Currying Favor with Indian Americans

Oct 28, 2004

By David Morse

A businessman of the Kurmi caste is denied credit by wholesalers of the Gujarti caste. A physician bemoans his daughter’s marriage to a man of the right caste – but the wrong subcaste. A college professor faces stiff resistance from his colleagues for naming a renowned untouchable, a framer of the Indian Constitution, to a University chair in political economics.

These are not plots from the latest Indian Bollywood movies. They are excerpts from an article by Joseph Berger that appeared in the New York Times this week about the Indian caste system.

The article raised a lot of American eyebrows, but not because the caste system survives in India, despite having been abolished by the Indian constitution in 1950. What perplexed most was that all three of the above examples took place in the United States.

The irony, to quote Mr. Berger, is that “the peculiarly Indian system of stratifying its people into hierarchical castes – with Brahmins at the top and untouchables at the bottom – has managed to stow away on the journey to the United States, a country that prides itself on its standard of egalitarianism.”

Ironic, perhaps, but the 1.7 million Indians in the United States are hardly a group to be ignored. In the years between 1990 and 2000, they represented the fastest growing Asian segment in census history, more than doubling their numbers to become the third largest Asian group, behind Chinese (2.3 million) and Filipinos (1.9 million).

The largest driver of this increase was the high-tech boom of the last decade, which lured many high income professionals from India to California’s Silicon Valley and other technology centers like New York City and Washington D.C. The result is that Indians, particularly Indian immigrants, are one of the most affluent and best educated ethnic subgroups in the United States.

Indian Americans’ median household income of $60k is well above the national number of $43k. More than 87% of Indians in America have completed high school, and 62% have some college education. Over three-quarters are employed in managerial, technical, sales or professional positions. They make up 30% of hotel and motel owners in the United States, and 5% of physicians.

Similarly to “Asians” as a group, the term “Indian” refers to a heterogeneous mix of language, religions and regional groups, and as mentioned earlier, castes. For example, the Indian Constitution recognizes 18 official Indian languages, though each has its own dialects and variations. And the 18 are just the tip of the iceberg. The Indian census records over 200 languages or “mother tongues” as they are called.

Perhaps most confounding to retailers is the remarkable diversity of Indian cuisine, much of which is vegetarian. India has over 220 million vegetarians, and many immigrants to the United States come from states like Gujarat and Maharashtra that have a high vegetarian concentration. It’s tricky. To quote an Indian food writer, “Where Americans see ‘vegetable curries,’ Indian cooks distinguish among dry and sauced, Southern-style (flavored with mustard seeds and curry leaves) and Northern-style (cooked in tomatoes and onions), chili-hot and creamy-cool dishes.

Moderator’s Comments: Is serving the varied needs of such a diverse group best left to retailers that specialize
in the Indian market, or is there room for general market merchants as well?

Interestingly, there is evidence to suggest that among the more recent groups of immigrants, Indians may be one of the fastest groups to assimilate. Relative
to other immigrants, they tend to be geographically dispersed, a big factor in assimilation, and over half own their own home.

Perhaps the biggest indicator of rapid assimilation is the immense rift between newer immigrants and their American-born counterparts. A perusal of the
Indian American press consistently yields an abundance of articles and editorials probing the problems between the FOB’s (from “fresh off the boat”) and the ABCD’s (taken from
a movie, it stands for “American Born Confused Desi’s”. “Desi” means countrymen).

David Morse – Moderator

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