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Living Abroad As An Indian

On my first day in my new office in Bangkok, the very first piece of advice that my new boss, also an Indian, gave me was that for successful living in a foreign country, I should "de-Indianise" myself as quickly as possible.

india Updated: Jan 06, 2004 22:13 IST
DL Khanna

It was in 1970 that upon my assignment to the ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok, Thailand, my family and I left India for long-term residence in a foreign country. On my first day in my new office in Bangkok, the very first piece of advice that my new boss, also an Indian, gave me was that for successful living in a foreign country and for a successful international career, I should "de-Indianise" myself as quickly as possible.

On the other hand, I had heard the saying that "one can take an Indian out of India but not India out of an Indian", which for me was just a cliché. My boss did not elaborate on what he meant by "deIndianising", nor did I ask him but I took it to mean that both for living and working amongst peoples of different cultures required an intelligent understanding and a sensitive approach to their mannerisms as well as their ways of doing things.

After a five-year stint in Bangkok, I was transferred to the ILO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Thus in the last 32 years, we have spent roughly half the time in Bangkok and the other half in Geneva. Our four children went to school in Bangkok, then in Geneva and had their higher education in the U.K. and in Switzerland. Living abroad has, on the whole, been a rewarding experience for us despite the fact that we missed our country, our childhood friends and other near and dear ones.

To make up for this, we have visited India as frequently as possible and tried, to some extent, to have the " best of both worlds". In Geneva, our need for being in touch with India was also partially satisfied by becoming members of the Indian Association of Geneva of which I had also the privilege of serving as President in 1978-1979.

An added advantage in our case has been that our contacts abroad have not been limited to the people of the countries of our residence but included people of a large number of other nationalities living there and working for international organizations. This proved to be a highly enriching and educative experience.

In 1996, when I retired from the U.N. service, I had the options of returning to India, living in Thailand or in Switzerland. At one level, returning to India was the most attractive option but there were the usual other factors to consider, i.e. the location of our children and their families, personal and family friends, and my own ability to continue doing something useful after retirement from service.

Having been involved in different aspects of social and economic development over the years, I firmly believed that for social development in any country to be truly meaningful, education of children was a cardinal prerequisite without which no matter what else was done or not done, no society could achieve its full potential.

It was also clear that to achieve universal or near universal levels of education and literacy for the entire population of any country, effective democratic participation of the civil society, i.e. the non governmental organizations (NGOs) was essential, not the least because the Governments of developing countries around the world had regrettably not fully lived up to their commitments including constitutional mandates in this particular field. In fact, during preceding decade or so, in several major countries, NGOs had already become deeply involved in the task of education as in other aspects of social development as a result of a global debate and consensus on the subject.