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American Views

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July 2003
American Views

BY MURALI KAMMA

During the 2000 presidential campaign in the U.S., a television reporter in Boston asked George W. Bush to name the leaders of India, Pakistan, Chechnya and Taiwan. In his widely publicized response, the future American president could only give the Taiwanese leader's last name!

Such has been the meager presence of India on the radar of American consciousness. Thankfully, of late, things are changing for the good in this direction. President Bush has, of course, come a long way since those early days, and it's ironical that the U.S. is now so deeply involved with South Asia. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the current administration's assertive foreign policy, it cannot be denied that India and the U.S. now enjoy close ties ? perhaps closer than ever.

This dramatic change in the relationship actually began with the previous administration, resulting in a historic trip to India by President Clinton in 2000, twenty-two years after President Carter's visit. As a private citizen, Bill Clinton ? who helped to raise funds for earthquake victims on a second trip ? continues to maintain friendly relations with the Indian community. Recently, even President Bush mentioned that he would love to visit India in the near future.

Another indication of the changing American stance came from Robert Blackwill, former U.S. Ambassador to India. His close connections with the power elite in Washington were crucial in bringing the two nations together. Before he left India, Blackwill remarked: "As I have said many times during my stay in India, the fight against international terrorism will not be won until terrorism against India ends permanently. There can be no other legitimate stance by the United States, no American compromise whatever on this elemental geopolitical and moral truth."

This relationship used to be very different, and especially during the long Cold War period, the two nations viewed each other with suspicion. Many years ago, Nathan Glazer ? the eminent sociologist at Harvard University ? and Sulochana Raghavan Glazer studied the issue in depth and concluded that negative perceptions ? "including indifference, hostility, resentment, and disdain" ? have had more effect than security in forming India-U.S. relations.

Indian-Americans as ambassadors

Over the years, Indian-Americans have played a significant role in changing those perceptions. Although they constitute only 0.6 percent (over 1.6 million) of the total U.S. population, their growth rate over the last several years has been spectacular. Between 1990 and 2000, for instance, the growth rate was almost 106 percent ? the largest increase among Asian groups. A policy report put out by the American Immigration Law Foundation (AILF) shows why Indian-Americans have had such a positive impact in altering American perceptions. The report concludes as follows: "As farmers in California, hi-tech engineers and managers in major corporations, physicians in prestigious hospitals throughout the country, scientists in advanced laboratories, students and academics at internationally renowned universities, hotel owners and managers, and computer scientists and entrepreneurs in the info-tech field, Indian-Americans represent one of the most visible and advanced communities in the country. Amazingly, they have done most of this in only one generation, from 1966 to the present."

The bilateral relations, though, between the countries are far from those between firm allies. Many Indians attribute this to a lack of a cohesive lobbying and marketing. Ram Narayanan of U.S.-India Friendship, for example, feels that we tend to dissipate our energies, and comments that the time has come for the community to (promote) India as a brand. Arindam Banerji, a scientist based in Silicon Valley, also believes that Indian-Americans can do more to "change the equation." He notes that there is "not that much difference between China's technological prowess and India's," and adds, "China, however, has built a very different image for itself than India has, primarily through lobbying and marketing."

Despite the prosperity of Indian-Americans and their personal success stories, some perceptions are hard to change. For instance, in Asian Diversity magazine, Christine Lee explains why mainstream advertisers largely ignore the Indian-American community, although it is a "demographic cash cow." She writes that there is a "misconception that Asian Indians are too fragmented to target as a group because of the complicated caste system, religions and languages surrounding Asian Indian culture." Christine points out advertisers don't realize that "many of these differences diminish in the United States."

Apu's America: Indians in popular culture

For many observers, when it comes to Indian characters in popular culture, a cause for concern is misrepresentation or ? as some would argue ? lack of representation. According to a Screen Actors Guild report, there were only 15 Asian Indians out of the 8,239 television characters who appeared between 1995 and 1998. As Vera Chan points out in The Contra Costa Times, the percentage was closer to 0 than 1! It is probably better now, but only marginally. For certain commentators, though, a bigger problem is that Indian-Americans, unlike some other groups, are not proactive when it involves their portrayal in American culture. Vera Chan writes: "American mainstream popular culture has long borrowed and reworked South Asian images without much input from South Asians themselves." However, she does add, "Now the South Asian-American community is starting to speak out."

Indian stereotypes in the entertainment industry probably date back to the roles played by Sabu in the 1930s and ?40s. These successful Hollywood films, starring an Indian actor for the first time, popularized the hoary cliches of "exotic" India like never before.

In contemporary American popular culture, however, the most recognizable Indian is almost certainly a cartoon character! He is, of course, the improbably named Apu Nahasapeemapetilon of The Simpsons, the longest-running sitcom in television history. Although it debuted in 1987, this weekly show is still a hit in the U.S. and a few other countries. It has a cult following that is not confined to the younger set. Many Indian-Americans are probably embarrassed by the funny accent and stereotypical mannerisms of Apu, the Kwik-E-Mart owner in Springfield. Others continue to be amused by his antics and foibles. Like Apu's long-suffering wife, Manjula, these viewers tend to put up with him even when he annoys them.

But what do Americans think of Apu? Here are two perspectives. The first one points out that since The Simpsons is a broad satire, where all the characters are comic stereotypes, one shouldn't take it seriously. Another view states that Apu is an unfortunate caricature, especially when one considers the paucity of Indian characters in American pop culture.

Fortunately, things are improving as Indians gain more visibility in the world of entertainment and news. One example of the growing importance of Indian-Americans in this business is Sonia Nikore, the vice president for casting in NBC's entertainment division. She partly grew up in Atlanta, where her parents still live. Sonia once suggested that the "easiest way to provide more positive roles is for South Asians to write their stories."

Donald R. Davis, the faculty coordinator at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, noted that the goals of their ?Focus Year in South Asia' were to "learn to listen to the many voices of South Asia; to avoid replacing one stereotype with another; and to recognize that South Asians continue to speak for themselves."

Slowly but steadily, Indian culture is also making headway in the mainstream of American society. The practice of Yoga, for instance, has become so common that one could be forgiven for thinking that it originated here! Two recent films illustrate the growing appeal of popular culture involving Indian themes. Monsoon Wedding, which was made in 30 days with a budget of less than $2 million, became the most successful Indian film ever released in this country. Bend It Like Beckham ? a smash hit in the U.K. ? has repeated its remarkable success in North America.

Joshua Kurlantzick of the U.S. News & World Report wrote that some cultural events are drawing "large numbers of non-South Asians, who are intrigued by the new cachet of globalized South Asian culture and are especially interested in Bombay's vibrant music and film industries, which rival Hollywood in sheer size and extravagance." Bombay Dreams, the new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, is slated to open on Broadway in the spring of 2004. This rags-to-riches show about a slum-dweller in Bombay, with music by A. R. Rahman, is already a blockbuster in London's West End. As the first ?Indian' mega-musical in this country, Bombay Dreams will be a milestone in Broadway history. Last month, perhaps for the first time in the history of American television, a cable channel (TCM) showed a series of Bollywood films.

Locally, for the second year in a row, the Film Festival of India drew a diverse audience at the High Museum. Also, South Asian writers have started telling their own stories even in the big-time world of Hollywood. According to the Daily Variety, Warner Brothers is producing a major movie about Shah Jahan and his beloved Mumtaz Mahal. It was reported that Kamran Pasha, a Pakistani-American screenwriter, wrote the script.

In the world of fashion, too, India seems to be making an impression, especially among the well-heeled connoisseurs who follow trends. In May this year, as reported in The New York Times, Lord & Taylor in Manhattan staged a storewide promotion called ?Into India', devoting 20 of its Fifth Avenue windows to clothes by Tarun Tahiliani, Rina Dhaka, Vivek Narang and Manish Arora." The merchandise was almost sold out by the end of the opening weekend. LaVelle Olexa, the fashion merchandising director at Lord & Taylor, was quoted as saying that it was "the most successful" promotion ever.

When it comes to influential public intellectuals, Fareed Zakaria ? the editor of Newsweek International ? has been touted by some as a possible future candidate for Secretary of State. His new book, ?The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad,' was a New York Times bestseller, a rare achievement for an Indian writer of serious nonfiction. Another bestseller ? recently issued as a paperback ? is by the conservative polemicist, Dinesh D'Souza, who reaffirms his admiration and affection for the U.S. in What's So Great About America.

Mira Kamdar is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute (New School) in New York. In Motiba's Tattoos, a recent memoir that deals with her Indian roots, she writes: "Indian pop culture has become so internationalized that Hollywood and MTV stars are wearing bindis on their foreheads and getting mehndi done on their hands." Mira Kamdar doesn't believe this "current American rage" for Indian culture is a passing fad. As she puts it, "India's diaspora population in the West along with India's own vibrant cultural exports are locked in a synergistic relationship, circulating and recirculating sounds, looks, and ideas that flow in and out of the world's major urban centers."���

The Media on India

Not surprisingly, like the subject itself, the media coverage on India is all across the spectrum. And that should come as good news. As many would contend, there was a time when coverage on India was limited to the Jungle Book and Gunga Din variety, or the one that focused on its many challenges such as poverty, to name one.

Encouragingly, a few news organizations in the U.S. are including more diverse stories in order to give a well-rounded view of the country. Earlier this year, "60 minutes" ? the respected and widely watched news program on CBS ? aired an interesting story about the IITs in India. In her glowing assessment, Leslie Stahl declared, "IIT may be the most important university you've never heard of." She recognized that the IITs are so competitive that it's relatively easier to get into an Ivy League school in this country. Other examples include Amy Waldman's reporting on India in The New York Times. A recent piece examined the growth of outsourcing and its impact on the economies of India and the U.S. It's estimated that 3.3 million American jobs will migrate overseas by 2015, with about 70 percent ending up in India.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in its piece on outsourcing, mentioned that Coke and Delta are shifting IT and customer service jobs to India to cut costs. Both articles noted that these developments have caused major concern among certain groups in this country. The piece in the Times quotes the distinguished economist at Columbia University, Jagdish Bhagwati, who predicts that jobs and workers will continue to migrate across borders in both directions. As he puts it, "Outsourcing is just trade."

Another recent article by Amy Waldman is about the state-of-the-art robotic surgeries being done by Dr. Naresh Trehan, a leading cardiologist in India. He founded the Escorts Heart Institute in New Delhi, and now it's one of the biggest and best of its kind anywhere in the world. Unlike his counterparts in the West, Dr. Trehan regularly performs the ?beating heart' surgery, which "reduces trauma to the body but is challenging to perform." But perhaps the most revealing section of this piece states that "the center devotes 10 percent of its income to free care for the poor and subsidizes care for government employees, members of the military and retirees." Also, it notes that "staff members in its mobile echocardiogram van see 100,000 villagers a year."

Of course, the reporting of such stories does not mean that one should disregard or downplay high-profile issues. What it does mean, however, is that a more balanced approach by the media can probably lead to a healthier understanding of other societies.

Indian-Americans as achievers

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An informal survey of some non-Indians in Atlanta seems to confirm that many Americans generally have a favorable impression of Indian-Americans. Becky Valagohar, a federal investigator in Atlanta, remarks that Indian-Americans are "studious, intelligent, hardworking, quiet, and respectful." Her husband Ben, who does revenue auditing at UPS, adds that they "maintain close family ties." George (name changed) and Eyu-jin Kim are students at Emory University. George thinks of Indian-Americans as "high-achievers in general" and sees them as "doctors, professors, first-rate med students." Eyu-jin says, "A lot of them know English, which helps them to rise up faster than other immigrants." Alex Zablah is a graduate student in marketing at Georgia State University. "Indian-Americans contribute greatly to society in general," he says. "A great number of advancements in numerous academic disciplines are attributed to them."

All the people surveyed agree that they do not get enough information from the American media about India and Indian-Americans. What's more, almost everyone thinks the media coverage is not well balanced. Whatever they know seems to come mostly from their interactions with Indian-American friends and acquaintances. The students, in particular, pointed out that India is not well represented in the academic curriculum of schoolchildren.

Scott Hayward and Michael Cumming are MBA students at Emory. "There is little coverage in the American press about India," Scott says, "and even less about Indians living in the United States. When India is in the media, it is typically regarding problems relating to Kashmir, Pakistan, and ethnic tensions. Lately there has been some discussion of the potential AIDS epidemic in India. Generally I do not think coverage of India is biased, but it definitely focuses on the negative issues India faces rather than the positive contributions India makes. But isn't that true of most media coverage?" Michael adds, "We don't get much information about other countries from our media at all unless we look for it on the Web. We usually end up hearing about India when the conflict with Pakistan flares up."

Although their degree of interaction with Indian-Americans varies, all the respondents find them friendly. Alex, however, points out, "Whether they are friendly or reserved depends on the individual person ? some are more outgoing while others are more reserved." Along with him, George, Becky and Ben have "a moderate amount of contact" with Indian-Americans. Becky thinks they are "friendly but quieter than some other cultures." George comments, "I find them to be very friendly, reserved in a good way, and overall, highly agreeable company."

Scott, Eyu-jin and Michael have a lot of contact with Indian-Americans. As Michael says, "I have had several doctors and professors who are of Indian heritage, and several of my classmates are either Indian-American or Indian."

Interestingly, almost everyone surveyed thinks of Indian-Americans as a separate group from Asian-Americans, even though Eyu-jin points out that ? geographically speaking ? Indians should still be considered Asians. Alex says, "Despite India's geographic location in the world, I tend not to associate them with the Asian continent." This seems to confirm the view that Indian-Americans have been included in a category that's considered arbitrary and too broad by many people. For Indian-Americans, a related question to ponder is the dilemma of being seen as a ?model minority' in this country, especially if the label is used in a divisive manner.

The pull of two countries

When it comes to the issue of assimilation, most of the respondents believe that Indian-Americans are adapting well, but without shedding their Indian identity. "I think they try to assimilate while maintaining some of what they consider valuable in their culture," George says. Becky agrees by commenting, "Some professionals I meet seem to be trying to assimilate more, but they retain their culture." Michael points out that "America is diverse enough that they (Indian-Americans) don't stand out too much, particularly those who were born here." He adds, "All the Indian-Americans I have encountered are productive, upstanding citizens."

Alex says, "Although Indian-Americans tend to retain some of their cultural heritage and customs, they do adopt many of the American customs and norms." Therefore, he suggests, "they identify with both Indian and American ways of life." These observations seem to support the theory that immigrants from India have accepted both the melting pot and salad bowl models of society, but without embracing either one completely. The melting pot hypothesis ? as promoted in the U.S. ? can be viewed as the blending of various elements (immigrant groups) to form a new compound (American). On the other hand, the salad bowl hypothesis ? as promoted in Canada ? can be seen as trying to preserve the diverse flavors and ingredients (ethnic cultures and groups) of the new dish (Canada). In reality, the U.S. today is a truly multicultural society, where, according to Vijay Prashad of Trinity College in Connecticut, "each cultural community is accorded the right to determine its destiny, as long as it does not clash in some fundamental way with the social contract of the state and its citizens."

Some choose to make a distinction between foreign-born and American-born Indians, but most do not. As Michael says, "I can differentiate between them, but I usually do not. I try my best not to allow race or ethnic origin to cloud my perception of individuals." George notes that he differentiates "only if the person who is either an immigrant or a second-generation Indian-American cares to make that distinction."

When the topic involves dating and relationships, there is an acknowledgement of cultural conflict between first- and second-generation Indian-Americans. George mentions that he dated an Indian-American last year. "For the most part," he says, "I think she has adapted well, although from talking with her I think there are some barriers that Indian-Americans face in this area." Eyu-jin, who has a lot of Indian-American friends, notes that "some families have a hard time adapting." Scott, who feels that Indian-Americans are "more assimilated" than other immigrant groups, does not disagree. "Without giving an opinion on which standard is better," he says, "I think second-generation Indian-Americans are adapting to American standards of dating and relationships quite easily. This then seems to raise intergenerational conflict within Indian-American families."

Alex believes that Indian-Americans are adapting well. "While they retain many of the values they carried from their homeland," he says, "they have adopted many of the American values such that dating/relationship building is not a problem." Most seem to think that Indian-Americans are more assimilated than many other immigrant groups in the U.S. "It is hard to say how they would compare to other immigrant groups," Alex says. "However, given their dominance of the English language, I would suspect that they are more assimilated than other immigrant groups."

Scott thinks that Indian-Americans are seen as "engineers, doctors, hoteliers" in this society. He says that people here have "a favorable image in that they (Indian-Americans) are focused on education and professional success, two things held dear by most Americans." Alex adds, "I think the most common stereotype is of an ?intellectual' type who works in some type of engineering field." Becky views Indian-Americans as "professionally successful but not dominant or powerful." In fact, she finds them "unassuming" and "not vocal." Michael comments that they are "very smart and hardworking; most are doctors or other professionals." However, while agreeing that "many are important parts of the community," he notes, "I don't see many Indian-Americans taking an active role in politics or other civic activities."

George, on the other hand, feels that Indian-Americans participate in mainstream society "probably as much as they can." Alex and Scott, in particular, emphasize India's relevance in the contemporary world. "Indian civilization is one of the most ancient cultures in the world and its impact has continued till the present time," Alex says. "It is rich in tradition and culture, which permeate modern society." Scott adds, "As the birthplace of both Buddhism and Hinduism, India's history must have tremendous impact on the modern world." He goes on to point out that "linguistic differences seem to be overcome as many Indians speak multiple dialects, and across the country many Indians speak English." Scott, however, feels that "religious differences are not easily overcome."

All the respondents, with the exception of Ben, admit that they know little about contemporary Indian culture. However, Eyu-jin says, "I think Indian culture has definitely made its presence felt in American society through music, books, clothing." Ben, who grew up in Iran, remarks that it is "very prevalent" in some countries of the Middle East. He is quite familiar with Indian music and films, which remain popular in Iran. Also, as Ben points out, Persian and Indian cultures share a few similarities.

But a more typical answer is the one given by Alex. "My knowledge of Indian culture is limited to an occasional Bollywood film clip," he says, "and a multitude of Indian restaurants in the area." This seems to confirm the observation that Indian cuisine is often a good starting point for many Americans. As Michael puts it, "I have tasted Indian food on a few occasions but have little knowledge of other aspects of the culture." George adds, "I'm a novice, but I'm just beginning to explore Indian cuisine and I'm finding that I love it."

Going beyond the headlines

Everyone surveyed knows about the Kashmir issue and is aware that both India and Pakistan possess nuclear weapons. This is not at all surprising, given the barrage of media coverage on this subject. However, nobody seriously thinks the two nations will go to war. "Hopefully, the fact that both are nuclear powers will prevent them from going to war," Michael says, comparing it to the situation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the last century. Scott points out that "the cost to both sides would be horrific." Nonetheless, Alex says, "Tensions are likely to continue in a Cold War scenario."

On May 6th this year, the government of India finally agreed to grant dual citizenship to Indians living in the U.S. and seven other countries. This was a major gain for the NRIs here, but how do Americans see it? Although the U.S. also offers dual citizenship, this can sometimes be a contentious issue. Surprisingly, though, only one respondent is against it. "Dual citizenship should not be an option," Alex argues. "Allowing individuals to carry dual citizenship creates loopholes that result in practical problems ? law enforcement, tax collection, etc." Becky has "mixed feelings" about it, but the others are not opposed to the idea. As Michael puts it, "It would be very difficult to renounce citizenship in your home country even if you can live a better life here."

Ben went twice to India, where he toured the historical sights and did some shopping. He has a particular fondness for Goa. The others would like to visit India, but they admit it's not a priority for them. As Michael remarks, "I would like to travel there someday, preferably when the world and the region are a little more settled than they are right now."

It's true that India and the U.S. are coming together as never before, with a substantial number of Indian-Americans acting as ?goodwill ambassadors'. Nevertheless, one shouldn't forget that India has long attracted many notable and ordinary Americans. More than a hundred years ago, Mark Twain visited India during a lengthy journey around the world. In his epic travelogue, Following the Equator, this great American wrote: "You soon find your long-ago dreams of India rising in a sort of vague and luscious moonlight above the horizon-rim of your opaque consciousness, and softly lighting up a thousand forgotten details which were parts of a vision that had once been vivid to you when you were a boy, and steeped your spirit in tales of the East."


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