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Indians in America: Looking to the future after Sep 11th
World Trade Center bombing on September 11th left an indelible
mark on everyone in the America and the rumblings are still
being felt around the world. Remarkably however, months after
that sordid incident, the theme of Israel Zangwills play
written during the beginning of twentieth century titled "The
Melting Pot" still holds tremendous power on the American
imagination. The promise that all immigrants can be transformed
into Americans, and enjoy liberty and freedom to pursue ones
dreams, still sways millions who come here. Americans are generally tolerant of foreigners,
and historically have welcomed them with open arms. Most Americans,
other than Native Indians, trace their roots back to Europe,
Asia, Africa or other parts of the globe, making it a unique
melting pot. The bombings in September did little to change
this mindset. After recovering from the initial shock, Americans
have rallied around in their characteristic manner, displaying
overt patriotism, flying the star spangled banner, watching
their heroes firemen and policemen trying to rescue victims
and clear the debris, an image that still haunts many.
a regular columnist for Express Computers, I regularly receive
mails from people asking my opinion on life and issues in
the US. A few weeks after the bombing one particular Email
stood out. A concerned dad wrote to me, expressing fears of
backlash against Indians. He said, My daughter has got admission
into an undergraduate course for the Fall semester. Under
the present disturbed circumstances in USA is it advisable
to let her continue or bring her back home? Being a technocrat,
having lived in the US for over five years, and having had
a glimpse of the ethnically diverse melting pot that makes
America, I was initially surprised by his query. However,
after thinking about this question for a while, I was able
to empathize with a father who was concerned about his daughters
safety and well-being. Even sporadic incidents have a way
of blowing up in magnitude, especially when one hears and
read about them sitting thousands of miles away. It is not
hard to imagine the reaction of ones loved ones sitting thousands
of miles away, watching the gruesome scenes of the carnage
in New York unfolding, thanks to sattelite dishes and up-to-the-minute
cable news channels. Adding fuel to the concerns about safety
of loved ones were sporadic reports of backlash on Indians
and other Asians.
Americans, until recently, have been shielded from violence
in their homeland. Images of shootings and killings abroad
didnt seem to faze them. However, this carnage at home shocked
most of them, leaving some traumatized. Added to this is the
fact that many, if not most Americans are ignorant of foreigners
and foreign cultures, and are unable to make out the difference
between a turbaned Sikh and a turbaned Islamic militant being
shown on TV. This left some Indians, vulnerable to hate crimes.
However the government and media moved swiftly to isolate
these incidents proving the resolve of Americans to remain
levelheaded during tragic times.
was pleasantly surprised to note the reaction of the American
Government and media that acted in an extremely responsible
manner, ensuring that the hate crimes did not get any undue
publicity which would motivate copycats; At the same time,
they sent out a stern message to the public threatening dire
action against perpetrators of any racist attacks and crimes.
They were working overtime, trying to uphold the values upon
which this country was founded liberty and equal rights
to its citizens (should be read as residents, since most of
us in the US, even those with Green Cards and H1 visas enjoy
the same civil liberty rights).
SAJA (the South Asian Journalists Association) has done a
wonderful job of providing news and links to the latest happenings
in the Indian and South Asian community, especially after
Sep 11. The fact is, Indian and Asian journalists work for
some of the most high-profile publications and mainstream
media in the US; they also manage a number of Indian journals
and publications in the US, acting as a voice of the community.
Many of them have come together under the umbrella organization
called SAJA, and were instrumental in collecting and publishing
stories on a whole range of topics including Ground Zero,
the backlash and `The War. The organization represents more
than 800 journalists (including 70+ students) spread across
the United States and Canada and works to provide networking
and mentoring opportunities to journalists of Indian and Asian
origin. They are also working unobtrusive public relations
campaign that will immensely benefit Indians in the years
to come. A link to SAJAs website can be found at http://www.saja.org/ .
power of Internet and its ability to provide instantaneous
communication, linking people across the globe is well known.
Immediately after the Sep 11th tragedy, individuals and companies
trying to provide a sense of comfort and succor to thousands
who were traumatized harnessed the medium. Internet was especially
useful since there were reports of a number of Indians trapped
in the debris, and people from all over the globe were trying
to find if any of their loved ones were involved in the tragedy.
Lists of people presumed involved in the tragedy started circulating
immediately afterwards. Of course most of us Indians in the
US who were not directly involved in the tragedy were able
to instantly send reassuring emails to our relatives back
Has the American perception of Indians
changed after September 11th?
change in direction of the economy and its impact on professionals,
especially on those from India (here on H1-B visas) and those
here to study, seems to be generating a lot of interest among
the business community in the US. The buzz surrounding Indians
in the US has not gone unnoticed by the media and people in
the US. Interestingly, even the mainstream media in the US
seems to be taking note of the views of Indians in the US.
I had an interesting conversation with a writer from Computerworld,
one of the premier IT journals in the US towards the end of
2001, the gist of which was published in an interview in the
magazine. (Staying Focused on a Dream section attached).
writer called me and wanted to interview me about my experiences
as a foreign worker in the US. She was especially interested
in my reactions on how Indians felt about the current business
environment. Indians technologists, at least those still with
jobs, have been immune to the effects of the aftermath. Most
of us still maintain a status quo and continue with our jobs
and lives the best as we can. During the interview, the writer
was impressed by the success of the Indian community in the
US and was particularly awed by the daring shown by youngsters
who took the plunge, coming to live in a foreign country.
The influx of Indians H1s to the US was extremely beneficial
not only to Indians but also to the US economy. People who
came here were trained technologists who imported their valuable
skills along with them.
fact that many mainstream magazines and journals are considering
articles on H1s and immigrants, and want to feature Indians
and their saga in the US, goes to prove that we are a sizeable
force in the new economic and social equation. Americans have
loved immigrant success stories and are starting to recognize
the positive impact of the Indian Diaspora.
people in India, especially those in the tech sector are concerned
about the downturn and the impact it will have on H1 visas.
The fact of the matter is that technocrats, academics and
thinkers are still going to be in demand. Indians have been
traveling to the US even after the downturn and have faced
very little hurdles. The paperwork scrutiny, especially the
security may be a bit more stringent, but at most airports
and immigration centers, and American embassies around the
globe, it is business as usual. Visas are still being issued
to foreigners who have legitimate business in the US, although
the immigration department is picky about who gets those visas.
At the port of entry, in most airports and land entry points,
there are already stricter controls and vigilance to ensure
that only authorized people enter.
planning to come to the US for higher education may find the
going a bit tougher. However, it will not be impossible to
get a student visa, especially if one is bright and can afford
the cost of an American education. A vast number of American
universities still covet foreign students as a source of valuable
revenue, and even a tightening of visa laws is unlikely to
change that. They will lobby to ensure that students who can
afford to pay the full fees and are academically inclined
are welcome. Universities and academic institutions generally
go out of the way to welcome scholars who can add to the overall
academic experience. They facilitate foreign scholars by providing
all the documentation, letters of reference etc and will continue
to do so. However, the scrutiny at the embassies that issue
visas to foreign students will get tougher. Paperwork and
documentation will go through a number of levels of scrutiny.
The visa rules may become more stringent, but those needed
in the US for legitimate research and academic pursuits will
always be welcome.
Indians can ride the downturn with the same élan as they did
during the boom period, we are going to come ahead resilient
and stronger. The Indian success story is similar to that
of the successful Jewish community in the US. Like Jews, even
Indians are brilliant people, respected and looked up by Americans.
Even after a spending few generations in the US, Jews still
take great pride in their heritage and maintain a strong sense
of community. Similarly, Indians are used to chaos in our
lives and we try to compartmentalize the different aspects
of our life family, socialising, religion, faith, career
etc. Even after spending many years abroad, Indians derive
strength from our values, culture and traditions, which is
going to help us ride this downturn. If we can ride the downturn
and come blazing back, American perception of Indians as a
hard working, resilient community will be strengthened.
Direction of American Economy
of the most talked-about topics in the US is the state of
the economy. The unintended, and perhaps the most momentous
consequence of the New York City bombing was the impact on
the US economy, that was already tethering in the brink of
a recession. After growing at an astronomical pace during
the past decade, the economy was already starting to show
signs of a slow-down and was pushed over the edge by the September
are already predicting that the affects of this incident on
the US economy are going to be incredible. Wall Street Journal,
the revered American business journal, in its October 9 edition
said, the estimated hit to the U.S economy so far: at least
$100 billion this year, on top of tens of billions in property
damage and the staggering loss of human life. The article
went on to add that Americas $10 trillion economy is expected
to shrink by nearly 1%. Just to put these numbers in perspective,
a billion dollars is almost equivalent to 4,700 crore rupees.
the end of 2001 it became official that the economy was in
recession. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research
(NBER), a panel of economists considered to be the arbiters
of the nations boom and bust cycles, the US economy had been
in recession since early March. The day this was announced,
November 26, the stock market, instead of going down, reacted
buoyantly by moving up in the hope that the worst may be behind
of the pressing questions in everyones mind is with respect
to the end of the
current recession. Although the NBER wont forecast a bottom
of the current downturn, until the end is really confirmed,
economists say the recession could likely last into 2002.
How deep and how far is anyones guess, but people are bracing
themselves for the worst. The news of layoffs and joblessness
is already tapering off. There is indeed some indication that
there is light at the end of the tunnel, albeit a fuzzy and
bleak light. There are still unanswered questions of what,
when and how we will see the trend reverse. One thing is certain:
we are seeing the economic climate thaw. Most corporate executives
are already taking the current economic woes in their stride.
Companies, reconciled to the current economic conditions,
have already started budgeting for the years ahead, and although
the budgets are extremely conservative, they are giving an
indication that the worst may be behind us.
reverberations of Enrons fall are still being felt and I
dont think they will subside anytime soon. Thousands of American
companies declare bankruptcy every year. Last year the bankruptcy
saga was glamorized by the crash of dot.coms and Internet
startups. Why then all the brouhaha over Enron, Kmart and
Global Crossing? The downfall of American icons, Enron and
Kmart, is sending shivers down the corporate boardrooms across
the country. The main reason is the attachment most people
have to large corporations. Dot.coms and Internet startups
didnt evoke the same passion in the hearts and minds of people,
as do conventional giants. Most people are wondering, if a
large energy trading giant till two years ago the seventh
largest American company can file for Chapter 11 (a kind
of legal bankruptcy filing) and a hundred year old retailer
can flip like a pack of cards, what is to prevent others from
sinking? A bankruptcy filing by a large company is not just
closure of a company, but loosing of faith in the business,
idea and market, not to mention loss of thousands jobs, careers
and dreams. Crash of large companies affects all the divisions
and even techies are not immune. Scores of Indians working
for Enron and Kmart are already out looking for next jobs
and assignments, a tough spot to be, especially in the current
is a fact that most non-essential business spending has come
to a halt. Along with business spending, IT systems and projects
have been put on hold. Most companies across the US are only
spending on projects that are critical to the operations,
shelving non-essential projects. The nice-to-have systems
and technical upgrades are out of the door. Interestingly,
some smaller companies, especially those with cash reserves,
are bargain hunting, using the down economy as an excuse to
hire DBAs, systems analysts and web-programmers cheaply.
They are rebuilding their antiquated systems and streamlining
the operations. Needless to say, there is a pent-up demand,
especially in companies with large IT houses, for new system
and software upgrades and projects that can enhance and add-value.
However, that pent-up demand is being controlled and will
find an outlet the moment the economy turns north. One or
two quarters of profits and growth will see a renewed focus
on business spending.
Will things get back to normal?
anyone in the US has been immune to the current downturn that
we are experiencing. Even Indians in the US have not been
spared. Some lost jobs and had to return back to India because
their employers cancelled their H1 visas. (See the topic:
Why laid-off Indians refuse to return home? Needless to
say, for most of us, it has been a learning experience. One aspect of American life that Indians
find hard to adjust to is the drastic swings in the economic
cycles. We are used to a slower economic cycle and sometimes
find it hard to accept that an economy, which was super-hot,
towards the end of nineties got under recession in 2001. Layoffs
are a still a taboo in India and we attach a strong stigma
to layoffs. However, many Indians, who have lived through
a few economic cycles here in the US do not seem to think
much of layoffs, or even economic cycles, focusing instead,
on the big picture.
growth we saw in the late nineties had a number of things
going for it. It was the period when the fear of Y2K reached
hysterical levels, prompting governments (state and federal)
and Fortune 500 companies to spend enormous amounts of money
towards Y2K readiness. This was also a period that saw the
dot.com and Internet mania sweep across the country (and the
world). Instead of trying to understand the real value that
these technologies afforded, companies perpetuated a gold
rush by spending billions of dollars in trying to compete
with their Internet cousins. Without these two factors, it
is hard to envisage a return back to the glorious days of
1990s. However, this does not undermine the need for IT systems
and solutions that can add true business value and solve the
needs of business users. There will be a renewed demand for
world-class systems and software that can solve and show business
leaders a real Return on Investment (ROI)
Indians and Indian companies, this latent demand translates
to opportunities waiting to happen. A number of large Indian
software houses are already starting to consolidate their
operations, focusing on building on their strengths. Perhaps
now is the time for Indian companies to invest in some world-class
PR (public relations) and marketing. If we get the message
out that India is still a top-notch supplier of software and
services, we will kill two birds get the word out on the
street (in the US) and position ourselves for a rebound. Companies
with cash reserves should start building goodwill with their
down-and-out clients in the US by reducing margins and even
working on a cost-basis. Their clients and customers will
remember this gesture, especially as the economic growth and
the latent projects become a reality.
economic strength is based on the globalization of its businesses
and commercial enterprises, and it is hard to envisage the
nation isolating itself from the global marketplace. Even
though Americans are still reeling under the aftermath of
the attack, and the economy in recession, people, government
and the corporate world is rallying around to help rebuild the nation. America
is a melting pot of ethnicities and this incident, although
it has shaken us all, will go down as a small blimp that tested
the resilience and tolerance of its people. What makes America
great is the tremendous amount of economic and business activity
taking place here. In order to man and manage and operate
the affairs of business, including technologies that keep
businesses humming, America is going to need talented people,
even if it means getting talented foreigners.
Why laid-off Indians refuse to return home?
has been over forty years since the US pulled out of Vietnam,
but some American soldiers who were there still wake hallucinating
about their experiences, grappling with the uncertainty and
ever-changing environment. Indian software professionals came
to the US looking for opportunities but as many are finding
out, it is a mixed bag.
of us have heard of the far-reaching consequences of the current
economic downturn manifesting in a spate of layoffs. Even
I have been hearing and reading stories of people having to
pack their bags and leave because their project unexpectedly
came to an end. The magnitude of it (layoffs) struck me recently
while talking to an ex-colleague of mine. He got married in
November of 2000 and came back with his bride, and unfortunately
got laid off in March of 2001. He has been looking for a job
since then, but the prospects seem to be bleak.
abound, but during the hiring frenzy of Y2K projects and the
dot com boom, hundreds of thousands of Indians, most of them
on H1s, came to the US. As the projects started to come to
an end many were laid off during the first and second quarter
of 2001, returned back and started looking for projects and
jobs in Hyderabad, Bangalore and Madras. The US Returned
tag and the first mover advantage probably helped them land
a number of Indians decided to stay back, taking a chance
that sooner, rather than later, the market would open up and
they would get their jobs back. However, all indications point
to the fact that the situation doesnt seem to be abating
and it could be a while before we see any real positive signs
of economic growth. The financial hardship one undergoes,
being out of a job in a foreign country is hard to describe.
Rent, insurance, food and transportation are de rigueur and
the expenses can add up very quickly. What then makes a person
stay back in a foreign country with the slim hope that he
will land a job and recoup his expenses?
one of the strongest reasons (for a person to stay back in
the US after being laid-off) is family. Many of us still vividly
remember the pride and joy with which our families came to
see us off at the airport when we first moved to the US. Families
take great pride in the fact that the son (or daughter) is
working in the US. Layoff is a still a stigma, more so because
it is relatively unheard of in white-collar jobs in India.
Hence, it is extremely hard to come to terms with the fact
that one has been laid off. It is almost as if one would be
letting the family down if one were to return back after
being laid off. Many still think of it like having the family
honor at stake and they decided to stay back and look for
jobs here in the US as long as it takes, rather than go back
to my friend, he hasnt told his parents or in-laws back home
about his predicament since he wants to save face. How long
is he willing to wait? Hard to say. Im sure he is resilient
enough to bounce back and will land on his feet when things
get better; but until then, he is living off his savings.
So are thousands of Indians in the US.
that I have spoken about the gloom and disparity shrouding
the predicament being faced by some Indians in the US, its
time to look at the other side of the coin.
employers, especially to the Software Moguls who run Indian
companies, having access to thousands of capable and highly
skilled professionals should spell opportunity. Access to
thousands of world-class professionals with valid visas in
the US, available to start work immediately, unthinkable even
a few months ago is a reality. Executives with some foresight
and the ability to look at the forest from the trees will
immediately see an opportunity, since this situation (downturn
in economy) in not going to last long. Added to this is the
fact that media and the stock market has a tendency to overreact
to news good and bad and many executives, even at large companies
tend to rely on the media and the market more than they should.
Indian companies and software giants do not have this baggage.
Many of them are flush with funds that they generated during
the boom time and can afford to build, maintain and motivate
a pool of software professionals.
to this fact is the global nature of Indian software. Most
large Indian software houses have projects around the world
and can market professionals in other parts of the world too.
If they (the Indian companies) can see an opportunity in this
economic climate, they will come ahead when things eventually
start looking up. They will not only have a pool of talented
workers but will also win the loyalty of the workforce that
has seen worst times.
is an army of experienced professionals waiting for the right
break. Any takers?
Computerworld Interview with the Author: Staying Focused on a Dream
MELISSA SOLOMON; (December
Mohan Babu, the dream of permanent U.S. residency is still
alive. But his illusion of America as the land where opportunities
abound is vanishing before his eyes.
the past year, Babu, an H-1B visa holder from Bangalore, India,
has seen friend after friend lose his job and pack his bags
to return home. "They had a couple of weeks' notice,"
and they had to sell their cars and furniture and go, says
Babu, a Colorado Springs-based consultant for Compuware Corp.
many technology firms, Farmington Hills, Mich.-based Compuware
has been affected by the stalled economy. But much to the
surprise of its employees, the company has kept many of its
consultants on staff until the next project comes along, says
definitely worried . . . because they haven't made a statement
that they will continue their policy indefinitely," says
Babu. Since his benefits and salary are tied to the job market,
he's already felt the pinch. "That has taken a big hit,"
he says. "A lot of us were not counting on this."
Babu knows he's one of the lucky ones. He's pretty far along
in the green-card application process, so he can remain in
the country even if he loses his job. But for most foreigners,
the prospects are grim, he says, adding, "If you lose
a job, you don't just lose a job. You lose visa status."
situation has affected every aspect of life for the foreign
workers still in the U.S. "When times were good, we had
a strong network," says Babu. Indians from around the
U.S. connected with one another on a social and professional
level. But even that network is hard to tap now, "because
everyone is in the same boat," he says.