Immigration and assimilation: Feeling global, but being an American

Mohammed Raziuddin an Indian high-tech professional came to the US for an education and ended up becoming an American citizen. Though he feels like he fits in here, he still feels like a citizen of the world, not just America.

Melanie Stetson Freeman
Immigration and assimilation: This story about Mohammed Raziuddin (r. with his family), who came from India to the US for an education but ended up becoming a citizen, a is one of a six-part cover story project in the July 8 & 15 double issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.

One of the first jolts for Mohammed Raziuddin came when it started snowing. In October. The brochures from Syracuse University that he'd read back in Hyderabad, India, had lots of beautiful pictures from the spring and fall, he recalls with a laugh.

When he arrived in upstate New York in 1993, an eager international graduate student seeking a degree in computer science, everything seemed just as described. Then it got cold: "I had never been in a cold climate before. It was a drastic change."

But in his 20s – and thrilled to be delving into the academic side of an up-and-coming industry – Mr. Raziuddin chalked the chill up as another part of this adventure called the United States of America.

"It was all part of the thrill," he said. "When you make such a leap of faith – I was going to a totally new place – the thrill of that experience trumps the potential pain you are going to go through.... While I was living there I had no regrets."

Today, Raziuddin, who works for IBM, lives in this western suburb of Boston and makes a point with his Malaysian-born wife and American-born children to get outside in the winter. He started with snowshoeing; recently he has been learning how to ski.

And this, really, is how Raziuddin's journey into American life has gone. Although there were plenty of cultural disconnects for the Indian newcomer – from the informal style of American universities (think undergraduates with their feet on desks) to the American reluctance to chat about income – sooner or later he figured out the system and embraced it.

This is typical of one of the fastest growing categories of immigrants to the US, a group from Asia (including the Indian subcontinent) that is better educated, wealthier, and more likely to believe in the power of hard work than native-born Americans are, according to the Pew Research Center.

Asian-Americans are both the fastest growing and highest income racial group in the US, according to the US Census, and recently passed Hispanics as the largest group of new immigrants to the country. In 2011, the 1.9 million immigrants from India were the second largest national group in the US, behind Mexicans.

When scholars such as Princeton University's Alejandro Portes explore what they see as a bifurcated immigration system – with both high-skilled professionals and low-skilled manual workers coming to fit into America's "hourglass" economy – they almost always find Asian-Americans at the top.

These immigrants are more worldly than the average American, maintaining ties not only with family, but moving in a global economy that favors multicultural competence and language skills. Both Raziuddin and his wife, Jueliala, visit family and friends abroad regularly, and in many ways, he says, he sees the US as their home base for a citizen-of-the-world existence.

"We look at the US as giving us a global platform," he says. But it is also, clearly, home, which isn't what he'd expected when he came for his degree and some experience. He'd planned to soon return to India's nascent tech industry.

Then he met his wife and got a job at an automotive-electronics manufacturer in Indiana, then moved to a telecom start-up in Silicon Valley. The sight of the Great Salt Lake Desert on his drive west is still imprinted on his mind.

It was in Silicon Valley, at the height of the 1990s tech boom, that Raziuddin realized he couldn't leave the US: "There was so much buzz and excitement in the Valley. I couldn't fathom leaving ... I felt ... a part of that whole revolution...."

It was a bit later, on a trip to Malaysia, that he and Jueliala decided to make America their home. In the Kuala Lumpur Airport immigration line with their son, they realized they all had different passports. "It hit us [that] we are an international family" needing to make someplace home, he says, and the couple soon became US citizens.

In 2000, Raziuddin left Silicon Valley to add a business degree from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., to his master's and PhD. He figured the family would quickly return to California. But when the tech bubble burst, they found themselves in Boston. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks came a short time later – three years to the day after Raziuddin got his US citizenship.

Raziuddin, a Muslim, was on the tarmac at London's Heathrow Airport when it happened. "There was trepidation, nervousness," he says. "We were in shock that someone had done this in the name of our religion. We were uncertain of what the future held."

At the time he'd only been at his job for a couple of months. But back in Boston, his boss called him in: "He said, 'We want you to know that we will take care of you. Let us know if anyone is making you feel uncomfortable and we will take care of it.' "

Raziuddin never did feel uncomfortable. But the conversation, he says, was "a moment of great clarity that I had made the right decision to make the US my home."

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