The fact that the Indian American population in California has gone up by nearly 50% in the last decade does not come as news to any of us. Over the last few years, I have often referred to my township as a “desi ghetto.”
There’s no denying that our influx has been a shot in the arm to American society. We’ve brought energy, enthusiasm, and education to our endeavors here. Our children significantly contribute to the API-measured success of community schools. Our brightest minds have had a role in technological breakthroughs in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, and our artists and performers have hypnotized American audiences with the richness of our culture.
Unfortunately, some of our more unsavory cultural traits have also migrated with us. The first, and most egregious, is the South Asian belief that rules are meant to be broken and the system is meant to be gamed. The Galleon hedge fund scandal is a conspicuous example: the parties involved were not motivated by greed or financial hardship; rather, it was a gleeful thumbing of the nose to regulatory authorities. But this tendency is visible even on the smallest scale; every weekend I see scores of Corollas and Civics lined up just outside the local park to avoid paying the entrance fees. It is not that the five dollar fee is unaffordable. But why pay if you don’t have to?
This attitude stems from our second cultural attribute—the firm conviction that government is fundamentally inefficient, corrupt, and unnecessary. This mistaken belief drives our choices in the policies, politicians, and laws we support. Coming from from a region that is more ruggedly individualistic than the American West, we subscribe to the theory of every man for himself.
It is not surprising, therefore, that we desis are tribal instead of communal. The same impulse that drives a householder in India to keep his home clean but throw his trash on the street makes us rail against taxes and fees meant for public education, infrastructure, and services for the underprivileged. The same impulse directs our charitable giving to causes that are personally dear rather than socially relevant.
But let’s not forget that we’ve come here because America offers us opportunities that are missing in our home country, and those opportunities arise from a respect for the rule of law, an emphasis on the community over the individual, and the checks and balances that make government accountable to its people. If we truly want to assimilate, we have to start thinking of ourselves as skeins in the American tapestry and not as privileged guests who plan to take home the mini soaps and towels when we leave.