Asian Indian Americans

views updated Jun 27 2018


by Tinaz Pavri


India, the most populous country in South Asia, is a peninsula. Bounded by Nepal and the Himalaya mountains to the north, Pakistan to the northwest, the Indian Ocean to the south, the Arabian Sea to the west, and the Bay of Bengal to the east, India occupies about 1,560,000 square miles.

Second in population only to China, India is home to around 900 million people of diverse ethnicity, religion, and language. About 82 percent of all Indians are Hindus. Approximately 12 percent are Muslims, while smaller minorities include Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, and Zoroastrians. While official Indian languages include Hindi, which is spoken by about 30 percent of the population, and English, hundreds of dialects are also spoken in India.

India's capital is the modern city of New Delhi in northern India, and its flag is the "tricolor," which boasts three equal stripes of orange, white, and green. The white stripe is in the middle, and has at its center a wheel or chakra. This chakra originates from a design that appears in a temple in Ashoka. It was popularized by its use on Mohandas Gandhi's political party flag during the Indian independence movement.


One of the world's oldest civilizations, the Indus Valley civilization (2500-1700 B.C.), flourished across present-day India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Dravidians comprised India's earliest ethnic group. They gradually moved south as migrating Aryan tribes entered the region. These tribes established many empires, including the Nanda and Gupta kingdoms in northern India. Alexander the Great invaded northern India in the fourth century B.C.

The Islamic presence in southern India occurred around the eighth century A.D., via sailors from establishments in Kerala and Tamilnadu. Furthermore, about the tenth century A.D. Islamic raiders began their invasions of India. The earliest invaders were the Turks, followed by members of the Moghuls Dynasty in about 1500 A.D. The Moghul Dynasty established a thriving empire in North India. These Muslim invasions resulted in the conversion of a section of the populace to Islam, establishing forever a significant Muslim society in India.


By 1600 the British established a presence in India through the East India Company, a trading company that exported raw materials like spices out of India to the West. Britain then strengthened its hold over its Indian colony by installing a parliament, courts, and bureaucracy. Several independent Hindu and Muslim kingdoms, however, continued to exist within the broader framework of British rule. The British army existed to maintain internal order and control uprisings against the colonizing government by the Indian people.

In 1885 the British sanctioned the formation of the Indian National Congress, of which an offshoot, the Congress party, remains one of India's most important political parties. The British hoped that this political party would serve to quell growing resistance to British rule by co-opting some of India's most politically aware and educated individuals into working within the bounds of British rule. Instead, the Indian National Congress became the vehicle through which Indians coordinated their struggle for freedom from British rule. An indigenous independence movement spearheaded by men like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehrulater free India's first prime ministergained strength in the early twentieth century.

India's movement for independence was marked by nonviolence as hundreds of thousands of Indians responded to Mahatma Gandhi's call for satyagraha, which means to be steadfast in truth. Satyagraha involved nonviolent protest through passive noncooperation with the British at every level. Indians simply refused to participate in any activity over which there was British supervision, thus making it impossible for the British to continue to govern India.

Britain formally relinquished its hold over India in 1947, and two sovereign countries, India and Pakistan, were created out of British India. The partition was a result of irreconcilable differences between Hindu and Muslim leadership. It was decided that India was the land of the Hindus and Pakistan would be the land of the Muslims. Modern India, however, is a secular nation.

Nehru and his political party, the Congress, remained in power until his death in 1964. Leaving a lasting legacy, Nehru molded independent India's economy, society, and polity. Lal Bahadur Shastri became India's second prime minister, and upon his death was succeeded by Nehru's daughter Indira Gandhi, who remained in power until 1977 when, for the first time, the Congress lost in parliamentary elections to the opposition Janata party. Indira's loss was largely due to the increasingly authoritarian tactics she had adopted before she was voted out of power. Morarji Desai, the leader of the Janata party, then became India's fourth prime minister.

Indira Gandhi and the Congress were returned to power in 1980, and upon her assassination in 1984, her son, Rajiv Gandhi, was elected prime minister. In 1994 the Congress, with Narasimha Rao as the prime minister, is once again in office, and is instituting unprecedented and far-reaching economic reforms in the country. The Rao government has succeeded in some measure in dismantling the old Nehruvian, socialist-style restrictions on the economy and on private industry. Today, India's exports have increased significantly, its foreign exchange reserves are at their highest levels in decades, and the economy appears robust.

Economic liberalization, however, has caused widening discrepancies between the wealthy and the poor in India. Moreover, a rising tide of religious fundamentalism and intolerance in recent years are threatening India's otherwise promising future. For the first time in decades, a powerful political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (Bharateeyah Juntah) or the Indian People's Party, has challenged the prevalent belief in and acceptance of India's secularism, maintaining instead that India is a Hindu state. The party has found widespread support in some areas of India and in some sections of the Asian Indian community in the United States and Europe. Thus far, however, the government has functioned within the parameters of India's democratic institutions.


In many accounts, immigrants to the United States from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are referred to as Asian Indians. The first Asian Indians or Indian Americans, as they are also known, arrived in America as early as the middle of the nineteenth century. By the end of the nineteenth century, about 2,000 Indians, most of them Sikhs (a religious minority from India's Punjab region), settled on the west coast of the United States, having come in search of economic opportunity. The majority of Sikhs worked in agriculture and construction. Other Asian Indians came as merchants and traders; many worked in lumber mills and logging camps in the western states of Oregon, Washington, and California, where they rented bunkhouses, acquired knowledge of English, and assumed Western dress. Most of the Sikhs, however, refused to cut their hair or beards or forsake the wearing of the turbans that their religion required. In 1907 about 2,000 Indians, alongside other immigrants from China, Japan, Korea, Norway, and Italy worked on the building of the Western Pacific Railway in California. Other Indians helped build bridges and tunnels for California's other railroad projects.

Between 1910 and 1920, as agricultural work in California began to become more abundant and better paying, many Indian immigrants turned to the fields and orchards for employment. For many of the immigrants who had come from villages in rural India, farming was both familiar and preferable. There is evidence that Indians began to bargain, often successfully, for better wages during this time. Some Indians eventually settled permanently in the California valleys where they worked. Despite the 1913 Alien Land Law, enacted by the California legislature to discourage Japanese immigrants from purchasing land, many Asian Indians bought land as well; by 1920 Asian Indians owned 38,000 acres in California's Imperial Valley and 85,000 acres in the Sacramento Valley. Because there was virtually no immigration by Indian women during this time, it was not unheard of for Indian males to marry Mexican women and raise families.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, about 100 Indian students also studied in universities across America. During the summers, it was not uncommon for Indian students in California to work in the fields and orchards alongside their countrymen. A small group of Indian immigrants also came to America as political refugees from British rule. To them, the United States seemed the ideal place for their revolutionary activities. In fact, many of these revolutionaries returned to India in the early part of the twentieth century to assume important roles in the struggle for India's independence.

The turn of the century also saw increasing violence against Asian Indians in the western states. Expulsions of Indians from the communities in which they worked were occasionally organized by other Euro-American workers. Some Indians who had migrated for economic reasons returned to India after they had saved respectable sums of money in America; others stayed, putting down roots in the West. The immigration of Indians to America was tightly controlled by the American government during this time, and Indians applying for visas to travel to the United States were often rejected by U.S. diplomats in major Indian cities like Bombay and Calcutta. The Asiatic Exclusion League (AEL) was organized in 1907 to encourage the expulsion of Asian workers, including Indians. In addition, several pieces of legislation were introduced in the United States, specifically the congressional exclusion laws of 1917 and 1923, that attempted either to restrict the entry of Indians and other Asians or to deny them residence and citizenship rights in America. Some of these were defeated while others were adopted. For instance, a literacy clause was added to a number of bills, requiring that immigrants pass a literacy test to be considered eligible for citizenship, thus effectively barring many Indians from consideration for citizenship.


In July 1946, Congress passed a bill allowing naturalization for Indians and, in 1957, the first Asian Indian senator, Dalip Saund, was elected to Congress. Like many early Indian immigrants, Saund came to the United States from Punjab and had worked in the fields and farms of California. He had also earned a doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley. While more educated and professional Indians began to enter America, immigration restrictions and tight quotas ensured that only small numbers of Indians entered the country prior to 1965. Overall, approximately 6,000 Asian Indians immigrated to the United States between 1947 and 1965.

From 1965 onward, a second significant wave of Indian immigration began, spurred by a change in U.S. immigration law that lifted prior quotas and restrictions and allowed significant numbers of Asians to immigrate. Between 1965 and 1974, Indian immigration to the United States increased at a rate greater than that from almost any other country. This wave of immigrants was very different from the earliest Indian immigrantsIndians that emigrated after 1965 were overwhelmingly urban, professional, and highly educated and quickly engaged in gainful employment in many U.S. cities. Many had prior exposure to Western society and education and their transition to the United States was therefore relatively smooth. More than 100,000 such professionals and their families entered the U.S. in the decade after 1965.

Almost 40 percent of all Indian immigrants who entered the United States in the decades after 1965 arrived on student or exchange visitor visas, in some cases with their spouses and dependents. Most of the students pursued graduate degrees in a variety of disciplines. They were often able to find promising jobs and prosper economically, and many became permanent residents and then citizens.


The 1990 U.S. census reports 570,000 Asian Indians in America. About 32 percent are settled in the Northeast, 26 percent in the South, 23 percent in the West, and 19 percent in the midwestern states. New York, California, and New Jersey are the three states with the highest concentrations of Asian Indians. In California, where the first Indian immigrants arrived, the cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles are home to the oldest established Asian Indian communities in the United States.

In general, the Asian Indian community has preferred to settle in the larger American cities rather than smaller towns, especially in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago. This appears to be a reflection of both the availability of jobs in larger cities, and the personal preference of being a part of an urban, ethnically diverse environment, one which is evocative of the Indian cities that many of the post-1965 immigrants came from. Still, there are sizeable Asian Indian communities in suburban areas, including Silver Springs (Maryland), San Jose and Fremont (California), and Queens (New York).

Acculturation and Assimilation

Asian Indians have quietly permeated many segments of the American economy and society while still retaining their Indian culture. Most Asian Indian families strive to preserve traditional Indian values and transmit these to their children. Offspring are encouraged to marry within the community and maintain their Indian heritage. The occupational profile presented by the Asian Indian community today is one of increasing diversity. Although a large number of Asian Indians are professionals, others own small businesses or are employed as semi- or nonskilled workers. Asian Indian are sometimes stereotyped in American society as industrious, prosperous, and professionally and educationally advanced.

The Asian Indian community in the United States is an ethnically diverse one. One can distinguish among subgroups who trace their roots to different regions or states within India, who speak different languages, eat different foods, and follow distinct customs. Some of the most populous Indian groups within the United States are Gujaratis, Bengalis, Punjabis, Marathis, and Tamils. They come from a number of the Indian states, or regions, each of which has its own language. It is more likely that these subgroups will interact socially and celebrate important occasions with members of their own subcommunity rather than the larger Indian community. Indians are also encouraged to marry within their subgroups. However, there are occasions, like the celebration of India's day of independence, when the Asian Indian community will come together.


The majority of Asian Indian Americans have retained diets rooted in Indian cuisine. Indian food is prepared with a variety of spices, including cumin, turmeric, chili powder, ginger, and garlic. All Asian Indians eat a variety of dals (lentils), beans, and chaval (rice) dishes. Hindus generally will not eat beef for religious reasons, while Muslims eschew pork. Second-generation Asian Indians are more likely to ignore these religious taboos. (italicized terms are in Hindi, and are not recognized in South India)

Tandoori, clay-baked chicken or fish marinated in yogurt and spices, is a popular North Indian dish. Biryani, or flavored rice with vegetables and meats, is served on festive occasions, often accompanied by a cooling yogurt sauce called raita (rye-tah). Southern Indian dishes like masala, dosai crepes filled with spiced potatoes or idlis (idlees), and steamed rice cakes, are also popular. Indian cuisine is largely dependent on the region of India from which a subcommunity traces its roots. Caste also plays a role.

Green chutneys made of mint or coriander accompany a variety of savory fritters like the triangular, stuffed samosas. Pickled vegetables and fruits like lemons or mangoes are popular accompaniments to meals. A variety of unleavened breads like naans, rotis (roetees), and parathas are also widely eaten. Finally, "sweetmeats" like halva and burfi can often round off a festive meal.

Traditional Indian cooking tends to be a time-consuming process, and Asian Indians in the United States have developed shortcuts involving mechanical gadgets and canned substitutes in preparing Indian meals. However, most families continue to eat freshly-prepared Indian food for the main meal of the day. Indeed, the evening meal often serves as the time when the family will get together to discuss their daily activities. The average Asian Indian family tends not to eat out as often as other American families because of the importance accorded to eating together at the family table. Meal preparation still tends to be the domain of the females of the house, and while daughters are often expected to help, sons are not generally expected to assist in the kitchen.


Many Asian Indian women wear the sariyards of colorful embroidered or printed silk or cotton wrapped around the bodyat community functions and celebrations like weddings. At such occasions, both men and women might also wear the kameez or kurta, also made of silk or fine cotton, a long shirt worn over tight-fitting leggings. Shawls made of silk or wool and elaborately embroidered or woven with gold or silver threads or beads and draped around the shoulders are an added touch to women's costumes. Women might wear a bindi, or ornamental dot, which sometimes indicates they are married, but is also worn as a fashion accessory on their foreheads at celebrations.

Indians are very fond of gold jewelry, and many women wear simple gold ornaments like rings, earrings, bangles, and necklaces daily, and more elaborate ones at special occasions. Jewelry is often passed down through the generations from mother to daughter or daughter-in-law.


Asian Indian preferences in music range from Indian classical music, which might include instruments such as the stringed sitar, the tabla, or drums, and the harmonium, to popular music from Indian films and the West. Indian classical music dates back several thousand years and gained a wider audience after India's independence. Indian film music, often a fusion of Indian and Western rock or pop music, also has a widespread following both in India and within the community in the United States.

Carnatic music, the classical music of south India, commonly employs such musical instruments as the veena, a stringed instrument, and a range of violins. Carnatic music usually accompanies Bharata Natyam, a classical dance in which dancers perform portions of mythological tales, emulating ancient temple carvings of men and women with their body, hand, and eye movements.

Indian folk dances like the exuberant Bhangra from the Punjab region are popular at celebratory gatherings of the community. In this dance, dancers throw their arms in the air and simulate the actions of the farmer at work with his sickle. Traditional Bhangra music is increasingly being fused with elements of hip-hop, rap, and reggae, and bands like Alaap or Toronto's Dhamak are popular with younger members of the community.


In addition to universal celebrations like International New Year's Day, Asian Indians celebrate India's day of independence from the British on August 15 and Republic Day on January 26. Many religious celebrations are also observed, the most important being Diwali (deevalee), the festival of lights celebrating the return home of the Lord Rama, and Holi (hoelee), the Hindu festival of colors celebrating spring. On these days, sweets are distributed among friends and family. Oil lamps, or diyas, are lit on Diwali. The community often organizes a traditional dinner with entertainment to mark the holiday. Major festivals for Muslims include Eid-ul-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting. It is celebrated with prayers and visits with friends. Asian-Indian Christians celebrate Christmas and Easter. The Navaratri (nava meaning "nine" and ratri meaning "night/s") is one of the most famous and popular festivals in India and is the major festival for diaspora Indians. Tens of thousands of Gujaratis dance the garbha during this Fall celebration.


Most Asian Indians accept the role of modern medicine and pay careful attention to health matters. Ayurvedic medicine has many adherents within the community. Ayurveda emphasizes spiritual healing as an essential component of physical healing and bases its cures on herbs and natural ingredients such as raw garlic and ginger. Ayurveda also focuses on preventive healing. One of its most famous proponents is Deepak Chopra, an India-born doctor whose book Ageless Body, Timeless Mind makes a case for the practice of Ayurveda and has sold over a million copies in the United States. Homeopathic medicine also has adherents among the community.

Some members of the Asian Indian American community practice yoga. The ancient practice of Yoga dates back several thousand years. It combines a routine of exercise and meditation to maintain the balance between body and mind. Practiced correctly, Yoga is said to enable the individual to relieve him or herself of daily stresses and strains and to achieve his or her full potential as a human being. Various asanas or poses are held by the individual in practicing Yoga.

Asian Indians are less inclined to seek out assistance for mental health problems than they are for physical health problems. This relates to the low levels of consciousness about, and prevailing stigmas attached to mental health issues in India. The traditional Indian belief has been that mental problems will eventually take care of themselves, and that the family rather than outside experts should take care of the mentally ill. This attitude might change as prevailing societal beliefs about mental health are assimilated by the community.


India is a multi-lingual country with over 300 dialects. About 24 of these dialects are spoken by over a million people. This diversity is reflected in the Asian Indian community in America. First-generation Indians continue to speak their native language within the familywith spouses, members of the extended family, and friends within the community. Most also speak English fluently, which has made the transition to American society easier for many Indian immigrants.

Regional differences are prevalent. Hindi is spoken mostly by immigrants from northern India, and is generally not spoken by South Indians. Immigrants from the states of southern India speak regional languages like Tamil, Telegu, or Malayalam. A substantial number of immigrants from western India, particularly those from the state of Gujarat, continue to speak Gujarati, while those from the region of Bengal speak Bengali. Most second- and third-generation Asian Indians understand the language spoken by their parents and extended family, but tend not to speak it themselves. Many Indians are multilingual and speak several Indian languages. Thus, a Gujarati speaker is likely to know Hindi as well.


Common Asian Indian greetings tend to be in Hindi or Hindustani, and include such greetings as Namaste (Namastay), the equivalent of "hello." This greeting is usually accompanied by the palms of one's hands pressed together against the chest among some North Indians. Aap kaise hai is the equivalent of the universal query "How are you?" Theek (fine) is the response. For Muslims, the traditional Islamic greetings of inshallah ("insha-allah")God willing, or Salaam Aleikum ("sullahm allaykum")God be with you, are the most common.

Family and Community Dynamics

For the most part, Asian Indians tend to live in nuclear families in the United States, although it is common for members of the extended family, particularly grandparents, to visit for months at a time. It has also been fairly common, particularly from 1965 on, for Asian Indians to encourage their siblings to emigrate from India, and to provide them with financial and emotional support until they are well settled in the United States. Family ties are very strong, and it is considered the responsibility of more prosperous members to look after their less well-to-do relatives. Relatively low percentages of Asian Indian families receive public assistance. This is due to both relative affluence in the community and the tendency for extended family members to provide financial support in times of need.

Dating is not a traditional Indian custom, and Asian Indian parents tend to frown upon the practice, although they are slowly yielding to their offspring's demands to be allowed to date. The preference is still for the selection of a marriage partner from within the subgroup of the larger community and with the full approval and consent of the parents. Family or community members are often involved in the selection of a suitable mate. The family and educational backgrounds of the potential partner are thoroughly examined before introductions are made. Asian Indians believe that their children will be happier if they are married to someone who shares the same history, tradition, religion, and social customs and who will be able to impart these values to their children, thus ensuring the continuity of the community. They believe that such marriages made within the community tend to be more stable and longer lasting than those that cross community borders.

Asian Indians value education highly. A great percentage of all Asian Americans attend college for a minimum of four years. This percentage is much higher than any other ethnic group in America. Many also attend graduate school and pursue such professions as medicine, business administration, and law.

Asian Indian women have made great progress in recent years in both India and the United States. In India Indira Gandhi once held the highest seat in governmentthat of the prime minister. In the United States, while many women continue to perform the traditional household tasks of cooking and caring for children, a greater number of Asian Indian women, particularly second- and third-generation women, are pursuing their own professional careers and life choices.


Weddings in the North Indian community are often elaborate affairs, sometimes stretching over several days. In traditional Hindu ceremonies the bride and groom exchange garlands of flowers and circle a ceremonial fire three to seven times. The bride often wears a red sari and gold ornaments. She might also have her hands and feet painted in intricate designs with henna, a tradition called mehendi. The groom might wear the traditional North Indian dress of a churidar kameez, or tight leggings made of silk or fine cotton, and a long shirt, or opt for a western-style suit. A Brahman priest conducts the ceremony.

Dancing and music is fairly common at Indian American weddings, a result of the assimilation of American customs. Some weddings might include shehnai music, or a thin, wailing music played on an oboe-like instrument. This music is traditionally played at Hindu weddings in India. Feasts of traditional foods are prepared for guests and traditional Hindu or Muslim rites are observed. Often, family members prepare the feast themselves, although it is increasingly common to engage professional caterers.


Asian Indian families can expect a lot of community support upon the death of a family member. Members of the community provide both comfort and material help in times of bereavement. After priests offer prayers, the Hindu dead are cremated. In India the cremation traditionally takes place on a wooden pyre and the body, which is often dressed in gold-ornamented clothing, burns over several hours. This is in contrast to electric cremation in the United States. Garlands of flowers, incense sticks, and ghee (purified melted butter) are placed on the stretcher along with the body. In India as well as in the United States, it is traditional for the males of the family play the primary roles in the final rites; women play smaller roles during this ceremony. Asian Indian Muslims are buried in cemeteries according to Islamic tradition and Christians in accordance with Christian beliefs.


The earliest Hindu mandir, or temple, the "old temple," existed in San Francisco as early as 1920, but in general the religious needs of Hindu Asian Indians prior to the 1950s were served mainly through ethnic and community organizations like the Hindu Society of India. Since the 1950s, Hindu and Sikh temples have increasingly been built for worship in cities with high concentrations of Asian Indians like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, while Asian Muslims worship at mosques and Christians at existing churches. There are now more than a hundred places of worship for Asian Indians around the United States.

All Hindus, regardless of their regional differences and the particular gods they worship, tend to worship at available temples. While Hindus are functionally polytheistic, they are philosophically monotheist. Brahman priests typically lead the service and recite from the scriptures. Services can be conducted in either Sanskrit, Hindi, or the regional languages. Poojas, or religious ceremonies that celebrate auspicious occasions like the birth of a child, are also performed by the priests. While some priests serve full time, others might have a second occupation in addition to performing priestly duties.

While some Asian Indians visit temples regularly, others limit their visits to important religious occasions. Since Hinduism tends to be less formally organized than other religions like Christianity, prayer meetings can also be conducted at individuals' homes. It is also quite common for Asian Indian homes to have a small room or a part of a room reserved for prayer and meditation. Such household shrines are central to a family's religious life.

Many Asian Indians practice Islam, meaning "submission to God." Similar to Christianity, followers of Islam believe in the prophet Muhammad, who was ordered by the angel Gabriel in 610 A.D. to spread God's message. Muhammad recorded the angel's revelations in the Koran, the Muslim holy book. There are five requirements, or Pillars, of Islam: (1) Confession that there is "no god but God" and Muhammad is the messenger of God; (2) Pray five times daily; (3) Giving of alms; (4) Fasting in daylight hours for the Muhammadan month of Ramadan; and (5) Pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime. While Muslims regard the message of Islam as eternal and universal, their individual lives have demonstrated a variety of orientations toward traditional and popular patterns.

The Asian Indian community in America also includes small numbers of Buddhists, followers of Gautama Buddha, and Jains, followers of Mahavira. The most unique feature of the Jain religion, which was founded in the sixth century B.C., is its belief in the doctrine of ahimsa, or nonviolence. This belief leads Jains to practice strict vegetarianism, since they cannot condone the killing of animals. The Jains in the United States have their own temples for worship. Buddhists, Jainists, and Hindus all place a great value on personal austerity and are concerned with the final escape from the cycle of birth and rebirth known as reincarnation.

Small but significant Zoroastrian or Parsi communities have settled in cities such as New York and Los Angeles. The Parsees came to India as refugees from Arab-invaded Persia in the ninth and tenth centuries. They are about 100,000 strong in India and have made significant economic and social contributions to the country. Earliest reports of Parsi immigrants to the United States date from the turn of this century, when groups of Parsees entered this country as merchants and traders.

Of all the Asian Indian religious communities, the Sikhs are the oldest and tend to be the most well organized in terms of religious activity. Sikhism is different from Hinduism in its belief in one God. Sikhs follow the teachings of Guru Nanak, the founder of the religion, and worship in temples called Gurudwaras (Gurudwaaras). Services in Gurudwaras are held about once a week as well as on religious occasions. Tenets of the Sikh religion include wearing a turban on the head for males and a symbolic bangle called a Kara around their wrists. In addition, Sikh males are required not to cut their hair or beards. This custom is still followed to by many in the community; others choose to give up the wearing of the turban and cut their hair.

Employment and Economic Traditions

The economic profile of Asian Indians has changed dramatically. While the first immigrants were agricultural and manual laborers, today, significant numbers of Asian Indians are engaged in professions such as medicine, accounting, and engineering. Many Asian Indians who entered the United States as students remained and became respected professors and academics. In fact, a recent study indicates that a higher percentage of Asian Indians is engaged in managerial positions today than any other ethnic group in the United States.

Indian immigrants to the United States sometimes have been unable to practice the profession for which they were trained in India due to either a lack of employment opportunities or the lack of American certification. In such cases, like law, for instance, they have either chosen alternative occupations or have retrained themselves in another field. Doctors and engineers have been among the most successful in finding employment in the field within which they were trained.

Many Asian Indians own small businesses like travel agencies, Indian groceries, and garment stores, particularly in neighborhoods like Flushing, in Queens, New York, where a strong Asian Indian community exists. Asian Indians own or operate about 50 percent of the motels in the United States, and almost 37 percent of all hotels and motels combined. Extended families often help relatives with the initial investment necessary to buy a motel, further strengthening Asian Indians' dominance of this business niche. Around 70 percent of all Indian motel owners share the same surname, Patel, indicating that they are members of the Gujarati Hindu subcaste.

Politics and Government

Indian immigrants were actively involved in the struggle for residence and citizenship rights in the early part of the twentieth century. Inspiring leaders like Dalip Saund, who later became a congressman in 1957, and rebels like Taraknath Das mobilized the Indian community in California to strike back against anti-Indian violence and exclusion. The Ghadar Party, organized by Indians and Sikhs, was formed in San Francisco between 1913 and 1914 to realize the goal of revolution in India; it then organized in the United States around the immigration issue.

Later generations of Asian Indians have tended not to play particularly active roles in modern American politics. Only about 25 percent of the community are registered voters and some Asian Indians continue to identify themselves with the politics of India rather than America. There are signs, however, that this noninvolvement is changing. Since the 1980s, the community has actively raised funds for their candidates of choice. Many young Asian Indians are working on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures gaining valuable experience for the future, and some politicians are now beginning to realize the power of the community to raise capital. During the 1988 presidential campaign, the Asian Indian community raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for candidates in both parties. The Association of Indians in America launched a successful campaign to have Asian Indians included within the "Asian or Pacific Islander" category rather than the "Caucasian/White" category in the census, believing that the conferring of this minority status would bring benefits to the community. Accordingly, Asian Indians are today classified under the "Asian or Pacific Islander" category.

Asian Indians in the United States engaged in unprecedented political activity when armed conflict broke out in 1999 between India and Pakistan over the contested area of Kashmir. Asian Indian immigrants began to lobby Congress and write letters to the editors of American newspapers in support of India's position. In addition, they sent thousands of dollars to aid Asian Indian soldiers and their families. Asian Indian activists have increasingly used the Internet to garner support in the United States for Asian Indian causes. The American division of the Bharatiya Janata Party, for example, has launched an intensive e-mail campaign to urge support for the Hindu nationalist cause.

Geographically dispersed as they are, the residence patterns of Asian Indians has generally prevented them from forming powerful voting blocs. Historically, a greater percentage of Asian Indians has tended to vote for Democratic rather than Republican candidates.


Asian Indians have retained close ties to India, maintaining contact with friends and relatives and often travelling to India at regular intervals. They have remained interested in Indian politics because of these ties, and have contributed to the election campaigns of Indian politicians. Contributions from the Asian Indian community to different political parties in India are also quite common, as is the phenomenon of Indian political party leaders travelling to the United States to make their case to the community.

India considers its Indian communities abroad very important. Even though there has been concern over the years of a "brain drain" from India, or a phenomenon where India's best talent moved to America and Europe, the feeling today is that India can still gain both economically and culturally from its emigrants. Indians who have emigrated abroad are viewed as ambassadors for India, and it is hoped that their achievements will make the country proud. Indeed, unique achievements by Asian Indians in America and Europe are often showcased by the Indian media.

In times of natural disaster like floods or earthquakes in India, the Asian Indian American community has sent generous contributions. Second generation Asian Indian students have demonstrated an interest in travelling to India on study projects. In recent times, Asian Indians are watching the liberalizing economic reforms unfurled by the Narasimha Rao government in India with great interest and noting potential avenues for trade and investment. Many Asian Indians maintain nonresident (NRI) savings accounts in India through which they are able to make investments in private businesses in different parts of the country.

Individual and Group Contributions


Asian Indians serve as distinguished faculty members at prestigious universities and colleges all over the United States. The following constitute only a handful of the many Asian Indians who have made names for themselves in academia. Arjun Appaduravi is an anthropologist with the University of Chicago University and editor of Public Culture. Jagdish Bhagwati (1934 ), a renowned economist specializing in the economics of underdevelopment, has also written several books on the subject. He is currently a faculty member at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Shyam Bhatiya (1924 ) is a geographer on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Pramod Chandra is an art history professor at Harvard. Kuldeep Prakash Chopra (1932 ), a physicist, teaches at Old Dominion University and has served as a science advisor to the governor of Virginia. Shanti Swarup Gupta (1925 ), a statistician, has taught statistics and mathematics at Stanford and Purdue universities and is the recipient of numerous awards in the field. Jayadev Misra (1947 ), a computer science educator and winner of several national awards in software and hardware design, is a professor of computer science at the University of Texas at Austin. Rustum Ray (1924 ) has been a member of the faculty at Pennsylvania State University since 1950 and has held many visiting positions, including that of science policy fellow at the Brookings Institution during 1982-83. Gayatu Chakravarti Spivak is a respected literary critic and professor at Columbia University. Ramesh Tripathi (1936 ) has been on the ophthalmology faculty at the University of Chicago since 1977 and has earned numerous awards in his field.


Natvar Bhavsar (1934 ) is a painter who has held a number of one-man shows at galleries like the Max Hutchinson Gallery in New York and the Kenmore Gallery in Philadelphia. His work is part of the permanent collections of museums such as the Boston Fine Arts Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.


Madhur Jaffrey is the author of several popular books on Indian cuisine and the broader cuisine of East Asia. She has written, among others, Madhur Jaffrey's World-of-the-East Vegetarian Cooking, An Invitation to Indian Cooking, and A Taste of India. Her book A Taste of the Far East won the James Beard award for cookbook of the year in 1994. She has also appeared on the television series "Indian Cookery and Far Eastern Cookery."


Ismail Merchant is a world-renowned film producer. Along with his partner James Ivory, the Merchant-Ivory team has produced and directed such award-winning films as A Room with a View (1986), Howard's End (1990), and The Remains of the Day (1993). In his own right, Merchant has produced The Courtesans of Bombay and In Custody. Merchant is also a successful cookbook author, having written Ismail Merchant's Indian Cuisine, which was named by the New York Times as one of the best cookbooks of the year, and, more recently, Ismail Merchant's Passionate Meals. Director Mira Nair has directed Mississippi Masala, starring Denzel Washington, and Salaam, Bombay. Both films deal with the adjustments Asian Indians must make while living in the United States.


Dalip Saund (1899-1973) became a U.S. congressman in 1957. Born in the Punjab region of India, he immigrated to the United States in 1920. He earned a Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of California, Berkeley and was one of the earliest activists fighting for the citizenship and residence rights of Asian Indians in the United States.

Many Asian Indian Americans have been appointed to administrative positions. Joy Cherian was Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner from 1990 to 1994. Cherian was first appointed by President Ronald Reagan to the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission in 1987. In 1982 Cherian founded the Indian American Forum for Political Education and today runs a consulting firm. Sambhu Banik, a Bethesda psychologist, was appointed in 1990 as executive director of the President's Committee on Mental Retardation. Kumar Barve (1958 ), a Democrat from Maryland, was elected vice chairman of the Montgomery County's House delegation in 1992. Barve became the first Asian Indian in the country to be elected to a state legislature. Bharat Bhargava was appointed assistant director of Minority Business Development Authority by President George Bush. Dinesh D'Souza, a graduate of Dartmouth and an outspoken conservative, was appointed a domestic policy advisor in the Reagan administration. He is a first generation Asian Indian, having come to the United States as an undergraduate student, and is the author of Illiberal Education: Politics of Sex and Race on Campus. D'Souza is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). T.R. Lakshmanan was head of the Bureau of Statistics in the Transportation Department. Arthur Lall (1911 ) has been involved in numerous international negotiations, has written extensively on diplomacy and negotiations, including the 1966 book Modern International Negotiator, and has taught at Columbia University. President Bush named Gopal S. Pal a member of the board of regents, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences under the U.S. Defense Department. Arati Prabhakar served as research director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Department of Commerce. Zach Zachariah of Florida was President Bush's 1992 finance committee chairman in that state, and had the distinction of raising the most funds of any one person in that campaign. Three Asian Indians have won elections as mayors: John Abraham in Teaneck, New Jersey, David Dhillon in El Centro, California; and Bala K. Srinivas in Holliwood Park, Texas.


Pranay Gupte was born in India. He has served as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times and is the author of a number of books, including Vengeance (1985), which chronicled the years immediately after the assassination of the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and The Crowded Earth: People and the Politics of Population.


Notable nonfiction writers include Dinesh D'Souza, author of the 1991 best-seller Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus, and Ravi Batra, an economist whose The Great Depression of 1990 and Surviving the Great Depression of 1990 also attained best-seller status. Deepak Chopra, an endocrinologist turned ayurvedic practitioner, has published a series of highly successful books, including Ageless Body, Timeless Mind: The Quantum Alternative to Growing Old (1993).

Asian Indian American fiction writers include such figures as Bharati Mukherjee (1940), professor of English at Columbia University, who was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award for The Middleman and Other Stories (1988), Gita Mehta, whose works include Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East (1979) and the novel A River Sutra (1993), Ved Mehta (1934 ) winner of a 1982 McArthur Foundation "genius" award and author of works such as his autobiography Face to Face (1957) and the autobiographical novel Daddyji (1972), and Vikram Seth, whose A Suitable Boy (1993) has been compared to the works of Austen and Tolstoy. Shashi Tharoor wrote Reasons of State (1982) and The Five-Dollar Smile and Other Stories (1993) and Anita Desai's In Custody (1985) was made into a film in 1994. Folklorist and poet A.K. Ramamijan wrote Speaking of Siva. Kirin Narayan is the author of Love, Stars, and All That (1994), a novel about Asian Indian experiences in the United States.

Dhan Gopal Mukerji was one of the first Asian Indian Americans to write for children. His works include both animal fantasies like The Chief of the Herd (1929) and novels, such as Gay Neck: The Story of a Pigeon, which won the Newbery Medal in 1927.


Zubin Mehta (1936 ), musician and conductor, was born in Bombay, India. He was born in the Zoroastrian faith, the religious minority in India that traces its ancestry to ninth-century Persia. He has served as music director of a number of orchestras, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Israel Philharmonic, and the New York Philharmonic. Most recently, he has been engaged in gala productions with the "three tenors," Luciano Pavarotti, José Carerras, and Plácido Domingo. He has won the New York City Mayor's Liberty Award. Several Indian musicians have established schools in the United States to keep Indian culture alive among young Asian Indians. One such musician is Ali Akbar Khan, a North Indian classical musician who formed a school in California's Bay Area.


Prabhupada Bhaktivedanta (1896-1977) was the leader of the Hare Krishna movement, which emerged in the 1970s in North America and Europe. At the age of 69 Bhaktivedanta immigrated to the United States, preaching the worship of Krishna in New York. Hare Krishna is organizationally embodied in the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). While he quickly gained an international following, Bhaktivedanta also experienced the harsh criticism of the anticult movement. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1911 ) arrived in the United States in 1959, as a missionary of traditional Indian thought. Mahesh founded the Spiritual Regeneration Movement, whose purpose was to change the world through the practice of Transcendental Mediation.


Asian Indians have made numerous advancements in science and technology. The following individuals only represent a small sample. Hargobind Khorana (1922 ) won the 1968 Nobel Prize in Medicine for the United States. He has held professorships at many distinguished universities worldwide. Vijay Prabhakar practiced medicine for many years with the Indian Health Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which provides health care to Native Americans. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Public Service Health Award. Subrahmanyam Chandrasekhar (1910 ), a theoretical astrophysicist, won the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physics. He has also held professorships at many prestigious institutions. Amar Bose (1929 ) is the founder, chairman of the board and technical director of the Bose Corporation, known for its innovative stereo speaker systems. Bose is also a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.



The following newsgroups are available on the Internet: The newsgroup provides information on events in the United States geared toward promoting ethnic and religious harmony within the Indian community in the United States and in India; the newsgroup provides information on cultural and social events of interest to Asian Indians; the newsgroup provides up-to-date news on events in India.


India Abroad.

This weekly newspaper was first published in 1970, making it the oldest Asian Indian newspaper in the United States. It focuses on news about the community in the United States, on issues and problems unique to the community, and on news from India.

Contact: Gopal Raju, Editor and Publisher.

Address: 43 West 24th Street, New York, New York 10010.

Telephone: (212) 929-1727.

India Currents.

This is a monthly newsmagazine focusing on issues of interest to the Asian Indian community.

Contact: Arvind Kumar, Editor.

Address: P.O. Box 71785, San Jose, California 95151.

Telephone: (408) 774-6966.

News India.

This weekly newspaper features articles and news on India and the Asian Indian community.

Contact: John Perry, Editor.

Address: Hannah Worldwide Publishing, 244 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10001.

Telephone: (212)-481-3110.

Fax: (212) 889-5774.


There are many FM and AM radio programs broadcast in Hindi across the United States. In addition, there are some programs that are broadcast in other regional Indian languages like Gujarati, Marathi, or Tamil. Most of these originate in cities with significant Asian Indian populations. Some Hindi radio programs include KESTAM in San Francisco, California; WSBC-AM in Chicago, Illinois; WEEF-AM in Highland Park, Illinois; WAIF-FM in Cincinnati, Ohio; and KPFT-FM in Houston, Texas.


Asian Indian programs are common on cable channels in U.S. cities with large communities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. In addition, TV Asia telecasts news and feature programs of interest to the Indian community nationally on the International Channel.

Address: TV Asia, c/o The International Channel, 12401 West Olympic Boulevard, Bethesda, Maryland 20814.

Telephone: (310) 826-2426.

Organizations and Associations

A distinction must be made between organizations that base membership upon an encompassing Asian Indian identity and those that are linked more closely to different regions and states within India, such as the Maharashtrian or Tamil organizations in different U.S. states. In addition, religion-based groups like the Sikh or Zoroastrian organizations also exist. The following is a list of organizations that serve all Asian Indians without distinction of religion, language, or region.

Association of Indians in America.

Immigrants of Asian Indian ancestry living in the United States. Seeks to continue Indian cultural activities in the United States and to encourage full Asian Indian participation as citizens and residents of America.

Contact: Dr. Nirmal Matoo, President.

Address: 68-15 Central Avenue, Glendale, New York 11385.

Telephone: (718) 697-3285.

Fax: (718) 497-5320.

Network of Indian Professionals (NetIP).

Nonprofit group seeking to help Asian Indian Americans advance personally and professionally. Also works to improve the community.

Address: 268 Bush Street, #2707, San Francisco, California 94104.


National Association of Americans of Asian Indian Descent (NAAAID).

Primary membership is business and professional Asian Indians. Protects and promotes economic, social, and political rights and interests of Asian Indians.

Contact: Dr. Sridltart Kazil, President.

Address: 3320 Avenue A, Kearney, Nebraska 68847-1666.

Telephone: (308) 865-2263.

Fax: (308) 865-2263.

National Federation of Indian American Associations (NFIAA).

Represents interests of Asian Indians in the United States and promotes Indian culture and values. Attempts to influence legislation in favor of the community.

Contact: Thomas Abraham, Chair.

Address: P.O. Box 1413, Stamford, Connecticut 06904.

Telephone: (516) 421-2699.

Museums and Research Centers

Dharam Hinduja India Research Center.

Autonomous center within Columbia University Department of Religion that studies Indian traditions of knowledge from the Vedas to modern times with a focus on practical application.

Contact: Mary McGee, Director.

Address: 1102 International Affairs Building, 420 West 118 Street, MC 3367, New York, New York 10027.

Telephone: (212) 854-5300.

Fax: (212) 854-2802.

E-mail: [email protected].


Sources for Additional Study

An Immigrant Success Story: East Indians in America, edited by Arthur Helwig and Usha Helwig. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990.

Eck, Diana L. Darsán, Seeing the Divine Image in India. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

Jensen, Joan. Passage from India: Asian Indian Immigrants in North America. Princeton: Yale University Press, 1988.

Leonard, Karen. Making Ethnic Choices: California's Punjabi Mexican Americans. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.

. The South Asian Americans. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Melendy, H. Brett. Asians in America: Filipinos, Koreans and East Indians. Boston: Twayne, 1977.

The New Ethnics: Asian Indians in the United States, edited by Parmatma Saran and Edwin Eames. New York: Praeger, 1990.

Takaki, Ronald. India in the West: South Asians in America. New York: Chelsea House, 1995.

Asian Indian Americans

views updated May 17 2018

Asian Indian Americans

For more information on Asian Indian history and culture, seeVol. 3: Indians.


Asian Indian Americans began migrating to the United States from India in small numbers during the 19th century. By 1900, the U.S. Census counted 2,050 Asian Indians living in the United States, mostly professional men, merchants, and travelers who settled along the east coast, particularly in New York. Asian Indian students also came to study at American colleges, mostly on the east coast, although a sizeable number attended universities in California by the time of World War I (1914–18).

Asian Indian nationalists, organizing a revolt against British rule in India in the 1800s and early 1900s, used the United States as a base for their activities. The Ghadr ("Revolution") Party was organized by Asian Indian nationalist Har Dayal in 1913 with its headquarters in San Francisco. After 1905, Asian Indian laborers began immigrating in large numbers to Canada. When Canada began to regulate Asian Indian immigration, turning away several thousand applicants, many chose to enter the United States instead. Though most were from an agricultural caste in India, the majority found work in the railroad and timber industries. Because almost all Asian Indian immigrants at this time were single males, they were willing to work long hours for low wages and soon became a threat to other potential employees. The same was true for those Asian Indians who had found their way to California where they were employed as migrant farmworkers. European American workers began to intimidate them, trying to force them off the job as they had earlier tried to intimidate Chinese and Japanese workers. The Asian Indians formed partnerships to protect themselves and saved money to buy their own land. By 1919, they owned 2,077 acres and leased 86,315 acres of land in California, producing rice, cotton, nuts, fruits, and potatoes.

European Americans formed the Asiatic Exclusion League in the early 1900s to persuade the U.S. government to restrict Asian immigration. The government did indeed turn away some 3,453 Asian Indians between 1908 and 1920. At first, Asian Indians tried to fight back through legal means, filing suits in court and lobbying government officials. When these methods failed to achieve success, Asian Indians sought the help of radical Har Dayal and the Ghadr Party. When Dayal was arrested and deported after a demonstration, however, the movement fell apart and all but disappeared in America by 1917.

The Immigration Act of 1917 placed severe restrictions on Asian immigration to the United States, and the Alien Land Law of 1920 prevented those of Asian ancestry from owning land. Some Asian Indians transferred the title of their land to European American friends so as not to lose it, while others were forced to become landless laborers once again. A number of Asian Indians married Mexican women and put their lands in their wives' names and the names of their American-born children. (Anti-miscegenation laws prevented Asian Indians from marrying American women.) Between 1913 and 1946, 92% of Asian Indians living in southern California were married to Mexican women (76% of those in central California, and 47% in northern California).

Asian Indian immigration to the United States slowed down considerably from the 1920s through 1940s. By World War II (1939–45), the number of Asian Indians in the United States had dwindled to 2,405. Only 4% were professionals, while 65% were in agriculture (15% farmers, 50% laborers). At the end of World War II, relations between India and the United States improved, and Asian Indians were finally allowed to immigrate to the United States, become U.S. citizens, own property, and marry Americans.

At first, only a small number of Asian Indians took advantage of these new opportunities; about 6,000 Asian Indians immigrated to the United States between 1947 and 1965. In the past few decades, however, Asian Indian immigration has increased rapidly, with 387,223 residing in the United States by 1980; 786,694 by 1990; and 1,899,599 by 2000. While the total U.S. population increased by only 13% between 1990 and 2000, the Asian Indian population rose by 113%. As of 2004, Asian Indians were the second-largest group (after Chinese Americans) among Asian/Pacific Americans.

Many Asian Indian Americans are students who decided to change their status to "immigrant" once in the United States. Because Asian Indian migration to the United States in significant numbers is such a recent development, and because so many are young students, most Asian Indian Americans (over 71% in 2000) are foreign-born. Asian Indian families have not lived in the United States long enough to have developed a large population of second- or third-generation American-born children.

Most Asian Indians continue to settle in California (360,392, according to the 2000 U.S. Census) and New York (296,056), with sizeable communities in New Jersey (180,957), Texas (142,689), and Illinois (133,978), especially Chicago (27,889), as well. During recent decades, the number of Asian Indian women migrating to the United States has just about equaled that of Asian Indian men. The overall median age of Asian Indian Americans in 2004 was 31.7 years. Less than 5% of Asian Indian Americans are over the age of 65, as compared to 12% of the total U.S. population. Most Asian Americans are in the middle-adult taxpaying age range.

There are almost 2,000 languages and dialects spoken in India, with Hindi (spoken by 30% of the population), English, and 14 regional languages—including Bengali and Urdu—officially recognized by the constitution. Because most Asian Indian Americans are foreign-born, they speak their native languages, as well as English. Almost 75% of Asian Indian Americans speak a language other than English at home, but 77% also speak English quite well.

Asian Indian religions have greatly influenced American life since the mid- to late 1900s, when Buddhist and Brahmanic philosophies birthed movements such as Theosophy (originating in 1875) in the United States. The first Asian Indian religious leader to visit the United States was Swami Vivekananda in 1893. He established the Vedanta Society to bring Hindu teachers to the United States and spread the wisdom of the Vedas (Hindu scriptures). Many Hindu, Buddhist, Ayurvedic, and other Asian Indian philosophies have since made their way into American life. A recent Asian Indian religious teacher and healer to settle in the United States is Deepak Chopra, author of many books, including Quantum Healing: Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine (1989), and founder of the American Association of Ayurvedic Medicine.

Asian Indians celebrate many different holidays, depending on their religious and cultural backgrounds. Immigrants to the United States bring their religious and cultural traditions with them, continuing to celebrate the holidays of their homeland. Some of the major holidays celebrated by various Asian Indian Americans are Baisakhi, the Hindu solar new year; Buddha Purnima, the birthday and day of enlightenment of Gautama Buddha; Dussehra and Durga Puja, the triumph of good over evil; Deepavali or Diwali, the festival of lights (also the financial new year); Gandhi Jayanti, the October 2 birthday of Mahatma Gandhi; Holi, a spring festival; Ramadan, Id'Ul'Fitr, Id-Uz-Zuha, and Muharram—Muslim holidays; American Independence Day on July 4; Asian Indian Independence Day on August 15; Janmashtami, the birthday of Lord Krishna; Mahavir Jayanti, the birthday of Vardhamana Mahavira; Onam, and Pongal or Sankranti, harvest festivals; and Republic Day on January 26, marking the adoption of India's constitution in 1950.

Asian Indian Americans are more likely to be wealthy than members of any other American ethnic group, including European Americans. In 2004, they had the highest median annual household income of any Asian American group, at $69,000 (compared to $56,000 for all Asian Americans, and only $45,000 for the U.S. population as a whole). Fewer Asian Indian Americans (10%) live below the poverty line as do other Asian Americans (12%). Asian Indian Americans are also less poor than the U.S. population as a whole, of whom 13% live below the poverty line.

Very few Asian Indian Americans live alone. The vast majority live either in family households or with friends, fellow students, etc. Most live in nuclear family units of at least three persons. In 2004 more than two-thirds of Asian American adults were married. Divorce is rare (about 3%).

Many foreign-born Asian Indian American women wear traditional dress, which varies according to the region of India in which the women grew up. Most wear sarees (or saris), made from six yards of silk, cotton, or other lightweight fabric draped around the waist over a long petticoat, with the end gathered together over one shoulder. A close-fitting blouse of matching fabric and color is worn underneath. Styles of draping and decorating the saree vary from region to region in India.

Asian Indian American men have mostly adopted Western-style clothing, only wearing traditional dress on special occasions. Traditional Asian Indian clothing for men consists of a long robe called a sherwani worn over either tight-fitting pants called churidars, or looser, straighter pants. Sometimes a loose shirt called a kurta is worn instead of the robe, and a vest is often added. A dhoti, several yards of fabric draped around the legs to form loose trousers, is sometimes worn instead of other types of pants.

Asian Indian food has become very popular in the United States in recent years. Most medium-sized and large cities have at least one Asian Indian restaurant, where dishes such as dal (lentil soup), tandoori chicken (coated with a yogurt sauce and baked in a special oven called a tandoor), and chapatis (flat bread) are served. The Asian Indian diet, based on rice and other grains, several kinds of beans, and vegetables, with lean meats such as fish and chicken, is very healthy and appeals to vegetarians and meat-eaters alike.

Asian Indian Americans place a high value on education and are generally high achievers. Over 68% of Asian Indian Americans over the age of 25 are college graduates, and 90% have a high school diploma. With their high grade-point averages and competitive scores on standardized tests and college entrance exams, Asian Indian Americans are eligible for acceptance at the best universities in the United States. Some schools, such as California State University at San Francisco, Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, have a significant Asian Indian student population.

Traditional Asian Indian music is divided into two styles: Hindustani, which is popular in the north; and Karnatak, popular in the south. The predominant musical instruments are the sitar in the north and veena in the south, both of which resemble a guitar. Flutes, drums, and other instruments are also prevalent. Ravi Shankar is a well-known Asian Indian sitarist who established the Kinnara School of Music in Los Angeles in 1967. Shankar also collaborated with Asian Indian conductor Zubin Mehta, former director and conductor of both the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestras, to fuse Western and Eastern music and bring Asian Indian music to the attention of the West.

There are many successful Asian Indian American writers of both fiction and nonfiction, including Dhan Gopal Mukerji, one of the first Asian Americans to write books for children; Bharati Mukherjee, who won the National Book Critics Circle Award for her novel, The Middleman and Other Stories (1988); Jhumpa Lahiri, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies (1999); and Ved Mehta, a journalist and staff writer for The New Yorker magazine.

A greater percentage (61%) of Asian Indian Americans are employed in professional and managerial positions than any other Asian American group (45% for all Asian Americans) or Americans in general (34%). Through the extended family or ethnic network, Asian Indian Americans have virtually taken over the running of newsstands in New York City. Many independent motels in the United States are also managed by Asian Indian Americans. A growing number of gas stations are owned by Asian Indian Americans, and Asian Indian Americans are second only to Hasidic Jews in the Diamond District of the jewelry trade.

Although Asian Indian Americans have been largely successful in their new home country, they have been (and continue to be) the victims of racial prejudice. "Glass ceilings" prevent them from attaining the highest executive positions in corporations, despite excellent academic and professional qualifications. Discrimination leads many European Americans and other non-Asian Indians to refuse to see an Asian Indian American doctor. Hate crimes cause injuries, death, and tremendous stress in Asian Indian American communities. In September 1987, for example, Asian Indian American doctor Kaushal Sharan was attacked near his home in Jersey City, New Jersey, by members of a racist gang who beat him unconscious. At that time, many anti-Asian Indian hate crimes were being perpetrated in Jersey City by gangs calling themselves the Dotbusters (referring to the red dot, or bindi, worn by East Indian women on their foreheads) and the Lost Boys.

Traditional Asian Indian culture, like other Asian cultures, views sexuality as a taboo subject, with little or no room for the acknowledgment of homosexual preferences. Asian Indian American gays and lesbians, therefore, find themselves at a loss within their families to be recognized for who they are. Many choose never to reveal their homosexuality to members of their family. Gay and lesbian Asian Indian Americans must also deal with a lack of acceptance among homosexuals because of their Asian ethnicity. Many feel as isolated within the homosexual community as within the Asian American community. Asian Indian American homosexuals must therefore wrestle with family disapproval and ostracism as well as racial isolation in their quest for identity.


Bacon, Jean Leslie. Life Lines: Community, Family, and Assimilation Among Asian Immigrants. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Fenton, John Y. Transplanting Religious Traditions: Asian Indians in America. New York: Praeger, 1968.

McClain, Charles, ed. Asian Indians, Filipinos, Other Asian Communities, and the Law. New York: Garland Publishing, 1994.

Motihar, Kamla. "Who Are the Asian Indian Americans?" In The Asian American Almanac, Susan Gall, ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1995.

Saran, Parmatma. The Asian Indian Experience in the United States. Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman Publishing Co., 1985.

— — —. The New Ethnics: Asian Indians in the United States. New York: Praeger, 1980.

Segal, Uma A. A Framework for Immigration: Asians in the United States. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

— — —. "The American Community—Asians: 2004," U.S. Census Bureau, (10 June 2008).

—by D. K. Daeg de Mott

Asian Indian Americans

views updated May 21 2018


ASIAN INDIAN AMERICANS have a long history in the United States. Some arrived as indentured laborers during the eighteenth century. Others came to Pennsylvania as slaves, adopted or received English names, and probably became indentured after the state passed its gradual emancipation bill in 1780. A few lived and worked in Massachusetts when America began trading with India in the 1790s.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, some Asian Indian merchants imported silk, linen, and other goods, but, like most Asian Americans before World War II, most came as migrant workers and were a part of the worldwide movement of labor and capital in the global marketplace. Steamship companies and employers recruited Asian Indians with stories of wealth in British Columbia. Those migrants, mainly Sikhs from Punjab, eventually crossed into Washington and Oregon, where they labored in lumber mills, and into California, where they were agricultural workers. After the 1965 Immigration Act, Asian Indian Americans numbered 50,000, but after immigration reform, the Asian Indian American population grew to 815,447 in 1990. Early in the twenty-first century, Asian Indian Americans comprised the fourth largest Asian American group, behind Chinese, Filipino, and Japanese Americans. Like other Asian American designations, the term "Asian Indian American" encompasses a range of cultural, linguistic, and sectarian groups.

Political and economic conditions in India and in the Asian Indian global diaspora also influenced the migration of Asian Indians. Rising expectations following India's independence, especially among Indians seeking employment in government and the economy, led to a high demand for education. When India's economy was unable to absorb the educated, many chose emigration. Like Korean and Filipino Americans, the first group that emigrated after 1965 sought employment in the United States. After the 1980s, however, family reunification became their principal purpose for emigrating.

Unlike other groups, Asian Indian Americans have had a fairly even gender balance. Although the earlier population was overwhelmingly male, there has apparently been a greater number of Asian Indian female infants born in the United States. This fact, together with the death of older Asian Indian American men, has resulted in virtual gender parity. In the early 2000s, California had the largest number of Asian Indian Americans, a statistic that held for all Asian American groups, but Asian Indians were not concentrated in the West. One-third of all Asian Indians resided in the Northeast, and one-fourth lived in the South. Like most Asian Americans, Asian Indians have settled in urban centers, in such metropolitan areas as New York-Newark-Jersey City, Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, and Chicago.


Bacon, Jean Leslie. Life Lines: Community, Family, and Assimilation Among Asian Indian Immigrants. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Jensen, Joan M. Passage From India: Asian Indian Immigrants in North America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988.

La Brack, Bruce. The Sikhs of Northern California, 1904–1975. New York: AMS Press, 1988.

Leonard, Karen Isaksen. Making Ethnic Choices: California's Punjabi Mexican Americans. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.

Gary Y.Okihiro/e. m.

See alsoAsian Religions and Sects ; Assimilation ; Trade, Foreign .