Joel Stein and the Curry Problem


What a strange time it is to be Indian in America.

First we hear South Carolina might soon have an Indian American governor. (One endorsed by Sarah Palin!)

Then a Californian company, Zazzle, popped up selling skateboards with Hindu gods on them.

And then Joel Stein decided to make a joke about Dotbusters in Time Magazine.

No wonder our Gods have multiple heads. This is a lot to keep up with. (And I’m not even pondering if Ganesha mousepads violates any sacred cows.)

Dotbusters, for those who missed the 80s, were street gangs who attacked South Asians in places like Jersey

7fb351b71387fe5ef61949a9adb292cc-1 City where many immigrants had moved. Their goal was simple – kick the immigrants out. Literally. One of those immigrants, Navroze Mody died after being bashed with bricks. Another, Kaushal Saran, a doctor, was beaten and left unconscious on a busy street corner. Homes were robbed. Women were harassed.

Joel Stein, in his essay about his old hometown of Edison, New Jersey, has this to say about that little bit of history. “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.”

Of course, Stein will plead satire. And ask Indians not to be so thin-skinned. And anyway Ganesh has an elephant head, not just a nose. Of course, Stein doesn’t mean he is in any way in favor of Indians having their heads bashed in. Why, in the piece he says he actually liked some of the Indians that moved in. At least the smart ones, the dorky ones who liked to play Dungeons and Dragons.

The problem was the smart ones brought in their less smart cousins (“merchants”) and the merchants brought in “their even-less-bright cousins, and we started to understand why India is so damn poor.” This is immigration reform in a nutshell. Give us your engineers, but not your cabbies and Dunkin Donut-wallas. Except those cabbies and 7/11 owners and motel proprietors work damn hard for their little piece of the American dream.

I think in a way the Indian community is also so obsessed with its presidential scholars and spelling bee champs, with its Indra Nooyis (Pepsico head) and Dr. Sanjay Guptas, it give short shrift to the little guys, the ones that run gas stations on baking highways in the middle of nowhere, take classes during the day and work graveyard shift at the 7/11. They are the muscle and sinew of our community. But to Joel Stein, they are just so much litter strewn all over his old hometown. That’s his problem – too many Indians.

His Pizza Hut is an Indian sweets shop. His old multiplex shows Bollywood films. The town is now “a maze of cheerless Indian strip malls.” I thought he had a point there. Indian restaurants are not known for their décor. Tacky Omar Khaiyyam style prints and bad Taj Mahal replicas do not substitute for interior decoration. And those all-Indian strip malls do look rather dreary. (But I’ve seen a lot strip malls, in New Jersey, with nary an Indian shop that look just as dreary. Come on Joel, it’s a strip mall!)

The problem is not really the strip mall. The problem is the foreignness of the strip mall. “Whenever I go back, I feel what people in Arizona talk about: a sense of loss and anomie and disbelief that anyone can eat food that spicy.”

Whoa, Stein, are you saying the road to SB 1070 is paved with too many lunch buffets?

Perhaps it’s good he said that. Indians, cosseted by stories about their own success in America, often think they are the golden immigrants, the good ones, the guests who can come for dinner. And stay. When SB 1070 passed several Indian Americans in Arizona welcomed it.

For them it was a way of drawing a shining line between the good immigrant and the bad (or at least undocumented) one. Perhaps now the blinders will come off. I wonder what Nikki Haley, South Carolina’s front runner for governor, and ardent supporter of Arizona’s SB 1070 makes of this.

For Edison’s old timers brown is brown. Too many curry shacks is not that different from too many taquerias. We are all Mexicans now. When Joel Stein goes to Edison, he “feels” what people in Arizona talk about. It’s not about the papers you carry inasmuch as the “I-am-not-against-immigration-just-illegal-immigration” folks would have you believe. It is about the way you look, the food you eat, the accent you have. It is about the sense that you are taking over the strip mall.

And this American anxiety about its browning will not change. A recent study said white birthrates in California were declining faster than expected. Expect the backlash to rise. There’ll be no chai served at this Tea Party.

At one level I can understand. It does hurt to feel not that the old neighborhood is gone but that a huge extended family has moved into it, and they all know each other and have loud boisterous potlucks you are not invited to while you are hunkered down at home, watching the History Channel. I will always remember the New York Times story about an old lady in a little town that turned on immigrants saying when the Mexicans moved in next door, she had no one to play canasta with any more.

But you know what Joel Stein, if you’d talked a little more to the parents of those kids with whom you’d played Dungeons and Dragons, they’d have told you the simple truth long ago. You are just learning it now. But every immigrant knows it. It’s the first axiom of immigration – a painfully self-evident truth.

You can’t go home again.

Picture courtesy Olis Olois via Creative Commons.

Article originally posted at the New America Media EthnoBlog

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