The Intimate Stranger
For the first time, the vast majority of Indian Americans were either born in the United States or have lived here for 20 years or longer.
Some 25 years ago, we would almost always accost an unknown Indian we might encounter in a K-Mart or a Krogers in Carbondale, Ill., where I went to college. And proof of your authenticity as an Indian came from your ability to break into Hindi first.
These days, we might not even give Indians in a mall a second glance. And the Hindi is too rusty to attempt first.
The past two decades have been transforming for Indian life in the United States. The Indian population has risen almost five-fold since 1980, from around 400,000 to over 2 million presently. The Indian presence is visible in business, in technology, in professions, such as medicine, in the motel sector, in Hollywood and Broadway. This month the windows of the fashionable Macy’s and Lord & Taylor department stores in Manhattan are decked out with resplendent Indian costumes and few Indians walking by blink an eyelid.
We have settled into America and America kind of has cozied up to us. For those of us with green cards and U.S. citizenship, the immigration officer’s “Welcome home!” salutation on our return from overseas travel does not feel odd. Many of us no longer view ourselves as outsiders, interlopers or imposters. We can claim America as home.
“Ap India sein hoan?” I found a waiter inquiring of me recently at an Indian restaurant as I absent-mindedly fidgeted with the menu listings of the all-too-familiar malai kofta, palak paneer, alu gobhi…
The predictable conversation followed. “Where in India are you from?” “How long have you been here?”
We always knew which side of the boat was weighted heavier.
For the first time, however, the vast majority of Indian Americans were either born in the United States or have lived here for 20 years or longer.
The center of gravity of Indian American life is shifting from recent immigrants to Indians with deep roots in this country. Many Indians who came here in the early 1980s are even discovering that they have lived longer outside India than in India. The trend will inevitably accelerate in the years ahead.
This shift has profound consequences for the community. Indian American public culture, politics, economics, and indeed media coverage, has long been dominated by the first generation and recent immigrants.
Indian organizations, social and cultural institutions, policy analysts and scholars have to begin reorienting their perspective in ways that bridge and accommodate the two distinct Indian communities in our mix.
We are way past the taunts and ridicule of ABCDs and FOBs. The two groups are intimately intertwined and inoxerably bound together. We need a serious discourse on the implications of the seismic shifts taking shape within the community.
Say hello to that intimate stranger wolfing down that papri chaat, will you?