Indian community burgeoning in America
By ERIN TEXEIRA, AP National Writer Sun Oct 22, 4:46 PM ET
EDISON, N.J. – The train station billboards tell it all.
Local travel agents promise the best airfares from New York to Mumbai. Shagun Fashions is selling dazzling Indian saris. And DirecTV offers “the six top Indian channels direct to you.”
Roughly every third person who lives Edison, a New York suburb, is of Asian Indian ancestry. Many are new immigrants who have come to work as physicians, engineers and high-tech experts and are drawn to “Little India” by convenience it's near the commuter train and familiarity.
Here they can “get their groceries and goods from home,” says Aruna Rao, a mental health counselor who lives in town.
Although a steady stream of Indians have settled in the U.S. since the 1960s, immigrants positively poured into the country between 2000 and 2005 arriving at a higher rate than any other group.
Not only is the Indian community burgeoning, it's maturing. Increasingly, after decades of quietly establishing themselves, Indians are becoming more vocal in the American conversation about politics, ethnicity and many other topics.
“I've been studying the community for 20 years and in the last four or five years something different has been happening,” said Madhulika Khandelwal, president of the Asian American Center at Queens College in New York. “Indian-Americans are finally out there speaking for themselves.”
Roughly 2.3 million people of Indian ancestry, including immigrants and the American-born, now call the U.S. home, according to 2005 Census data. That's up from 1.7 million in 2000.
They have big communities in New Jersey, New York, California and Texas, and their average yearly household income is more than $60,000 35 percent higher than the nation overall. Indian Americans, along with Indian expatriates worldwide, sent about $23 billion back to India in 2005,
And so when Virginia Sen. George Allen (news, bio, voting record) was caught on video in August calling an Indian American man “macaca” a type of monkey and an offensive term the community quickly responded.
Within days after the reports emerged, Sanjay Puri, founder of the U.S. Indian Political Action Committee, and other Indian leaders in the Washington, D.C., area requested and got a lengthy meeting with Allen, Puri said. The senator publicly apologized.
If this had happened 10 years ago?
“It would have been a lot harder,” Puri said. “But this is a prosperous and fast-growing community. People are beginning to understand that we are contributing politically, so that made a big difference.”
Many Indian immigrants arrived in the U.S. focused almost entirely on individual success getting a top-notch job, making good money and pushing their children to do the same.
But things are changing. After the Sept. 11 attacks, many Indian Sikhs, who wear turbans as part of their faith, were mistaken for Muslims and terrorists. Hundreds were harassed or worse: In Mesa, Ariz., a Sikh gas station owner was shot and killed on Sept. 15, 2001, by a man who told police “all Arabs had to be shot.”
Few knew their rights because few had been engaged politically, said Amardeep Singh, executive director of The Sikh Coalition in New York.
“We were caught with our pants down,” he said. “Sept. 11 created a confrontation. We realized we now need to actively involve ourselves in the policy-making process. Otherwise policies will be made that exclude us.”
The group now has two bills pending in the New York city council one would allow city employees to wear turbans and the other would make city officials craft plans to prevent hate crimes if another terrorist attack happened. The community recently saw three Sikhs elected to low-level offices around the city. “It's a good first step,” Singh said.
The push extends beyond Sikhs, Puri said.
“The question that every Indian-American is asking lately: Is the American dream making a lot of money and having fancy cars enough?” he said. “Giving back and being active is also happening.”
In New Jersey, Ready to Run, a Rutgers University-based project that helps women seek public office, will next year for the first time court Asian women, said Reema Desai, an immigration lawyer who is helping organize the outreach.
Indians also are working outside politics to influence broader society. They are overrepresented among college professors, engineers and technology workers. Between 10 percent and 12 percent of all medical school students are Indians, according to the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, the biggest physicians' group in the nation after the American Medical Association.
Half of all motel rooms in the nation are owned by Indians, according to the Asian American Hotel Owners Association.
In New York City, Basement Banghra, a popular Indian music event that blends hip-hop rhythms with Indian melodies, attracts hundreds of partygoers to Sounds of Brazil nightclub each month. It will mark its 10th anniversary next year.
There are novelists, including Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri of Brooklyn; filmmakers like Mira Nair, whose “The Namesake,” based on Lahiri's novel and distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures, is due in theaters next spring; and prime-time television stars such as Parminder Nagra on “E.R.” and Naveen Andrews on “Lost.”
“Many of these things are converging around the same time, so it all adds up,” Khandelwal said. “It seems like every other day there's a big book or movie or high-profile accomplishment.”
Increasingly, American-born Indians who call themselves Desis have the confidence to make their voices heard. “There is a clear rise of this generation,” she said.
With rapid growth, the community is becoming more complex.
Layered atop the dizzying diversity of India itself there are dozens of languages, and distinct regional differences in culture, politics and cuisine are growing class differences among Indian-Americans.
About one-tenth live in poverty, and as many as 400,000 are undocumented, said Deepa Iyer, executive director of South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow in Takoma Park, Md.
“This is a community of contrasts,” Iyer said. “We hear so much about this highly educated and affluent group, but we also have segments that are not fluent in English and are battling immigration problems and hate crimes.”
Such topics are often discussed in New Jersey, home to 170,000 Asian Indians as of Census 2000. Many have fresh memories of gangs of anti-Indian white youth in the late 1980s in Jersey City then the nexus of the state's Indian community who called themselves Dotbusters, referring to the decorative bindi some Hindi women wear between their eyebrows. In 1987, a finance manager was beaten to death with a baseball bat while his attackers shouted “Hindu! Hindu!”
Such crimes have diminished, but they never disappeared, said Singh of The Sikh Coalition. Last year, he said, two Sikh youth suffered violent harassment in New Jersey public schools.
In Edison in recent years, there's been low-grade tension between Indians and police, residents said, and it erupted during this year's July 4 celebrations. Police were called to a heavily Indian apartment complex to disperse a crowd of nearly 800, and one Indian man said he was beaten by police, said Jerry Barca, spokesman for Edison's mayor.
When the community held a protest the next month, the man was arrested on the spot for being an illegal immigrant. He remains in federal custody.
“There's definitely tension and suspicion,” said Rao, who has lived in Edison for seven years and said the problems have left some Indians disillusioned. “People feel like, 'What am I doing in this country?' A lot of it is, 'I told you so. We'll never be accepted or assimilated.'” She added that there are no Indians on Edison's school board or city council.
City officials called on state mediators to help build bridges in the community, and the advisory body includes two Indian-Americans, Barca said. “It's going to take time, but it's good because now people in Edison are talking as opposed to `you live over there and we live over here,'” he said.
Desai, the immigration lawyer, has lived in New Jersey since she was 3, and said she sees many signs of positive change compared to a generation ago.
“We've made an impact in all sorts of things, and now you even have people knowing about our holidays and our culture,” she said. “Things are different now. We're more visible.”