Friday, March 6, 2015

Ask Firangi Bahu: "Why do many NRI's only want to hang out with other Indians?"

Sharing a letter from a reader....

"Hi Alexandra,  I have been reading your blog for awhile now and finally have time to write to you. Thankfully I do not feel like an "invisible bahu" with my desi husband's family. They are fluent English speakers, I have decent Marathi comprehension, and they are tolerant welcoming people. Extended family members have married foreigners so my husband is not revolutionary among his family. My in-laws are a mixed inter-ethnic, inter-caste couple who faced a lot of ostracism and were pioneers for their generation; their experiences made them more accepting of me, a white American woman. 

Surprisingly I have felt more like an invisible or more accurately sometimes unaccepted bahu in the Indian community in the United States. The area that live in has a significant number of Indians, many of whom reside in Indian majority neighborhoods. I have observed that some of Indians I know associate only with other Indians and seem to seek to recreate India in America. My home city is quite diverse and has a small population of Indians. I have reached out to many Indian women. A few of the women have become my friends, but the reaction of others has been dismaying. For example, I belong to a local social group for women and when I have invited Indian women, some have replied that they are not interested in joining a group with non-Indians. Of course that is their choice but I do not understand their attitude, one that is shared by many Indians I have observed in the US. I am trying to help them meet other women, Americans and expats from other countries and many have seemingly have no interest at all in learning about the culture of the country they live in. My husband and I are considering living abroad and I cannot imagine choosing to live in isolation in a host country. 

My question to you and your readers is why do some Indian NRI's choose to isolate themselves and intentionally alienate themselves from their new country? It would be interesting to hear from NRI's who have made this choice and from children who were raised by Indian self-segregationists. 

I would like to add that Indians are not only the group I have observed associating only with their ethnicity, my own ancestors settled in towns with immigrants from their countries of origin. I want to know why in particular Indians choose to create closed communities for decades after they settle abroad. Is it because of: fear, language barrier, cultural differences, or a belief in cultural superiority? It would be interesting to hear you and your reader's opinions.

Another time, an NRI friend told me about another one of her NRI acquaintances who said "I will never allow my sons to marry American women". I met this lovely woman at a party once and her sons were very young, just toddlers. Why would she choose to raise her sons in America to be Americans and enjoy all of the opportunities that America has yet not want her sons to marry Americans?

My husband immigrated to the US at a young age and is quite Americanized. He has lived in the US for over a decade and struggles to relate to his relatives in India because his values and beliefs have radically changed in many arenas. I am interested in your opinion and your readers if your husband and other Indians who have moved abroad have had the same issue? Why don't Indians want to mix, especially when they settle abroad???

(Note: NRI = Non Resident Indian)


What are your thoughts, dear readers? 
Have you had experiences with non-mixing NRI's in Indian communities abroad?
Do you think that some Indians are scared to mix with other cultures? If so, why?



  1. The reason is that when you're in a strange land, you feel threatened and therefore go overboard in sticking to your customs/traditions etc. This is why many NRIs come the US and become even MORE traditional than they were back in India! Making friends with the locals is a threat to their fragile identity. Actually, it's normal to feel this way for the first few months. But for it to carry on for decades...that is pathological.

  2. Such an interesting question. My in-laws are Marathi NRI's as well. Like yours, my in-laws generally socialize only with Indian people. They do have some non-Indian friends, but the vast majority are Indian. They even had to have a third wedding party for us so that they could invite all the Indian friends who live in the area to it. They are fine with me, but I definitely think they would have preferred for my husband to marry another Indian-American. I think that they think it would be better as far as joining another family goes. They very much want me to be marrying into THEIR family, and to have both my family and theirs joining, and since I'm from a very large American family with our own traditions neither of those things is happening. As far as why NRIs choose to hang out only with other NRIs, and are surprised that their children don't necessarily want to marry people of Indian descent after being raised in America...I don't know why they do this. I really don't. I'm curious what others will say. My own ancestors were Irish and Italian, and it was the complete opposite: they came over determined to make a better life for themselves and for their children to be American, assimilate, and succeed. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that my Indian in-laws didn't NEED to come here to make a better life for themselves? I am not sure.

  3. I think it is quite normal for expats in a country to congregate together. Most of my white friends in the Asian country I live in--some of whom have PR here--live in "white ghettos" and only have friends from the same country. It's not just an Indian problem.
    Having said that, Indians migrate for jobs, not for the culture. Going abroad esp. to countries in the "West" is such a culture shock that they cling even more tightly to their culture and reject anything that threatens it. Sometimes their attitudes ae stuck in the 80's an are more conservative than the Indians in India.

  4. There are many reasons why NRIs tend to flock together...mainly food preferences, language, religion, a chance to stay in touch with their roots. Majority of NRIs arrived here with grad degrees and ability to find jobs easily, they did not come here as refugees escaping poverty or war.

    The immigrants from other countries did the same; that is why we have Italian, Japanes, Mexican, Chinese, Jewish, Irish, etc. neighborhoods in several US cities. The first generation - children born to immigrants - tend to spin out on their own and assimilate.

    Those who came to US as students do a better job of mixing with other communities, but those who came here as professionals, with families in tow, tend to miss out on the opportunity to absorb 'American' culture. Most couples work and children take up a lot of time, so it is natural for them to relax with those who share their values and outlook. And the woman who did not want to have non desis as her children's spouses - she may be afraid of the probability of divorce looming ahead. Most such statements come from a place of fear not hatred.

    Laissez faire in this instance makes sense; they are law abiding, productive and hard working folks. And do raise fine young women and men....many of the readers are married to these first gen. I would say let the NRIs do their long as the in-laws are not hostile, let them be.

    1. ps:
      I forgot to add that many older NRIs generally work in big corporate, university or medical environments and quite often that is no picnic when one is a brown skinned, third world-er with an accent - many of their colleagues consider them to be as such.
      yes, I am generalizing but that is often the case for job stress for desis in a 'good old boys' environment.
      Hence the need to find people who are like them to relax with and have fun the old country way.
      Many NRIs do appreciate the general egalitarian, law abiding and friendly country they choose to live in; but adapting to a foreign culture takes time or a generation.

  5. I was wondering about the same question. I'm a recent Indian computer engineering graduate and about to embark on a grad degree in computer science from Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island. I have noticed a trend among my facebook friends who live/study in America that they always stick together and none of their pics had a non-indian guy/girl in it. I asked a few of them and they replied me to wait till I come to the US and I'll understand why this happens. Their answer suggested as if Americans didn't talk to them or something like that. I don't want to go to America just to studybut also to see the other side of the world. Having lived in India all my 22 years with a desire to see/experience the world, I felt a bit downbeat reading all this. I am quite certain my career/professional life will be great in the states but I hope I'm not going to end up bored/lonely in my personal life or have a similar one to India. I want to make friends with people of as many varied cultures/races/communities as I can and see life from their perspective.

    1. Welcome to US; studying in an American U is a great adventure, but it all depends on what you do. Having spent close to 20 years studying and now working in major US univ. I can tell you that the opportunities to get to know 'domestic' and other diverse groups on campus are abundant.
      If you live in univ. housing, you are more likely to meet non desis but rent is expensive, and that is why most desi students share off campus apts to save money.

      Even if you do that, you can join student clubs/groups - just ask the international students office to help you find special interest groups - as a grad student, I was a member of the univ. hiking club and went on many hikes in the Sierra Nevada mountains and made lots of non desi friends. You can join the Brown Outing Club (Brown University) if you like to explore the outdoors - do try even if you are not sure.

      You will also find that many grad students - esp. those in the PhD programs in engr. or comp sci or life sciences - tend to be non Americans, so it is a bit harder to find 'American' friends. Also, do get involved with desi groups as well, they will be a huge support system for you; but do focus on your studies 100%, it is rigorous academic program.

      All the best

    2. Anonymous, don't be discouraged! I just had an ah-ha moment...I think that many times people who are more introverted and less outgoing stick with fellow NRIs because it's easier and probably less intimidating to approach those people and make friends. But, I think that if you are outgoing and friendly, you will be able to make friends of all sorts.

    3. Anonymous - congratulations about Brown and welcome to the US. With your attitude and mindset you will have no problem assimilating and making friends here; desi and non alike. Just have an open mind and remember that you are not in India anymore; things are totally different here so as long as you are willing to go with the flow with an array of new things everything will work out for you.

      LW - While some of this has to do with people from the same culture sticking together it also has to do with the opportunity to be able to live and thrive in a different culture as well as the willingness to do so. Some Indians come to experience this but a lot come here to make their fortune so they can return to India so in reality they have no interest to assimilate and learn how to live the way we do here. Some come to give their families a better life but they don't want to compromise their "Indian values" so they stick to everything Indian. Edison, NJ is the perfect example of an Indian bubble. I say don't spend time trying to figure this out. I would not be.

      Millie B

  6. If anyone has the answer please let me know. My husband and his parents have been in the UK for over 25 years and his parents have absolutely zero interest in anything non-Indian. I'm American, come from a multi-ethnic family and most of my friends are in multicultural relationships. I don't understand the mindset of staying in the same little bubble, only eating one type of food, not learning the language (MIL doesn't speak English), only watching Indian tv and only having friends from one particular area - the state which they are from. What was the point of moving to the UK?!

  7. Acquisition of house, financial and material wealth? Some of Indians who emigrated to UK were not rich, educated or middle class in India. Each to his/her own; and not knowing English must be a major hurdle in assimilation.

    1. Indian immigrants to the UK and immigrants to the US do not come from the same cultural background. Immigrants to the U.S. were generally better educated and wealthier and more ambitious.

  8. My parents lived in the United States when my brother and I were still children so I can tell you firsthand why MY (emphasis on my only because theirs is the only self-segregated perspective I can give you) parents chose to self-segregate (I am going to repeat some of what I heard them say)-

    1) These Americans have no culture and traditions
    2) These Americans have no values or morals - any one is willing to run off with anyone else even if they are married (this observation was based on a woman who lived in our apartment complex who eloped with the apartment maintenance worker when her husband was serving in the Gulf war)
    3) These Americans ask such stupid questions about India- they make fun of arranged marriages, the way we dress, speak, and our food- to them all Indian food is curry.

    Now that I am an adult, married to a White American and living in the United States, I can add the following- my parents were relatively middle aged when they came to the United States and felt that they could not adjust to a new way of life, especially a way of life which they deemed very alien and very different from what they were used to. I know that we did mix with other non-Indian people such as Sri Lankans, Fijians, and some Iranians, but all of those people had some connection to India (business, studies etc.).

    Added to all this the fact that my parents, especially my mother, are strict vegetarians- so they felt there was the added barrier of food and not finding full vegetarian food to eat outside the home.

    That said, because of this experience with my parents, when I returned to the United States I wanted to not self-segregate and so went out of my way to stay far away from the Indian Student's Association (I have to admit, I took it to the other extreme there for a while) and other Indian students. This wasn't particularly difficult to do since all the Indian students on campus, except two, were in Engineering. I did take great pains to cultivate friendships with people who were not Indian and had a South Korean roommate and a then a White American Wiccan roommate. This experience, free of my parents, was awesome!


  9. I am Swiss and I live in India, been doing so for 11 years. I can tell you all expats tend to seek same minded people. I have no problem being in Indian social circles and I have many such circles. But, I also need to have my dose of expat circle. No Swiss specifically, but Europeans that are in the same boat, that would understand struggles no Indians would.

    That said, my Indian husband and I have noticed that a lot of NRI or even Indians on short term assignment abroad are far less flexible and open minded as many of the expats who made India their forever or even temporary home. There is that idea that Western culture is not worth India's time. DH said it is a bit of a colonial hungover syndrome. India has not yet fully recovered from the colonial era and is still very wary of letting go of that cultural freedom they got at independence, it is a fragile culture that has been threatened by so many invasions over the centuries that Indians are more reserved.
    The problem, is that it is taken by some to such extent, that they are seen as arrogant by the locals in their new country of residence, and they are often far far far more concervative than Indians that live in India.

  10. I have no answers, but can only comment that my Indian in-laws have lived in the US for almost 20 years and have lived life as though they were in still in India. Since they settled in an area with a large Indian population they formed a group of Indian friends very easily. They only have Indian friends, only see Indian movies and only eat Indian food. My MIL still struggles with English even after all these years because she hardly needs to speak it. And I know for a fact that the family back in India is far more accepting of other cultures and willing to try other foods, etc. It's a phenomenon that continues to confuse me, even though my husband has tried to explain it to me many times. I just don't understand why you would limit yourself. There are so many wonderful foods to try in the US, so many different cultures to experience and sights to see. I don't see how opening yourself up to new experiences makes you 'lose' your culture. My husband is American and married an American girl, but he is still Indian and always will be.

  11. I have wondered and pondered extensively about this for years. Simple answer -an innate fear of the unknown or better yet unfamiliar. I am an Indian and migrated to the U.S in the early 80's. Not only did we migrate to where our family lived initially but stayed on there. There is nothing wrong with this but the negative side is that assimilation into the American way of life is indefinitely "postponed" until the kids/next generation ie myself in the case of my family make that move to have non desi friends, eat non desi food, and eventually find a non desi spouse. What this does for us who have been daring in a way is that it makes us oddities or outcastes in a lot of ways. So be it.... If we left a country to immigrate to another country, the 1st rule of thumb should be an acceptance of differences. Unfortunately, as humans all across the world sometimes this can be an insurmountable task. But it's up to us- the newer generation to break these barriers down and start enjoying life as opposed to living in Little India or Little Poland or Little anywhere indefinitely. Home is where the heart is:)

  12. I think this is not restricted to Indians alone. All expats I have seen here do that as well. People seem to be recreating a mini homeland of comfort zone in a foreign country. Doesn't Europe from France to Germany have the same problem in integration of TUrks/Arabs which is why you have 3rd generation citizen going back with European passports and traning as ISIS. Integration of immigrants is something many countries have to now work on and it is a very complicated and difficult issue. Not that easy to work on.

    That said, many Indians in USA or people from traditional societies (includes all of Asia) do not want their children to be influenced by the bad western culture which explains why they do not want to make their children American though they want them to avail the opportunities American life provides.

    Hell, give me a chance, I would love to give my kid a western country passport and I will let them integrate freely!

  13. I am the letter writer. Thank you all for your replies and the thoughts and experiences you shared.

    I think that the reasons vary but many NRIs do isolate themselves because of fear and/or cultural superiority. Some NRIs seem to be deluding themselves because if India has such a superior culture then why exactly did they have to leave the great motherland for every corner of the world?

    In the last paragraph of my letter I mentioned how my husband has changed:
    "My husband immigrated to the US at a young age (early 20s) and is quite Americanized. He has lived in the US for over a decade and struggles to relate to his relatives in India because his values and beliefs have radically changed in many arenas. I am interested in your opinion and your readers if your husband and other Indians who have moved abroad have had the same issue?"

    Has anyone else had a similar experience?

  14. The reason is that many Indians are racist and narrow minded. India is not racially or culturally diverse. The NRIs want to reap the financial benefits in the west yet they shun our people (In many cases). They mix just the bare minimum in order to get maximum financial benefits (not all but majority I've seen). They are able to maintain cultural purity as india is a poor country hence not many people migrate there, so the culture is quite preserved like an untouched fossil. My country of ancestry (England) has been multicultural for many decades now, so the native culture has faded and been replaced by many waves of immigration and multiculturalism. Hence my cultural identity is almost all mixed and multicultural - both ancestrally (England) and in my current country of residence (Australia). It hurts to see my country become more and more segregated along racial and cultural lines. Sometimes I feel isolated in my country. I am multicultural by heart, at times I transcend culture - I see the human race as one - but sadly there are few like me.

    1. It's ludicrous to compare a small country of 64 millions people (UK) to a country of 1.268 million people (India). In fact the sole state of Tamil Nadu has more inhabitants than the whole of the UK. Anybody who knows about India can only be in awe that so many culturally diverse people manage to live and function peacefully together. And by the way in 2015, India has become the third country with the most billionaires... distancing Russia and the UK.

    2. Rather sweeping remarks based on emotions and not on facts. Please study the history of colonial rule by UK over half the world and see how that impoverished many of the colonies, India is just beginning to come out of the economic and cultural imperialism imposed on it by the British.
      There are some gains undoubtedly, but India paid a heavy price for them.

      One cannot state that ALL Indians are racist nor narrow minded, many of them suffered untold miseries being mistreated by many British. I am glad to see that conditions for many immigrants there are improving now.
      Yes, most immigrants to the host countries come to improve their life and work hard to succeed. Assimilation comes a generation or two later. And they ( from So. Asia) arrived in Britain legally, please change the rules if you do not want any more.

      To say India is not diverse is ludicrous as the other commentator remarked, there are 1.2 Billion Indians and 22 states with completely different languages and varied customs, while the population of England is only 52 million - with the Scots and No. Irish trying to break away. Please do consider all angles before making general statements that are not based on facts.

  15. As a non-Indian I have also noticed similar things, I think it is different for different people - for some it may be comfort level, others it may be a cultural superiority. The majority of our family is like that, they prefer to be with only Indians.
    My husband is a bit different. He came abroad with the intention of meeting a lot of different friends from different backgrounds. We had a good size amount of Indian community at our college, but after he had his burn accident and none of them cared or helped, he distanced himself a bit.
    Although now I wish he had more Indian friends so he could speak his native tongue.

  16. Thanks for bringing up this topic, as it is not something much discussed.

    The real reason is that Indians migrate to the USA only for good jobs in reputed companies, financial benefits and good lifestyle, which they couldn't even dream of in their country. They don't want to accept American culture or for what Americans stand.

    Have you ever seen any NRIs chatting or even having any American friends? When asked why they just refuse to answer or say that this is how they prefer. Some are even stupid enough to blame Americans as being immoral, culture less or even down right dumb, as if only Indian culture and Indians are the superior ones. They have a huge ego in them of being something special and intelligent. Their children are also brought up that way. Why did they even leave their precious culture in the first place if they despise West so much?

    The lack of willingness to integrate creates parallel communities, which nobody wants. This makes them economic migrants not immigrants.

    1. Thank you for saying this. I completely agree with you. I say this as an Indian immigrant in the US.

  17. It's really the same here even in Singapore where there are loads of NRIs. They only want to eat Indian food, only want to befriend Indians and never wanting to try to befriend people from other cultures.

    At my condo, there's an indian lady who tells her 3 year old not to befriend the other foreign kids.

    I also have an Indian friend who said I was not Indian enough like her so we now only have limited friendship. She's very rigid in her ways and would only want to eat Indian food everytime we plan lunches or whatever. She'd complain about having no friends all the time but I recently had to tell her politely that it's hard to introduce her to my own foreign friends of other races as she's too rigid with her indian ways and it's not going to be comfortable for everyone.

    The point is, I've been wondering the same too and anthropologically, I think it has a lot to do with cultural dissonance...


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