Indians develop strong roots

ABHIJIT NAG

LETTER FROM AMERICA

Flying into Chicago, seated in the middle row of a Boeing 777-300ER, I wished I had a window seat as the aircraft approached Lake Michigan.

The vast expanse of water skirting the Windy City looks spectacular. Driving along Lake Shore Drive, the expressway hugging the lake, going past parkland and beaches, I am mesmerised by the sea. For that is what it is. A vast inland sea.

Part of the Great Lakes - the largest group of freshwater lakes in the world, seemingly limitless with waters stretching as far as the eye can see - Lake Michigan is shimmering evidence of American exceptionalism - a sea encompassed by land.

I have been fascinated by America since my boyhood in the early 1960s, when I first saw pictures of Manhattan skyscrapers in a National Geographic magazine. Living in Kolkata, in India, back then when houses were seldom taller than five storeys, I was stunned by the sight of such tall buildings.

The American cars - of which Kolkata had a few, Studebakers, Buicks, Chevrolet Impalas - stood out with their long bonnets and tailfins. They looked sleek compared with the Morris Oxford and its Indian counterpart, the Hindustan Ambassador.

But more intriguing than the American cars and skyscrapers was something in that house where I saw the National Geographic magazine - a steamer trunk.

The trunk had carried the belongings of a man who had sailed on the Lusitania, I was told. The Lusitania was a famous British ocean liner that sailed between Liverpool and New York. It was sunk by the Germans during the First World War in 1915.

The owner of the trunk had been to America. He returned to Kolkata, got married, and died of a heart attack before his son turned three. His widow lived in that house with the son. Many years later, when the son was an old man, he showed me his father's passport. It was a US passport.

It made me wonder how different their lives would have been had the father taken the family to America. But such speculation was idle.

Indians could not become American citizens under a US immigration law enacted in 1924 barring immigrants from Asia. The door remained closed for four long decades.

Finally, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 signed by President Lyndon Johnson allowed Asians to settle in America again. I remember a relative married to an academic in Calcutta flew off to America in the mid-1960s when her husband joined a university on the East Coast. Later, they emigrated to Canada.

More tantalisingly, a boy I learnt to ride the bicycle with went to college in America after completing high school in Calcutta in the early-1970s. He went on to become a professor of political science at a university in the Midwest. One of my classmates also became a professor in America, teaching computer science at a university on the East Coast.

But he went much later. After studying at Calcutta University, he did his master's and research work in computer science in America in the mid-1980s. That was when Indian engineering graduates began to arrive in America in large numbers. I remember attending a convocation at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, where many of the graduands were not present to receive their degrees. They had all gone off to America.

Sanjoy Chakravorty, Devesh Kapur and Nirvikar Singh in their book, The Other One Percent: Indians In America, divide the immigrants into three groups: The Early Movers, who arrived between the mid-1960s and late 1970s, the Families cohort from the 1980s to the mid-1990s when many came to be reunited with their family members, and post-1995 the IT Generation when the bulk of the newcomers were skilled in computers and technology.

The Early Movers, small in numbers, encountered a different America from what greets the IT Generation today. A Bengali doctor who came to America in 1964 recalls arriving on a J1 visa and was eligible to stay for up to five years. He married a Malayalee doctor, also from India, and they moved to Canada. Later, both returned to America and became US citizens. Now their daughter is a university professor in the Midwest, married to an academic.

Indian Americans are "arguably the richest and most economically successful group" in America, say The Other One Percent authors in their preface. In 2019, households headed by an Indian immigrant had a median income of US$132,000, compared to US$64,000 for all immigrants and US$66,000 in US-born households, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

How did people from a poor country become so successful in the world's richest nation, ask The Other One Percent authors. America got the best and brightest from India, they say, pointing out that the immigrants were highly-educated doctors, engineers, computer workers. Indians are more likely to apply for US citizenship than their equally-qualified counterparts from richer nations like Britain and Japan, they note. And success begets success. The affluent Indian immigrants send their children to top schools to give them a competitive edge in life. A young doctor, an immigrant's daughter, told me almost every Indian parent wants their children to be doctors.

Of course, Indian immigrants' children have succeeded in other fields, too, from writer Jhumpa Lahiri and the International Monetary Fund chief economist Gita Gopinath to politicians Bobby Jindal (former governor of Louisiana), Nikki Haley (former US ambassador to the United Nations) and US Vice President Kamala Harris, whose father hailed from Jamaica and mother from Tamil Nadu.

Indian doctors, scientists, engineers, researchers and academics were among the Early Movers, and there were more than 360,000 Indians in America by 1980, according to The Other One Percent. But the bulk of the increase has been since the 1990s. The book says the Indian American population increased from 815,000 in 1990 to 1.67 million in 2000 to more than 2.8 million in 2010.

The surge coincided with computerisation. Burroughs Corporation, which used to manufacture mainframes, imported programmers from its Indian sales agent, Tata Consultancy Services, to install software as early as 1974. By 1995, there were about 100,000 programmers working in India. Many wound up in America.

A gentleman I know, who began his career working on a mainframe for an Indian conglomerate in Kolkata, settled in America after a stint in Dubai.

A younger contemporary followed a more roundabout route. After a couple of years in Singapore, when he was recalled to Kolkata by the German MNC he was working for, the young engineer took computer courses, began working from home for a technology company in America, and eventually moved to California.

The Other One Percent, published in 2017, notes that well over 120,000 Indians were entering America annually, including 60,000 through H-1B and 20,000 through L-1 visas - both focused on computer-related occupations - 30,000 through F-1 student visas focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths), and 10,000 to 20,000 through family sponsorship or family reunification.

The figures show the vast majority of Indians entering America owe their entry to a knowledge of computers, science and technology.

The question is, will the influx continue? Will America continue to need such large numbers of foreigners?

As for the Indians who have already become Americans, some are now grandparents. A third generation is growing up.

I attended a three-year-old's birthday party in Chicago recently. The child's relatives came from St Louis and Cincinnati, cities more than 300 miles away. Driving all the way, they arrived on a Friday night and left after a weekend of celebrations, going back to work. That's life in America: to get anywhere, you need a lot of drive.

 tabla@sph.com.sg

 
 
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