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The Indian-American Gen Next
September 20, 2006
I had gone into a Starbucks coffee shop in Paulo Alto, a particularly affluent part of Silicon Valley and found some of my friends, all very successful IT professionals already in the midst of a discussion. I grabbed a coffee as I have learnt to say shelling out almost three dollars -- still thinking mentally after all this time of it as 150 rupees --- and joined them.
"This generation, they just cannot focus the way we could, that is the problem," Sharat was saying. He has already sold a few startups and is regarded not only as a whiz in semiconductors but as a very shrewd and successful entrepreneur as well.
"Everything has come too easy for them. Remember how we worked to get into the IIT and how we had to slog at Kanpur," said a second friend. They were all IITians and often are nostalgic about the alu parathas in their days at the Kanpur IIT or the chaat outside the gates of the Delhi IIT, a conversation I have got used to.
The chat continued though without access to the chaat and I was relieved to find that this was talk that I could actually follow. Normally I walk into conversations which are all about integrated circuits, routers, gigabytes, dual processors and such like and one is soon lost.
Today was better. It was about the next generation, about their children, a universal and perennial topic wherein each generation complains about the next. It is also as quintessentially Indian a topic as cricket, Bollywood and politics are.
"Why the crib now? Has anything specific come up?" I asked.
"It is my daughter. She is looking at college admissions. You won't believe what she said. She says she doesn't want to do computer engineering because... guess what. She says she doesn't want to work in India and in future all such jobs will be in India," said Sharat. He was laughing but one could discern that he was concerned about his daughter.
"But can she get into computer engineering? Is she good at math or whatever?" I asked.
"She is OK. Obviously she could not have got into IIT, if she were in India, but she can get into a decent university here since I can pay the tuition. She will be able to manage. But the problem is that she does not see a future there and most of her friends believe that they just cannot compete either with the talent or the salary expectations. Not only Indians but Chinese, as well in the future..."
"What does she want then?"
"Media analyst, political lobbyist, accessorial designer -- she is vague. But at least it is better than her school day ambition which was to become a pop star."
I had come across parents bemoaning their kids' ultimate aspiration to become a rock star, but this was among mainstream Americans (or 'native Americans' as I once heard some desi-Americans cutely calling them, the ultimate irony. The original natives now called the American-Indians are almost forgotten).
The thought-patterns of Sharat's daughter are an example of some in the next generation. Let me be clear. For a large majority of the second generation Indian-American teenagers, the traditional career path still seems to be the well trodden and tried and tested -- doctor, engineer, management consultant. Or scientist, economist, researcher -- if one is particularly academically inclined.
I see quite a few in that esoteric profession which I have not understood -- investment banker, or these days in the even more mysterious vocation called 'hedge fund manager'. All professions demanding academic excellence, hard work, great discipline and yielding adequate mullah. Ethnic Indian papers in America are replete with Indian kids excelling in competitions, winning prizes, getting scholarships.
But some of these patterns are perhaps beginning to change.
I do not want to overstate the change. Engineering schools in American universities are still teeming with Indian students, both FOB -- Fresh Off the Boat and the ABCD -- American Born Confused Desis, as they call each other pejoratively.
The medical profession has more than its share of Indians too and the competent profile of an Indian doctor is now exemplified daily on television in the persona of CNN's Dr Sanjay Gupta. Most major banks have Indian names in senior and junior positions. All this is still very much the present paradigm but new paths are being treaded with tentative steps.
I meet many in law schools for instance. Law is a gateway to politics and the offices of Senators and Congressmen in Washington and state capitals are slowly but surely beginning to see Indian youngsters as interns. A few have taken the next step, actually fighting elections for public office. Congressman Bobby Jindal is the role model for such aspirants.
Anyone reading the New York Times or seeing the CNN or BBC coverage on Iraq would see Indian faces and names with a well honed American accent, though Indian-American reporters can say Iraq without making it sound like I-rock.
Another area where the second generation of Indian teenagers want to go is non-profits, better known to us in India as NGOs. Many are interested in public health or education and trying to make a difference in the real world. Others are exercising the exciting hybrid options. Aim at becoming a doctor but combine it with sociology. Be a design engineer, but plan to design a clean drinking water system for a village in Africa. Engaging and innovative paths, but risky too in a conventional sense.
Are there areas where Indian Americans are hardly seen? Sure. I have not come across names in big sports-basketball, baseball, rugby. I suppose our physiques don't change in a generation and we are therefore simply not the right size for any of these. Disqualified by height and weight!
In entertainment -- Hollywood, television serials, pop-music -- there are few Indian names so far, though some are trying. But it is not easy as there are natural limitations. Looking Indian, you can act as a doctor or a shop owner in a serial, but not as a cop or a con man, the staple of American television. In most other professions, ranging from gas station attendant to CEO of a Fortune-500 company, we have representation at varying degrees.
All this is to be greatly welcomed of course and it would be safe to say that a decade from now the younger generation of Indians in America will have a different and more diverse profile. Fuelled by talent and ambition. This is my take from the Kaavya Vishwanathan episode. Having bought and read the novel, before it was pulled out from the bookshops, I can see that she is certainly talented and can follow the footsteps of Jhumpa Lahiri one day, but perhaps was in excessive hurry to make a mark.
Meanwhile there are these concerns that some professions and jobs such as basic engineering or software programming will no longer be done in America, the worry expressed by Sharat's daughter.
Coming back to our conversation over coffee, all of us, Sharat's friends pondered on opportunities for their children for a while. Opinions were expressed about globalisation, the competitive edge in the coming decades and what it may mean for the next generation in India and in the US.
'So what advice did you give to your daughter?' I asked Sharat. As I said, he is a very bright guy who can see far into the future at least in technology.
"I told her to still do computer engineering but combine it with some area of essential human interface. Say health management or advertising need analysis. Such jobs require local and cultural specificity and cannot be done elsewhere. What do you think?" he asked.
"I can only envy you and your daughter, Ah! the stresses of the successful," I said, "But can't you just say to her -- Do whatever you want, I don't care?" I asked.
"For me, for an Indian to get to that attitude, it will take another generation," he said.
B S Prakash is India's Consul General in San Francisco and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh
B S Prakash