Indian-Americans Watch as Bush Visits Their Native Land

BOSTON, March 1, 2006 — -- As President Bush embarks on his first official trip to India, all eyes are on the world's largest democracy on the other side of the globe. Many of those curious eyes belong to Americans who happen to be of Indian descent.

"I think the Bush trip is absolutely wonderful," said Indian-American Nishith Acharya. "I think it is important that every president visit India. I hope this trip moves forward a common U.S.-India agenda."

"President Bush's visit is very good thing," said Sushan Arora, 31. "It's coming late in the presidency and is indicative of how things are right now. India is on the radar map, but perhaps lower on the radar map."

Texas Cowboy in India

Some Indian-Americans see Bush's trip to the subcontinent not only as a chance to advance often volatile U.S.-India relations, but as an opportunity to see how the president reacts to the intricacies of a deeply defined Eastern culture.

"I am curious to see how a famously Texan president like President Bush engages with the polyglot culture of India -- especially its food, music and religion," said U.S.-born Indian-American Prabal Chakrabarti.  "Does President Bush know about and like Bollywood [films]? Will he learn more than outmoded stereotypes? Will he have a good time?"

Indian-American Profile

There are more than 2.2 million Asian Indians living in the United States. It is the fastest-growing Asian group, with current populations falling only behind Chinese- and Filipino-American populations.

The median household income for Indian-American families rings in at almost $69,000 per year -- about $20,000 more than the average American household income, according to the 2004 American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau. This statistic gives them the title of the wealthiest American minority.

"As a class and race, [Indian-Americans] have become very successful. As an immigrant group, they are very ambitious," said Shayama Venkateswar, director of the Asian Social Issues Program at the Asia Society, an organization dedicated to educating Americans about Asia and its people. "The mainstream of the South Asian immigrant in this country are often professionals on Wall Street, lawyers, professors, doctors."

It doesn't end there.

"Politically, we are getting involved, too," said Nilesh Mehta, president of the Indian-American Forum for Political Information, who points out that at least six states have Indian-Americans in elected state-level positions.

While the population and income of Indian-Americans may be growing, the immigrant community faces obstacles as its establishes its place in American society and culture. More than 23 percent of Indian-Americans speak English less than "very well," according to recent U.S. Census data.

Project Impact, a nonpartisan group that tracks the progress of South Asians in America, also notes that Americans of Indian origin are "invisible" in discussions of race relations because they do not fit into the traditional Black/Latino dialogue.

Civil Rights-Era Law Opened Doors for Indians

Much like the story of U.S. businessmen capitalizing on economic opportunities in India, the story of Indians settling in America is still relatively young, too.

When President Johnson signed into law the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, many believe he may have permanently changed the face of America, paving the way for Asian immigrants, as well as other immigrants, to enter the United States.

The new law enabled tens of thousands of Asians to immigrate to the United States on a first-come, first-served basis. Many of the Indians who came West were doctors, scientists and academics, according to Project Impact's research.

"The kinds of South Asians that were coming here were elite in their own countries. They were by no means a class that was deprived in India," Venkateswar said.

Living the American Dream

Mehta, like many in his generation, came to the United States from India hoping to take advantage of the vast economic opportunity. More than 28 years later, he operates his own medical device company in New Jersey and employs more than 80 workers in India.

"I came here with $6 in my pocket," he said. "The economic opportunities were better here than in India."

Mehta settled in the Midwest when he was 24 and got his master's of business administration from Indiana University. Now, he and his Indian-American wife have two college-educated children.

"I think our children have better opportunities. They have mixed very well into the culture and community," Mehta said.

As a businessman who has outsourced his manufacturing to India, Mehta calls Bush's visit to his native land "momentous" and suggests that it "signifies the importance of India in the world."

After the Terror Attacks

While there were a number of reports of racially motivated crimes against South Asians in the weeks following the Sept. 11 attacks, many Indian-Americans -- who are overwhelmingly of the Hindu faith -- remain optimistic about their status in society.

Arora, a tax consultant with a law degree, was born in India but grew up in Georgia. Even though he became a U.S. citizen in 1995, he said that he felt the need to carry his passport with him for over a year after the World Trade Center attacks for fear of being "singled out" because of his "ambiguous Middle Eastern look."

Still, he said he did not think his community had to deal with much of the fallout from the attacks.

"I think the United States had done a fairly good job of educating officers about profiling," Arora said. "I know it happens and occurs, but things could have been a lot worse for our community." 

The Asia Society's Venkateswar believes that South Asians' professional successes may have buffered them from the effects of "daily racism."

More than 60 percent of Asian Indians have careers in management or professional jobs, according to 2004 U.S. Census numbers, compared with 34 percent of the total U.S. population.

"These successes have made them immune to some of the daily racism that some African-Americans face," Venkateswar said. "The working class [of Indian-Americans] was affected most [after Sept. 11] -- the cab drivers, restaurant workers."

Other Side of the Globe

Meanwhile, with news of demonstrators in India chanting "death to America" already hitting the airwaves, Indians in the United States intently watch from afar.

"Most South Asians in the U.S. have capitalized on the American dream," Arora said. "America is the type of place where, if you put in the hard work, obtain the education that is available to you, more often than not, the rewards are there."