Chicago Blues

This blog is an online repertoire of my columns that run in the Indian Express, North American edition. Here I rave and rant about life, mostly as seen from the large vistas of my little world.

Location: Chicago, United States

Monday, January 14, 2008

Chak De, NRI!

Right from the early immigrants, mostly of Punjabi origin, who toiled 19 hours a day on farms and mills in the Northwest, for a meager 18 cents per hour, to the high-tech IT pros swarming an ever-distending Silicon Valley, working the routine, white-collar, eight hour stretch and minting the big bucks, NRI wayfarers have surely come far. What fetches us here as immigrants isn’t just the notion of El Dorado anymore. Somewhere beneath all that it embodies - comfortable living, labor egalitarianism, and the whim of a “free life” that dangles precariously between summers (the stretch of time when the Indian equivalent of tradition-bound Toryism surfaces with the arrival of most parents from home) - lies the classic, often hackneyed desire to “make the best of both worlds.”

With all the manner of immigration rules being constantly picked up, tweaked, and constricted further to boot, and the recent fiasco that left thousands of temporary workers in a flux, there is still an upsurge in the number of immigration applications. Amid all the frenzy of repatriating NRIs with their lofty “reform India” missions rooted deep in Gandhism, there is still a section of us that wishes to disentangle from the furor of resettlement, and stay on, funneling our goodwill to the homeland in donations made to the Sankara Eye Foundation, or some such. While that might sound shallow in more ways than one, I, as an ecumenical, freethinking immigrant, believe that there is nothing unpatriotic about wanting to live outside the native land and acquiring new experiences. This belief, of course, goes beyond the premise of a newfangled “How Indian Are You?” quiz on Facebook, which has rendered me inept by putting the “Bollywood Superstar” tag on me - and I assure you that my Indianness is not theatrical by any measure.

It is hard to put a finger on it, but Indianness is a relative term. While most of the Gen-X NRIs, like I do, believe they still “have it in them,” despite submitting to the impulse of innovation in the new world, the baby-boomer generation of NRIs has a pre-set definition of the term. To them, a dip in the Ganga is still the epitome of sanctity; one of the, if not the only, way to feel that unique, deep connectedness with their homeland. To most of these first immigrants, moving to America was the only way to overcome sober, bourgeois conditions and attain financial stability. Post-independence, when the 6000-odd Indian populace entered the United States, the numbers increasing steadily thereafter, thanks to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, the issues of biculturalism, objective nationalism, and stringent alien-resident policies were the least of their concerns.

Right from the outset, from apprehensively filtering in, then gradually entering the mainstream middle-class communities, and eventually establishing a visible and strong identity for themselves, these early immigrants seldom lost their grip on the bigger picture - to earn a decent living while in America, and save enough to be able to retire gracefully in India, in the caring embrace of venerable family and friends’ circles. Every other first generation immigrant that I’ve crossed paths with has shrugged at the mention of the typical American, “laissez-faire” high school experience their children have had to endure. And the mention of the other far out Yanksville elements like dating, unhinged sexual explorations, inter-racial marriages, drugs, invariably solicit the un-cool look.

And then there’s us - the new breed, if you will, of immigrants or Green Card hopefuls, for whom crossing the hurdles of immigration laws entails much more than financial security or the idea of the “better life.” For us, the immigration process is akin to a safety “blankie,” a thing of great value for our hard work and hard-earned moolah. It allows us the liberty of acquiring rich educational and professional experiences with an autonomous edge as opposed to the pecking order control-driven atmosphere back home. Further, it allows us to stretch and live freely, and garner the best of everything this land of opportunity has to offer and carry it all with us when we return to India. It gives us a purview of life in a developed and prosperous nation that is beyond the “burger-fries-coke,” or “Walmart - ‘great-value-for-your-every-dollar’” notions as read about in books; or the geometrically-perfect layouts of streets and motorways as seen from the window of an Air India flight.

A few months ago, a section of us found ourselves in dire straits as the USCIS turned its back on our immigrant applications. Several hopes were crushed, dreams shattered, and at various parties and potlucks, the only topic of conversation was “So, are you giving up and moving back?” There was no longer, however, the tension over assets and savings, as the considerable devaluation of the dollar has, in recent times, changed that equation and much more. Many of us scurried to bag interviews with companies in India, and seal job offers before we booked our tickets and hopped on a plane. And then, in a sudden turn of events, when the USCIS reversed the rules and opened up windows for fresh applications, we re-strategized our options and decided to take on the challenge of reaching the finish line on the course, on one of the toughest immigration marathons in the world. And even with the Green Card fever that has gripped us so hard, some of us still consider ourselves as belonging to the alien resident gang that is often singled out like a magnet for qualms about employment visa status, among other things.

While the election season is heating up the immigration debate; and a National Social Security registry is discussed, to help employers track down potential employees and their work authorizations; and H1-B quotas are talked of in escalating numbers, it is yet to be seen whether the repatriating NRI count will dwindle.

If the new legislation act of the 50s helped fashion a bustling new wave of Indian immigration, enabling entire clans of early immigrants to settle in, aside from protecting the status of skilled immigrant workers; one wonders whether merely increasing the numbers of visas for skilled workers, introducing stricter workplace enforcements, or eliminating the backlog in processing visas constitute a good package deal for this day and time. Will all that help solve the “out of place in America, not at home in India” angst we endure as we strive to strike a perfect bicultural balance as Gen-X immigrants? Will we hurriedly whisk our pre-teens away before they get fully exposed to the over-liberal ways of school life here, or will we stretch ourselves thin just to get a slice of that lived-in, worldly feeling before we move back for retirement? Does immigration policy really hold sway over our thoughts, feelings and actions, or is the reverse more veracious; in that we shape and reform our lives here, replete with borrowed thoughts, mixed feelings, and painstakingly balanced actions, based on our proactive stance to go through the entire, ten-yarded rigmarole of obtaining a Green Card?

The answers to those questions are as ambiguous as can possibly get, and they seem to further wince away into hazy oblivion when I update myself with the latest developments on the Green Card processing times and hoopla, courtesy While I wouldn’t say I’m proud to have donned on a “world citizen” tag, I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been bitten by the immigration bug, even with its flogging rules, sealed walls and hinged doors. I have no specific explication for having one foot planted permanently in India, or allowing my thoughts to drift time and again, to the realms of the unembellished life lived there, where rules were often breakable, walls openable, and doors unlockable. I can’t say I’d usher the New Year in by bopping on my left foot with as much élan as Madhuri Dixit. Even she shares the “mixed feeling” syndrome, and at the end of the day, I’m just another Fresh-Off-the-Boater, even after my half a decade’s worth of stay in America. And even as oldfangled guitars thrum the famous Chicago Blues notes in the background, I will realize yet again that I may possibly never feel right anywhere, or comprehend entirely the import of my roots amid the clangor of the current up-and-coming façade masking India, but a girl can dream.

Perhaps the Facebook quizzers have a point - I see myself getting into an overly histrionic mood just before the annual trip to “desh.” But if I can say “Chak De!” with the same spirit as that of the hero of a movie on India’s national sport, I doubt if my Immigrant-Patriotism-Quotient is out of kilter. Is yours?


Blogger openmind said...

IMHO, NRIs are the most unpatriotic creed one can ever find. They criticize India as being a beggared land with its people having an inherently backward attitude, especially the Indian male. This is exactly what is unpatriotic about them. Its basically what they've done for the country (apart from a few donations here and there). Lets have a objective recap. I would say the NRIs have emulated the worst characteristic of both present day Indian and Western cultures. Of course, there are a few NRIs who have a positive and unbiased outlook and this post is not about them. I thinkt the psyche that goes into making an NRI is hating India for what it is, lack of opportunities,low income, nepotism and neglect of talent. Though many do not want to admit it, this is what got them to be expats in the first place.

2:32 AM  

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