Flown West... Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani

Editor - CoolAvenues | September 20,2013 04:20 pm IST

Globalization should have been good for Indian yuppies. After all, they always argued that they were global citizens, that their IIT-IIM degrees were as good or even better than foreign ones, their skills were all the better for being learned in the complexity of India ("India has as many cultures as Europe - we really understand diversity"), and when it came to their tastes and habits, they were closer to the West Village (NYC) than Bandra west.

After all, they cooked with balsamic vinegar, listened to Buddha Bar, and only switched on the TV for Six Feet Under, so adjusting to life abroad should be no problem. They weren't those desi stereotypes of curry-smelling, temple-going, Bollywood-besotted misfits in foreign societies.

 

The bottom line was that yuppies felt there was no reason why they couldn't be working in those international jobs and earning those international salaries. And of late, the market seems to be agreeing. It's never been easier for Indian yuppies to make the switch to the foreign job market, sometimes within the same company, sometimes through contacts (often old batch mates already abroad), sometimes even by just going abroad on a vacation and doing the rounds of head-hunters and possible companies. Indian professionals are an internationally recognised brand now, and yuppies are cashing in on this to realize their dreams to get out.

 

But then what happens to them? A friend now working abroad describes the Indian yuppie expats she encounters: "They work for top companies like Unilever or Citibank, but in their free time they only hang out with Indians. They meet at parties in each other's houses. The men wear kurta-pyjama and the women shalwar-kameez. The food is Indian only. They play tombola or rummy. And the men hang out with men, and the women with the women, while unmarried working women like me fit nowhere - I can't even be too friendly with the men or the wives imagine I'm trying to steal them!" This, she notes, is despite the wives often having the same degrees. When it comes to working abroad, it's nearly always the wives who quit their jobs. Not entirely surprisingly, they all turn religious - "They all go to the temple, send their kids to 'prayer schools' and every year all the women get together to do karva-chauth!" says my friend. The yuppies have achieved their ambition and gone abroad. Only to turn into everything from which they fled.

 

Perhaps this shouldn't be too surprising. Yuppies as a breed are defined by their insecurity. Hence their love of expensive brands, which carry an authority that they hope, will rub off onto them. The problem is that as yuppies in India the brands and habits they chose to identify with were defined by being different from the mainstream - but in places like New York or London they are the mainstream. Of course, such places have their own forms of exclusivity - their own special brands for those in the know, their own haunts for the in-crowd. But accessing them requires money and, even more, connections, which the Indian yuppies had at home, but forfeited when they went abroad.

 

Suddenly Indian yuppies realize they're no longer the cool ones. Their reflex reaction then is to turn to all those things they weren't interested in back home. Partly it's the comfort of familiarity in an alien world, but partly too it's canny reasoning. If they're anyway going to be seen as typical 'Indians', they might as well play on it. That way they might become hip and happening Indians, rather than curry-eating losers. It's a process made easier, in the US at least, by the general American fetishisation of 'finding one's roots' - very probably for the same reasons. When everyone is cooking from their grandmother's recipes, observing obscure community festivals and using ethnic screensaver, it's easier to do the same. It's like the two Indian women, both working on Wall Street, who wondered what co-workers would make of their observing the karva chauth fast. In fact the co-workers, mostly Orthodox Jews, understood perfectly: fasting for your husband's health is a Jewish tradition as well.

 

It helps that Indian culture now has a higher profile in the US. Monsoon Wedding educated everyone about Indian weddings, Bollywood's known (three-hour long musicals), everyone has bought a Deepak Chopra tape and chai is available at Starbucks. Indian culture is a talking point in the US, which is further incentive for Indian yuppies to make the most of it. Offering to serve as purveyors of authenticity, inviting co-workers home for a home-cooked Indian meal or getting everyone to bhangra at the office Christmas party. The only slight problem here is that after years of avoiding their culture, yuppies find it hard to suddenly provide it, which is why it's useful that its more easily available in the West. That home-cooked dhal probably came from a can, the bhangra music from a friendly cab driver, and the dance steps remembered from Daler Mehendi music videos. For all that Indian yuppies abroad make much of their 'roots' it's interesting to note how much of it is packaged Punjabi culture (karva chauth, bhangra and tash at Diwali), or TamBrahm if you're South Indian (sambhar, silk saris and Bharatnatyam lessons for daughters).

 

There is also a larger problem. While 'roots' might seem the way to go, Indian yuppies also learn that too much display of it isn't desirable since the lines separating 'interesting and ethnic' from 'different and weird' can be alarmingly thin. Indians should show off their culture, but only in doses and forms that the society around can take. So check the cricket scores on the Net by all means, but after the ritual water cooler explanation of this quaint colonial relic is over, you better be up to date with American football as well. You can give your children elaborate Sanskrit names, but they better have neat American contractions as well: Jaytirths to Jerries, Neelakantans to Neals, Shanmugams to Seans. And while everyone will come home for Indian food, you better not bring it for lunch since the curry smell might linger in the canteen.

 

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 Editor @ CoolAvenues.com...