How India Sees America

For one year from 2007-2008, Amar traveled around the world reporting on how people from all walks of life view the United States through text and video.  The following is one of a number of posts from India. For more, click here.

New Delhi - In 1976, my father graduated from All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), one of the best public med-schools and hospitals in the country. Tens of thousands apply, 50 are accepted; then the Indian government sponsors their topnotch education. But like well-known author alum Deepak Chopra and more than half his class, my dad left for the United States after graduating. Three decades later, I visit AIIMS to see if students are still leaving for America in droves.

The med-school isn’t the gleaming structure my dad described. It’s dark and dilapidated. Thousands of patients of all ages huddle on the ground awaiting treatment, stretched out on mats in the sweltering heat. Monkeys swing on exposed pipes. It’s a stark contrast to Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, where my dad now treats his predominantly geriatric clientèle in cool bleached rooms.

Cardio-thoracic surgeon Dr. Balram Airan is among the few members of my father’s class to stay in India, practicing and teaching. Outside his office a sea of bodies throb, jockeying for attention. I take a minute of his time to ask if his students are leaving India for America in the numbers his classmates once did. “No,” he says, “many more are staying put.”

As I leave, he tells me not to be deceived by appearances. AIIMS provides astonishingly high quality care to a massive number of poor patients, roughly 3.5 million per year. It’s one of very few hospitals in the world to treat so many so well. Being part of it gives Dr. Airan purpose and a thrill.

Over the past month traveling across India, I’ve heard many variations on this point: America isn’t the only “land of opportunity” anymore; India is one too, but often for different reasons.

America is still a wellspring of creative and entrepreneurial ideas. In setting up a movie production studiolaying out a retail malllaunching a private hospital or establishing a coffee shop chain, America has perfected business models that can be grafted to fit India. And for bright students, America can be an important pit stop to educate themselves further, develop skills, and save up cash before making a more fruitful return home.

America’s most important role in India is perhaps the ideals it stands for. Restrictive social mores lock many women at home and firm class hierarchies cut whole communities from the job market. America is still seen as a genuine meritocracy. A 20-year-old call center employee named Rakesh Kumar tells me in the America he imagines, family connections aren’t necessary for success and corruption bows to the law.

But as a country, Indians complain, America bows to no one, and cannot be trusted. The U.S. government has long been viewed by Indians as an unreliable international partner, willing to side instead with Pakistan or China in past decades. Now the Iraq War is very unpopular, and the “Global War on Terror” is seen as a U.S.-centric enterprise. What about India’s terrorists? The recent nuclear deal has settled a few nerves but Indians still worry about falling into a patron-client relationship with the U.S. I hear apprehension from political elites and ordinary citizens alike.

“Uncle Sam go back! But take me with you.” This is a longstanding quip here. America is great on its own turf, less so on others. Today one might add, "...and send me back before too long.”

IndiaAmar Bakshi