South Asians who migrated to America adapt in their new homeland.
By Sneha Sadarangani
Quddusmakhan Bird smiles broadly as he spies a young Indian girl approach the counter at Dunkin Donuts. He greets her in fluent Hindi and she responds laughing, amused at hearing the cadences of her native language in the middle of Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station.
Displaying the trademark hospitality of the east, Bird fusses over her order of a single donut and insists on giving her another one for free
“I don’t want you getting as fat as the people in this country, mind you, but one donut isn’t nearly enough,” he smiles. “Here’s a blueberry one on me.”
Bird is just one of the thousands of South Asians who have emigrated and made Philadelphia their home. From Dunkin Donut workers and cab drivers to investment bankers and scientists, they move to a life of a cross-cultural quandary, where lucrative work is pitched against the rich cultural ethos that has created them. It is this tension of opposites that make them so unique in experience and so much a part of the diverse American culture.
Hailing from Dhaka in Bangladesh, Bird would put anyone at ease. He speaks six different languages including Spanish, Urdu, Greek and Bengali and has lived in four different countries. He moved from Bangladesh to Spain when he was 23, followed by a short stint in the United States only to shift to Dubai and then back to the U.S. in 1995. At 51, he’s well traveled and his favorite place in the world is New Zealand.
So why did such a nomad finally settle down in America?
“My wife’s father passed away and there was no one to take care of her mother in Philadelphia,” he explains. “As the only child, my wife had to step up to the responsibility.”
Over the past 13 years, he has worked at Dunkin Donut stores and McDonalds franchises all over Philadelphia. With all this experience in the field, he hopes to own his own fast-food chain someday.
“I’ll call it Pizza Store and it’ll sell American food,” he says simply.
What about bringing his own culture to the heart of this proverbial ‘melting pot’?
Bird smiles and quips, “I don’t know about that- after all, there’s no such thing as Bangladeshi French fries.”
But while his choice of menu might be American, Bird stays true to his Bangladeshi origins and eastern values. He often takes his children back to his homeland for visits and objects even to the suggestion of a cross-cultural relationship.
“My children have to marry within the community. They are aware of this and wouldn’t consider anyone otherwise,” he states confidently.
But his conventional outlook on cross-cultural relationships aside, he definitely appreciates aspects of other cultures as well.
“I’m a Muslim but celebrate Hindu, Jewish and Christian holidays,” he says. “I don’t want to miss out on the fun!”
Bird is rich in knowledge and experience and bears an unmistakable zest for life. So is he satisfied handing out lattes and jelly donuts to late night commuters on the Philadelphia regional rail?
It seems that American culture has churned him into one of its own species- a cog in a machine. Like a true workaholic, Bird claims, “I can work anywhere. At the end of the day, work is work.”
As you walk around Ardmore along Greenfield Avenue, an overwhelming aroma of spices permeates the air. This alluring trail of cumin and turmeric invites you into Khajuraho, a popular Indian restaurant on the Main Line.
The dim lighting, soothing strumming of the Sitar and paintings of Indian temples adorning the walls greet you into rustic India. In the true spirit of Indian hospitality, the owner, Bharat Luthria welcomes you at the door and oversees your service for the evening.
Luthria left New Delhi in 1985 at the age of 29 to build his career. India was still developing at the time and presented bleak career opportunities. Enchanted by the West, he first moved to Canada before finally settling down in the United States in 1994.
His interest as a restaurateur followed him as he moved and Khajuraho is his sixth venture in the business.
Luthria lives in Bryn Mawr with his wife and two children, a 21-year-old son and 19-year-old daughter. Despite having lived almost half his life in foreign lands, Luthria, whose name itself means India, says he feels a 100 percent Indian at heart. Although he has tried to inculcate his traditional Indian beliefs on his children, they relate more to American culture.
“My daughter is more in touch with her South Asian roots than my son,” he says. “She loves Bollywood! She doesn’t speak Hindi very well but watches all the new movies when we go back to India.”
He visits his hometown every year and looks forward to these annual visits.
“It’s hard for me to chose between the two countries. There are positives and negatives to both. India is rich in culture and family values while America is a more civilized world with structure and rules,” he says.
A major point of difference is inherent in the social structure itself. He misses the warmth of India and its people. Despite having his immediate family around, it’s a forlorn life. India is always teeming with people and Luthria feels the pinch of loneliness here.
“I miss the temples and bazaars. They’re busy and social. Here I feel like I don’t see anyone. I just go to work and back to my house.” He says.
Luckily for him, India beckons in the future. Luthria plans to retire in five years and take on a community service project in New Delhi. He looks forward to life India again.
Compared to his current home, India is unique in the sense of its hustle-bustle of the crowded buses, the gossip in the marketplace and the family gatherings for every small occasion. The concrete jungle of strip malls and take-out restaurants that is America is a far cry from it.
“America just isn’t home,” he says.
Before the economic boom and rapid development of South Asia, it was still struggling to establish itself on the world map. America was seen as the land of opportunity, pregnant with the promise of a shining future. It seemed almost unreal with its mall culture, McDonalds and bowling alleys and was an enigma in the eyes of the East. Many came to discover this enigma and be part of this novel environment. The lure of better jobs and lucrative professions drew in immigrants by the thousands. South-Asians were no stranger to this. They came in by the boatful with dreams in their eyes and the world beyond them. Some made it big, rising as powerful business tycoons and prominent figures on Wall Street while others couldn’t make it past their taxis or fast food franchises.
Yet, they still dream. It’s what they came in search for: the all-American dream.
The city of Rajkot in India houses a population of almost 1.5 million and features on the list of the 25 fastest growing cities in the world. In comparison, Ardmore, a suburb of Philadelphia is home to under 13,00 residents and spans a mere 1.9 miles. So what does Subway owner, Bhavin Desai feel about his move from the fast-paced Indian metropolis to the tiny town in Pennsylvania?
He represents the other end of this spectrum- while some can’t wait to go back, others can’t even imagine it.
“I’ve gotten used to life here. I wouldn’t be able to go back and live in India now,” says Desai.
Desai moved to the United States in 2000, fresh out of college at the age of 21. He was accompanied by his parents, two sisters and their husbands all of whom live in the area. His first job as a sales associate at Macy’s lasted until the summer of 2007, following which he bought a franchise of Subway along the Mainline.
As he services customers, whipping up Chicken Teriyaki sandwiches and Veggie Delites, his mother comes out from the back to help him. At 59, Manjula Desai is actively involved in the management of the restaurant and reports to work every day.
She’s no stranger to life in America.
She moved here soon after she got married, lived in New York for nine years and then went back to India for her children’s education.
“I’ve lived here for a long time. In total it’s been almost twenty years. America is as much home as India is,” she says.
But pangs for the homeland pull at her too- despite being well settled, she misses the rich Indian culture and prevalence of religion in everyday life.
“Back home all the women of the house used to visit the temple in the morning, to seek Ram’s blessings before starting the day,” she says. “I miss the feeling of community.”
Despite being born and brought up in India, it’s refreshing to see her non-conventional Indian attitude. She feels the point of living in a different country is to allow for a mix of cultures and would have no qualms with her son marrying an American.
“It doesn’t have to do with background. If both partners are on the same wavelength, the marriage won’t break,” she asserts.
On the point of rebirthing Indian values, she insists that would never impress conservative Indian values on her grandchildren or force them to be more Indian. American culture seems to have honed her thinking to be more accepting and liberal.
South Asian immigrants seem to experience a confusing amalgamation of cultures; they wrestle with and reconcile to a fusion of traditional values and progressive thought. They have adapted to life in this individualistic consumer-based society of America but have the colorful community life and rich traditions of their homelands in their hearts. Each one of these cultures is vastly different from the other and each one satisfies something that human nature desperately craves. They waver between the two before finally finding some middle ground to rest at, a spot nestled between the best that both offer.
From owning a textile business in a major city of India to managing a branch of a fast food chain in a small suburban town in America, life has taken the Desais to all ends of the spectrum. Their South Asian roots are evident but the American way of life has definitely taken over for this Indian family.
While Manjula Desai moved back to India for her children’s schooling, Jai Shojib’s parents looked westward for the same. They moved from Dhaka to the town of Upper Darby when he was 13, leaving their home, family business and way of life to ensure the best possible education for Shojib.
The 8000-mile move was not easy.
At 21, Shojib has already given his parents every reason to feel proud of their decision.
A junior at Penn State College, Shojib worked hard to earn his scholarship and balances three jobs in addition to his schoolwork. He is a partner at the Dollar Plus store, the district manager of twelve gas stations and handles his own import and export business, ordering clothes from India and distributing them amongst American retailers.
“I like feeling independent. I’ve been working since I was fifteen,” he says.
Shojib is saving the money to buy his own gas station and is confident of accomplishing his goal in the next two years.
His current income looks promising.
In addition to receiving 50% of the profits of the Dollar Plus store, his recent promotion from store manager to district manager of the gas stations came with a generous raise. His import and export business has tie-ups with major brands such as Sears and Coles which earn him an average of 6000 dollars a transaction. With three to four transactions a month, this amounts to a fair sum.
It’s safe to say that he earns a tad bit more than the average American college student does babysitting or waiting tables.
“My parents instilled the drive in me, but everything I’ve accomplished has been of my own my merit.” He says.
Shojib is currently studying software engineering and plans to do his masters in business.
So what is he working towards?
“I want to work for the secret service,” he says, out of the blue.
Nothing seems to be out of dream range for this ambitious young man.
America has given him the base of a fine education and ample opportunities to put his business skill and acumen to profitable use. He has accomplished far more than his homeland could have afforded him and has milked all the advantages of living in a first world country. Shojib however, feels neither attachment to this country nor any desire to settle here later.
“In terms of education, America is the best. But for living, I don’t like it,” he says.
It comes as a surprise that he outright dislikes life in America and is already looking forward to moving back to Bangladesh in the next 10-12 years.
“My family’s back home,” he says. Within the next few years, my parents are planning to move back as well. There’ll be nothing left for me here.”
Sometimes, money and the assurance of a profitable career isn’t enough. Home and family clearly come first for his traditional sense of priorities.