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An A to Z of Being Indian American

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January 2009
An A to Z of Being Indian American

For his book The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell Phone, Shashi Tharoor hit upon a clever idea. In the last section, he gives concise descriptions—and witticisms—on terms that make Indians Indian. Titled “An A to Z of Being Indian,” the glossary’s charm lies in the fact that it is, as he points out, idiosyncratic and provocative. Taking a leaf out of Tharoor’s book, here is Khabar’s version for Indian Americans. It’s a work in progress.

ABCD: Originally coined to mean American Born Confused Desi, that meaning no longer holds sway. For those who never found it appealing, the preferred definition is American Born Confident Desi. ABCDlady, an online magazine that caters to young women, is emphatic in using the latter version. Whatever one may think of such labels, they do generate lively discussions. The Urban Dictionary, for instance, has a number of ‘ABCD’ descriptions. “The best advice that an ABCD, and likewise a FOB, can use is: Just be yourself,” notes a contributor. There are several Indian American novels (like Born Confused) and movies (like ABCD) that try to grapple with these identity issues.

BOLLYWOOD: Not a few Indian film fans dislike the label, which they find derivative and demeaning. But this widely recognized brand name isn’t going away, and even copycat cine labels such as Tollywood (Telugu), Kollywood (Tamil) and Mollywood (Malayalam) have gained currency. Bollywood is big business, though not merely because it churns out the most number of films in the world. More important, despite the uneven quality, Bollywood has far-reaching appeal, with Indian Americans forming a good portion of its profitably captive audience. “Without Bollywood, India would simply not loom as large in the global popular imagination,” Tharoor writes in his book.

CUISINE: It’s perhaps impossible to find a comprehensive and up-to-date listing of Indian restaurants in the U.S. The ‘IndianFoodsGuide’ website lists 5,216 Indian restaurants in North America, of which 4,392 are U.S.-based. There are more such restaurants, surely, but we get the idea. Though not as common as Chinese restaurants, the growth has been explosive. Will curry become king here, as it did in Britain, where Chicken Tikka Masala is the unofficial national dish? While on the subject, ‘chai’ now belongs to mainstream vocabulary in this country. A wag once said that Starbucks’s Chai Latte is just a fancy name for a lota (vessel) of chai with an American twist.

DESI: Unlike some acronym-based labels, ‘desi’ has found wide acceptance. Originally a Hindi word that means “from my country,” it’s now seen as an inclusive and affirmative term for people who trace their roots to the Indian subcontinent. Like Latino and Latina or paisano in Italian, ‘desi’ is even becoming part of mainstream lingo. Collins English Dictionary defines it as follows: “a person considered to be of South Asian origin.” As writer Himanee Gupta puts it, “to be desi connotes some sort of ancestral affiliation with the subcontinent and some sort of desire in crafting a sense of identity or feeling of community with others who share that ancestral affiliation.”

ELECTORAL: Unlike immigrants from many other nations, Indians are not strangers to electoral politics. Now, Indian Americans are no longer bystanders who simply cast their ballots dutifully in U.S. elections every four years. As the 2008 election showed, they are becoming active participants at various levels. Notable winners include Representatives Swati Dandekar (Iowa), Jay Goyal (Ohio), Raj Goyale (Kansas), Nikki Haley (South Carolina) and Kesha Ram (Vermont). While six parties took part in the 2008 U.S. presidential election (Democratic, Republican, Independent, Libertarian, Constitution, Green), that number was a staggering 220 parties in India’s 2004 general election.

FOB: Fresh off the Boat (variations: Freshie and Fobbie) refers to new immigrants who typically experience a culture clash in the States. It’s another label that—like ABCD—has a negative connotation for a lot of people. And that may not be the only problem with it. When was the last time Asian Indians took the sea route to America? Yet, of course, Fresh off the Plane doesn’t have the same resonance. A century ago, traveling by ship was the only way to cross the seas. For those early Indian migrants, who took the Pacific rather than the Atlantic route, with a stop in Hong Kong, the journey to America took a month. These days, a non-stop flight (say, from Mumbai to Atlanta) takes just 18 hours.

GREWAL: ‘G’ could stand for Gandhi, given all the statues popping up in America, but who is Grewal? Alexi Singh Grewal is forgotten today, but he has the distinction of being the first American male cyclist to win an Olympic gold medal. The bicycle he used in this 1984 race is now on display at the Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. The son of an Indian father, who owned a bike shop, and a German mother, Grewal was almost disqualified because of a doping scandal. Grewal admitted to taking stimulants earlier in his career, although he won on appeal. After a stint in the handcrafted furniture business, he began helping homeless people who struggle with drug and alcohol issues.

HOSPITALITY: There has been much turmoil in the economy, but here’s a statistic that was still good last year: 43 percent of the 47,000 hotels and motels in this country were owned by Indian Americans, according to the Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA). Half the low-end operations are owned by Indian immigrants, of whom about 75 percent trace their roots to Gujarat. So who started this trend? Apparently, it was a migrant named Kanjibhai Desai, who bought the Goldfield Hotel in San Francisco back in the 1940s. Decades of struggle—and success—followed for these early moteliers and hoteliers. Few other industries have seen such a rise to dominance by a minority group.

INDIAN AMERICAN: Preferred label for non-resident Indians (NRIs) and people of Indian origin (PIOs) living in the U.S. ‘Asian Indian’ is the U.S. Census Bureau’s official tag, but ‘Indian American’ is widely used in the mainstream and ethnic media. Consistent with the labels used for other ethnic groups—such as Chinese American, Irish American and Cuban American. The Indian American population now stands above 2.5 million, accounting for a little less than 1 percent of the U.S. population. Indian-born immigrants form 4.2 percent of all legal permanent residents. About 20 percent of Indian Americans were not born in India. Among Asian Americans, Indians form the third largest group.

JINDAL: Bobby Jindal made history in the U.S. by becoming its first Indian American governor. Before assuming the job in Louisiana, he was that state’s Republican member of the House of Representatives from 2004 to 2007. In his 2006 re-election, Jindal got 88 percent of the vote. Before Jindal, only one other Indian American had been elected to the U.S. Congress; however, Dalip Singh Daund had been a Democrat, making Jindal’s achievement yet another milestone for Indian Americans. In 2007, at the age of 36, Jindal became the youngest among the current governors. So, will Jindal set more records in what promises to be a long political career? Many probably think (and hope) he will.

KHORANA: Har Gobind Khorana became the first Indian American Nobel laureate when he co-won the 1968 medicine prize for showing how nucleotides control the synthesis of proteins in cells. What’s ironic is that Khorana had planned to settle in India after completing his higher studies in Britain. When he couldn’t get a suitable job, despite his qualifications, Khorana migrated to Canada and then to the U.S., where he worked at MIT from 1970 to 2007. His achievements did not end with the Nobel Prize. In the early ‘70s, he produced the first artificial gene in a laboratory. His work is commercially relevant, since it’s now possible to custom-design genes for cloning and sequencing.

LITTLE INDIA: Immigrants from the subcontinent haven’t created the Indian equivalents of Chinatowns, but they do have their smaller enclaves in metropolitan centers. These Little Indias usually have a main artery—examples being 74th Street in Queens, New York; Devon Avenue in the Chicago area; Oak Tree Road in Iselin, New Jersey; and Pioneer Boulevard in Artesia, California. Early migrants from India didn’t have these commercial hubs, of course, but they did have their segregated communities. Yuba City in California still has one of the oldest and largest Sikh communities in the country. Indian bachelors of that era often lived in large groups on communal ranches.

MEDICINE: How many Indian American parents have sent, or hope to send, their children to medical school? It’d be hard to keep count! The American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI) represents 46,000 doctors and close to 15,000 medical students, residents and fellows. One in 20 doctors based here is of Indian origin, while 20 percent of Indian doctors are foreign medical graduates. Some physicians who have mainstream visibility are Sanjay Gupta, Abraham Verghese, Atul Gawande and (why not?) the character played by Parminder Nagra on ER, the hit TV series. Every year, several Indian Americans are listed in Castle Connolly’s “America’s Top Doctors.”

NRI: Stands for Non-Resident Indian, but here are some biting alternatives: Not Really Indian, Never Returning Indian, Nouveau Riche Indian, Non-Returning Indian and Nerve-Wracking Indian. In recent years, we’ve seen the rise of a new acronym: RNRI (Returned Non-Resident Indian). These are the droves of NRIs who have gone back to India, either temporarily or permanently, to pursue growing opportunities and reconnect with their families. This trend is expected to accelerate. Since the introduction of the OCI (Overseas Citizen of India) card, which makes it easier to work and live in India, close to 300,000 cards have been issued, of which over 120,000 have gone to Indian Americans.

OUTER SPACE: In a remarkable achievement this decade, two Indian American women went beyond the earth’s orbit. The first, Kalpana Chawla, was an Indian-born astronaut who, along with her six colleagues, died in 2003 when their Columbia space shuttle exploded on the return journey. Sunita Williams was on the Discovery shuttle in 2006, and she still holds the women’s record for the longest spaceflight (195 days). Speaking of outer space, NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory is the world’s most powerful X-ray telescope. It was named after the late Subrahmanyam Chandrasekhar, who won the 1983 physics Nobel Prize for his work on the gravitational collapse of stars.

PIONEERS: Before Silicon Valley, there was Hindu Alley. These early settlements in the American West, however, had Sikh rather than Hindu migrants. Waves of them began arriving in the early 20th century. They mainly worked in lumber mills and the railroad industry, and eventually, on farmlands. Sikhs formed their first formal society in 1911; the following year, a few Indian students enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley. The Bay Area became a fertile ground for activism, and it was there that the Gadar Party was established in 1913. Important figures from that era include Har Dayal, Taraknath Das, Mary Das, Gurdit Singh, Sirdar Jagjit Singh and Dalip Singh Saund.

QUEENS: This borough in New York City has long been a magnet for immigrants. Five years ago, it was reported that 70 percent of the city’s Indian residents lived in Queens, home to one of the two oldest U.S.-based Hindu temples built in our era. Flushing, where this Ganesh temple stands, is the starting point for the No. 7 subway train. Every day, thousands of Indians use this so-called Asian or Orient Express. Flushing has over 200 houses of worship, including 151 churches, 30 Buddhists temples, 7 Hindu temples, 6 synagogues, 4 mosques and 2 gurdwaras. And Jackson Heights in Queens (74th Street and the surrounding area) has one of the best-known Little Indias in North America.

REGIONAL: How is India’s linguistic diversity reflected in the States? According to a 2006 survey, Hindi is the most commonly spoken language in Indian American homes (26.3 percent). Gujarati accounts for just over 14 percent, while English is the preferred language for a little over 10 percent. The other major ones are as follows: Punjabi (10 percent), Telugu (9.7 percent), Tamil (6.7 percent) and Malayalam (6.1 percent). Five states—California, New Jersey, New York, Texas and Illinois—accounted for over 55 percent of all Indian-born immigrants. Wyoming, Rhode Island, Maine, Arizona and Washington saw their Indian-born population more than double between 2000 and 2006.

SAUND: In 1956, well before the sweeping changes of the civil rights era, Dalip Singh Saund became the first Asian immigrant to be elected to the U.S. Congress. After coming here from Punjab in 1920, Saund had earned a doctorate in math from the University of California at Berkeley. He won not one but three successive terms, and had to step down only because of a stroke that incapacitated him for the rest of his life. What’s more, he ran as a Democrat in a predominantly Republican district. Apart from his efforts to secure rights for Asian immigrants, he is known for the Saund Amendment, which promoted American aid to developing nations. Saund’s portrait hangs in the rotunda of Capitol Hill.

THANKSGIVING: The Wampanoag Indians who joined the early colonists for a harvest meal, giving rise to Thanksgiving Day, had nothing to do with Asian Indians. All the same, this holiday should have a special meaning for Indian Americans, since they do have a lot to be thankful for. They have the highest annual median household income ($72,000) among all ethnic groups, according to the last census figures. Also, 75 percent of Indian Americans have a bachelor’s degree or higher—more than any other ethnic group. Well represented in high-paying professions, they also have a higher proportion of nuclear families. In the 1990s, no other ethnic group in the U.S. grew at a faster rate.

UNIVERSITY: Is there a widely known university in this country that doesn’t have Indians? Unlikely. That’s because, since 2001, India has sent the most number of students to the States. Indians now make up 15.2 percent of the foreign student population. The latest Open Doors report shows that in 2007-08 the Indian student population at American universities reached an all-time high of 94,563. It was a rise of 12.8 percent over the previous academic year. In addition, there is a notable population of Indian American faculty and students from the second and third generations. India’s universities, too, are drawing more Indian American students, but the numbers are still modest.

VISA: This could stand for Visiting Indians Seek America, considering how much interest the ‘visa’ topic generates among desis. Did you know that a shrine near Hyderabad is called the American Visa Temple, because it attracts devotees who seek Lord Balaji’s blessings before they head off to the American Consulate for their interviews? In 2006 alone, four decades after the U.S. abolished per-nation quotas, almost 59,000 legal immigrants were admitted from India. A number of non-immigrant visas (H-1B) also go to Indians. Now, with the new OCI (Overseas Citizen of India) cards, American citizens of Indian origin can obtain visas for India that last a lifetime.

WORSHIP: Indian immigrants often preserve their religious traditions by building houses of worship. California’s Vedanta Temple, with its eclectic architecture reflecting Hindu, Muslim and Gothic influences, was completed in 1905, making it America’s oldest Hindu temple. The Stockton Gurdwara in California was dedicated in 1915. Other landmark Hindu temples were built in Hollywood (1938) and Santa Barbara (1956). The oldest mosque erected by Muslim Americans is in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Dubbed the Mother Mosque of America, it opened in 1934. In our era, the oldest Hindu temples are in Pittsburgh (groundbreaking in 1976) and Queens, New York (consecration in 1977).

XENOPHOBIA: Collins defines it as “hatred or fear of foreigners or strangers.” Indian Americans have been fortunate in many ways, although they are not immune to prejudice. Two examples: a gang called the Dot Busters, who attacked Indians in New Jersey about twenty years ago, and the backlash in the aftermath of 9/11. Even these incidents cannot compare with what the early migrants experienced. The Alien Land Law (1913) prevented Indians from owning land, and the Barred Zone Act (1917) curtailed immigration from India. Next came a court verdict (U.S. vs. Bhagat Singh Thind), denying citizenship rights, and the National Origin Act (1924), which imposed quotas.

YOGA: A Google search on ‘yoga’ will produce over 100 million results. No, that’s not a typo! It’d be hard to come up with another short word that has a closer association with India in this country. As per Yoga Journal, one of many such publications, Americans spend approximately $5.7 billion annually on yoga classes, products and retreats. Its recent study notes that the increase has been a whopping 87 percent since the last study in 2004. Around 15.8 million Americans practice yoga, and among non-practitioners, 18.3 million are thought to be very keen on learning it. The majority of enthusiasts here are well-educated women. America’s largest yoga center, Kripalu, is in Massachusetts.

ZAKARIA: A prominent journalist and bestselling author, Fareed Zakaria hosts his own foreign affairs program (GPS) on CNN every Sunday. Earlier, the Indian-born Zakaria had hosted a similar show on PBS and had also been a news analyst on ABC. Zakaria’s TV career is just a sideshow, though, and his reputation (as opposed to fame) rests on his accomplishments as an editor and writer. Before becoming the top editor at Newsweek International in 2000, he had edited the influential Foreign Affairs journal. His books include The Future of Freedom and, recently, The Post-American World, which argues that no single country will dominate in the 21st century, given the “rise of the rest.”


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