Will Indians face a backlash in the U.S.?

There has 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 colours 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 has brought fresh prosperity and diversity to Edison. I am 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 offence 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 had 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 humour and candour 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 humour; 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 have sensed among many Indians I have known since I first landed in the U.S. as a student.

Of course, there are now many more Indians in America since my initial arrival in 1967. When I visited the U.S. — 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-U.S. 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 U.S., 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 U.S. During the same period, 239 Indian companies made 372 acquisitions in the U.S., 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 U.S. 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 per cent 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 U.S. each year. Overall, there are an estimated 94,563 students from India whose net contribution to the U.S. economy was $2.39 billion, according to the study. In fact, students of Indian origin constitute 10 to 12 per cent of medical students entering U.S. 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 U.S., owning over 40 per cent of all hotels in the country and 39 per cent of all guest rooms; the study says 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 U.S. 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 per cent had Indian founders.

Which brings us back to Joel Stein's column and all the hullaballoo that it has 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 colourful, 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.)

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