Did you look into the mirror today?

The mirror does not reflect your character. I have, therefore, made writing my mirror.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

"My Own Private "I"nd"i"a"

Firstly, I am not a schmaltzy and I am not the best representative of being an Indian speaking from very Indian sentiments either, considering the fact that like many Indians, I have adopted English as my language of communication, for casual and business reasons, my attire is mostly western, and I live in the United States. However, I have my citizenship from India and have spent most of my time in that country and sufficient time in the U.S. to be commenting on this article by Joel Stein, the humor journalist from Time Magazine. The article is called, "My Own Private India" and for those who were too busy and did not get the time to catch up on this, here it goes:

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 Alva 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., as familiar to people in India as how to instruct stupid Americans to reboot their Internet routers.

My town is totally unfamiliar to me. The Pizza Hut where my busboy friends stole pies for our drunken parties is now an Indian sweets shop with a completely inappropriate roof. The A&P I shoplifted from is now an Indian grocery. The multiplex where we snuck into R-rated movies now shows only Bollywood films and serves samosas. The Italian restaurant that my friends stole cash from as waiters is now Moghul, one of the most famous Indian restaurants in the country. There is an entire generation of white children in Edison who have nowhere to learn crime. (See pictures of Thomas Edison's Menlo Park.)

I never knew how a bunch of people half a world away chose a random town in New Jersey to populate. Were they from some Indian state that got made fun of by all the other Indian states and didn't want to give up that feeling? Are the malls in India that bad? Did we accidentally keep numbering our parkway exits all the way to Mumbai?

I called James W. Hughes, policy-school dean at Rutgers University, who explained that Lyndon Johnson's 1965 immigration law raised immigration caps for non-European countries. LBJ apparently had some weird relationship with Asians in which he liked both inviting them over and going over to Asia to kill them.

After the law passed, when I was a kid, a few engineers and doctors from Gujarat moved to Edison because of its proximity to AT&T, good schools and reasonably priced, if slightly deteriorating, post–WW II housing. For a while, we assumed all Indians were geniuses. Then, in the 1980s, the doctors and engineers brought over their merchant cousins, and we were no longer so sure about the genius thing. In the 1990s, the not-as-brilliant merchants brought their even-less-bright cousins, and we started to understand why India is so damn poor.

Eventually, there were enough Indians in Edison to change the culture. At which point my townsfolk started calling the new Edisonians "dot heads." One kid I knew in high school drove down an Indian-dense street yelling for its residents to "go home to India." 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. (See TIME's special report "The Making of America: Thomas Edison.")

Unlike some of my friends in the 1980s, I liked a lot of things about the way my town changed: far better restaurants, friends dorky enough to play Dungeons & Dragons with me, restaurant owners who didn't card us because all white people look old. But sometime after I left, the town became a maze of charmless Indian strip malls and housing developments. 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.

To figure out why it bothered me so much, I talked to a friend of mine from high school, Jun Choi, who just finished a term as mayor of Edison. Choi said that part of what I don't like about the new Edison is the reduction of wealth, which probably would have been worse without the arrival of so many Indians, many of whom, fittingly for a town called Edison, are inventors and engineers. And no place is immune to change. In the 11 years I lived in Manhattan's Chelsea district, that area transformed from a place with gangs and hookers to a place with gays and transvestite hookers to a place with artists and no hookers to a place with rich families and, I'm guessing, mistresses who live a lot like hookers. As Choi pointed out, I was a participant in at least one of those changes. We left it at that.

Unlike previous waves of immigrants, who couldn't fly home or Skype with relatives, Edison's first Indian generation didn't quickly assimilate (and give their kids Western names). But if you look at the current Facebook photos of students at my old high school, J.P. Stevens, which would be very creepy of you, you'll see that, while the population seems at least half Indian, a lot of them look like the Italian Guidos I grew up with in the 1980s: gold chains, gelled hair, unbuttoned shirts. In fact, they are called Guindians. Their assimilation is so wonderfully American that if the Statue of Liberty could shed a tear, she would. Because of the amount of cologne they wear.

Ok, so for the simplest dissection: the journalist is writing a humor article; however, I don't see any humor or satire for that part in most lines except, "The Italian restaurant that my friends stole cash from as waiters is now Moghul, one of the most famous Indian restaurants in the country. There is an entire generation of white children in Edison who have nowhere to learn crime." And that, I must say is humor in very bad taste as in 2009, Edison was ranked as one of "America's 10 Best Places to Grow Up" by U.S. News and World Report. The rankings focused on low crime, strong schools, green spaces, and abundance of recreational activities.

Moreover, the author makes a ludicrous point that is not humorous, yet I find it funny: I never knew how a bunch of people half a world away chose a random town in New Jersey to populate.
I think Mr. Stein has forgotten the geography of his own town - Edison headquarters a lot of industries and companies that have hired Indian professionals who have chosen to settle there because of its close proximity to their work. And I think, he is also ignorant of how places like Little Brazil, Little Italy, etc. came into existence in New York.

Finally, the adage, "go home" is something so common to the ears of immigrants from "Americans" in the United States, but if this was supposed to be practised literally, then America will simply have no people, no economy, no industry, no marvels, no technology, nothing.

I have pondered on each sentence in this article enough so I will not make more comments on the lines - although I am well aware that those who have just read this article (especailly Indians) will have more strong statements to make :)

Instead, what I want to do now is answer one of my very dear Indian friend's question on the comments posted on this article, "Why do we Indians get so emotional when an outsider makes comments like these? Why don't we ever consider Russell Peters' humor in bad taste?"

Actually, it is a very good observation. We don't seem to mind what "insiders" have to say about India. I, however, see a reason why. Comedy has mostly been an art which has been depicted, illustrated, or enacted. Russell Peters is a comedian who makes some well-known cultural observations in a humorous way. In a written form of humor, the tone of reading is to an extent dependent on the modulation of the reader. And especially, unexpected, condescending "humor" is always not welcome. When comments are made on the culture of a country, on how narrow-mindedly it is bothering someone that their own hometown does not have the same demographics as they have been acquainted to having when growing up, is reflective of mere ignorance and a thought process that is unaccepting of an unavoidable metamorphic phenomenon called globalization. And the use of z's and cancellation of u's in my American English is reflective of the fact that I have "adopted" and to an extent, "assimilated." However, I am not hurt by what Mr. Stein has said as he is way behind in that chain of existence. Also, I am proud of my own private India - no matter, how imperfect it may be (as all nations are) for all the things Mr. Stein mentions he is sad about. I am proud of the education I have received and the incessant insistence on modernization yet staying true to your roots - a sentiment aptly portrayed in India's major two-wheeler automobile manufacturer Bajaj's campagin.

And, as far as being more prepared is concerned, Mr. Stein must also have a good look at Al Kamen's column in The Washington Post dated November 16, 1992 before his next article to avoid an influx of comments that keep his attempts at humor unamused.

1 comment:

  1. well said... I had also felt that Stein's article was in bad taste.. very well put... :)He comments on a culture that he has no understanding of, and the kind of stuff that he dishes out, one has no choice but to take offense..