Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The X+1 syndrome - Where do you stand?

The following is a famous article by R. K. Narayan

Read it and then see the comments at the ends

When an Indian professional becomes a 'Non-Resident Indian' in the
United States, he soon starts suffering from a strange disease. The
symptoms are a fixture of restlessness, anxiety, hope and nostalgia.
The virus is a deep inner need to get back home. Like Shakespeare
said, "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak." The medical
world has not coined a word for this malady. Strange as it is, it
could go by a stranger name, the "X + 1" syndrome.

To understand this disease better, consider the background. Typically
middle-class, the would be migrant's sole ambition through school is
to secure admission into one of those heavily government subsidised
institutions - the IITs. With the full backing of a doting family and
a good deal of effort, he acheives his goal. Looking for fresh worlds
to conquer, his sights rest on the new world. Like lemmings to the
sea, hordes of IIT graduates descend on the four US consulates to seek the
holiest of holy grails - the F-1 (student) stamp on the passport.

After crossing the visa hurdle and tearful farewell, our hero departs
for the Mecca of higher learning, promising himself and his family that he
will return some day - soon The family proudly informs their relatives
of each milestone - his G.P.A., his first car (twenty years old), his
trip to Niagara Falls (photographs), his first winter (parkas,gloves).
The two years roll by and he graduates at the top of his class. Now
begins the 'great hunt' for a company that will not only give him a
job but also sponsor him for that 3" X 3" grey plastic, otherwise
known as the Green Card. A US company sensing a good bargain offers
him a job. Naturally, with all the excitement of seeing his first pay
check in four digit dollars, thoughts of returning to India are far
away. His immediate objective of getting the Green Card is reached
within a year.

Meanwhile, his family back home worry about the strange American
influences (and more particularly, AIDS). Through contacts they line
up a list of eligble girls from eligible families and wait for the
great one's first trip home. Return he does, at the first available
oppurtunity, with gifts for the family and mouth-watering tales of
prosperity beyond imagination. After interviewing the girls, he picks
the most likely (lucky) one to be Americanised. Since the major reason for
the alliance is his long-term stay abroad, the question of his immediate
return does not arise. Any doubts are set aside by the 'backwardnes'
of working life, long train travel, lack of phones, inadequate
oppurtunities for someone with hi-tech qualifications, and so on.

The newly-weds return to America with the groom having to explain the
system of arranged marriages to the Americans. Most of them regard it
as barbaric and on the same lines as communism. The tongue-tied bride
is cajoled into explaining the bindi and saree. Looking for something
homely, the couple plunges into the frenetic expatriate week-end
social scene compromising dinners, videos of Hindi/regional films,
shopping at Indian stores, and bhajans.

Initially, the wife misses the warmth of her family, but the presence
of washing machines, vacuum cleaners, daytime soap operas and the absence
of a domineering mother-in-law helps. Bits of news filtering through
from India, mostly from returning Indians, is eagerly lapped up.

In discussions with friends, the topic of returning to India arises
frequently but is brushed aside by the lord and master who is now
rising in the corporate world and has fast moved into a two garage
home - thus fulfilling the great American Dream. The impending arrival
of the first born fulfills the great Indian Dream. The mother-in-law
arrives in time: after all, no right thinking parent would want their
off-spring to be born in India if offered the American alternative.

With all material comforts that money can bring, begins the first
signs of un-easiness - a feeling that somehow things are not what they
should be. The craze for exotic electronic goods, cars and vacations have
been satiated. The week-end gatherings are becoming routine.

Faced with a mid-life crisis, the upwardly mobile Indian's career
graph plateau's out. Younger and more aggressive Americans are promoted.
With one of the periodic mini recessions in the economy and the threat
of a hostile take-over, the job itself seems far from secure.

Unable or unwilling to socialize with the Americans, the Indian
retreats into a cocoon. At the home front,the children have grown up and
along with American accents have imbibed American habits
(cartoons,hamburgers) and values(dating). They respond to their
parents' exhortation of leading a clean Indian way of life by asking
endless questions.

The generation gap combines with the cultural chasm. Not surprisingly,
the first serious thoughts of returning to India occur at this stage.
Taking advantage of his vacation time, the Indian returns home to
'explore' possibilities. Ignoring the underpaid and beaurocratic
government sector, he is bewildered by the 'primitive' state of the
private sector. Clearly overqualified even to be a managing
director/chairman he stumbles upon the idea of being an entrepreneur.

In the seventies, his search for an arena to display his buisness
skills normally ended in poultry farming. In the eighties, electronics is
the name of the game. Undaunted by horror stories about government red
tape and corruption he is determined to overcome the odds - with one

He has a few things to settle in the United States. After all, you
can't just throw away a lifetime's work. And there are things like
taxation and customs regulations to be taken note of. Pressed for a
firm date, he says confidently 'next year' and therein lies our story.
The next years come and go but there is no sign of our McCarthian

About 40 years later our, by now, a old friend dies of a scheduled
heart-attack and it so happens that his last wish was that he be laid
to rest in the city he was born in India. So our friend at last
returns to India for good. But by now the people who were so looking
forward to see him return to his homeland are no more.

In other words if 'X' is the current year, then the objective is to
return in the 'X + 1' year. Since 'X' is a changing variable, the
objective is never reached. Unable to truly melt in the 'Great Melting
Pot', chained to his cultural moorings and haunted by an abject fear of
giving up an accustomed standard of living, the Non-Resident Indian
vacillates and oscillates between two worlds in a twilight zone.


Well, for one, this article is one which truly brings every Indian in America to think. I have had this chat with a lot of people and almost everyone has had incidents similar to the one described. The sad thing is , that none of those people returned back.

I don't want to put in my own comments on the main theme, but then this article is true , to the point, and sharp. The comments reflect day to day life in the US, and also the various shortcomings that an Indian finds in India, after being exposed to the US of A. I was speaking to a friend some days back, and someone whom i always thought wanted to settle in India, has now started thinking. Maybe, the X+1 syndrome has evolved for him.

The one thing I like about this article is, that there are probably inputs in this from people who have experience and gone thru all this, than just a idealogical lookout of one person. For example, I have always felt and maintained that a person stayingn in India can never comment on how (good or bad) life is in the US. It really takes one to live here to understand it. And for all the great education given to us by the various movies made, I believe it is upto one's own thinking as to how life should be shaped.

I wish to extend this X+1 syndrome experiment to all my readers. If you wish to, contribute by telling me, at what stage of the ladder are u, and what is your understanding.


Animesh said...

I do not know if I can comment, since I have not been through this yet.

However, I am still planning to go back as soon as I am done with my PhD. I must confess that I had begun to "miss" USA after a week in India this winter, but I am hoping that was because I had nothing to do there, as opposed to the usual lack of facilities, as happens to others.

Hoping for the best,

Aniket said...

I think the number of people who long to go back to the motherland has slowly but steadily started increasing.
And to what I could attribute this is the diminishing difference in the urban lifestyle in India and the lifestyle in the US. Though there could be a perennial gap which may never be filled, the recent generations have started feeling the urge to go back. To me I dont really find US "THAT" attractive. The job scene, the economy, the progress of our nation as a whole is slowing bridging the gap. I feel soon more and more people will start to go back.

Shailu said...

Article is nice.I think its pretty much the same...Even if you want to return back to india,you can't..i don't know why?
But as per my thinking, people in india has to change,they think if you are aboard then you are settled and you are having comfortable life.Lets be frank tell me anyone in USA has peace in their life.I don't have,but now-a-days i didn't even get sleep, i don't know why?

Sanket Malde said...

And some people do actually go back! :)