people who travelled as mere opportunists who wanted to return only after India became interesting.  There is indeed double standard in this thinking and I used to get angry with it: However, over time, I have learnt to live with it. 

A frequent complaint I hear from those who returned is about the lack of professionalism in the Indian workplace. This is particularly visible to those who worked in North America and Western Europe, and they miss the easy informality and professional respect of the work culture. Indeed, there are companies in India which have made conscious efforts to develop a more meritocratic and equitable culture, but most companies, including educational institutions, remain hierarchical, arbitrary and dominated by one coterie or the other. Also, Indian workplaces are more dominated by personalities whereas in the West, it is far more rule-based. Indian approach to rules, deeply relativist, sometimes makes people who lived and worked in the West for a long time frequently uneasy. Indeed, I have a slightly different take on this from my correspondents: I have lived and worked in India for ten years before migrating and I am acutely conscious of the issues involved. I am also conscious that there is very little point in complaining about these things, which is based on the assumption that the workplaces in the West are 'better' than Indian ones. Personally, I regard this as a flawed assumption, as every country presents a different working culture (contrast that of France and England) and one has to adapt to the hist culture and not the other way around.

My approach to return to India has changed over the years significantly. Once I took it as another journey, and expected less and less of homecoming, it became an easier idea: It was going to another country where I could contribute with lessons learnt, a country which I know and understand, where my skin colour does not stand out and I can be fully comfortable walking the streets (am I?), but increasingly I am also comfortable with the idea that I have to start all over again. My idea of creating a college of new media and enterprise is particularly relevant in India, which is indeed education hungry at this time, and the impact of good education is far greater both on people's lives and on the society as a whole. However, I have learnt to be patient: I want to pursue my idea by building a community of friends first and then working with a few of them who would share a similar vision. I am indeed building those friendships, connections and conversations first: My long engagement leading to eventual return has already begun.

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