Though Indian Americans are the third largest Asian group in the United States, they comprise of only 1% of the United States population. As (statistically) one of the wealthiest ethnic communities in the country, I wanted to profile an Indian American to learn how I, too, might become rich. (Yes, I'm kidding.) As I challenged myself to name all the Indian Americans that I could think of (Aziz Ansari, Deepak Chopra, Sanjay Gupta, Kal Penn, Mindy Kaling, Padma Lakshmi…) I realized two simple truths: Not only are Indian Americans empirically and culturally awesome, but if I come back in another life, I think I’m going to start praying to God, Buddha and Krishna that they bring me back as someone as stunning as Freida Pinto.
If one must bear a stereotype, then being assumed to be smart, funny and the best speller in any given room seems like the jackpot of stereotypes to endure. Yes, I know there are worse stereotypes that many in this population have to tolerate, but for today, all I can think of are rainbows and finely woven silk saris lined with gold.
Speaking of gold, let me introduce you to Arjun Pandya…
Most people come and go out of your life without leaving a significant imprint. Others, even those whose presence in your life was fleeting, always linger in the fondest places of your heart. These are the people who you would run and hug in the middle of the street, even if it was a blizzard outside and oncoming traffic was headed your way.
The day I moved into my dorm at Temple University was also the day I decided that I was going to transfer to Spelman College the following year. Full of angst, I was relieved to see a familiar face on the same floor in my coed hall. I didn’t know Arjun very well in high school, but during the sole year that I studied at Temple he became a member of my at-school family. We looked out for each other in the ways that was necessary (back then) while going to school in North Philly. We ate together, hung out together and even allied against other people together.
He was the only straight guy who was surrounded by a squad of chicks. But in true gentlemen form, Arjun never made a move on any of us. He was like our Indian brother, and for a moment of time, we were his Black sisters.
One day, during a family visit, his father told me something that would impact me for years to come. He explained that in India, knowledge is so important that he didn’t believe that one should ever give away a book. Like ever. No matter what. As poor as I was my freshman year and many years thereafter in college, that piece of advice stayed with me and I never resold any of my college books. Cause when an Indian elder drops knowledge on you, it is your human duty to listen and to take heed.
I eventually transferred to Spelman College and would go on to accrue a massive collection of political science, Black history and economics books. Many years passed before me and Arjun’s paths would cross again. As fate would have it, his sister sat on a committee that partially funded my graduate school education. A simple invention named “Facebook” would allow us to virtually reconnect and allow me to marvel at his beautiful niece and family.
As this series continues on, I am happy that life allowed me to connect once more with my old friend. Here are a few highlights from my Q&A with him about race:
Meet Arjun Pandya
Kay: Race in America is often discussed in terms of Black or White? Do Indian-Americans feel that they have to pick a side or do you feel like your community works within itself to solve its own problems?
Arjun: In my experience Indian-Americans tend to solve their own problems. That isn’t to say we aren't aware of the broader issues affecting American society but we have historically been an insular people.
Kay: Do you look at state of American society with hope or anxiety?
Arjun: I would love to wake up with a sense of hope every day but with rising debt, a broken public education system, the disappearance of the middle class, police brutality, and blatant racism it’s difficult. I hope my niece’s generation gets a fair shake but I'm doubtful.
Kay: Have you ever gotten racially profiled? If so, what happened?
Arjun: I can’t recall a time I’ve been racially profiled but in 1996 on a family road trip to North Carolina we stopped in Tennessee for breakfast and were not acknowledged for 30 minutes. The entire restaurant turned and looked at us when we walked in. I felt like I was in a fish bowl. This is the first time I’d experienced blatant racism in America.
About Bobby Jindal...
Kay: You walk into a bar and you see Bobby Jindal and Bobby Brown. Who do you buy a drink?
Arjun: Without question, Bobby Brown. He taught me the word prerogative.
Kay: If you have something else to say about race in America, go for it….
Arjun: It’s an interesting, exciting and confusing time to be an Indian-American. How does one balance pride in seeing Indian-Americans at the forefront of politics even if your political thoughts don’t align?
Do Bobby Jindal, Nikki Haley, and Dinesh D’Souza have a valid point? Is wearing your Indian pride on your sleeve doing a disservice to your parents’ struggles? My father toiled day in and day out to provide Bela and I the American dream. Does waving an Indian flag one day and an American flag the next diminish that?
As more Indians like Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, Asif Mandvi, Russell Peters etc. become American pop culture darlings will our “Indianness" fade away?
As an Indian-American these are some of the questions that are often on my mind. Interested, excited, confused and a wee bit nervous all in one.
Kay S. is a freelance writer and blogger in Chicago, Illinois. Her debut novel, Lotus, will be released in September 2015. If you are interested in participating in this series, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow her on Twitter @kaywillsmith.
“We Hold These Truths,” will run weekly on Tuesdays. To read previous posts in the series, check here.