The Challenges Facing Expatriates Returning to India 11.1.2015 | Laura Levenson

Weichert India Expatriates

A lot of attention is given to expats being sent on assignment to another country, as companies understand that the faster they assimilate, the more productive they’ll be in their new roles. But consider, for a moment, those expats who leave home countries in pre-emerging markets. These employees could find themselves returning to very different, almost unrecognizable environments post-assignment, making “home” seem like a foreign country.

This is particularly true of India, which has experienced tremendous economic growth and social and political change over the past half century. For keener insight to the challenges Indians face when returning to their home country after an extended assignment, I spoke with Anita Krishnaswamy, President of Global Adjustments Relocation India and member of the Weichert Global Representative network. Anita brings a wealth of experience working with clients of all nationalities, including those of Indian descent.

LL: Can you describe who constitutes the population of ethnic Indians returning to India?

  • AK: There are several different categories of Indians who are returning to India, which include:
    NRI (Non-Resident Indians), or Indians born in India but no longer living in India
  • PIO (Persons of Indian Origin), or Indians born outside of India, one or both parents of Indian descent, living anywhere in the world.
  • OCI (Overseas Citizens of India), or Indians living outside India who are naturalized citizens of other countries or dual citizens of another country and India.

LL: Why are they coming back and what is their prevailing mindset on returning?

AK: Indians are returning for career opportunities that broaden experience and positions that are so attractive that they feel they can’t turn them down. They typically hold a position of middle or senior management and are being offered a highly visible role such as India’s Country Manager.

There are also Indians returning for emotional reasons: to reunite with the family after years apart, and the opportunity to return to the culture and lifestyle they grew up with. The quality of life in India has improved greatly compared to when they left a decade or two ago, and they recognize that a higher living standard is now more affordable . For example, it’s possible to have household help and a personal car and driver, which would be unaffordable luxuries in their adopted countries.

Lastly, many returning Indians regard living in India as the “Best of Both Worlds,” that is to say, the familiarity and comfort of being at home, coupled with western salary and lifestyle.

LL: What are the major challenges/adjustments Returning Indian Nationals are facing?

AK: PIOs, OCIs and NRIs who move to India accompanied by spouse and children can find as many challenges as an expat from another country.

For PIOs who have never lived in India, the English spoken by Indians is very different from other countries where English is the first language. Learning Indian dialects in school is required and could be very challenging for a PIO with no knowledge of any Indian language.

Traffic, inconsistent road conditions and different traffic regulations also presents challenges. For many Indians, moving back means using public transportation or having to replace public transportation with a hired car and driver. This may seem luxurious, but it also limits privacy and independence as well as personal space and flexibility. Also, switching from driving on the left side of the road to to right side can be difficult and intimidating.

LL: In your opinion, do returning Indians experience a higher rate of success or failure than expats from other countries going to India, and if so, why?

AK: While it may be surprising to learn, returning Indians struggle more than expats of other nationalities. I believe this is largely for cultural and social reasons. The assignee as well as each family member is under extreme pressure to succeed.

For the children, the challenges of integrating into a school system that is extremely competitive and academically rigorous than can be overwhelming. Physically speaking, they may blend in, but because of their outward appearance often their local Indian peers expect them to be just like them while in reality they have assumed the behaviors and customs of their adopted countries. As such, the returning Indian may struggle harder to fit in.

For returning spouses, living near relatives and old friends can be a mixed experience. Returning to a familiar network of friends and family is exciting, but the obligations to care for and spend time with extended family can be overwhelming after many years or even a lifetime of limited interactions with family. Turning down invitations from friends and family or failure to extend invitations can be very insulting, and could have a major long term impact on relationships, causing undue stress on the nuclear family as well.

And finally for the assignee, the pressures from colleagues and family to achieve, the transition to a position of greater responsibility, while confronted with unexpected adjustment challenges at home cannot be overlooked. But those who approach the move as a new assignment, and treat the experience as an opportunity for a fresh start in a familiar culture but a new and evolved India, achieve the greatest success.

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Written by Laura Levenson


Laura Levenson is a Practice Leader in Weichert Workforce Mobility’s Advisory Services group. She has worked in management capacities for workforce mobility and Big Four firms, and is well-versed in bringing clarity to the most pressing global talent deployment challenges. She brings over 25 years of experience to her role and is a frequent speaker on the mobility conference circuit.

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