My heart races with excitement as I step out of the airport, surrounded by hundreds of people speaking my native tongue. The air is thick with mosquitoes, the smell of rotting bananas, and smoke from stalling scooters. I fill my nostrils with the admittedly unsavory aroma and raise my cheeks to the smog-filled skies. I am home.
Although I was neither born in nor am a citizen of India, I have always felt an inexplicable sense of appreciation for the traditions, history, and people of my homeland. My chest swelled with pride when my fourth grade teacher praised the wisdom and dedication of Gandhi as if I, myself, were him; I beamed as I read a study indicating that Indians tend to support laws based on societal benefit rather than self-interest as if I, myself, were an Indian voter; I smugly smiled as my friends marveled at the rigor of the Indian Institute of Technology, as if I, myself, were studying engineering there.
Sitting on a balmy balcony with my cousin, I began to explain my life-long fascination with India’s oddities. She knit her eyebrows together in confusion and mumbled “that’s because you don’t have to actually live here.” Her comment, in an instant, shattered the beautiful image I had held of my homeland. I soon began to notice cracks and chasms in the glass orb, once perfect in my mind. I began to imagine scenarios of daily life in this country, and I began to understand my parents’ decision to emigrate. I saw why the amount of students seeking higher education abroad has increased by 256% in the last 10 years and why the brain-drain costs India about $16 billion per year.
When I asked my cousins, who were all studying with the specific intention of moving to the United States, what their reasons were for leaving, the first response that came out of each of their mouths was “standard of living.” This didn’t surprise me. As the Indian population grows exponentially, so does its piles of trash, rotting food, and human waste (which my senses were subjected to several times a day). And their complete lack of infrastructure to adequately handle the amount of waste produced leads to several problems regarding cleanliness and general health. The tap water is ridden with bacteria and parasites, causing severe diseases like typhoid, dysentery, and cholera. Aside from the constant health hazards, even upper-middle class students in an Indian city face woes that are laughably improbable in the suburbs of America. I watched everyday as my cousin, sticky with sweat from the over 100 degree temperatures, high humidity, and incessantly dysfunctional air conditioners, attempted to block out the noises of cars honking, crows cawing, and store vendors yelling, while also trying to ignore the constant presence of maids, tailors, and random mechanics in her house in order to study for her upcoming tests. On top of these distractions, she was constantly disturbed by “current cuts” (as she called them), which occurred for no reason other than incompetent urban administration. I am positive that her frustration with the ever-present chaos and the lack of real progress in combatting problematic issues is shared among many of her age.
Newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi has recognized these problems and has promised reform, which includes providing each Indian with proper housing and working toilets and building at least 100 “smart cities.” These smart cities are meant to use information technology, like sensors for energy usage and water levels, to anticipate urban problems and thus solve them more quickly and efficiently. But these projects, with the inefficient and corrupt system, will probably take several years to come to fruition and even longer to have a lasting effect on the population. As 27.5% of Indians live under the poverty line and the per capita adjusted GDP is $3,100 (compared to China at $4,900 and the U.S. at $33,000), the population size and bureaucratic methods hinder any rapid progress. It is for this reason that several intelligent students, entranced by the hope for a more enjoyable and more productive life, leave India.
However, the poor living conditions, believe it or not, are actually only a minor issue for the intelligent youth in their decision to emigrate. When writer R. Jagannathan asks, “Why is it that India’s tech and other geniuses flower in the US or Silicon Valley?” or “Why is it that every Indian Nobel prize winner after independence in the sciences is not an Indian citizen anymore?” the answer lies in the Indian’s adherence to conformity. There, conformity is not only a way of life, but survival technique. Within fifteen minutes of reaching my aunt’s house, she instructed me to wear long Indian-style tops with leggings when I went out so that I don’t stand out. Even in the stifling heat, shorts and tank tops are never an option.
The largest issue is that this sort of mentality seeps into the schooling system. In most Indian schools, memorization is given priority over the actual understanding and application of a concept. Importance is given only to tests, which occur daily during the last three months of a student’s senior year. And, by memorization and a laser-sharp and narrow-minded focus on the material, many students score above 90%. I was appalled when my cousin informed me that her college acceptance depends solely on her state board exam grade, which she needed to get “full marks” (or a 100%) on to get into decent schools. In this hyper-obsessive environment, where test scores are the only reflection of a student’s intellect, often the artistic, athletic, and even academic extracurricular activities that Americans take for granted are sacrificed. Teachers laud those who simply learn without question and dismiss inquisitive children, discouraging their innate creativity and failing to nurture it. And those that possess this creativity and desire to invent and discover remain submerged in the murky waters of memorization and cramming. As these students realize the value of their originality, they attempt to break free from the conformist system which is the root of the brain-drain problem: India does not nurture the future leaders, innovators, scholars, entrepreneurs, engineers, and doctors.
As I sit with my cousin, I notice a nearby bridge bustling with several hundreds of people. Vehicles were swerving into the opposite lane to bypass large buses; women driving motorcycles honked every four seconds to alert other drivers of their presence; beggars weaved their way into the maze that was an Indian traffic jam to knock on windows, asking for spare change. All this occurs while an incompetent police officer pulls over helmet-less motorcycle drivers, expecting bribes. I gape as I watch this scene from afar. My former appreciation for this nation still exists, but it is tainted with frustration. I feel angry that my people choose to live in chaos rather than solving their problems. I feel angry that most students are not working to their full potential, by fault of the teachers and schooling system. But, most of all, I feel angry that each individual is completely unaware of their part in something greater. In an environment where creativity is frowned upon, the common man, trying to cross the bridge, simply attends to his own trivial societal duties without ever realizing his own power. These common people, along with the intellectuals, must be empowered to freely pursue their unique talents, making their journey more meaningful. And, as originality blossoms, so too will change.
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Savage, McKay. “Colours of India – 018.” Flickr: Creative Commons. Flickr, n.d. Web. 26 July 2014. <https://flic.kr/p/49Kb7k>.