Last month I completed fifty years since I came to this country. As I passed this major milestone, it was time to look back and reflect.
I had not planned to settle here. I came to spend one year in graduate school, at most two, get a Master’s degree and go back to India. When I got my Master’s, I kept going until I earned a Doctorate in engineering. This time I was ready to go back and had, as a matter of fact, secured three job offers in India.
Then I had a fateful meeting with an interesting guy, a friend of a cousin living in India. He was a founder of a company that sold Digital Equipment’s computers in India, and he was on a business trip. I met him at a motel in Concord, MA and he suggested that I get some work experience in US before heading back. “It will be valuable and also get you started financially,” he said.
I listened to him and secured a job with a company in Waltham, MA. I got a practical training visa that allowed me to work for eighteen months. When that period came to an end, greed had set in and I decided to apply for a Green Card. After getting it, I went to India, got married, and came back to US to work for maybe five more years.
Well, by now you can guess what happened next. Five years become ten and then, after children arrived, we decided to get citizenships and live here for good. We had joined the rank of immigrants to this land of the opportunity. We lived the American dream: a house in suburbia, good careers, two children (but no dog), and lots of travelling.
My story as an immigrant was not based on escaping something unpleasant or brutal in my home country. In all likelihood, based on the experience of my classmates who never came to US or went back after studies, I would have had an equally good life in the motherland. It would have been a different life, but pleasant one nonetheless.
So, I cannot escape the feeling that I was an opportunist looking after my own interest and not that of the country of my birth. What did I get in return for making the decision to emigrate and carrying that guilt?
Here are a few points that come to mind as I look back. Please treat them as personal views that reflect my interests and what is important to me, and not applicable to every immigrant in my situation.
1. Wider exposure to people of the world
In my mind, there is no doubt that I have met more diverse people in the past fifty years in US than I would have if I had settled in India. It is not just meeting them but also becoming comfortable with the notion that people around the world are just like us, and thereby reducing the “them vs us” complex. I feel totally comfortable with men and women of practically any nationality or background.
2. Greater opportunity to travel
A direct corollary of the above, my intense desire to experience the world has been satisfied beyond my imagination. Some of it could have happened even if I had decided to live in India, but not to the same level. What I mean is not just seeing the world — — checking off a bucket list — -but experiencing it: Hiking and biking in all different places, setting our own itinerary and schedules, and meeting people to an extent not possible in packaged tours. All this has been fueled by (i) our passion for travel and different cultures, (ii) developing confidence to travel just by ourselves, and (iii) earning in dollars, not rupees. Finally, having an American and not an Indian passport has made a big difference in travelling internationally.
3. Easier to maintain physical fitness
One reason why we have been able to travel the way we have, and enjoy the outdoors, is that we have maintained a reasonable level of physical fitness. This country not only encourages you to remain fit, but enables you to do so. To that end, I got involved with hiking right from beginning, cross country skiing and skating soon afterwards, and recreation biking after I got married. Now, during the Covid time, we are able to walk four mile an average through nice green neighborhoods with practically no traffic. We can bike without fear of getting killed by a motorist. Ask my classmate to do that in India. Even if they want to, and most of them do, they will have a harder time.
4. Better learning opportunities
This is a tricky topic because it depends on what you want to learn. If you are on a spiritual journey, I cannot think of a better place than India to do so. Also, these days, with on-line learning generally available, anyone can participate. However, the desire to learn stems from being exposed to a topic and becoming interested. For me, Western Classical Music is one such area. I was exposed to it thanks to friends in my graduate school and attending free concerts on Charles River. That led to attending paid concerts, purchasing of records, and then buying courses from The Great Courses. I am very happy to have this opportunity.
5. Better life for our children
This is the driving force for so many immigrants escaping terrible situation and I believe it to be true even for a person like me who had a comfortable life in India. There are several reasons for making this statement. First of all, education is less competitive in this country than in India. My son or daughter would have found it virtually impossible to get admitted to IIT (where I studied) given how slim the odds have become. Second, for someone aspiring for a career in arts, like my daughter, making a living would have been a struggle in India. Third, living on their own would have been very difficult for our children given how steep the cost of living/housing has become in major cities in India.
6. More meaningful retirement
This is again a controversial topic as my friends in India are enjoying their retirement quite well. The differences are (i) The availability of institutions like assisted living, nursing home, and hospice. This allows you to live independently even if your health deteriorates, as it will. In India it is assumed that your children will take care of you. If they cannot, you have to somehow manage. (ii) The availability of organizations targeted toward allowing retired people to live a meaningful next phase. For example, I am involved with an organization that provides free management consulting to non-profits using people like me. It is an enormously satisfying experience and keeps me involved with doing something useful for the society that has given me so much. (iii) Provisions for keeping physically impaired people mobile. Even if I end up in a wheelchair, I should be able to go about using public transportation and ramps that anticipate and accommodate people like that. (iv) Availability of “do not resuscitate” type of document for the end of life. This allows a family member or a physician to pull the plug without fear of legal problems when and if the time comes.
So, in summary, no place is perfect and you can always find faults with whatever decision you make. The present situation would make many folks wonder about the direction this country is headed to. However, I remain pleased with the decision I made in that Motel in Concord forty-seven years ago, or to come this country three years before then.