There’s a name for those who finish college, graduate school, or professional school and move back in with their parents: “boomerang children.” The reasons the boomerangs give seem logical enough: housing costs, college loans, convenience. But, as a recent New Yorker article speculates, the most compelling factor may be “sheer habit, even desire … some transfer of the parent’s identity to the child.”

Is the paradigm of the boomerang child helpful in understanding why former-NRIs return to India?

Conventional wisdom holds that immigrants to the U.S.—those who come by choice, with means—are in a privileged position to bridge two worlds. Indians in diaspora teach their children to be as comfortable eating with their hands as with knife and fork. Many establish bilingual homes, make annual pilgrimages to India, and engage in some form of cultural preservation through social and religious networks and extracurricular activities.

We can debate the why’s and how’s of preservation, critique the nostalgia that conditions immigrant lives, or celebrate the contributions that immigrants make to the project of American multiculturalism. What is undeniable is that this attempt at preservation takes place.

Alongside preservation is a complementary force: assimilation. Unlike those who perpetuate immigrant enclaves, who raise their American-born children to be “more Indian than Indians,” I don’t believe we can steel ourselves against assimilation. If we are to be Americans, we should not be afraid that we will “be made” by outside forces; rather, we should actively make the culture in which we are implicated.

Which brings me back to those who reject the preservation-assimilation dance and return to India.

Is the compulsion to return simply a desire for the familiarity of home? Or is there nothing simple about that desire? Is the growing returnee movement evidence that some immigrants never fully engage in the project of integrating into a new society? Is the renewed pull of the “Indian dream” a repudiation of the “American dream,” or merely a symptom of the fact that we now live in a post-American world? Does the phenomenon of the returnee suggest the U.S.’s failure to assimilate immigrants into our supposed “nation of immigrants”? Or are we witnessing the continuing evolution of a different category of migrant entirely: the exile?

In Reflections on Exile, Edward Said argues that the exile’s ability to “[see] the entire world as a foreign land” enables original vision and allows us to “break barriers of thought and experience.” He quotes Theodor Adorno, who goes so far as to say that “it is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home.” Perhaps, then, voluntary exile is an ethical choice—to be equally at home on the margins of all cultures.

For those who boomerang, the pull of home is only equal to the inability to ever fully return.

 

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan was Editor of India Currents from July 2007-June 2009.
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