An ode to the migrant life.
I have been a migrant for the past decade. First, an international migrant in the US and Europe, and then later an internal migrant in Chennai.
My personal, financial, career and political choices have been deeply coloured by my migrant status.
First the bad stuff.
In the US, foreign student tuition pressures made me compromise on my initial college choices. VISA pressures influenced my relationships and career choices, as staying a bit longer was not possible without entering into an expensive lottery (H1B). The Democrats patronised me and the Republicans stereotyped me. In Europe, my migrant status broke down long term relationships into volatile short term flings. My residential status forced me to look for expensive and risky short term housing contracts over affordable long term leases. Job interviews would assess my compatibility with the country’s culture instead of my compatibility with the company’s culture. Evening runs in the middle of Brussels would turn into slow airport-like marches through immigration control. In Chennai , as I was from Delhi, getting a bank account or even a SIM card took, inexplicably, more effort than it did in Belgium. My mother tongue and region of origin often determined whether I could join my peers for a drink.
Worst of all, being a migrant forced me to look at other individuals as members of another social group.
As, us and them.
But I would not trade the past 10 years for all the tea in India. Being a migrant showed me more about life than I will be able to process in a lifetime. I acquired priceless skills and world class credentials to signal them. I saw the pinnacle of economic development first hand in the US and Europe. I learnt about the inner working of some of the most effective institutions in the word. I saw what made the first world, first.
In Tamil Nadu, I saw what a truly inclusive political culture could achieve in India. The lessons for the next stage of India’s development are there in the south.
Above all, I met people. Lots and lots of people. And not just friends, colleagues, teachers, lovers and housemates. But fellow migrants. From all walks of life.
I met fellow international students and colleagues in the same boat as me, first generation workers with one step still back home, brilliantly wealthy entrepreneurial type and those from broken families. I met misfits from other first world countries (always expats, never migrants) looking for a new adventure, and labourers from humbler origins who felt like outsiders in their own country. I met relieved refugees and petrified asylum seekers. I met irregular migrants (never illegal) risking it all to send some cash back home.
Interactions with fellow migrants often cultivated a sense of trust and solidarity. Even when language was a barrier, simple Google translations of conversations would harness a bond. The template of the conversation was always the same: where were each of us from, why we were here and our next steps. We would talk about family and money. Share a barb about our hosts but also admiration for their institutions. A yearning for home inevitably came up, but also despondency about the state of affairs.
Above all, and self centeredly, these interactions made me realise the notion of privilege. I was a privileged migrant. I came from a comfortable upper caste, upper middle class, urban Indian existence. (An existence that has benefitted the most from globalisation.) Unlike most migrants abroad , my intention was always to return home. This was for most migrants the ultimate sign of privilege: I could voluntarily go home. Fear, laws, poverty and often simply losing connection meant that going back was never an option for most.
Migration is the story of humanity. It has led to wars, genocides and eternal hatred. But it is also the pool that keeps on giving. Whether conflicts, disasters or poverty, migration is how humans exercise their agency to improve circumstances. It is the extension of one’s self in action. Any attempt, valid or invalid, to limit the ability to migrate has to be seen from this perspective. Migration is rightly, a fundamental human right.
Varun is the Team Lead at India Migration Now.