As a college student, I hated almost everything about America. Growing up in India, I never viewed the United States as the promised land of freedom and wealth idealized in movies. I never fantasized about a utopia of gold-paved streets. Instead, I saw America as a land of rudeness, overabundance and arrogance — the last place I ever wanted to be. Don’t get me wrong. Like many young people in India, I enjoyed Hollywood films, American pop music and TV shows. The humor in “Diff’rent Strokes” and “I Love Lucy” was totally endearing.
But what colored my image of the United States were the pompous relatives and friends who came back to India after an education in the “blessed land.” They would talk with a patronizing air as if they had nothing more to learn. They would carry around their own bottled water, claiming that drinking the local water now made them sick. They would speak disapprovingly of the country’s “social evils” — the caste system, the payment of dowries, the preference for male children — with a newly acquired Yankee accent.
They would scoff at these things, ignoring the progress being made in India — many of the girls in our family were college-educated and had jobs. The returning experts who brought along their new white spouses were more insufferable than others. One such relative loved to bring up topics related to sex at the dinner table, then laugh at the sight of our uncomfortable faces.
“Do you see how they try and change the topic?” he would point out to his white spouse. “You see, sex is a taboo subject in India.”
These experiences led me to believe America was a place of condescending, lascivious xenophobes. They had India all wrong, I thought. Around me, I saw fine doctors, engineers, managers and homemakers, all educated in Indian universities, doing perfectly all right without spending a day in America. India did not need to be validated by some far-off country. My life was secure with a loving family and all the necessities for a comfortable lifestyle. I had never left India, and had no interest in doing so.
At times, I felt alone in my appreciation for my homeland. My irritation mounted as more friends and relatives scrambled for H1-B visas to go to the United States as foreign workers. In 1994, I wrote an essay on halting India’s brain drain for a reputed Indian magazine that won me the top prize in a nationwide essay contest. I called for policies that encouraged Indians to stay home, including easier promotions in government jobs and fewer reserved seats in schools, which limited opportunities for bright and ambitious Indians.
Besides, America was not only “the land of milk and honey” that many thought, I wrote, but “also the land of crime, increasing violence, nihilism and psychological problems.” Fan mail poured in from all parts of the country, and I felt vindicated with my stand.
But when it came time for me to marry, it seemed that most of the eligible men were either in the United States or getting ready for it. I told my parents to simply cross such men off their list. I would have nothing but “made in India” and “made for India.” When I met my future husband, I made him assure me that he had no plans to move to the United States.
Three years after we married, my husband got a job in Singapore. He waved away my tearful arguments, promising we could return to India if I didn’t like it. Luckily, Singapore turned out to be a paradise. I frequented the malls, parks and libraries, marveling at the order and discipline, which was sorely missing in India. I got a great job as a magazine editor that allowed me to travel and connect with people from around the world. I absorbed new concepts and examined my old beliefs.
I had developed an exaggerated notion about the closeness of family ties in India, believing that in the West, families were detached and broken because of high divorce rates and pressure for children to leave the family home at 18. But traveling the world, I saw loving families of every race and color. In Amsterdam, I saw old men cycling with their grandchildren to school. In Germany, I saw three generations of a family enjoying a vacation. Stepping out of my country broadened my worldview and pushed my cultural horizons.
My interactions with Americans were most enlightening. My first business trip to the United States took me to Washington, D.C., in 2005. After I checked into my hotel, I went out to find a restaurant. Along the way, I saw so many people absorbed in books: seated on park benches, sprawled on the grass, or waiting for their buses. “This is a book-reading culture,” I told myself with delight.
That was just the first of my many positive revelations about Americans. As it turned out, of the various people my job put me in touch with, Americans were the ones I got along with best. They were funny and genial. They spoke engagingly, embodying all the golden rules of public speaking that I had read in Toastmasters manuals: body language, vocal variety, persuasiveness. And their confidence was impressive; almost every American I came across — man or woman, subordinate or the top executive — had a certain confidence (sometimes bordering on cockiness) that came from being totally at ease with the world. I admired the freedom and congeniality. The sense of camaraderie made me feel welcome and comfortable in no time. Americans weren’t bad people at all.
But when my husband asked if I wanted to move to America, I still said no. Some of my stereotypes about the country lingered: What about the gun culture? Surely, we didn’t want our daughter gunned down at school. And what about the big environmental footprint of America? I shuddered at the prospect of living in a large temperature-controlled house instead of a compact apartment and owning two cars instead of using energy-efficient public transport. Besides, I had no intention of spending all day cooking and cleaning in a country where domestic help was so unaffordable. Why give up such a comfortable life? Reluctantly, my husband put his American Dream on hold, but never failed to hold me responsible.
For six years, I avoided the topic of America but was assailed by self-doubt. I worried that my daughter was losing the chance to achieve her full potential because of limited academic choices. Singapore has only two universities, and even though they are both good, there is no denying that no country offers the abundant selection of good universities that the United States does. And my husband, a chemical engineer, would have far more job opportunities in the United States, which was undergoing a revolution in oil and gas production. The universe seemed to be signaling to get me out of my comfort zone. Finally, I stopped saying no to change, and we moved to Houston.
It was like starting life all over again. I had to learn how to drive in right-hand traffic, how to cook and manage meals without domestic help, and how to do the do-it-yourself jobs around the house. At the same time, I had to unlearn the tendency to micromanage my daughter. In America, she had grown up overnight, choosing her own clothes and speaking her mind. But one by one, most of my concerns about America were overcome: the homesickness, the fear of driving, the overwhelming housework, playing the soccer mom (debate mom, actually). There was not the overwhelming gun violence that I feared and, though my daughter was independent, our family remained close. The environmental footprint was still a big concern, but I was recycling more often.
These days, I surprise myself by strongly defending America against trite negative characterizations I hear in other countries. When I was young, I believed that Americans unfairly stereotyped India, but in fact, I had unfairly stereotyped Americans. I had criticized them for not knowing my culture, when I was equally ignorant about theirs. The truth is, the United States is not a land of arrogant xenophobes. It’s also not a utopia of freedom and wealth. Like all nations, it harbors a complicated culture, with many layers of good and bad.
If I were to write an essay about India’s brain drain today, I would not argue against the best and brightest leaving the country. While there certainly are negative effects, there are significant benefits, too: the investments and remittances sent back home to India, along with new innovative ideas that help boost India’s economy and social progress. When people expand their worldview, they enrich themselves and humanity as a whole. I started off as an Indian, but I have become a global citizen.
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