November 14, 2012

4 Ways NRI Children Find Adjustment to Life in India Difficult

Recently in interacting with Non-Resident Indian (hereafter, NRI) families considering a move back to India, the topic of children’s adjustment came up. Today, being Children’s Day, I thought to share a few challenges NRI children who move from the USA to India face. 

Language Problems 
Families may get opportunities to move back to India to areas they never lived in before. This means that the local language may not be their mother tongue. Considering the social interaction of the children at the school, the main language while hanging out would be the local language even if it is an English medium school. Some parents may get ‘stars in their eyes’ hearing the catch phrase of international school. Just because it’s called an International School doesn’t mean it's student population is international. It may not even mean that the students in the school are from various parts of India! Check with the administration to find out the demographics of the student population.

Manners Differ Between Cultures
Depending on how old your children are, if they have had any significant interaction (even as little as a few years in preschool, kindergarten or first grade) with American kids in the American style of discipline, they could very well likely get culture shock and make the conclusion that kids in India ‘are rude’. Here are a few examples of the culture differences NRI kids and their parents who have come back to India have expressed to me:
  • In America, kids in many schools are socialized to cover their mouth while sneezing or coughing, say excuse me when they do so, bless others when they sneeze, say excuse me when moving through a crowd (instead of pushing through), and were socialized with many other habits including eating habit differences. 
  • In India, kids may be allowed to run around more in public areas and it's rare that when bumping into others people say 'excuse me' or 'sorry'. These courtesies are common place in the US, and ingrained into everyone from a young age. When bumping into someone, the person who bumps the other says 'sorry', while the other says 'no problem'. Conversely, when bumped into a person socialized in the US expects by habit the other person to say 'sorry' or 'excuse me'. Since these are not common in some places of India, the NRI kid may feel the local Indian kid is rude or misbehaving.
  • Some NRI parents have commented ‘American kids are sensitive because they are taught to say ‘You hurt my feelings.’ when another student picks on them.’ Such commentary is rare in most of India if non-existent. Bullying is rampant for young kids and eve-teasing (Indian style sexual harassment) is an issue for older girls.
Dressing Style
Older kids may have more of an issue wearing school uniforms than younger kids, but kids of all ages in the US raised by NRIs do enjoy showing their individuality through the clothes they wear to school. This is part of American culture. NRI parents may not realize it, but kids in American  schools often judge each other based on what they wear or don’t wear and the kids themselves find a bit of self-esteem in being able to choose their style that is acceptable to their personal style while also being accepted by others. Of course, the thought is that a school uniform releases all those stressors. This is true if one grew up wearing these uniforms from day one of school. However, this will not be the case with your child. Suddenly going from having an identity in one’s clothes to not having an identity can be a big culture shock for some kids. (As well as going from uniforms to personal style can be for those Indian kids who move to the US.)

Kids Can Get Hit by Teachers in Indian Schools
Upon asking an NRI first grader what she found different in Indian schools, I was told “They hit me here.” She looked down, sadly. I had no idea what to say. I thought this was banished. But, maybe it just depends on the school. Though NRI parents may have been raised in such a school and not questioned it, remember NRI kids have been socialized very differently in American (Western)  schools. Most if not all areas in the US ban teachers hitting kids for any reason. It’s illegal. So an NRI kid in the US would not experience this. Experiencing this in India, they would naturally be shocked, sad, confused and even hurt.

NRI parents have adjusted to a particular lifestyle that has also given opportunities to themselves and their children that may not be widely available in all parts of India. Some of these things include lack of public libraries, organized kids activities (swimming lessons, etc), lack of day care facilities, different concepts of study time and school night, open and clean parks to play and picnic in among others. Moving back to India and living in India day in and day out, facing the real challenges of social life is completely different than a few month long vacations taken yearly or biyearly by NRI families to India. Keep these issues in mind, along with others that pertain to your family’s situation. These are real issues and cause real problems for parents. Even if parents get adjusted back to India, the children may not. Every child and parent is unique. Some family members may adjust, while others just cannot. It is imperative for NRI parents to thoroughly research schools and the social factors happening in the schools before moving back to India. This research could in fact, as it has with others, cancel plans for some NRI families to move back to India. It’s easy to get caught up in the emotional factors of moving back to India, but when it comes to family dynamics and cross-cultural adjustment, everyone matters; even and especially the children. Happy Children’s Day.

Photo credit: mynameisharsha @ flickr.

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Related Posts:
Understanding if you have culture shock
How the movie E.T. teaches us about adjusting to other cultures 
Examples of what Americans find to be rude 

Copyright © 2011, Jennifer Kumar. All Rights Reserved.
Permission to Reprint: This article may be reprinted, provided it appears in its entirety with the following attribution (link included): Reprinted by permission of Jennifer Kumar, Cross-Cultural Coach at Authentic Journeys. 


  1. Thanks so much for this article. I would like to add my reversed analogy. That is, when my son, who was 13 when he moved from a strict Indian school ambiance to a more freedom-oriented Canadian school (Canadian schools operate almost on the same principle as American schools), he breathed free! He felt free from the shackles of an uniform and a grouped-personality disorder. He could wear his own style of clothes and was happy. It took him a year to get adjusted to the freedom, but now he shudders whenever he thinks of the restraint and gruel in the Indian system. One basic difference he pointed out to me is that Indian teachers teach in class for the students who are above average. Not only do they never look into students who cannot perform, they do not pass any opportunity in demeaning and humiliating them in front of the whole class. (A good reference is the film 'Taare Zameen Par') This is extremely hazardous to personality building for those below average.
    In Canada, the teachers teach for students who are below average and try to pick their grades up to the average level. Particular attention is given to students who are weak in one subject and their strength is highlighted, given public applause. This raises the students esteem in a far bigger way and they can perform better on a larger platform.

  2. Kaberi, thank you. This is well-spoken. I appreciate you sharing your insight.
    You have shared some pertinent points here as well as pointing out how moving from India to another country can really help one change, and how even 'positive' changes can be a challenge to adjust to!

    Another thing is in India, teachers still find it suitable to hit and be physical with the child. Of course, recently there was a law passed condemning this behavior, but I do not know how effective it is country-wide.

    I am really interested in your commentary on "grouped personality disorder." When I was working as a social worker, there were clients that were termed 'co-dependent'. Often those from group cultures are automatically considered co-dependent in the US, though this is part of their culture. In their culture it's considered good and respectable to be co-dependent, but in the US culture, it has a negative connotation. So, my struggle in interacting with this is - where does cultural traits and psychology begin and end? When are aspects of groupness, co-dependent behavior, or complete individualism harmful?

    According to some experts, even those who write for the DSM-IV (the manual of mental disorders), they say if these 'issues' are prevalent over many parts / roles in one's life and causes dysfunction or doesn't allow the person to grow and flourish, and causes sickness or dis-ease in daily life. As if it impairs the function in daily life. Of course, when it comes to cultural traits, when everyone else is doing it, it's hard to see where ease and dis-ease start and end, and it's also equally hard to break free of the status quo. We only really see this dis-ease when we break out of our group, especially in your family's case, moving from India to Canada really helped change the perspective here! Thanks for making me think about this!

  3. So well analyzed in such a short time, Jennifer!

    By 'grouped-personality disorder' I meant 'following the herd' concept. I guess you've figured that out. Following the herd has its own flaws and goodness. I, personally, stay away from the herd and create a completely new pathway. That has been my trait all along and I cannot see beyond. Luckily, my son has inherited that trait 'copybook style'.
    Complete individualism is harmful if you interact with people once in a while and they look at you as if you've just descended from Mars.
    If dependancy matters to you, you are doomed to have become an individual. To be an individual, one has to turn a complete blind eye to the society around, including peer pressures, pressures from parents, relatives, friends and foes. When I immigrated to Canada, sold my properties in India, my car, stopped sending my son to school.... which are regarded today as bold decisions... I did not get a single support from anyone around me. Luckily, some inner strength goaded me. That is the brunt you have to bear of individualism. Today many people take me as inspiration and are following my footsteps. I am truly honored.
    I consider you too to be much, much ahead of the herd... I am sure you are already getting followers.

    I can cite so many examples from my own life, since I really didn't look beyond. You can call me an egocentric, but I prefer that to being called a socialite! Lolls... I am a humanitarian, actually. And avoid irrelevant people. I guess that is the trait needed to be successful and avoid any dysfunction or disease which you've talked about.

  4. Kaberi, I am enjoying this exchange.

    I really resonate with what you are saying.

    I appreciate the bold steps you took, even in the face of being shunned. That is not easy, but I think the main thing was you had a larger goal in mind. That makes the difference. When reading that, it makes me think that this kind of thing happens in all societies with all kinds of people. I am reading a book by Haikaa Yamamoto on diversity (she has been featured on my site already). In her book, she mentions that every culture and subculture (including professions) have a "status quo" and to break away from that is never easy for anyone. She has stated it just as well as you have!

    That post for reference is-

  5. Shiv, I am so sorry I had not responded. I thought I did, and the system had not printed it.

    I do appreciate your commentary and insight. I think that attitude about settling vs. international moving is a good one. It of course, is not easy to do these things, and it's not easy to move, learn new cultures and interact with different people every few years, but it helps makes us stronger people, and as you rightly mentions, helps us not get too connected to any one place. I think it also helps keep us 'young'... as we are always on the move and learning new things. I'd like to know about your experiences.

    I did visit your site. Is this based from Andhra Pradesh? I wasn't sure. Looks like you are doing good work. But, I couldn't see anything current there. What's the most current projects completed?

  6. I know a couple who moved again to USA because their 6 years old daughter was not even ready to attend a convent school in Ooty.The risk of staying abroad is more, if the kids start schooling in abroad. There is no way to compare the things(such as method of teaching etc) of schools in western countries and India(I say this from my limited experiences of living abroad). We say in tamil, "Puli vaalai pidicha maathiri" which means holding tail of a tiger. The best period to move back to India is before the kids start schooling(let us say before the age of 3). This is my opinion, but everyone has their own views and opinion about an issue/a topic.

  7. @Jennifer and @Kaberi, having been born in Brazil and lived and studied in the US and in Japan, I naturally had to find a deeper sense of self to be able to navigate these different landscapes. Otherwise I would simply end up developing multiple personalities which could hardly be a pleasant way of living. In addition to the cultures mentioned above, I am also an avid reader and I have just finished reading Autobiography of a Yogi. I thought it was very interesting when Yogananda's guru says that even when one attains complete oneness with the Supreme (God/Cosmos/etc...), one still maintains uniqueness. So, just like you @kaberi, I'm not naturally inclined towards following the herd and I find that any environment that allows for freedom is a more fertile soil for me to grow and develop. @Jennifer, very interesting article :) and yes... a US school environment and an Indian school environment seem to be like two completely different worlds in many ways!!!

  8. Haikaa, your insights are so meaningful, and I appreciate you sharing them with us.
    I also find it amazing about your reference to multiple personalities, because I have written about that on my blog as well -
    It's so nice to have met you and more so that people will be able to learn about your experiences through your music and book.

  9. Manik, it's true, that there are children who are unable to adapt for a variety of reasons, academic climate is one reason, as well as social climate among peers.
    I know you've been living and studying in European countries. I recently learned (though never personally experienced it), that European countries also have different methods of teaching, and they are different than even the US methods. It's so amazing how many different ways people express life on this planet, and more so that some of us are inclined to adjust, while some of us simply cannot.

  10. In Germany, the schooling is different. After 5th grade, one has to decide which path to go, for example, science (to study medicine, engineering), arts (study history) or general education (carpenter or shop keeper). This is too difficult to decide at early age. But normally the bright students are advised to study science., You can not compare knowledge of these students. No wonder why they are pretty much advanced in every field. Of course, the medium of instruction is German in schools (I often wonder myself, how the world would have been if the language of USA was german, english was elected to be official language USA by one vote, probably indians and chinese would have learnt both german and english to go usa or uk). Another interesting thing is oral exams even in master level courses. This is more or like a discussion. It took me one year to understand the difference between oral exam and written exam in Germany. But I have completed my studies at that time. I had to take 8 or 9 courses in Germany in one semester, it was too intense.
    Swedish education system is different too..... Not so intense like Germany. They have 6 hrs exams or 4 hrs exams.... haha.... you can take a nap or bring something to eat.....
    The duration of the master level courses is one year in the UK.
    I was heading to Portugal last year, a 5 or 6 years old girl from the UK was singing this rhyme.... Rain rain go away..... which led to think about our intelligent educational system.
    The problem in indian schooling system is that we blindly still follow the british educational system....,
    I find it really stupid to have a rhyme like, Rain rain go away, where the sun would be burning it rays and no rain fall in south india (or most of parts of india).
    In India we give more importance to education and ignore other things. For example, even most of young girls do not even know how to cook simple dishes (I know how to cook, so I can speak about this). How is it possible to know everything about cooking just in a day? I think whether it is a boy/girl, a kid should be taught basic survival skills such as cooking.
    There is no individuality among youngsters in India. Too much pressure from society and family to go for materialistic things such as a good paying job rather than going for what a person really wants. If you ask a software professional at a personal level, you will get an answer.
    I have listed many things in this post..... some may not be relevant to the topic of this blog, but everything is related to cross cultural exchange.

  11. Manik, hi. I appreciate you sharing all the topics you have. And, even if they aren't directly related, they are indirectly related. Learning about different learning styles is very interesting. It's even more so to think about how to adjust to these when moving between educational systems.
    Do you think it's easier to move from Indian educational system that is more regurgitation to a Western style, that's more individualistic or the other way around?
    I will come back and reply in detail later.

  12. This is not easy to adapt. As I already said, By the time I finished my course work in each country(Sweden and Germany), I knew the exact way of scoring high grades according to the particular exam pattern.
    My suggestion for someone who is interested study overseas is that be flexible and try to adapt the new things starting from changing food habits. Being a south indian, you can imagine how i would like to eat rice. But nowadays I eat rice maximum 3 days per week.


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