In the recent four weeks, I went through an interesting change in life. After having spent six years in the US doing my MBA and working for the World's largest corporation, I decided to move back to India and accomplished that in a matter of a few weeks. The transition from life in one country to a new beginning in another was of course challenging for my family. In the course of a rapid-fire four weeks, I observed and noted some interesting aspects of things around me, which I felt were a small reflection of why I made a decision to move back to India, a reluctant decision usually among most NRIs residing in the US.
Life in the US is about a few key elements mixed in your life - Opportunities, Respect for the individual, Convenience and Consumption. While the country offers a lot more than just the above four, as a foreign "alien" visiting the US to make a living, these four ingredients mixed in different combinations usually end up being the reason one knowingly or unknowingly prefers staying in the US as against one's home country. However, my personal experience led me to understand that the first two reasons - opportunities and respect for the individual, are very speculative elements. They are subjective and also heavily dependent on how truly miserable a life one led in his home country. But, the latter two elements - convenience and consumption, are by and large the biggest reason for one sticking to the US like glue. What I realized to my disappointment was that while I value convenience, I knew how to get a reasonable variation of that back in India. When it came to consumption, my family just plain hated it. Apart from creating a sense of gluttony within your daily existence, it is highly addictive and also takes over your life. Once you start carrying your shopping bags or start browsing shopping websites, there is just too much to sell from China and too much to stock in the US. All the while, one loses track of the time, energy and money spent on chasing that consumer dream of managing greed.
Once these four elements were dealt with, it became quite clear to me that the playing field was level in both countries. There were still imbalances either in favor or not in favor of one country over the other, but they were either balancing out or less relevant from a personal standpoint. For example, in a beautiful comfortable car, I could drive peacefully on well paved roads for work or to shop in the US. In India, I can never achieve this given the poor standards of infrastructure development. But, I can shop less, drive less and manage to have a driver to meet the same needs I have. Certain painful factors like corruption will always be a constant pain in India as it takes a heavy toll on getting things done in a convenient manner. However, if one is willing to develop the patience required to handle such situations, the pain is reduced, although still existent.
Now, coming to the observations I made just before leaving the US, I realized what challenges lie in getting things done in the US if you don't fall into a convenient "template" of a general consumer. That in turn led me to believe that it is mostly the perception that matters rather than the reality of things wherever one lives in. I have listed them out as random thoughts as they were indeed random events that happened over the course of 3 weeks in the US and India.
I used USPS to mail a check for paying off my financial loans on a Toyota car I bought. This vehicle brought a lot of trouble for me initially as it ended up having the unique distinction of being the car with the most weird recalls in history. It ended up performing well, but I had to make multiple trips to the dealership to make sure it worked right. The check I mailed was lost. Either lost in transit or by the Toyota finance company that processes the check. The customer service team was courteous as usual to give me no help as it is not always that they deal with lost checks from a customer.
While I ended up being clueless as to what I should do to leave the country by paying off my loans without triggering any red alerts, the power of social media saved the day. I tweeted about the bad experience and it was immediately picked up by a Customer Service Manager in Toyota. In the course of a week, after running multiple times to the bank to get back my lost money, I repaid my loan dues and got the matter closed. I also tested the intellectual limitations of a bank that handles Western Union transactions as they didn't know how to process an amount for my loan payoff that their computer was constantly rejecting. I finally got it processed from a Western Union center handled by some Punjabi immigrants running a postal service in Sunnyvale.
Moral of the story: Good and Bad experiences happen in the US too. What is considered as superior customer service is good as long as you follow a template version of a consumer who is well served and common.
I called up Citibank to explore options to pay my private student loans once I'm back in India. The customer service team listed out a couple of options. First, I lose a minuscule 0.25% interest rate reduction to begin with. The reason being that I cannot link my automatic payments to a foreign bank account to make my payments. Hence, all I can do is use PayPal or wire transfer to continue my loan payments. Well, this is probably fair on the part of the bank except that no sensible American citizen would take a private student loan to pursue an expensive education in US universities. That ridiculous behavior belongs to Indian or Chinese or other foreign students who are funding their education abroad. Citibank's template like assumption for students makes a broad-based assumption that these helpless students would anyways work in the US only and hence they will have a US bank account for paying their dues.
Given the economic direction and the immigration rhetoric of American politicians, it should have been fairly simple logic for Citibank's strategic loan sharks to understand that not all foreign students stay back in the US for a career. Given that probably >80% of their loan business comes from foreign students, it should have been prudent on their part to allow for easy foreign bank payments and better interest rate reductions.
Moral of the story: Better follow the oft beaten path to existence or start facing the consequences of making under-served choices. If you really want to complain, there are enough reasons in every small detail of one's daily existence, no matter where you live.
I made an attempt to sell some furniture and electronics items on Craigslist. This famous purchase and barter site for used goods obviously comes with a large local buyer base and also the danger of being tricked. A certain guy in Florida showed interest in purchasing my sofa in California. This guy wanted to first check with his wife if she liked the professional photographs I sent of the sofa. He then wanted to mail me some payment or wire it to me with some additional money also put in. He then wanted me to give the sofa to some guys with a van willing to pick them up. I then had to pay the additional amount to the movers so that they happily leave. Short of saying you are a cheat, I stopped by saying I will deal locally and only accept cash. The guy's language, temper and wishes of being blessed by Jesus Christ all disappeared in his next email to me. I left it there with no counter response although I do have the distinction of being very clever with words in my emails at work.
Other items saw some people come in to my house only to realize that we were Indians. There was some uncomfortable look in their faces on seeing us and they made their exit even without seeing the items being sold. Also, some Indians settled in the US came with their hawk-eyes and "I hate to trust you" attitude to purchase my TV and furniture. After inspecting all items as part of their quality management process, they rejected my items and went back home. Walmart would have been proud to hire such folks for their sourcing business.
Other customers on Craigslist chose to play a trick that my grandmother was proficient at in her village to buy a spoon from a merchant. Reduce the quote price by half, ask for more details like who the designer was for a coffee table, and then wait for a few days to see if the pressure of not being able to sell the items will force me to come down further than the 50% reduction initially proposed. Given my so called desperate state, even after coming down to those low prices, many didn't show up or just suddenly lost interest. I never knew such pleasantries existed in the second-hand buying market of the US. Or maybe, it was just a California thing. After all, similar to the way I abused car drivers in Hyderabad for their lack of brains in understanding what a lane meant, I did the same with Bay Area drivers who didn't know what lane changing meant.
Moral of the story: Like a frog in a well that comfortably thinks everything within the well is the only World, existence even in developed nations like US is comfortable as long as you belong to the well where others exist. Outside of that, you will find the same challenges and opportunities that invite you in other places around the World.
Dumping things in trash bins is not as easy as I thought. First, good California regulations prevent households from dumping hazardous materials in trash bins. I love that rule. In India, anything can be dumped on roads or in the open space outside an empty trash bin as long as you can walk away with no sense of moral guilt in your heart. My apartment complex (Estates at Park Place) had a great team of service personnel and one day, I was caught by one of them near a stinky dumpster for about 30 minutes. I was not caught for dumping anything bad, but that gentleman wanted someone to talk to about the pain he goes through in clearing trash. Maybe I already looked jobless to him and he didn't care that I was an apartment resident and had better things to do. The guy was from the Philippines and did several odd jobs before handling the dumpsters here. He loves the US as he feels he still has a house and a LCD TV of his own. He complained about how people living in nearby million dollar homes sneak up in the middle of the night to dump large kitchen cabinets, sofa sets and other ridiculous items that they cannot dump in front of their beautiful homes either for aesthetic reasons or for the hefty fines they have to pay. Anyways, I was taken to each dumpster and made to do a visual inspection of the kind of items that these home owners dump. He also showed how he cleverly deduced that these items were not from people within my apartment based on special markings that I didn't understand.
Anyways, this experience made me realize that I couldn't afford to dump anything unacceptable in the trash bins while clearing my apartment. That in turn added to my misery of how to get rid of stuff that others don't want to take. In India, people take things even if you don't want them to. It was not required for me to plan meticulously for two weeks to see how I can get rid of things I don't want.
Moral of the story: Consumption in the US is a double edged sword. It feels good as long as it keeps coming. It however turns out to be painful as we try to let it go. Nevertheless, the true lesson is that every place has it own set of unique challenges that either help or torment you based on what your needs are.
After having arrived in India by letting go of my alien status, I got a rapid fire taste of what India has in store for its people. Pollution, waterlogged roads due to the monsoon and rash vehicle drivers who don't care for their life all combined together to make me fall sick within a week of arrival. Of course, the weather did it, but these other factors somehow added to my misery. But I got back on my feet within a few days and accepted that this is the normal state of affairs out here.
I watched television to note that an actor allegedly murdered someone and the courts let her go as she already served her sentence. Surprisingly, the media didn't think otherwise. They gave their own verdict on their news channels with the least regard to what the courts had to say. It is not always that court cases are solved in India and this case already took three quick years! The media however decided that their verdict is that the actor is guilty and the person needs to be punished for much longer. How long is something that they were willing to allow the courts to again decide on. They just love to announce their unique form of justice. The Prime Minister of India, who of late seems to just hate the idea of talking to anyone but himself also lamented at this very scary state of affairs -"the media is the accuser, prosecutor and judge", he said! I was scared too. The media can do anything. After all, most of them are owned or influenced by various political parties that the Prime Minister is also a part of.
The fight for a separate statehood also saw a bandh (strike) for two days right now in my home State. Similar to the days when Indians were not Communists but still behaved that way, true to that ongoing tradition, anyone can stop anything from functioning normally in India. You can burn a bus as long as you don't get caught sitting in it. You can ransack a store as long as it is not your bread and butter business to survive. Maybe this is what unfiltered freedom means. Happiness for the offender, nuisance for the rest.
Useless TV programs focused only on cinema and cricket have constantly frustrated me. This however still is the major form of entertainment in India apart from a new breed of screaming, loud mouthed journalists delivering "breaking" news by the hour. But, I should have known better that there are always other things to do in life than sit in front of a TV.
While all this was on, I also got to realize that if I look through the mess, there are better things to pursue and enjoy even in this chaos. E-commerce and entrepreneurial ventures of all kinds are taking off in the country. Venture Capital backing is helping these companies get access to money to make more money. Somehow, not many seem to realize that VCs are just sophisticated money lenders functioning outside of a stock exchange with a cool business model. But who cares as long as they are willing to share money and some advice on growing a business in a highly volatile but lucrative market.
While I look forward to seeing how good and long this lasts, it is nevertheless a great feeling to realize that the India of today is not the India that I left six years before. Things are changing and one can hope it is for the best.