The American Dream is Huge in Asia
After moving back to India from Massachusetts in June, Namita Chaudhary walked into a Mumbai mall—one that didn’t exist when she and her husband left in 2008—to discover all of her favorite American brands, even the Clarks walking shoes she used to buy at malls in Boston.
It wasn’t the only modernization to her home country that surprised the thirty-seven-year-old, who returned to raise her children in her own culture, and for career opportunities for her husband. Many of Chaudhary’s Indian friends now owned two homes, multiple cars with drivers, and vacationed in Italy, Hawaii and Australia. They had begun to earn comparable, if not higher, salaries than those of software engineers in the United States.
“India,” she says, “is booming.”
Chaudhary and her husband were among the 1.9 million people of Indian birth living in the United States in 2011. But now the Chaudharys are part of a new, growing demographic of reverse immigrants leaving the developed world to move back to their home countries, or to other countries with emerging economies.
You no longer have to live in America to experience “the American dream,” they say.
“The assumption was that once you come to the United States, you don’t leave,” says Meghna Sabharwal, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, who received a National Science Foundation grant to study why Indian-born academics in science and technology fields are leaving the United States in greater numbers than ever before.
“It was a one-way street; a one-way migration stream from the developing world to the developed world,” Sabharwal says. Now it’s flowing the other way in a reverse brain drain. The reasons are multifold: the sluggish U.S. economy and job market at a time of economic boom in some developing nations; stringent U.S. visa laws; the pull of cultural and family ties; and the desire to contribute to one’s homeland.
Students and twenty-somethings are finding that along with money and material goods, economic growth has also brought more liberal attitudes to their homelands. The nightlife in Mumbai and Hong Kong rivals that of Los Angeles and New York, they say. In India, the rate of arranged marriages has dropped, and it has become more acceptable to date, particularly in the big cities, where “love marriages” are increasingly popular.
Chaudhary used to understand why people were willing to live away from their native cultures and families to stay in America. It was the land of luxury brands, trendy nightlife, Hollywood movies, gadgets, clean air and comfortable living. It was a place where hard work was rewarded, and people of all backgrounds had the freedom to dream of creating a better life.
Growing up in a twenty-five-bedroom mansion, or haveli, in the state of Rajasthan that housed four generations and more than thirty people, Chaudhary didn’t have to look far for friends or things to do. There were cousins and aunts and uncles aplenty. When she married in 2001 and moved with her husband to a developing area of Mumbai, her family was still just a two-hour plane ride or half a day’s train journey away. She worked part-time as a nutritionist and dietician. When her daughter was born in 2003, she delivered in her hometown and stayed for a few months, getting help from her mother and relatives.
Chaudhary was thrilled when her husband got the opportunity to work in the United States. She wanted to experience living abroad, having heard for years that life in America was more comfortable.
“I was excited,” she said. “I was going to the best country in the world.”
From the moment Chaudhary landed in Boston, America did not disappoint. She remembers airport personnel smiling at her and noticed immediately how friendly everyone was. As her husband drove her to their two-bedroom apartment in the suburb of Malden, she gazed out the car windows in delight. “It was my first time seeing snow. It was everywhere. I could feel it,” she said. The quiet on the drive home and the absence of horns honking on the streets fascinated her, as did the orderliness of drivers staying in their lanes.
With ease, she built a life. Chaudhary quickly made friends, mostly other Indians coming together in a shared experience. Indian groceries and restaurants were easy finds, as was a Hindu temple in the Boston area. Her daughter thrived at school. The Chaudharys enjoyed the parks, open spaces, clean air, ease of transportation, and the friendly attitudes of Americans. Within a year, they had saved enough to clear a loan on an apartment they owned in Mumbai.
Yet, she felt incomplete. When her son was born in 2011, none of the grandparents were there. They did not visit in the five years that Chaudhary lived in Massachusetts, and she returned to India just once, feeling a pinch with every missed birthday, wedding and birth.
In India, there is a temple on every corner, and Chaudhary sometimes stops by twice a day, often with her children in tow. During the time surrounding Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights celebrated throughout India by people of all faiths, schools close for at least two weeks and businesses shut down. Relatives from near and far gather for food, fireworks and card games. Chaudhary’s family celebration culminated on the last day of Diwali with a big ceremony in their home, conducted by a priest and attended by dozens of family members.
In Malden, a visit to the temple required planning, and festivals did not compare. On Diwali, Chaudhary’s husband would work during the day, so she would conduct a small ceremony at home with the immediate family in the evening. Even weekends sometimes felt empty. “What to do on Saturday and Sunday with no family around?” she says.
Chaudhary began to feel even more strongly that her daughter, now ten, should grow up in India. Aside from connecting with family and experiencing the culture, Chaudhary felt her daughter would be more sheltered in India, which is more conservative. She became willing to trade in a comfortable quiet, suburban life in Malden for the hustle, bustle, pollution and traffic of Mumbai. “The heart was saying, ‘Go back to your home. You’ll be happier.’ The mind was saying, ‘It’s okay.’”
Chaudhary, like many other reverse immigrants, would soon discover how much India now has to offer.
A similar shift has occurred in countries such as China and Brazil where economic mobility used to be difficult. The middle class, which barely existed until twenty to thirty years ago, is now rapidly expanding, with thriving cities, improved quality of living and increased chances of moving between socioeconomic strata. “One of the biggest trends shaping migration is the growth of the middle class in emerging economies,” says Madeleine Sumption, senior policy analyst at the nonprofit Migration Policy Institute in Washington D.C. “They are wealthy enough to invest in living and studying abroad, and have much higher ambitions than people in those countries would have ten or twenty years ago.”
While poverty, infrastructure, pollution and government corruption are still challenges, many of these countries offer more opportunities than ever before. Women who would not have had the chance to get white-collar jobs fifteen years ago can now provide for an entire family; young entrepreneurs are leading flourishing start-ups; and engineering students have their pick of local jobs with international companies such as Facebook, Google and Microsoft.
Once Chaudhary realized her family could now live comparably in India, she questioned why anyone in the same situation wouldn’t want to live in their own country. And she’s not the only one.
The United States doesn’t maintain emigration statistics, but analysts confirm a pattern. While there has not been a mass exodus, according to Sumption, it is clear that “the U.S.’s dominance as the ideal destination has eroded, particularly among the educated and elite.”
Visa laws in the United States make it difficult for people with student or H1-B visas to start their own companies. Spouses of immigrants with H1-B work visas receive H-4 dependent visas, which prohibit them from working. Many highly educated spouses are forced to let their MBAs and doctorates go to waste, at least until they can get work permits. With these policies, Sumption said, “the U.S. is shooting itself in the foot.”
All the while, other countries are watching closely and taking advantage. In 1999, India began offering a Person of Indian Origin card to give emigrants travel and residency privileges. China, Singapore and Japan offer scholarships for students to study in the United States, where the higher education system is still considered superior, on the condition that they return to their home countries. India and China are pouring money into research and facilities in order to attract academics and those in science and technology fields.
“Science and engineering in the U.S. is driven by the foreign-born [nationals]—Indians, Chinese, Taiwanese,” Sabhrawal says. “The U.S. is spending so much money training them. If they leave, that’s a loss to this country.”
It’s a loss that may keep growing.
“Life in the U.S. is becoming less attractive,” says Howard Liu, a twenty-nine-year-old Yale graduate living in Hong Kong. “Rather than being a second-class citizen in the U.S. with a fixed salary, why not start your own business in Asia and live more comfortably?”
Liu grew up in a Chinese province famed for sending a significant number of poor illegal immigrants to the United States. They would arrive on boats, work long hours and send money back home. The upper and middle class, like his parents, would do everything they could to send their children to the United States. Liu earned a scholarship to attend high school in Singapore, and then did his undergrad at the London School of Economics. Largely due to pressure from his parents to study in the United States (they hoped he would find a job and stay permanently), Liu spent a year earning his master’s in development economics from Yale.
He left America after graduation for an investment banking job in London, and eventually volunteered to be transferred to Hong Kong, an hour flight from his parents, and near plenty of other fully modernized urban centers. “Ten years ago,” he says, “everyone wanted to go the United States and experience what modern cities are like. Now, Shanghai is a modern city.
“I’ve been in Asia for four years and it’s amazing,” he continues. “There’s access to gadgets, food, information, media, brands—everything that’s a part of your life in the West.”
The change was gradual, but it really hit him when he saw his parents on their iPhones, using social media to chat with each other, and when Hollywood movies such as “Thor: The Dark World” and “Iron Man 3” had earlier release dates in Hong Kong than in New York.
The changes point to fewer economic reasons for people to leave, or for those who have left to stay away. The new economic reality is that it may pay more to stay put.
“There is an oversupply of talent who has been overseas,” says Liu in reference to the masses of students who attend average U.S. universities, not top-tier institutions. “People are questioning why to spend so much money to study abroad for four years, when they could go to a local university, build up connections and start their own business with that money, then vacation in the United States?”
For those who do leave, they no longer aspire to stay away permanently.
Manjiri Ghare and her husband left India for the United States in 2002 with plans to save money and return home. Within two years, they bought a house in Connecticut, and another in Pune, India. After saving for five more years, they moved back to India in 2009 before their then-two-year-old son started school.
Moving home has its own challenges, both Ghare and Chaudhary say. India’s economic growth has brought more pollution, traffic and infrastructure-related issues. The prevalence of Western media has also created shifts in culture, such as young people entering into relationships at earlier ages and people increasingly leading more isolated lives.
But living in the new India allows Ghare access to not only the benefits the country always offered, such as domestic help, but also almost anything she could find in the United States, including the organic vegetables and grains she would buy at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods.
The trend is similar in developing European nations.
Mila Georgieva, a Bulgarian who studied at Mount Holyoke College and then returned home, says when she was growing up, America was so “alluring, interesting, new, glamorous,” that about eighty percent of the students at her high school left to study in the United States.
Now, she estimates seventy percent of the students from the same high school opt to study in Europe instead and be closer to their families. Many of the friends she studied with in America have now returned home or to other countries within Europe.
“People are not willing to go to the United States at any price anymore,” she says. “They can see they can achieve economic success in Europe or South America or Asia.”
Novelty was once part of the allure. Georgieva remembers collecting Kinder eggs as a child, the first time she drank Coke from a glass bottle, and tasting her first Mars chocolate bar. “I kept the wrapping for a long time,” she said. “It was so special.”
Chaudhary recalls when her uncles would visit from Europe or the United States, “We would wait with eyes wide: ‘Oh what will we get to open?’”
Things have changed, say the immigrants who have gone home.
The electronics and clothes from America that Chaudhary recently brought for people in India were met with indifference. In her bustling area of town, huge apartment towers have gone up. Three or four times as many restaurants and shops exist in her neighborhood. Instead of traveling downtown for Italian, Thai or Mexican food, she just steps outside her door. The bonus? It all has an Indian twist. Pizza Hut makes paneer masala pizza. International brands of clothes and shoes have a little more bling.
“Sports, food, entertainment, electronics—you name it,” she says. “We get it here.”
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Rachana Rathi is a writer based in Los Angeles. She has been a staff reporter for the Los Angeles Times, The Hartford Courant and The Boston Globe. Twitter @rachana_rathi
Run Ayuyang is a cartoonist based in Oakland, California who likes dance shows and sports events.