Monday, July 26, 2010

Joel Stein, Rajini Movie and a misplaced outrage.

For nearly one month a Time magazine column on Indians in Edison NJ is still on the most emailed stories (today's rank 9). Time ran a cover story on Thomas Alva Edison as part of a series on great Americans that is a special on every July 4th week's issue. Joel Stein, a supposedly satirical columnist, in his infinite wisdom decided to do his take on Edison NJ (My Own Private India )just because the town was indeed named after Edison other than that the column has no topical relevance to the issue.

The first week I landed in USA, 12 years ago, I subscribed to Time magazine. I used to be in awe of Time and New York Times when in India. In recent times I've felt Time is becoming tabloidish, the language is pedestrian, the stories are blatantly liberal, a sort of dumbing down a topic is freely indulged in. In particular Joel Stein is one who never got me hooked like Lance Morrow or Roger Rosenblatt or Charles Krauthammer all masters of the art of essay.

The column invited an internet deluge by offended Indians who saw an outright racial assault, insensitive comments, foolish theory on why India is poor and every other imaginable offense that a column can  incite. I did not find it the least bit offensive, I did not find it worthy of any response. Joel Stein, born and brought up in Edison NJ laments how Indians changed Edison. Now what would I argue with a columnist who laments "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 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...." If that is racism Indians just  managed to define racism in a very light headed manner. If that column had instead a tone like "Oh Edison used to be clean now it is....", "oh crime used to be low not it is ...". What can you tell a guy who thinks that white kids have no place to practice stealing pizzas?
What is racist about "(Edison) 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." In fact if I was a white American I should be more enraged at all this than Indians.

The only part that could be genuinely offensive is "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".

When CBS ran a special program on IIT's and called it more exclusive than Harvard every Indian exulted to glory. When Indian students become spelling bee champions and are invited to Presidential audience, starting with Rediff every Indian talks about how the white kids go for ballet classes and lacrosse while Indian kids slog it out at Kumon (a tuition center). How often have we heard Indian parents boast about how focused on academics they are and without a pause they would worry if their kids would be influenced by the white kids at school who are thought of as slackers. By and large Americans think Asians, especially Indians, are academically accomplished, if not geniuses.

Joel Stein captured the arc of any immigration pattern. In the early days in 70's-80's immigration to USA was mostly restricted to those who came to pursue higher education. Today nearly 40% PhD's are foreign born. The H1B program opened the flood gates and sort of 'democratized'  the immigrant profile. Thousands, like me, came to USA. The H1B profile is technically labeled "highly skilled immigrant labor". The operative word is "skill". Thanks to H1B and outsourcing today native Americans shun computer science in an alarming trend that made Bill Gates go to colleges  to encourage students to opt for Computer Science. I've worked in teams that had ZERO American (white or Black). If such a demographic shift had occurred in India due to immigrant labor there would be blood in the streets. Imagine a bunch of workers talking in alien languages shouting from one cubicle to another, opening up lunch boxes with a distinctive odor, women dressed in garish strangely draped dresses (now its becoming common for women to show up in Churidhars) and now think of the plight of an American.

Joel Stein had a very valid complaint when he lamented that Indians do not assimilate. Its so easy for Indians to remain Indians in USA now thanks to numerous Sangams, streets dominated by Indian shops bringing in an India to the capitals of US states. A Brussels exhibition pointedly asked "they are immigrants when they come, they are immigrants when they live here, when will they become us".

Here comes a rub. Indians are very smug about the supposed superiority of their culture. As much as Indians are irritated by Joel Stein's stereo typing how many use very unfair stereo typing of Americans especially on the morals of the common American. How many Indian movies use "American" as short hand to portray anything negative about Western Culture? 

4 Indians sat down for lunch (my colleagues and me) and the discussion turned towards the column and Edison. None of us had a kind word for Edison. We lampooned the shops, the lack of customer service, dirty roads, honking horns, rudeness etc etc. Just the other day another Tamil friend spoke with horror of an apartment complex in Edison that is practically a cesspool of dirt. 

12 years back when I went to see a HIndi movie in Woodbridge I was stunned by a slide that announced "Please do not spit on the floor, if this practice continues, we will stop screening Indian movies". 

Watch the following links for sheer hooliganism by these supposed techies in Seattle and NJ during the release of Rajini's movie. The Seattle version shows hooligans practically hijacking a mall's parking lot, hooting, hollering, lighting a pumpkin, waving a trash bag. If you were an American witnessing this spectacle how would you react. Madonna, Britney Spears etc appear at Madison Square in NYC I've not seen this hooliganism by the concert goers (remember thats a concert not a movie)

 Sivaji release in seattle

Watch the following that capture the moments INSIDE the theater as the opening scene starts. These are mostly H1B's, techies...

Coming to assimilation. I totally agree with Stein that Indians are proving to be poor in assimilating to US culture and mainstream. I have nothing but contempt for the various Sangams that  tom tom linguistic chauvinism and indulge in mediocre entertainment masquerading as propagating Indian cultural values. I've absolute disgust for this "cultural values" shenanigans. USA is what it is today thanks to a set of unique cultural values that has not only made it prosperous but has enabled people like me to come on board, share and contribute to its prosperity, treat me and my family with utmost dignity far better what my birthplace did for me. This is culture. NRI's have no business to talk about how good Indian culture is. If they think so please take the many flights back home and let America be America.

In fact I'd say that Joel Stein was very charitable in skewering Indians. Time printed a "regret" note and Indians immediately exulted "Time Apologizes to Indians". NO such thing. Stein also printed a very back handed apology.

In the same week as Time's column an international report said that 8 states of India (including WB, MP, UP, Bihar etc) have more people who are in abject poverty than 26 African countries COMBINED. The surprising inclusion is WB, that citadel of marxism. The reaction from India and Indians was a stoic embarrassed silence. Indians hated "Slumdog Millionaire" but nobody has a reaction to this. [See my earlier blog ]