Erin Texeira, AP, Oct. 22, 2006
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.
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, World Bank data show.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.