Wednesday, January 28, 2009

If you are an NRI and planning to return


I have a few thoughts on what you can prepare for. The following is purely based on my personal experience and I don't intend to generalize. Some of what I am saying may apply only to people in my industry (computer software).


The Reasons to Move Back

1. Family Parties
One reason we moved back was so that we could be with close relatives. We had very few relatives in the USA, and those who were there wanted nothing to do with us.
Now, people will tell you that relatives are a good reason to actually stay away. In my case that was not true.
But the problem for some is that even if you come back, your relatives may be all over India - it is not like the olden days. Families are highly distributed and so your hopes of family parties every week may be dashed.
In my case, we did have fun.

Another reason is the weather - wait, I am joking.

2. Career
One good reason is for career growth - there are people who believe that in the USA it is hard to grow for an Indian. I won't get into controversy, but in India, it is true that if you have enough years of experience, and you are from the USA you can land a good position.
BUT, increasingly, I have seen that NRIs are being recruited more by startups and smaller, medium-sized companies than by large IT companies. The large IT companies sometimes go out of the way to prove that you are not "special" because you are from the USA.
Now, about the work culture and how much "cushy" your job is - I will have more to say about that later.

Will you earn (realtively) more than you did in the USA? A couple of years back, the answer would be yes - although it depends a lot on your years of experience. Now, with the current market, I am not so sure. For senior positions, in technology or management, you could command from 16L per year (10-12 years of experience, Chennai) to 25L per year (in Bangalore). These are very word-of-mouth, but as an average, I believe you could command double the avreage pay for a given experience range in a given city. This may not be possible now, in this market.
Check out this link for some information on average payscale in Chennai.
Why are NRIs so valuable? Are they really worth much more than an Indian employee? We will discuss that later.

3. Cultural Reasons
There are NRIs with a family, who feel that bringing up their kids in India may be a better idea for cultural reasons. Some of them get worried about the consumerist culture in the USA; about the way kids become teenagers very fast; about "attitude"; and so on. (Again, no need for controversy here. I myself have different opinions and I am only narrating what I have heard parents express).
Well, I believe that India is getting to be a hundred times more consumerist; and at least the USA has a movement of people pushing back against the media there. In India, media dominates our lives and is so corrupt and incompetent that they rival with politicians for primary villain status. If you are in India and watching television in the comfort of your home, expect to be bombarded in prime time by images of gore, sex and violence beyond anything in the USA. Women are regularly shown as sex objects and television news commonly shows images of drowned bodies and bloody deaths without any warning.
But, the print media is still vibrant and if you want to stay in touch with the rest of India, newspapers are a good beginning. Other than that the education system in India is in dire need of reform. We will discuss more of this later.

In my case, one of the reasons I felt very excited about coming back was, frankly, the food, music and literature. You can wake up in the morning and walk upto a hotel next to you to get pongal and chutney - that was very important. Try doing that in Philadelphia.
And then the music. There are the FM stations, the television music channels and dozens of talent-hunt shows. You could be walking through a slum and suddenly hear a snatch of your favorite song from childhood. I know that many of these channels are available either on the web or through DTH, so that is a compensation in the USA. But I wanted the real thing.
Unfortunately, the neighbors also tend to play music loud so sometimes you could end up hearing "where is the party?" too many times.
I am interested in modern Tamil literature and the books and writers are all in Tamil Nadu. There are many, of course, who enjoy and stay in touch with literature from abroad. But I felt I would have a much better handle on things here in Chennai.

Now from all of the above you could see a common thread: when I came back, I actually returned to the city that speaks my language and shares my childhood culture. That is hard for most people. Many of my friends advised me to go to Bangalore for better pay. But then, we felt we could have stayed in the USA for that matter. If I think that way, it is far tougher if you are from Bhubaneshwar or Calcutta or Guwahati or Jaipur or Patna (if you are in IT, I mean. Nothing wrong with those cities). This is a crucial decision - if you are coming back to be in your "home culture", you may actually end up somewhere else. Please keep that in mind.

When you make the decision
Start interviewing. Decide on the city and start sending your resumes and attending phone interviews - when you are in the USA. Don't wait till you come back.
A few people want to take a long break when they return - relax for 3 months and then start attending interviews. The assumption is that companies would jump to recruit you - that is risky, I believe. I think they will negotiate with you better if you are actually in the USA. You can always ask for a break before joining.

Most companies do not make a decision till you meet them in person in India. When you come to India you HAVE to go through their stupid security frisking, their HR's attitude and all that. It is your initiation rite into the Indian business culture.

Most startups and even medium companies will flat out lie to you about many things - they may have a bond for employees and they won't reveal it to you until you come back. Their work location may be completely different from what they told you. Their attitude is basically focussed on short-term gain (this is true of Indian business in general). They intend to lie to you, get you to join them; and then hope you won't get angry and leave when you find out the real terms.
(This was not my experience, but I have seen others go through this process).
So here are a few things to ask your potential employer:
1. Is there a bond? What are the terms of the bond? Remember, you can actually refuse to sign a bond, make that clear outright, and still get the job.
2. Which location would you be posted in?
3. What is the notice period for quitting? Try to negotiate this - companies keep hiking it and now it stands at 3 months in some places.
4. What is the percentage travel in the job? Some companies will try to get you to go back to the USA or UK for "visits". If you have returned for peace and quiet, that may not help.
5. How much is the actual monthly pay you will get and what is the variable pay?
6. Do you have saturday and sunday off? This was important to me.
7. Who would you actually be reporting to?

I would suggest an idea here that may work for some of you but not all:
If you are working in the USA with an American concern, and you like them, then there is an alternative you can try. Ask them if you can work from India. I am doing this currently and it is lucrative, and lets you work from home. Of course, if your company does not like remote control this may take some convincing. But with modern technology, it is possible pretty cheaply. You have Skype, broadband lines, and VPN software that lets you work very efficiently.
Get all of your contacts in the USA and let them know you are moving back to India and that you would be open to working from India for them. A few may consider it. You will get paid in dollars: there is no service tax on software exports and you need to pay taxes only in India (because of the tax treaty between India and the USA).

File your taxes properly in the USA and make sure that when you leave, your pending taxes still get paid.
Allow yourselves a couple of months to make the move back. I shipped most of my books back by the US Postal service for cheap (a dollar per pound)- it took 2-3 months to arrive but was in good condition.

The Culture Shock
When you come back, there generally WILL be a culture shock. This will happen even if you have been visiting India once an year. Your relatives and friends in India generally will not understand this culture shock. I have heard people making fun of NRIs for "showing off" for as little as complaining about the weather.
Most people's understanding of NRIs is that they are abroad ONLY for the money. They do not seem to understand that there is a quality of life in most countries that is fundamentally different from India. There is more personal freedom in the West(but maybe not in the Persian Gulf countries), a respect for privacy; people behave maturely in public. Dealing with government agencies is not such a pain. Cars don't try to kill you while crossing the road. Your kids's school talks to you nicely. Hospitals are more friendly.
So, there IS a culture shock, even though you were born and brought up in India. You can talk about it among understanding people, but try not to complain about India to people you know casually or at work. It is difficult for them to sympathize.
The schools are the worst, if you have kids. Parents have no leverage and the education system is stunted in the 19th century. It does not change just because you pay more.
In fact that is a lesson to learn - more money does not automatically bring in higher quality in India.
The hospitals have pros and cons - on the one hand, they are good quality, the doctors are obviously qualified. They are cheaper compared to the USA at least. Health Insurance does exist, but generally only for hospitalization. The problem is that the doctors are overworked. They see fifty to seventy patients a day and have no time for a real diagnosis. In fact, diagnosis is horrendous. The doctors yell a lot and do not have bedside manners at all.
On the other hand, my mom had cancer and they cured it. For much lesser cost than anywhere else in the West.
Kids do fall sick more frequently; and weird epidemics sweep the population. But you gain some resistance and you can manage.
I have been negative thus far - but there are areas in which life here is far better. One such is the explosion of the services industry and the use of mobile phones. You can order anything from a personal chauffeur to grocery items by phone - they will be delivered to home. The service level is high and I have always felt that customer service in local stores is much better in India.
And if you fall sick, your family is close by. Neighbors talk to each other and help out.
Travel is much easier - it is easy to hire vans or cars and be driven as far as Kerala. Agents will take care of all your needs, from food to lodging. As I said, the best thing is the services industry.

Work Culture
Forget 9-to-5. You will be working harder and will have less time with family. But companies do allow working from home for senior staff.
There are three main types of IT companies:
1. Sevices company doing business with overseas clients.
2. Product company selling software products
3. Indian branch of Multi-National Corporations

The Indian services companies are known to be the worst in terms of work culture and stress. Product companies are said to be a lot better (but I have not worked in one).

People "interact" with each other a lot at work. Coffee, Lunch sessions are long and relaxing. People do not usually have voice mail. For a person like me, this was heaven - I could talk all day long with friends. It was difficult to get work done sometimes though.
Personally, I like working in India much, much better than in the USA. It is difficult to explain, but I felt happy going to work on Mondays. I could always meet new people, engage in conversations. Work is not sit-in-your-cubicle-and-stare-at-the-monitor type. There are mostly younger people in IT companies and the atmosphere is like a carnival.
But, it is possible that I felt this way because I was higher up (relatively) in the hierarchy.

Why are NRIs valuable to a company?
One reason why you are valuable is because you already are assumed to possess the following:
1. Good expression of the English language
2. Good "soft skills" such as email etiquette and writing documents
3. Experience dealing with foriegn clients and an understanding of cultural differences
4. And lastly, competence at work
For Indian companies the first 3 items are hard to find and train for. They are valued skills. Competence at work is, of course, available in India too.

Will you regret your decision?
I still am not regretting my decision to move back after 3 years. I may go back and forth, but I think I made the right move. The thing is, it is a very personal decision and difficult to explain to others. If you can justify it with your spouse, then go for it. Do not try to convince everyone around you.

For more "analysis" please read one of my previous posts here.

6 comments:

Sridhar said...

I posted Deepak Amin's much talked about article in my blog at http://justexperience.blogspot.com/2007/06/deepak-amins-article-that-inspired-many.html. Surprisingly, the term Deepak Amin is a top search term for my blog.

The topic of returning to India is still so relevant thanks to our folks who have their heads in the US and the hearts in India.

Destination Infinity said...

Good detailed post. But as a young Indian, with most of my friends in the United states, I have some difficult observations to make on people who do return for vacations, etc. When they return, say after five years, they tend to concentrate on what is bad here than what is good there. I have seen this with some of my friends, I find almost the same. I was glad to read your article, which was much more balanced for an NRI.

In my opinion, every region has its own plus and minus points, and we cannot objectively conclude that this is the best and this is the worst. What do you feel on that?

Destination Infinity

Ramiah Ariya said...

Sridhar,
Thanks for that article.
DI,
It is true that every region has its plus and minuses - but it is also true that we call the USA or UK as developed countries for a reason.
To a certain extent the comfort we feel in a society also depends on how that society treats its weak; its women; its older citizens; or its disadvantaged. It also depends on how a society deals with common problems.
In that respect, there is a certain feeling of incompetence and callousness in India. Now, you may think that I am saying this because I was an NRI. But there is nothing wrong with that - I have seen how a better system works.
Who would leave India if things actually worked a 20% better? Nobody.
Practically, this is not about patriotism - I did not leave India because I was unpatriotic; nor did I come back because I am patriotic. I have no use for patriotism. But every man wants to spend his life in a familiar culture. He loves the atmosphere he grew up in and likes to spend his time with families. That is true for Indians as well as Americans.
But once you go abroad, it is psychologically impossible not to compare. And what do you compare about? The things that affect you immediately - how do government agencies treat you? How does the school system or health care system work? How does the society treat its environment?
Now, I would love to be immune to all this, and pretend that every region has its pluses and minuses. But then I would be negligent. I would not learn the lessons that society teaches me.
Apart from its foreign policy, the American society and most Western societies have achieved a certain balance of personal freedom with competence at the problems facing them. That is impossible to ignore and I will not claim that we have a few pluses too.
For the majority of poor people, for most women, and for most children, they have built a better society. That is my opinion.

This is why I want to draw a distinction between my (and others)decision to come back and saying that India is better. I did not come back weighing the relative pros and cons. That is not how you make these decisions.

To answer your question more specifically, although you say we cannot objectively determine which society is better, most people DO make such judgements and there are of course, several objective measures which talk about the development level of a society. In all these India will NOT fare very well when compared to western countries.
When NRIs come back and complain about lack of trash cans, do not blame them. It is completely natural and they are more frustrated than "showing off". They are frustrated because all of them would like to return but they can see that our society is less than ideal (to say the least). Who do you blame for this situation? I, for one, am certainly not blaming the people of India.
Also, it is not practical to expect (just because a NRI complains) that he would come back and "serve" India. They are normal people too. Everybody have their personal problems to take care of - I would suggest less judgement of fellow humans.

Kunal said...

A very detailed post infact..
Just joined the IT industry and I'm only 2 years older.. I'm sure i will have an oppurtunity to experience foriegn life and culture someday.. and that day I'll write a post :)

Anonymous said...

It's okay yaar. These days no one accuses a random IT coolie back from Philadelphia of "showing off". Think of all the sneaky H1-B documents you compiled from your "American" company. Don't make loose comments about business culture in India.

If all you want is Pongal and stuff, I think your actual problem is about fitting in with the liberal, modern and progressive culture of a city like Philadelphia. It doesn't sit very well with your superstition filled life, does it... this fast and that fast... this god and that god? I would say... instead of coming back to a top Indian city like Mumbai, Bangalore or Hyderabad, move to rural Pennsylvannia. You will find a lot of backward thinking superstitious idiots in there and you will feel at home with them.

And while we are on the topic, the Indian school system is pretty good. It puts everyone in his/her place, i.e., it makes a clear distinction between poor students, average students, good students and excellent students... it does not give out good marks simply to boost someone;s ego. See how an average IT worker like you has accumulated this huge ego in America? See how you feel smart enough to make general authoritative judgements on India and America (together abt 1400 million ppl). That is what America does to you... tells you that you are worth a lot just to make you feel better.

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