A Broader Sense of Home

(Marvin Joseph - The Washington Post)
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 9, 2006

Growing up in the United States, Rajeev Sharma viewed India as a something of a "backwater." Now the Rockville resident goes there for business each month, and he feels respect for his birthplace -- and a bit more Indian.

When Rahul Ghate arrived from India for graduate school a decade ago, he met few Americans familiar with his culture. Now the Fairfax County technology executive finds that Americans often strike up chats about his country.

Things have changed fast for Indians in the Washington region, most strikingly their sheer presence. After doubling in the 1990s, the area's Indian population -- immigrants and Indian Americans -- grew an additional 50 percent in the past five years, from about 70,000 to nearly 107,000. Foreign-born Indians now rival Koreans as the area's most populous immigrant group after Salvadorans. Nationally, the Indian population soared in the past five years from more than 1.6 million to 2.3 million, second only to the Chinese among Asian ethnic groups.

That growth naturally has smoothed the cultural transition for Indians; some joke that there are more Indian cultural events in the Washington suburbs than in Mumbai. More recently, the population boom has accompanied strengthening economic bonds between India and the United States and rapid development in India. Together, the trends have reshaped the Indian American and Indian immigrant experience in ways subtle and deep -- influencing, some say, their plans and senses of identity and home.

While noting that their affection for India has never flagged, some Indians say they now feel more proud of their heritage. More immigrants who planned to stay in the United States for good are reconsidering. And as India sprouts Western-style shopping malls and gleaming outposts of U.S. companies, a small but growing number of Indians -- particularly affluent male technology workers and retiring baby boomers -- are leading dual lives in the countries.

Mrinalini Sadananda is one. She arrived in the area in 1971. Americans were welcoming, she said, but Indians were so rare that she often fielded questions about the dot on her forehead and how she, a dancer, could sustain herself on a meatless diet.

In the early 1990s, Sadananda began teaching kuchipudi , a classical Indian dance, in her garage. She later opened a school in Fairfax City that now has about 60 students, mostly daughters of rich Indian high-tech workers.

Three years ago, her husband, also Indian and a retired scientist, took a visiting professorship in India. Soon he was raving about their homeland's newfound livability. A year later, the Sadanandas sold their Fairfax County home and rented two apartments -- one walking distance from Springfield Mall, the other at a complex in Chennai, India.

Both U.S. citizens, they spend six months in Virginia and six months in India.

"It's like my two eyes. Which do you love more? That is the way I feel about India and America," Sadananda, 58 and petite, said while sitting on her sofa in Springfield one recent morning. Two stuffed suitcases sat on the white carpet, prepped for her return to India. "I have the best of both worlds."

Mingling Cultures

In an era of webcams and discount airfares that help expatriates keep close ties to their homelands, researchers say Indians retain some of the closest, thanks in part to Indian media, which are particularly pervasive around the globe.

But few other immigrants live such "transnational" lives -- yet, said Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute at the New York University School of Law.

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