On the dangers of a reluctant immigrant
Let me start on an autobiographical note. I am what in common parlance is called a ‘non-resident Indian’, an NRI. I have studied, worked and lived in the US for over 30 years. Like hundreds of thousands of others from India (and from scores of other countries in the world), I had come to the US for higher studies – and stayed back.
It is hard not to like living in the US, a rich, developed country. Life is easy, the salaries are among the best in the world and one enjoys freedoms – economic, political, individual freedoms – that are generally hard to get in most parts of the world. I became an immigrant like millions of others who have made the US their home.
I loved living in the San Francisco Bay area. But the old country was never far from my mind. The question that bothered me was why is India so poor. It was a sufficiently important question for me that I even went to the absurd extent of studying economics to get a handle on the matter.
The ties that bind us are many but one of the most enduring must be the one that ties us to our motherland. Over the years I have met hundreds of Indians who have chosen to call the US their home. They all love being in the US but without exception they all have an inalienable connection with the country of their birth.
This is a universal feeling. Being the melting pot and a land of immigrants that the US is – particularly California – I know hundreds of people from around the world. They settled here for various reasons but no one can deny that their identity and their sense of who they are is inextricably tied to where they are from.
My Finnish friend could not be more clear when she says that she is Finnish even though she loves the US. This is not limited to the US, of course. A German friend, for example, who has lived in Paris for most of her adult life, was insistent that her loyalties lie with Germany.
Catch a flight from San Jose, California, and you will see thousands of Americans of Mexican origin going home to Mexico. At San Francisco airport, the flights to India are jam-packed with Americans of Indian origin going to India. The story is the same: People go back to their roots because that’s where they were born but however far they roam, the umbilical cord seems to stretch.
This is normal and understandable. I see it in myself even though I am not a sentimental person. Often when I arrive in India, I recoil from the dirt and filth that is pervasive in India. But never have I not felt the emotion that the Scottish poet Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) expressed so beautifully in his poem ‘The Lay of the Last Minstrel’:
Breathes there the man with soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burned,
As home his footsteps he hath turned
From wandering on a foreign strand!
The sense of who we are is of tribal origin. We are nothing if not members of the tribe that nourished us in our childhood. We love the language we learned from our mother, the food that we grew up eating, the religion we were brought up in. Much like the DNA in every cell of our bodies which carry the legacy of all of our ancestors, our souls carry the imprint of our origins. Ineradicable and strong, they define us and our identities.
But circumstances sometimes lead some of us to foreign lands voluntarily or otherwise. Immigrants do love their adopted country but they have a longing for their old country that often surpasses that of those who never left their home country. It is as if they compensate for their having left their family and friends by becoming more attached to their old country.
For immigrants, if they have a soul at all, loyalty and love for the home country will always be a weakness. The matter of divided loyalties is a universal human failing. The US Constitution recognises that and bars people who were not born in the US from becoming the President of the US – the most powerful executive office is reserved for people who do not have divided loyalties. It is not humanly possible to not have divided loyalties when you are born in one part of the world and live in another.
Fortunately, the ordinary immigrant will never be forced with a choice that will demonstrate that divided loyalty. We just don’t matter. I will never be dictating US policy that may adversely affect India or be faced with a policy choice that may favour the US over India. I will never be in a position where I will have to rule against one or the other country.
Which brings me to the final point of this piece. I think that Indians generally don’t understand that putting a reluctant immigrant, a person who is born and brought up in a different country and naturalised almost against her will, in a position of power is a dangerous thing to do. The person does not have to be evil; just being human is enough. “We are more often treacherous through weakness than through calculation,” wrote Francois De La Rochefoucauld (1613 – 1618).
It is both unfair and unwise.
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Atanu Dey is an economist. He blogs on India's Development at deeshaa.org.