Indian Americans, the so-called model minority, have recently been up in arms. The object of their rage is an American columnist by the name of Joel Stein, who had the audacity, Indian Americans bitterly object, to write a piece called ‘My Own Private India’ [after ‘My Own Private Idaho’] which begins thus: “I am very much in favor of immigration everywhere in the U.S. except Edison, N.J. The mostly white suburban town I left when I graduated from high school in 1989 – the town that was called Menlo Park when Thomas Ava Edison set up shop there and was later renamed in his honor – has become home to one of the biggest Indian communities in the U.S. . . .” When Joel writes that he is “very much in favor of immigration”, he seems to want to signal his distance from those bigots, in Arizona and elsewhere in the US, who have declared their determination to keep the US as much free of immigrants as is possible; but the qualifier, “except Edison, NJ”, was not bound to go down well with Indian Americans who feel outraged that Time’s columnist should have marked Indian Americans as the undesirable immigrant community.
What follows in Joel’s piece is not surprising. The sparkling town where Joel grew up is unrecognizable though, if anyone knows America, it is doubtful in the extreme that it was recognizable in the first instance. The Pizza hut outlet – one of hundreds of thousands in the country, which along with Burger King, McDonald’s, KFC, Jack in the Box, and Dunkin’ Donuts have succeeded remarkably well in making every American town look like any other – has been replaced by an Indian sweets shop; the local A & P – never mind that this chain was anyhow destined for obscurity – has given way to an Indian grocery store; the Italian restaurant “is now Moghul” (by which our enlightened writer means not that it has become a movie palace or an icon of a movie Moghul but rather that it serves ‘Mughlai’ food); and the local multiplex, where Joel and boys of his ilk once gyrated their loins to the music of R-rated films, now screens Bollywood films with their buxom belles and serves samosas during ‘intermission’. Joel and his friends, modern-day Huckleberry Finns, shoplifted, raided the cash drawers, and sneaked into places where they did not belong. But those days belonged to the past: “There is an entire generation of white children in Edison”, Joel bemoans, “who have nowhere to learn crime.” The place of those delightful pranksters was taken by nerds from India, who all seemed adept at computers and to the white boys appeared nothing short of “geniuses”. At this point, one almost expects to read a comment pointing to the winning streak of Indians in the national spelling bee over the last decade and more, but Joel departs from that script only to adopt another predictable point of view. Over time, he says, that first generation of educated and professional Indians gave way to a more motley crowd of relatives who would run Dunkin’ Donut shops, 7-11 franchises, and gas stations. Some years later, the not so dazzling “merchant cousins brought [over] their even-less-bright cousins, and we started to understand why India is so damn poor.” And, luckily for the white man, he could once again begin to feel like he was on the top of the world.
Joel’s attempt at humour, for that is evidently what he had in mind, appears not to have succeeded. Following the publication of his column, there have been loud and insistent calls by Indian Americans to have his column removed, and to have Joel censured for his ‘racist’ comments. Some in the Indian American community have been outraged that as prestigious a journal as Time, for that is how this long-standing conduit of mediocrity is imagined, should have allowed the expression of the most tiresome stereotypes: perhaps all that is missing from Joel’s piece is a comment about the smell of curry taking over the town. As I have previously argued on numerous occasions, ours is a culture of ‘apologies’, and it is not surprising that the Indian American community should immediately have striven to exact an apology from Time and Joel Stein. “We sincerely regret”, responded Time, “that any of our readers were upset by this humor column of Joel Stein’s. It was in no way intended to cause offense.” Poor Joel followed suit, though his apology deviates from the standard form: “I truly feel stomach-sick that I hurt so many people. I was trying to explain how, as someone who believes that immigration has enriched American life and my hometown in particular, I was shocked that I could feel a tiny bit uncomfortable with my changing town when I went to visit it.” One of the least commonly explored facets of Americanization is how immigrant communities embrace the dominant idiom of literal-mindedness that pervades American society, and the irony and ambivalence of Joel’s remarks was certainly lost on Indian Americans. A place that he associated with his childhood had irretrievably changed, and Joel found himself outside, so to speak, his ‘comfort zone’. The small town seems remote, perhaps even an ungainly sight, after the dizzy pace of life in the metropolis; in Joel’s case, the sense of alienation he may have experienced upon his return to Edison was compounded by the fact that even the intimacy and familiarity promised by the town had disappeared.
In the exchange that has followed the publication of Joel Stein’s essay, neither Joel nor Indian Americans have across as impressive figures. Some commentators have deplored the absence of humour among Indian Americans, to which of course they have responded with the observation that they have for long been the target of insults and jokes and have had enough of “humour”. In India, some writers and media broadcasters have not fully understood the emotions that are understandably aroused when Joel, adverting to the fact that townsfolk started referring to the Indians as “dot heads”, adds by way of trying to be ironical: “In retrospect, I question just how good our schools were if ‘dot heads’ was the best racist insult we could come up with for a group of people whose gods have multiple arms and an elephant nose.” Caricatures of a religion never go down too well with its adherents; moreover, there is a lasting memory, especially in New Jersey, of a previous chapter of racial history when the “dot busters” went around assaulting Indians and even killing a couple of them.
Indian Americans, on the other hand, give every appearance of being a trifle too sensitive. They have accepted the designation of ‘model minority’ with gratitude, scarcely realizing that the term was less a recognition of their achievements and more an admonition to African Americans and Hispanic Americans to shape up; consequently, they feel all the more slighted by Joel’s apparent characterization of them as undesirable. If an ‘over-achieving’ community could be so easily slighted, what hope is there for immigrant communities or ethnic groups that are less affluent or less characterized by high educational achievements? This is a reasonable enough claim, except that Indian Americans have never been keen on expressing their solidarity with less affluent or otherwise stigmatized communities. Moreover, much of the anxiety stemming from Joel Stein’s unimaginative attempt at humour owes its origins to the widespread perception that Indian Americans are an ‘invisible minority’, whose decency and relative distance from the mainstream of American politics has rendered them susceptible to onslaughts and humiliations that would never otherwise be imposed on a community otherwise distinguished by its affluence, attainments, and general reputation. All this, I would submit, is germane to an understanding of why Joel Stein’s column, ‘My Own Private India’, has been so unsettling for Indian Americans.