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This immigrant family made good in Alaska. So why are they returning to India?

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: May 1
  • Published May 1

Diwakar Vadapalli and his wife, Manjula Boyina, and their sons, Siddharth, 5, and Vikhyath, 1, are leaving Anchorage and moving back to India to be closer to family.  (Bill Roth / ADN)

They made it. Diwakar Vadapalli and Manjula Boyina came to the United States from India, earned advanced degrees, and landed career jobs doing important work, with their colleagues' respect.

They made it in American terms, not only as immigrants.

So their decision shocked Alaska friends. They will quit their jobs without having new ones, sell their house in East Anchorage, and move back to India with their two young sons. Next month they will be gone for good.

There are values deeper than career and money. Many Alaskans follow the call of family back to where they started, as their elders need help late in life.

But the couple's story also demonstrates how the world has changed. We're used to thinking of America, and especially Alaska, as the top prize in an economic contest, with success here a reward anyone would aspire to achieve, especially coming from a developing country.

That chauvinistic self-image may be dated. The world is catching up.

One of the reasons Vadapalli and Boyina are leaving is because India is rising. Its economy is the fastest-growing in the world, even faster than China. And, with new wealth, new institutions are challenging old social problems.

That's where the action is, not Alaska.

I met Vadapalli through his job as a professor at the University of Alaska's Institute of Social and Economic Research, where he studies child welfare.

In additional to his research, he has for years led a watchdog group over Alaska's Office of Children's Services called the Citizens Review Panel. Last year he put on a national conference in Anchorage for these watchdog groups from across the country.

An odd path led him there. Vadapalli never wanted move to the United States in the first place.

In the 1990s, before India's economic boom, talented young people flowed to U.S. colleges, pushed by their upper-class families. Vadapalli obeyed his parents. The same flow carried Boyina. They got together and married during school here.

Vadapalli knew no one when he arrived to work on a master's degree at Kansas State University. He was amazed by the roads, the libraries and the credit cards. He got as many as possible because he didn't realize you had to pay the money back.

A series of opportunities brought him to Alaska to work in the Yupik village of Sleetmute as a federal child welfare worker.

"I thought, 'Wow, this is a lot like India, except for the snow,' " he said. "To this day I think I felt most at home in Sleetmute than anywhere in the United States. There was a certain openness in the community. You could walk into anyone's home and they would give you anything they had."

The child abuse and neglect he saw there pulled him deeper into the field. He was hired at ISER in 2011 to study and advocate for solutions.

Boyina stayed closer to the career they both were sent to the U.S. to pursue by their parents: architecture.

"To this day, they think we are architects. They don't know what we are doing," she said.

She went into community planning. That career led to a job with the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, where she led a team remaking the state's information system on local communities.

Boyina and Vadapalli are both engaging, smart and cheerful. Neither said a single negative word about Alaska or the United States, although Boyina said she never turns on the news anymore for fear of what her sons might hear.

They love their friends here, the clean air, and the individualistic culture of Alaska.

"This is what made us," Boyina said. "We wouldn't have been able to understand what we are doing, or even come to this point, if not for the U.S. We grew as people here."

So why go back?

The reasons are mostly about family. On a trip in December, Vadapalli and Boyina realized their parents needed them.

"There is always this sense of responsibility we feel," Vadapalli said. "We sit back and think, what is all of this for if we can't go back and help our parents when they need us? And they sacrificed so much for us to be here."

If they stay, the boys, Siddharth, 5, and Vikhyath, 1, might not grow up to understand that responsibility.

"They just have the two of us," Boyina said. "So what do they learn about family? Here it's all about friends."

Boyina made a rich chai tea. I imagined India's aromas, colors and enveloping families. The contrast to the house on Tudor Road must be sharp. Its windows command a fine view of the Chugach Mountains, but the neighborhood feels sterile and lifeless. In late April the brown grass was half-buried in road grit.

The boys can keep their U.S. passports until they are 16. Then they will have to choose to be citizens of India or the United States.

A decade from now, how will that that choice look?

India is changing fast. Universities are expanding and hiring many new professors at once, Vadapalli said. The country is developing a new child welfare system. His expertise should be in high demand.

He quoted his friends as saying, "You're walking away from jobs that most would love to have. This is a really bold move. And what do you have against Alaska? Why would you leave Anchorage?"

They don't want to leave. This is about going somewhere.

But they're not the only ones making this choice. Alaska used to be the richest state in the richest nation on Earth, a place of limitless opportunity. These days, more people are leaving than are coming. The most talented have been the first to go.

Economically, India may feel like Alaska once did.

"Every time we went back there, it was just seeing the vibrancy," Boyina said. "There was so much energy. That was always a draw.

"I think the U.S. has been through that stage," she added. "Let's go be a part of getting India there."

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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