Outsourcing, Insourcing and the Global Community

I don’t know a lot about outsourcing except that those telemarketing calls from India always come at really inconvenient times. Like between 5 and 7pm – which as any parent of small children will tell you are the post-dinner/pre-bath witching hours.

The phone rings, and after my harried "hello?" there’s always a bit of a gap. I’m not sure if it’s the long distance, in which case these technology peddlers aren’t peddling very good technology, or the fact that the caller is shocked by the sound of my children shrieking in a mixture of Bengali, German and English in the background. And then a lyrical, Indian accented voice comes on claiming to be named "Robert" or "John" – although lately I’ve gotten a few who admit to be named "Rohit" (but who’s to say that it’s not really Rajagopalan?). I’m usually fairly crabby to them, although I probably shouldn’t be. If I’m doing my math correctly, poor Robert and Rohit are trying to convince me to use their telephone company at something like 4 or 5 in the morning their time.

I recently received the news from a South Asian listserve to which I belong that an Indian technology support services company called "SlashSupport" (what a name!) is setting up an office in San Jose. In other words, a U.S. based company sought the business of this Indian company ("outsourcing") only to have the company relocate itself in part back in the States ("insourcing"?). Which tells me that nothing is clearly as simple as it seems these days, even dollars and cents, or rupees and paisa. That which was "offshore" moves back "onshore" – there and back again as it were. I’m not sure what this means to the world of technology support – or poor Rajagopalan who may be shopping for a really expensive house in Silicon Valley – but, despite the horrid company name, the story seems like a pretty good metaphor to me.

Globalization used to occur in predictable patterns. It meant the international proliferation of American television, jeans and fast food. It meant a "brain drain" of scientists and others from Asia to the U.S. – my own parents among them. It meant that my girlhood trips to CPI-M (Communist Party of India – Marxist) controlled West Bengal were full of strikes and protests and painted by the roadside slogans condemning the imperialist West. Although some things haven’t changed that much, Kolkata still has it’s share of gridlock from fist waving protest and the sight of a Western chicken franchise is apparently enough to send all of India into vapors, the movement of energy and interest in the world has shifted. Along with its characteristic strikes and protests, Kolkata is littered with internet cafes and international dialing phonebooths. U.S. multinationals find technical support, innovative opportunities, and highly skilled staff in countries such as India. Mainstream American kids listen to Bollywood filmi music, wear kurtas and eat chicken tandoori. My U.S. educated colleagues, of Asian heritage and not, seek opportunity in the blossoming markets of the East. (I know because they text me on their Blackberries and call me on their Trios to tell me all about the optimism of Shanghai and Mumbai and Bangkok, in such sharp contrast to the prevalent feelings of those of us still in America.) Does this mean that poverty, imperialism or injustice have disappeared? Of course not. But the playing fields have been, if not exactly leveled, at least globally re-aligned.

I grew up in an immigrant community that operated on nostalgia – nursing its children on images of an anachronistic India that only existed in the immigrants’ memories. The children of that community, like our counterparts in similar enclaves all around the U.S., lived a schizophrenic cultural existence – "American" during the school week, "Indian" during the weekends with dance rehearsals and language classes and pujas. Our relationship to this mythic India was always mediated by our parents, who taught or did not teach us our native languages, who made our travel arrangements back home to visit relatives, who often pressured us to marry within our communities because that was surely the guarantee that our "culture" would not disappear. And of course, all the while, we "second generation youth" realized that culture could not be something static, homogeneous, or imposed. Yet, we continued to experience this essential part of our identities, our cultural selves, not directly, but through our immigrant parents. At the same time, our aging parents mourned retiring in this cold country, thought tragically of our faltering relationships with our motherland, and accepted with resignation the fact that their grandchildren would surely forget where they had come from.

Like culture itself, nothing is of course that predictable (thank goodness!). Like all of this out-sourcing and back in-sourcing, my generation of Indian-Americans has the privilege and opportunity to move this way or the other around the world – here, there, and back again. It is our multiple identities, our very complexity, that allows us to think beyond borders. My husband, a child of German immigrants, and I make elaborate plans on how to get fellowships and lectureships and public health posts in Europe and India. We take our children to German classes at the U.N. on Saturdays, Bengali classes at a suburban house turned community mandir on Sundays (the amusing contrast between the two experiences is yet another story). We commit ourselves to parenting with a deliberate eye to language, traveling to our countries of origin on our own terms, and approaching the transmittal of culture with what can only be called an optimistic, but good humored, fervor.

The other weekend, I took my Bengali-German brood to the same New Jersey Durga Puja celebration that I had attended as a girl. I was wearing my red Benarasi wedding sari, my mother’s gold wedding bangles, and participated gleefully in the sindoor-khela – the smearing of vermillion powder among married women in the community. In the past, the experience might have been bittersweet, tormented with a nostalgia that better belongs in a tragic Bengali film – will I retain my culture if I marry out of the community? Will my children remember their Indian heritage? Now, I turn off that mournful soundtrack (rich with the twanging veena) and try to take advantage of the opportunities that have been laid before me. My fair-skinned, dark haired, kurta-clad son looks up at my sindoor-stained hair in amazement. "Mama, you’re so beautiful!" he exclaims in Bengali, before turning around and punching his toddling ghagra-clad sister in the arm. I scold him, and hug him, and look forward to all I have to experience through him.

The telephone is ringing. It’s the world on the phone. And it wants to know if we can come out and play.