Culture Clash: Repatriation to India

Dr Shiva Aayadurai (from the NY Times article)
Dr Shiva Ayyadurai (from the NY Times article)

The New York Times ran an interesting article over the weekend entitled “Some Indians Find it Tough to Go Home Again.” This article reports that more than 34% of repats found it difficult to return to India. While I found this article illustrated some very useful cultural perspectives, I had some real challenges with the lead into the story.

The Times cites the case of Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai, an extremely talented scientist and entrepreneur who has a variety of impressive degrees from MIT in the US. He was offered a position at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), a government agency that reports to the Ministry of Science. Apparently, Dr. Ayyadurai left Mumbai at the age of 7 and vowed to “return to help his country.” The article does not state whether he had worked in India for any length of time prior to his position at CSIR, except for a Fulbright experience just prior to the CSIR offer.  The Times states that after 4 months of not receiving feedback or little response from his boss, he forwarded a copy of a proposed business plan/report with his recommendations and impressions of the CSIR to the Council’s scientists, presumably without seeking clearance from his boss to do so. Within days of this action, his email at work was shut down and he was soon told that the offer to hire him was no longer being extended.  The article claims that he then shared his report with journalists and wrote a letter of complaint about his situation to the Prime Minister.

This is where I begin to have a serious problem with this article.  I find it astonishing that Dr. Ayyadurai, such an incredibly brilliant man, approached his role at CSIR without an understanding of the importance of hierarchy in India.  He lived nearly his entire life in the US, was trained in top US universities and had little to no experience working in India, yet no one along the way informed him that India is an incredibly hierarchical society? Did he not realize that distributing a report to the organization that actually criticized the CSIR’s leadership would result in a tremendous backlash?  This immediately sounded a bit too “Jerry McGuire” for me. (“Jerry McGuire” is a film in which Tom Cruise plays a sports agent who writes and distributes a report about his industry that quickly gets him fired.)

I recognize that there are some deeply heated conversations on the internet about this case and the perception of inefficiency in the Indian government;  clearly I don’t know all of the facts. Different news sources state that Dr. Ayyadurai’s boss, Mr. Brahmachari, claims that he never offered a full-time position to Dr. Ayyadurai and that he was instead a contract worker who demanded much higher sum of money than CSIR would ultimately want to spend. He stated that Dr. Ayyadurai broke rules related to decision making in the organization and that resulted in the termination of his “consultancy.”

This case is an unique reminder of the importance of cross-cultural training. With some understanding of his “birth culture,” would it not have been possible for Dr. Ayyadurai to discuss the challenges of the lack of communication from his boss with a trusted local friend or colleague?  Could someone not have illustrated that the lack of a reply WAS indeed a reply? How many times have those of us who have worked in teams with Indian nationals and Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) experienced ‘the unspoken no’ either through avoidance, a verbal response of “maybe” or even a “yes” that is thrown out there to avoid the loss of face? Perhaps Dr. Ayyadurai considered these and still chose to move ahead and share his findings with the masses in an effort to stir up a dialogue about the perceived need to change?  I cannot say for sure.

Having searched the internet about this particular case, I think the best cultural advice comes from an anonymous person who simply stated on a blog, “…An individual cannot just do things his or her way (in India). That will not be acceptable even in the United States or Canada.  Dr. Ayyadurai cannot flash his MIT degrees and attempt to take over the functioning of the CSIR…(he) has to get in and learn the system, get established and find out how to make himself useful. Only then can he expect to do ‘earth shattering things’.”

The  tale of Dr. Ayyadurai reminded me of the language we hear from many Peace Corps volunteers in the early days of their assignments abroad:  I’m going to country X to “help”, I’m going to determine what needs to be “changed” to make things more efficient and “better.”  The way the NY Times positions Dr. Ayyadurai’s situation, I’m not at all surprised that he was part of the 34% that had a difficult time. Going to a country to set an agenda with the intention of “helping” is often a recipe for disaster. Nevertheless, had he been in the US and written a report  that deeply criticized his employing organization’s leadership and sent it to teams on the ground, he should have also expected to be deeply reprimanded, if not fired.

For me, this article was a strong reminder of the importance of observation before encouraging change in a “new, old culture”.  It speaks to the need for style switching and the value of finding a trusted cultural guide on the ground, even if the ground is your country of birth.  It reminds me of the need to carefully consider the desire to “help” and how that can be interpreted.

How do reader’s interpret this NY Times article?  I’m particularly curious about Indian perspectives.  I do hope to hear from you!

  • As someone who deals with Indian outsourcing on a daily basis, I certainly understand aspects of the culture; the hierarchical structure, saving face and never saying no are all things I have experienced.

    I certainly can't speak for the subject of this article. It seems as if his contributions were not welcome in a culture where challenging the boss and writing to the Prime Minister are frowned upon. I think the same can be said for how things transpire here in the U.S.

    However, I maintain that Americans are constantly told to adjust to India, but it seems like India lacks the initiative or drive to adjust to America. Maybe because of this very hierarchical structure, they are afraid to. I don't know.

    What I do know is that in a globalized world both parties must work to not only understand each other and effectively communicate expectations, but also take initiative. Where Americans reward initiative, India workers seem to stop short of taking initiative.

    I can also see where if I am not absolutely explicit in my instructions, things can fall apart. Because they can't read through the lines, they choose not to and stop, instead of delivering something then working out the fine details.

    • Hi Tony – thank you for your comments. I would counter with this question: might you know what the team that you work with in India is being told about working with Americans? The way I read your comments in paragraph 3, you imply that it is one sided. I wonder what direction is being given to the team member(s) that you work with. Keeping the hierarchy in mind, your contact abroad likely has a boss that is expecting to have his/her instruction followed, and this will easily usurp your instruction. So perhaps the interpretation that there isn't initiative amongst the Indian team is possibly that the team is not being directed, or expected, to respond in such a way? Might that be possible? I would also consider how you are communicating with the team – voice? email? IM? skype? Perhaps there is a challenge with how they are understanding your instruction that could require clarification up front – perhaps providing an example of your expectation? I also wonder if time is an issue – meaning that if the team is overloaded they likely will not tell you this directly. This requires a careful use of your listening skills – hints that there is a timing issue (i.e. there is a lot of work this week from another client (hint! hint!), we might be able to achieve this deadline (might being a hint that there is a challenge), it is a holiday here (not working a full week), I am attending a wedding (will be out for more than one day), etc) I am not sure from your comments above, but I'd encourage you to style switch a tad and see if you have the same results. I look forward to your findings!

  • Brett Muir

    Hi Missy. I am International Marketing Manager at the University of Waikato in New Zealand, and travel to South Asia extensively. I am in India at least three times per year.

    This example appears to be a textbook case of expat culture shock, and is an extremely common tale among expatriate corporate staff sent to India. As you will be aware, in Dr Ayyadurai's case it is probably more appropriately termed "reverse culture shock" as it involves returning from the host nation to the home.

    In my experience as a recruitment manager, working with students travelling in both directions and personally as an expatriate who lived in Asia for many years, reverse culture shock is more personally destructive as it is often unexpected. You think that because you are "going home" it will somehow be easier to reassimilate. Often times, it is not. Study abroad students experience it all the time – finding the return home as difficult to come to terms with as the initial foray into the new world. In Dr Ayyadurai's case, he may have mistakenly assumed that he experienced culture shock travelling from India to the US as a child, but didn't give it a thought on his return. Even if he had been aware of culture shock, he may not have identified the symptoms on his return to India, and therefore attributed his frustrations to the workplace around him. This is a recipe for disaster.

    Whether culture shock or reverse culture shock, it is something that Dr Ayyadurai could easily have been prepared for, if he had had some cross cultural awareness training that highlighted reverse-culture-shock before returning to India. Either he did not have this preparation, or he felt that "as an Indian" he was returning to a culture he mistakenly thought he was still familiar with.

    Many Indians who have lived abroad for a singificant amount of time feel drawn back to India – particularly if their parents remain in India and are aging. India is (apparently) booming economically and (theoretically) flush with opportunity, however returning home to a lesser-developed country for an expat who has lived for a long time out of the country calls for significant planning. The country doesn't have to be India, it just has to be less developed and less controlled than the one the expat has become familiar with.

    Urban India is one of the most challenging environments to work in at a corporate level. Frustration at inefficiencies and lack of response are very common causes of culture shock agitation which unchecked will continue to fester. After years of orderly life in the USA, most expats moving to, or returning to India are going to be frustrated and inevitably overwhelmed with the complete lack of privacy, personal space, urban filth, and shambolic chaos.

    As with all things Indian, everything tends toward extremes. For everything that progresses rapidly, something else hasn't changed for eternities. Indian corporations are populated with fast, energetic, headstrong staff, yet are mired in teeth-grindingly slow and conservative bureacracy. Cutting edge technological innovations are developed in India on a daily basis and yet the country groans and wheezes with a grossly inadequate and overwhelmed infrastructure. In Mumbai it is impossible to fit in more than two meetings in a day if they are in opposite sides of the city. Traffic (indeed the roads themselves) are so chaotic and teeming that sometimes "car-ma" (if you will excuse the crude pun) seems to be the only rule of the road. As you mentioned, heirachy and face are extremely important. You cannot fight the system in India. It has been the system for too long, and is far too huge. If you do try to fight against it, you will invariably lose. Mahatma Ghandi put it succinctly into context when he advised followers to progress with purpose but be aware that "whatever you do will be insignificant…." New arrivals and returners MUST learn to go with the flow.

    The article did not say whether Dr Ayyadurai had ever been back to India after leaving as a child, but frankly, I am not surprised at the response he received when he rebelled against the system, and effectively turned whistle-blower for little more reason than the fact he felt undervalued. Not only did he reject the established channels (irrespective of their inefficiency), but he also publicly humiliated his senior managers and administrators and potentially exposed the company in a negative light. He could not possibly have been naive enough to think that he would have any employment protection in India. Ironically, he would probably be met with the same response in any major international corporation – whether it be in India, New Zealand, or the USA. Writing to the Prime Minister with his complaints is nothing short of ludicrious. Something tells me that he wouldn't have gotten a response from the Prime Minister's office either.

    Missy, it is great to see the service that you are offering to students and organisations who need knowledgeable guidance in such subjects before venturing abroad themselves, Keep up the great work.

    Warm regards

    Brett Muir

    • Brett, Thank you for sharing your experiences in India and for your detailed comments. You certainly have an understanding of the unique, chaotic and magical nature of India. I agree with much of what you say – reverse culture shock is typically worse than culture shock because one does not expect "home" to be markedly different – after all, it is "home". But in the case of Dr Ayyadurai, I would agree with a comment that I received privately about this post: Dr Ayyadurai is very much American in that he has spent nearly his entire life in the US. He was in India on a Fulbright and I am guessing that he recognized that he was very American in his behavior and by how he was received. As you also noted, the article does not state (nor did any other articles on this case) whether he had spent any significant time back in India over the years.
      I find your comment about travelers needing to go with flow particularly important – as it does not relate only to "1st world/developing world" scenarios. One recent example: a visiting scholar from Denmark who is in a university in the States was flabbergasted that he was being sent by the campus health center for a chest X ray after testing positive for TB skin test. He and I knew that he would test positive because he had been immunized as a child. He had no cough, signs of illness or medical history to indicate that he was a TB carrier. However, the US "health care" bureaucracy required him to jump through all sorts of hoops to "prove" that he was not sick. They wanted him to take 90 days worth of medication that required baseline blood testing to monitor his liver – he was floored and refused it. After much negotiation, it was resolved without the need to medicate him, but you see that one's perception of "bureaucracy" varies. To this "first world" Dane, the US was a bureaucratic nightmare. He was ready to write to the local government about how much local taxpayers would be spending for uncecessary medication for TB (a tax funded program). He did have to learn how to go with the flow in this case as we know that being a visitor abroad is a completely different experience than working abroad. Traffic in India is something to write home about when you're traveling there – when you're working/living there, it is something you have to accept, plan for and expect.
      I completely agree with you regarding the inappropriate nature of his actions – and have had several private notes sent to me by Indian nationals – who all state that anyone who would so blatantly disregard hierarchy and respect for a supervisor would have ended up with the same result in many countries. One really has to wonder what the back story is here as it just doesn't seem that Dr Ayyadurai was so simply naive about what could happen. Change comes slowly to organizations – one risky act and a letter writing campaign do not change a country's culture. Period.
      Thank you again for your kind comments and best wishes. I greatly appreciate that you took the time to share your insights and feedback.

  • Hi. I agree with the other posters. Particularly, I was disenchanted when I opened the article and read it initially. In this 34% having difficulty, I was expecting some other kind of story – maybe related more to daily relationships or adjusting to living in an extended family again or something along these lines. This story is quite upsetting because as you noted, we don't know all the 'details'. Maybe the details of the story – exactly how he communicated with his co-workers and superiors- the gaffes in communicating – the particulars would have been more interesting. What got him to this point? Because, as all have noted, anyone doing something like this in many areas of the would would most likely get the same result. Being a new employee in any office/agency means you don't really have the 'right' to make such criticisms. This takes time and years or layers of respect with the people. This, to me is not really a culture shock situation, but an issue of common sense. I want to hear more of those 34% challenging stories.

    Thanks for posting.

    • Dear Jennifer,
      I completely agree with your concerns about the article. I found it very limited in analysis and it highlighted one unusual incident that seemed rather appropriate for that culture, and certainly others. And as you note, we somehow all feel that we're only missing a large piece of this story. I hope someone will report, eventually, on that 34%. To me, that will be the much more interesting story!
      Best wishes,
      Missy

  • Anand

    On the positive side, 66% are favorable to moving back. I am planning to move by year end and hope to be in the 66% category. Culture shocks are everywhere. Even if you work in India and move to another part of the country you will face these kind of problems. I hope I can overcome the emotional obstacles and work my way through.

    • Dear Anand,
      You raise an excellent point – the positive 66%. I would be interested in hearing about those experiences – what helped to make them positive, how people prepared for repatriation, etc. Please share your experiences if time permits.
      Very best wishes to you on your return.
      Namaste, Missy

  • Jason Rosenthal

    Dear Missy,

    I think you've missed a whole point here, unless I'm missing something. This guy Ayyadurai just did his job. He published a report and was axed, because as most of us know India IS very corrupt. Did you read the Nature India Article http://www.vashiva.com/shiva-ayyadurai-nmarticle….? It's pretty awful — and I read it after following a link from http://freedomforscience.blogspot.com, started by Indian scientist, and article written by Ogletree.

    This has nothing to do with NRI's, this is about unabased corruption of Mr. Brahmachari. At UC Berkeley, I found out in talking to an old Prof. Emeritus, that Brahmachari use to routinely steal an plagairize others work. I think we all need to do our research on Brahmachari.

    Jason

    • Dear Jason,
      Thanks for your comments. It is interesting to hear different perspectives on this case – and the reality is that we won't know all the facts unless they truly do disclose all of the paperwork and have open dialogue, as Dr Ayyadurai suggests.
      My point is driven home by Dr Ayyadurai's own words: "We wrote letters and attempted several times to seek the counsel of Prithivraj Chavan, Minister of S & T and Vice-President of CSIR, who approved my appointment as STIO and to the Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh. Silence was their response."
      In India, silence IS a response – it means no, I'm not supporting you. For whatever reason, whether it be "corruption" or something else (from what I've read, I'd argue it was because the report was circulated BEFORE gaining approval from his boss), he was not being supported. I have heard stories of scientists in India taking credit for others' work – and I'm sure the politics of that organization are more than can be covered in one NY Times piece. My point was simply this: in many cultures, including India, circulating a report – whether you saw it as your job or not – without gaining approval to do some from your boss, in any hierarchical culture, is not going to be well received. And when I think about Indian culture and significance of this agency and pressure to innovate, I was not surprised at the horrific backlash. At the time I wrote this, this is how I saw it. However, there are certainly other issues under the surface of this story – and many have commented that we all really don't know what the truth is in the case or what is driving the media frenzy over this case. It may be deeply rooted corruption, a culture seriously resisting change, Dr Ayyadurai speaking up, but I cannot say for certain. Nevertheless, I'll be curious to hear more as this story plays out.
      Thank you again for sharing your important comments.
      Best, Missy

  • Jason Rosenthal

    I mean Deepak Sardana not Ogletree

  • Cool information it is actually. My teacher has been awaiting for this update.