The young of the Indian middle class have this mantra: If you get to America, you have it made. It is based partly in modern folklore, of whiz kids who made their millions here; it is based partly in an expression of the Indian middle class' quest for material well-being; and it is based partly in fact: the dollar is worth almost 50 Indian rupees.
But I have been here for more than two months, and increasingly I find my impressions of this country come untrue. Unlike what I had come to believe, it is not a land so rich that its wealth can't help but be opulent. On the contrary, I have found its underbelly sometimes as ugly as the poorer quarters in India. As you go south of the USC campus, down Figueroa Street, the landscape metamorphoses into that sort of poverty. The roads start getting dirty, and apartments start resembling fortresses. On some stretches, every few steps someone begs you for change. In street corners, someone raids trashcans. At night, the alleys look sinister, mined with muggers.
I know this because I live here, and every day the neighborhood poses for me a moral dilemma. Just by being in the United States. I have secured for myself a future that is materially superior to what I had when I left home. But I have secured that future because people in India have positive impressions of this country that are not true.
When I go back, I will have the confidence of an American university degree (hopefully) and the choice among a bevy of rich America-philic employers.
I will have a distinct advantage over my homebound brethren, because for them I would be coming back from the land of plenty and would be well versed in its ways. For them, as it was for me, the things that make America so wealthy are things worth aspiring for. My American education will embody that aspiration, and hence make it better than what is available to people at home.
But this prospect is now making me uncomfortable. I can see even here the economic ills that pollute the air in India.
For instance, the New York Times recently reported that Carrier is closing its factories in Syracuse. The company had a long history with the town, going all the way back to the Depression era, it said.
Some 1,200 people would lose their jobs as it shifts production to other places in the United States. and Asia. The Times quoted Tom Vanderhoof, a worker at one of the assembly lines, as saying, "Growing up, Carrier was always the place to work. If you can get a job there, you're in."Mr. Vanderhoof's story is true for so many people in India. Globalization and World
Bank-imposed liberalization measures of the 1990s in India have come at the cost of traditional avenues of employment. Jobs that my father's generation grew up knowing were there are not there for people in my generation. The government is cutting back on its enterprises. Job security is a thing of the past.
The indigenous private sector is losing out to the more efficient, better-managed companies from abroad. And although there are new kinds of jobs now, access to them is limited by the accident of one's birth, and hence, education. Not everyone can become a computer engineer to work for a software developer or speak English well enough to work in a call center.
The New York Times article just puts a face on a larger globalization story playing in the United States. Between July 2000 and July 2003, 2.7 million Americans lost their jobs in the manufacturing sector alone, according to the National Association of Manufacturers.
White-collar jobs in other sectors are moving out too.
Engineering, programming and accounting jobs are being relocated at the rate of nearly 4,000 a week from the United States alone, according to statistics cited in the Forbes magazine (Oct. 6, 2003). When taken together with Europe and Japan, the figure climbs to 600,000 such jobs migrating every year from the developed world to cheaper locales abroad, the Forbes article said.
This belies the Indian middle class' impression of what it is like to be in the United States. America embodies globalization for them. American prosperity sets a tangible example of wealth worth aspiring for. But now I find that while being an American is not enough to make you rich, America can make me rich merely by association.