HYDERABAD, INDIA – Decades ago, when immigrants moved to Seattle from India, they asked each other: “Why would you ever leave the U.S.?”
But now, a growing number of Indians are doing just that. And they’re doing it largely so the families they start here can bond with their homeland.
Apurva Koti, 16, is among those kids who have returned to India. He has lots in common with American teens – he loves to play electric guitar, and he sort of rolls his eyes when he talks about the latest “trashy” electronic dance music his friends play at parties.
When I meet Apurva, he is sitting cross-legged on his living room floor, playing the tabla, a pair of hand drums used in Indian music.
Apurva took up tabla after his dad took a transfer to Microsoft’s Hyderabad campus. Eight years ago, the family left their suburban home on Education Hill in Redmond, Washington, for India.
“I really didn’t like being here and I wanted to go back,” Apurva says of their return. “But when it really came down to it, it was just weird things like the fact that they use Celsius here and not Fahrenheit. I would take issue with that.”
Apurva’s parents moved back to India for Apurva and his older sister. Like many parents who return, they wanted their kids to connect to this place.
“Now I’ve got my really close friends here and I’ve gotten used to it,” Apurva says.
But sometimes, Apurva feels like he’s “still a little too American.”
“I’m awful when it comes to language here,” Apurva says.
Which languages does he speak?
He laughs and blushes a little. “This is where I become extremely American,” he says. “I just speak English.”
Most locals speak English, Hindi and at least one regional language. But English is all Apurva needs at school and to communicate with classmates – many of whom also used to live in the U.S.
Apurva is headed to a "sweet 16" party later tonight. His mom Viju helps wrap the gift. She says these parties are a new craze here, inspired by the West.
Their family is part of a growing community in India. They’re sometimes called “expats,” although “repats” might be more accurate since they repatriate to India after years abroad.
The Indian government estimates up to 200,000 Indians move back every year. Many come from the U.S., where Indians are now the third-largest immigrant group.
Apurva’s parents bought a home in this high-rise building a few years ago. In the kitchen, the pantry’s stocked with food bought on a recent trip to the U.S.
“We get almonds from Costco all the time,” Viju says. They stock up on other favorites, too: nature bars, ranch salad dressing, taco shells.
In the kitchen Bala, Viju’s cook, makes a curry with paneer, chickpeas and rice.
For Viju, domestic help is one perk of moving back to India. In Redmond, she cooked, cleaned the house and drove the kids around. But here, those tasks are easily outsourced.
Now, she has time to volunteer at a local school. And to finally use the architecture degree she earned long ago at the University of Washington.
After 15 years away, Viju is happy to be back. But she remembers it was a tough decision, and they had to time it just right.
“We always had this feeling that the kids should get some exposure to their roots and native homeland,” she says. “And I felt time was running out because as the kids grew older, it would be harder for them to adjust.”
It was tough. The kids cried a lot. At school, it took them a full year to adjust to more strict and formal teachers. Ironically, Viju remembers adjusting the opposite way when she went to college in the U.S., where students put their feet on the desk and called professors by first names.
With the move, her husband Shirish switched to a Microsoft campus halfway around the world, but it turned out be an easy transition.
“We continue to work with the same set of people, same products, same technical challenges,” Shirish says. “You’re just sitting in a different place, so there’s no difference at all.”
Downstairs at their sprawling housing complex with several high-rise towers, families gather to celebrate a holiday.
Viju’s family lives in a gated community that reflects a hybrid of India and America. These communities are increasingly common here, with names like Orange County and Dollar Meadows. They spring up where multi-national companies expand, including Seattle-based companies like Microsoft and Amazon. People who live here, and can afford it, tend to be returnees.
“Somehow once you’ve lived there, you tend to mostly get along with similar people,” Viju says.
Now, these families share an Indian lifestyle very different from their childhood.
Aparna Rayaprol, a professor of sociology at the University of Hyderabad, studies trends of Indians who move abroad and return, as she did in the 1990s. For the previous generation, she says, a stay in the U.S. was a one-shot deal. Then you’d settle permanently in India or the U.S.
But now, she says it has become more common for families to travel – and relocate – back and forth between the two countries.
That’s because India’s government, technology and economy have all made the return much smoother.
Down the line, these expat-repat families tend to hit another fork in the road when kids finish high school and set their sights, again, toward the West.
“They’re all American-born kids with American citizenship, they’ll go back to college,” Rayaprol says.
Like Apurva, for example, the table-drumming teenager. His older sister’s already at college in California. And he’ll likely head to the U.S., too.
“My dream college is MIT,” Apurva says. “My realistic dream college is maybe Caltech. Or I’d like to go to the University of Washington, too.”
So then, Rayaprol says, the question becomes, “Are the parents going to follow them?”