Provocative commentaries on international issues, social development, and people and places by a veteran journalist
Joel Stein's Essay Stirs Passions
Published on July 2, 2010 By PranayGupte In Politics

Will Indians face a backlash in the United States?


By Pranay Gupte

(Published in The Hindu, India, July 2, 2010)


There’s been increasing angst and teeth-gnashing among Indians in the United States this week over a tongue-in-cheek essay by columnist Joel Stein in the international newsweekly, TIME. Mr. Stein ruefully talks about how his native Edison, a New Jersey community just across the Hudson River from New York City, has been transformed into a “Little India” – with the overpowering smells of Indian cuisine, the eclectic colors of Indian ethnicity, and the distinctive dialects of the Subcontinent dominating what was once a largely Italian-American town.


The blogosphere has been ricocheting with rants against the writer, accusing him of prejudice or worse. TIME’s editors subsequently said that the magazine – whose circulation is just under four million – did not intend to offend Indians. I know Mr. Stein, and he’s scarcely a racist; he has acknowledged that the presence of Indians had brought fresh prosperity and diversity to Edison. I’m pretty sure that his piece was intended to be satirical, even if it wasn’t especially felicitous. Columnists, after all, are paid to be provocative; engendering offense is sometimes one of those unintended consequences of the trade.


An Indian friend, who lives in East Asia, put a healthy perspective on Mr. Stein’s article after I’d e-mailed it to her. “I was aware somewhere that I ought to be insulted as this guy is saying mean things about my countrymen and culture – but the piece is written with so much humor and candor that I could not help but see his point,” she said. “I cannot help but see where he is coming from. It may not be balanced but brings out the feelings of so many. And somewhere along the line admits to being biased. I see why TIME ran it!”


My own feeling is that Indians – especially those living and prospering abroad – often tend to be bereft of irony and a self-deprecating sense of humor; they are given to being far too readily offended as a tribe. It may not quite be a “Masada Complex” – a feeling of being under siege – but there’s a cultural defensiveness that I’ve sensed among many Indians I’ve known since I first landed in the United States as a student.


Of course, there are now many more Indians in America since my initial arrival in 1967. When I visited the US – now my adopted country – not long ago for a major class reunion at Brandeis University near Boston and Cambridge, it struck me that just about every second person on the streets seemed to be of Indian origin. In my home city of New York, the situation was no less different.


Surely, I thought, America – a nation of 307 million – must profit substantially from the presence of these Indians, of whom there are now more than 2.5 million, a tenth of the global Indian Diaspora. As if by serendipity, I came across a study showing that indeed America does benefit handsomely through the contributions of Indians, including businessmen, physicians, and high-technology entrepreneurs.


This study was jointly prepared by the India-US World Affairs Institute of Washington, the Robert H. Smith School of Business of the University of Maryland, and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry; it revealed that Indians are not only the most affluent and most educated of the scores of ethnic communities in the melting pot that’s the US, they are also rapidly becoming among the most significant investors in the American economy.


According to the report, 90 Indian companies made 127 greenfield investments worth $5.5 billion between 2004 and 2009, and created 16,576 jobs in the United States. During the same period, 239 Indian companies made 372 acquisitions in the United States, creating more than 40,000 jobs. The total value of 267 (of the 372) acquisitions was $21 billion, or $78.7 million per acquisition. A “greenfield investment” is a form of foreign direct investment where a parent company starts a new venture in a foreign country by constructing new operational facilities from the ground up.


The study says that the five industrial sectors in the US that received the most greenfield investment were metals; software and information technology services; leisure and entertainment; industrial machinery, equipment and tools; and financial services. The sums poured into these sectors accounted for almost 80 percent of total greenfield investment. New Jersey – the state in which Edison is located – has been one of the top recipients of Indian investment.


New Jersey schools and colleges also have among the largest number of the Indian students who come to the US each year. Overall, there are an estimated 94,563 students from India whose net contribution to the US economy was $2.39 billion, according to the study. In fact, students of Indian origin constitute 10 to 12 percent of medical students entering US schools, the new study says. Furthermore, there are about 50,000 physicians (and 15,000 medical students) of Indian heritage in the American cities, and in rural areas.


New Jersey has its share of the so-called “Patel motels,” too. There are currently almost 10,000 Indian American owners of hotels/motels in the US, owning over 40 percent of all hotels in the country and 39 percent of all guest rooms; the study says that they own more than 21,000 hotels with 1.8 million guest rooms and property valued at $129 billion. These Indian-owned facilities employ 578,600 workers.


The US Census Bureau adds that there were 231,000 businesses owned by Indian Americans in 2002, which employed 615,000 workers and had revenues of over $89 billion. (The Census Bureau conducts the survey every five years, and the results of the 2007 survey will be available in a few days). A study led by Vivek Wadhwa for Duke University and the University of California, Berkeley, found that Indian immigrant entrepreneurs had founded more engineering and technology companies during 1995-2005 than immigrants from Britain, China, Japan, and Taiwan combined. Of all immigrant-founded companies, 26 percent had Indian founders.


Which brings us back to Joel Stein’s column and all the hullaballoo that it’s generated. Edison, New Jersey, may not be a precursor of things to come – in other words, Indians are hardly about to demographically dominate small towns all across America; the country’s immigration laws would work against that possibility. But Indians bring enterprise and energy to communities with their presence, and this works to everyone’s benefit. They are largely anchored in their homespun culture, but they are also respectful of American mores and morals, and laws as well. They make the American tapestry more colorful, richer, and culturally more alive. They are living the American Dream, but in their own special Indian way. What’s wrong with that?


(Pranay Gupte is a veteran international journalist and author. His forthcoming book is on India and the Middle East.)


Comments (Page 1)
on Jul 02, 2010

Interesting.  I will have to look up his column to see what all the hoo-haw is about.

As for my own experience, in my current occupation, I work with many Indians.  Most are here on the H1B visas, and most are friendly and competent.  So much so that one has to go out of their way to think about who "Pranay" is or is from to remember he is Indian, and not just another programmer or engineer.

I attribute this to the fact that they strive hard to fit in.  While maintaining their cultural distinctiveness, they do not hesitate to enjoy the festivities and observances of America.  I guess for the reason that I have been living and working beside them for well over 20 years, I find it hard to think of some type of backlash against them.  But intellectually I know this can happen, even though it is more a reflection of some xenophobic people than anything else.  And every society has its share of them.

on Jul 02, 2010

Most are here on the H1B visas, and most are friendly and competent. So much so that one has to go out of their way to think about who "Pranay" is or is from to remember he is Indian, and not just another programmer or engineer

I think the perception of Mr Pranay is dated and this may be true of the 1960,s and 70,s. The post national Indians all over the world identify only with their host counties and do not try to maintain a distinct ethnic or linguistic identity. The Indians have been successful for two reasons: strong support form their families back home and education especially in the new areas like software and computer technology.

on Jul 02, 2010

I lived in Jersey as a teen close to Edison. The Indian (or Hindu as we knew them) population was not enormous from what i saw at the time but there were a lot of them. This kind of situation can be seen sort of a "clash of cultures"  where people of both cultures (American and Indian) are accustom to to their own cultures but when faced with a different culture they may find it offensive sometimes.

I, personally, admit that when I lived in Jersey I avoided stores owned by Indians because of the smell. Now, while I understood this was a normal aroma for them, it was waaaaay to strong and uncomfortable to my nose. Another thing I noticed from many of them was they were not very sociable; you could say hi to them in the streets and they would just look and keep going or ignore you all together. It's almost as if they forgot they were in the US and continued to do what they would normally did when living in India. Only the young generations of Indians were more sociable and in most cases were more adapted to the American lifestyle as oppose to being more like their parents. In one occasion I came across an Indian with an attitude I had never seen in an Indian before, this kid was aggressive, insulting and downright a bully. It was like seeing an Indian kid from an alternate universe where everything is backwards from ours.

Of course I have not been to Jersey since I was 20 years old, that was about 14 years ago so I am sure the population of Indians must have grown exponentially. Heck, there was even a street called India (or something like that) where most of the people who lived there were Indians.

on Jul 02, 2010

I avoided stores owned by Indians because of the smell.

I seek them out as I love Indian food!  It does have a unique smell as does all cultures.  And so far, fortunately, the only one I cannot stomach is the German Liver Stands!

I appreciate Bahu's clarification, although the article does appear to be about recent times, not old ones.  Perhaps there are (and I would not doubt it) pockets of the 60s and 70s mentality still around.  I do not find most Indians to be aloof, but many are definitely not what one would call social butterflies.  Quiet until you get to know them, but always cordial and polite.

of course get a 6 pack of beer into them and the movie Jackass can takes some lessons from them (or at least the 2 I went to college with in our "geek hall" - Sukdav and Seera - probably misspelled their names).

on Jul 03, 2010

I seek them out as I love Indian food!

Yes I love curry!

on Jul 03, 2010

I don't think so, to answer the title's question.  One case in point - Nikki Haley.

on Jul 03, 2010

One case in point - Nikki Haley

Namratha Randhawa is now Nikki Haley and like the Comet will be a seasonal wonder.

on Jul 03, 2010

Not so sure, Bahu.  She's one smart, principled, tough, articulate and unflappable lady.  She may have more political staying power than you think.

on Jul 03, 2010

There is Bobby Jindal as well.

on Jul 03, 2010

I admit that it will take awhile to get past the Johnny #5 stereotype, but I don't think there will be a backlash per se.

on Jul 03, 2010

There is Bobby Jindal as well.

on a more serious note,  there's also apu.

on Jul 03, 2010

Yeah, you'd say that if all you remember is his 'Republican response' speech, or all you choose to acknowledge (or know).  Which is, without much doubt, the case.

on Jul 03, 2010

Any individual of an ethnic minority who is, or agrees with, a Republican is, by the left's definition, stupid.  So none of us should expect any respect or praise for such individuals from that side of the aisle.  They're like the Friedan women's libbers - successful 'liberated' women with conservative views are despised.

on Jul 04, 2010

Any individual of an ethnic minority who is, or agrees with, a Republican is, by the left's definition, stupid.


i'm fairly sure that when this year's census is tallied, i'll be one of them there ethnic minority individuals. although i won't be joining the republican party any time soon (i've a long-standing across-the-board policy of eschewing membership in any organization that would permit me to join), in the past i've not only agreed with--but also approved of--republicans, some of whom were then holding public office.

for that matter, on the day before california held its primary last month, nine of my neighbors approached me--separately or in pairs--to discuss candidates and issues.  i spoke very highly of republican tom campbell who was hoping to be his party's candidate for us senate later this year. he's a smart man and served his constituents well during his previous terms in in both sacramento and dc. unlike his opponent, campbell is not fabulously he lost.

lots of individuals--including myself--have defined me as stupid in the past and i look forward to it happening with increasing frequency from here on in.

They're like the Friedan women's libbers

sir, i'll have you know that while i might have burned my draft card (i didn't, but i still carry it with me and might do so at any time if conditions are right), an uncomfortable number of bridges, a guy who ripped off one of my associates and was foolish enough hand me $20 two days later, an impressive number of body parts (only a few of which were blistered badly and non charred), through way more money than i care to remember and all sorts of meals (electric ranges are evil) i have never burned a bra, sir.  not once; not ever.

on Jul 04, 2010


There is Bobby Jindal as well.

on a more serious note,  there's also apu.

That was pretty funny KB.