H-1B blues: A Quartz guide for Indians in the US looking to move back home

Amazing India.
Amazing India.
Image: Unsplash/Hans Vivek
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These are precarious times for Indians living abroad.

With increasing crackdowns on work visas and intensifying anti-immigrant sentiment from east to west, thousands are reconsidering their options. By the end of March, nearly 7,000 Indians based in the US were looking for jobs back home, a huge jump from 600 in December 2016, according to a Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu analysis shared with the Mint newspaper.

That is a big change from the days when Indians around the world looked back at the motherland with mixed feelings. Quora, for instance, is packed with questions from Indians abroad musing a move back home, a place they remember as not at all easy to live in because of all the corruption and inefficiency.

However, much has changed over the last decade, the result of India’s staggering economic growth. Today, it is one of the world’s fastest-growing emerging markets and Asia’s third-largest economy. The standard of living in its metropolises has been gradually ticking up, with an explosion of apps and services making urban life easier. And best of all, the cost of living remains low. Cities such as Bengaluru, Mumbai, Chennai, and New Delhi were among the world’s cheapest to live in, according to The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2017 Worldwide Cost of Living Survey.

To be sure, life in India isn’t as smooth as it is abroad, given a host of issues from woeful traffic and red tape to pollution and an erratic power supply. But take it from us at Quartz India, many of whom have made the move back from the West—there’s something to be said for living in a country you can call your own, particularly in these unfriendly times.

Here’s our guide to answer some of your most pressing concerns.

Career calls

India is the new land of opportunity for those looking to leave the US.

The country has earned a reputation for churning out a large number of engineers each year, most of whom are focused on IT and not research and innovation. With more evolved sectors like artificial intelligence emerging (pdf) in India, the dearth of local talent is worrying. This is, however, a blessing for those with experience at US companies, particularly those in Silicon Valley. “The new-age companies are looking for specialists in specific technologies/domain,” Manjunath Talwar, co-founder of online job portal Hiree.com, told Quartz in 2015.

Nicknamed India’s Silicon Valley, Bengaluru is home to a number of startups that used to ape the Amazons and Ubers of the West. But over time, innovation is taking centre-stage. The south Indian city ranks among the top-five favourite destinations for multinational corporations looking to set up innovation centres and is said to be the world’s most dynamic city, innovating and adjusting to stay competitive.

And it doesn’t matter if you aren’t a techie. 

India is now home to many big-name global brands, from Chinese phone makers to realty giant Sotheby’s to a variety of foreign food companies. As these brands expand their operations, more job opportunities are likely to open up.

This will translate to higher salaries, too. A recent survey of 1,000 companies by human capital and management consultancy Aon Hewitt revealed that the payscale is set to increase by an average of 9.5% in India through 2017. While consumer internet companies will see the largest jump at 12.4%, industries like life sciences and entertainment media, too, are expected to post above-average salary hikes. Another assessment by human resources consulting firm Randstad lists fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), power, IT, pharma, healthcare, and telecom among industries with some of the highest salary growth potentials.

Companies are willing to pay more, sometimes even at US standards, to get the right talent. In terms of the best compensation, Bengaluru comes on top.

So, where do you begin your job search?

Alka Dhingra, assistant general manager at recruitment consultancy TeamLease Services, says that expats looking for a job back home should start by posting their profiles on recruitment websites in India to connect with headhunters and companies in the country. Hiree.comNaukri.com, Monster India, and TimesJobs are some such portals. A Quora user also recommends following specific Facebook and Twitter accounts to keep track of government job postings.

Importantly, keep an open mind: Look beyond the tier-1 IT companies. With India’s industry evolving rapidly, there are opportunities in related industries and tier-2 service companies, digital marketing firms, and even gaming, which could offer exciting and fulfilling work for similar salaries, Dhingra says.

Note that while a robust CV might score your a job, an effective network is likely to speed up the process.

“Word of mouth is more powerful than cold-calling or cold-selling resumes,” Moorthy K Uppaluri, CEO of recruitment firm Randstad India, told Quartz. Uppaluri recommends seeking a transfer to India through the current employer first. Alternatively, seek out openings through friends or ex-classmates in other companies.

“Employee referrals are the key right now, and expats are always preferred,” Dhingra explained.

Of course, finding the right job is only one piece of the puzzle. Living in India is another ballgame.

Striking a balance

For those returning to India, the idea of long hours at work, followed by even longer hours stuck in traffic, can seem dreadful. But fear not, for the times are changing and so are India’s work habits. Working from home is gaining popularity in fast-growing economies like China, India, and Indonesia. In any case, being squished up against others in crowded train and bus compartments isn’t the only option for those who do have to travel to work. A proliferation of ride-sharing services, bus shuttles, and on-demand auto services are gradually making commutes less painful.

Professionals coming back with families in tow no longer have to worry about plucking their loved ones from their plush lives and plunging them into India’s chaos. A number of residential neighborhoods offer high-profile accommodation, schooling, and shopping options often within a small radius. And the list of international schools in India’s cities is growing.

According to thousands of “digital nomads” who contribute to NomadList’s crowdsourced rankings, the top 10 Indian cities to live in are the following. (The list is based on over 20 different parameters assessing safety, freedom of speech, internet speeds, walkability, air quality, and other aspects, of which Quartz has elected to illustrate a handful. You may prioritise issues that matter the most to you and generate a customised list here.)

🎉= great, 😊= good, 🆗= OK, 👎🏽= bad

Mumbai, which features 15th on NomadList’s rankings, is not labeled “great” for any of the parameters except “walkability.” The commercial capital’s rating takes a beating because of a range of factors like a lack of freedom of speech, religious intolerance, poor internet, and dismal healthcare, among other reasons. In the 26th position is Gurgaon, which displays low English proficiency and is far from female-friendly. Another city notorious for its women’s safety issues, Delhi comes in 38th, in part due to its apocalyptic pollution.

But for working women, India may, in fact, offer a welcome respite. Unlike in the US, Indian companies give expecting mothers 26 weeks off.

The culture of living in close-knit joint families and societies has traditionally played a big part in helping working women with their household and filial roles, too, allowing them to focus on their careers. “When I traveled (for work), my mother-in-law looked after my children,” Priyanka Aggarwal, one of the few female partners at Boston Consulting Group in India, told Quartz. The availability of affordable domestic help and babysitters eases the burden as well.

“I would return home at 8:30pm from a tiring bus ride from office, only to spend 45 minutes washing the stained vessels dumped in the sink,” Nupur Dave, an ex-Googler who recently returned to India, wrote in a piece about her daily struggles in the US. When she did hire a help to do household chores, like folding laundry and cleaning the kitchen, the $25 per hour price tag proved too steep. In India, maids are paid under $150 per month. Hiring drivers, gardeners, and chefs, too, is relatively easy and affordable. For instance, an Amazon employee who moved from Seattle to a luxury condominium in India could hire a maid, nanny, cook, and driver for a cumulative $600 a month.

Online portals like BookMyBai anchor and streamline the process in a largely unregulated market. For those in need of plumbers and electricians for one-off tasks, there are apps like Timesaverz and Taskbob. And this convenience extends beyond routine chores. For instance, UrbanClap sends yoga teachers, beauticians, and dietitians right at your doorstep—something unheard of in the West. 

If you’ve set up your work and home bubbles, you can now turn your focus to India’s bureaucracy.

Bureaucracy burdens

The frustrating inefficiency of India’s bureaucracy is no secret. In 2012, a survey labelled the country a “bureaucratic nightmare,” the worst in Asia because of its poor infrastructure and widespread corruption, among other issues. But even as small-scale bribery, often for basic necessities like getting a driver’s licence, remains an issue, there’s growing awareness that things must change. Citizens are increasingly using the internet and social media to fight back against graft.

Prime minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014 in part because of his promises to end corruption, and there has been some improvement in the delivery of public services over the years. A recent survey of 3,000 households across India by the New Delhi-based think tank Centre for Media Studies found that only 31% of respondents had experienced corruption in public services in 2016, down from 53% in 2005. The survey covered police and judicial services, as well as land and housing, tax, and the public distribution system.

Meanwhile, the internet and apps have simplified service provision such as getting a power connection, paying bills, or filing taxes in urban India.

“…Daily life was kind of complicated when I left, in the sense (that) if you had to get something repaired or a phone connection, it was pretty tedious,” said Swapnika Ramu, a scientist who moved to Bengaluru in 2010 after living in the US for nine years. “When I came back I was still in that mindset where I thought (setting up a home) might be difficult…(but) actually it was remarkably easy,” she added.

Once you’ve braved the bureaucracy, acclimatise yourself to India’s air.

Take a deep breath

One of the main things returning Indians miss in India is easily accessible green, open spaces. While nearly every city has public parks, urban life in India, along with the climate and infrastructure, doesn’t always let you linger amid the trees or go for a run. And with all the bad press India’s cities have received for their toxic air quality, health concerns have become a top priority.

Unfortunately, there is little respite, at least in big cities such as New Delhi, Mumbai, and Bengaluru. While the situation isn’t permanently as bad as it looks in the photos, the increasing number of vehicles, as well as pollution from coal plants, have resulted in high particulate matter levels across the board.

However, smaller towns offer cleaner air, a boon for professionals looking to take a quick break from city life:

Moreover, air purifiers and anti-pollution masks are widely available, even for kids.

On the bright side, healthcare remains far more affordable, with a number of high-quality hospitals providing services at less than 10% of US costs. In fact, this affordability has prompted a massive boom in medical tourism, with patients from across the globe travelling to India for all kinds of treatments.

If you need more reassurance, take a look at how the locals are living it up.

Fighting the FOMO

For many non-resident Indians, India’s cities have always seemed a little dull in comparison to the lively, happening metropolises of the West, with their packed cultural calendars that offer everything from art and music to theatre, film festivals, and literary events.

Over the past few years, though, the availability of good food, music, art, and culture across India has improved a lot.

You may not get beef burgers everywhere you go, but the country’s big cities are home to restaurants and food trucks that serve everything from pork buns and ramen to quesadillas and tacos to French crepes and patisserie, besides the varied delicious Indian cuisines. The country’s cafe culture is also popping, thanks to efforts of coffee-loving locals who have brought the third-wave revolution to India’s big cities. In Delhi, Mumbai, and Bengaluru, brands such as Blue Tokai, The Flying Squirrel, and Third Wave Coffee Roasters are serving pour-overs and cold brews highlighting India’s own excellent varieties. Latte art here is as Instagrammable as it is anywhere else in the world.

If shopping is your favourite pastime, there’s never been a better time to be in India. Besides the many websites that deliver every style at your door, there are also innovative indie brands developing a new interpretation of modern Indian style and concept stores that are redefining the shopping experience.

You won’t miss the American shopping mall experience either. India’s big cities are dotted with fast-food chains and fast-fashion labels. Brands from H&M and Zara to Sephora and Muji have all set up shop.

Entertainment, too, is evolving dramatically in India. Innovative companies offer new experiences in every field. Take OML, the pioneering artiste and event management firm that’s changed the game in India’s digital entertainment space with its iconic NH7 Weekender music festival (featuring the likes of Megadeth and Anoushka Shankar) and its development of stand-up comedy in the country. India’s indie music scene is also exploding, with home-grown musicians and bands putting on epic shows.

“We do have really nice plays, great concerts, Indian music,” Ramu explained. “There’s plenty happening…You can find stuff to do wherever you are.”

For film buffs, festivals like the Bengaluru International Film Festival and cinema clubs like Mumbai’s Experimenta play movies from around the world. Yet, single-screen cinemas are still hanging on, presenting a very different, affordable experience. Of course, if it’s just the latest Fast and Furious sequel you’re looking for, the multiplexes have got you covered. Moreover, Amazon Prime and Netflix guarantee that you’ll never miss the latest seasons of Fleabag or Master of None.

Most importantly, living here means having remarkable access to the country’s rich culture and heritage. India’s museums and galleries may not be as perfect as their foreign counterparts but they’re a good place to start discovering regional art and history. The comprehensive exhibitions at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, will introduce you to some of India’s most iconic artists such as Jamini Roy or Amrita Sher-Gil. The local chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage could teach you more about the architecture and history of a neighbourhood you’ve never visited before.

And all this is just the tip of the iceberg.

To help you find the perfect thing to do every weekend, online cultural guides such as Little Black Book, Brown Paper Bag, and The Daily Pao offer reviews and features of everything that’s happening in cities, so that you never miss out on the good stuff.

But ultimately, the only thing you really need to know when considering a move back home is that it’s essential to keep an open mind.

“Once I moved back I soon realised how different life would be here compared to what I was used to,” Ayush Bathwal, a former techie-turned coffee entrepreneur, told Quartz. “(But) I have always believed that things are not bad or good. They are just different from each other. And India would be different from what I used to have (in the US).”

We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.