Srinivas Kuchibhotla, shot to death last month in a Kansas bar, shared a dream with many other Indians I know. His widow described it on Facebook a few days after his killing:
“We built our dream home, which he painted, and installed the garage door,” wrote Sunayana Dumala. “Doing any kind of work on his home gave him immense joy. This was the home that he had built … for us and any kids we would have. (It was) our first step to starting our family.
“It’s so unfortunate that this dream of ours is now shattered.”
My heart broke when I read her words.
That was the American dream she was talking about. The ideal that everyone in this country has an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity. Many Indians hail from humble beginnings in their homeland and live by one decree: Work hard because in America, you can be what you want to be.
My own family shared the dream and when I graduated from college, my father told me to think big. He knew what I had not fully realized yet; that as an Indian woman, the doors to achievement were wider in this country than in my homeland — and perhaps anywhere else.
But now, under attack because of their identity, Indians see the dream fading.
Kuchibhotla was a young engineer from Hyderabad and came to the United States for a good job. He was having a beer with a friend near his home in Olathe when the shooter approached him, told him to “Get out of my country” and gunned him down.
A few days later, another Indian man, Deep Rai, was shot outside his home in Kent, Washington. His attacker yelled: “Go back to your country.” Rai is expected to recover.
The FBI is investigating both incidents as hate crimes.
The South Asian or “desi” diaspora reacted with obvious horror. What’s been called a “wave of anti-Indian sentiment” has dominated the news in India and added to fear that was already simmering after the 2016 election and rhetoric against immigrants.
“I can tell you a majority of Indian parents … want their children back in India,” said Mithra Amaran, who also lives in Olathe.
Amaran has spent 35 years in the United States. She told me she fears for the lives of her sons, both born and raised in this country. Her younger son works in Mexico, and Amaran feels he is safer in Guadalajara than in Kansas.
“They are young brown people and I worry about them constantly,” she said.
When I went home to Kolkata last December, I heard friends and family talk about how happy they were to have returned home. Or relieved that a son or daughter had chosen a college in Europe or the Middle East, instead of America.
Author Sandip Roy, also a native Kolkatan, wrote recently in The New York Times that Indians no longer hold the aspiration of finding success in America. One reason is that India has experienced tremendous economic growth and opened up to the world. But another is a diminished image of the United States.
Roy mentioned a friend’s cousin’s wedding that was called off because the bride did not want to move with the groom to America. A while ago, I might have read that with utter incredulity. In my youth, a man settled in America was a prized catch. Very little else mattered for my girlfriends. Life would be set if they could find a husband like that.
I hadn’t before heard Indians voice these distressing concerns. Dumala, in the same Facebook post, said it this way:
“Do we belong?” she asked. “Is this the same country we dreamed of and is it still secure to raise our families and children here?”
A vanishing dream?
Dumala’s words gave me pause for thought. I hope her question serves as a much-needed wake-up call for a community that has not always been totally honest in looking inward.
For too long, Indian-Americans have subscribed to the notion of the “model minority” immune from racism. As successful entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, professors and techies, they live in comfortable middle-class white neighborhoods and focus on getting their kids into Harvard and Yale.
Even though the government used to categorize us as “other,” not all Indians saw themselves as such. This, despite the long history of racism and xenophobia in this country that sometimes targeted Indians.
“It’s a huge problem,” said journalist and educator Rajul Punjabi, 32. “It’s something that’s not talked about at all. Now for the first time Indians are thinking about race and what black people went through in this country.”
Socioeconomic status, Punjabi told me, can brainwash someone to thinking their skin color does not matter.
Another journalist, Jennifer Chowdhury, 33, told me she has wondered her whole life why Indians identify with white people. Chowdhury was born to undocumented Bangladeshi parents who worked as waiters and housekeepers in New York and were not part of the “model minority” world.
If South Asians spoke to each other across class lines, she believes, “none of this would be such a shock.”
Marketing professor and blogger Gaurav Sabnis, 36, added that Indians may be guilty themselves of a bit of xenophobia.
“We don’t like it when we are confused with Arabs or people from Muslim countries,” he told me. “We do consider ourselves quasi white.”
This is certainly not the first wave of anti-Indian sentiment in America.
Indians began arriving on these shores, primarily in California, in the 19th century, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Back then Indians were second-class citizens in their own British-occupied country. Most who set sail for America were uneducated and unskilled and found jobs working crops and farms.
Vaishno Das Bagai was one of them, though he was different from his counterparts. He arrived in San Francisco in 1915 with his wife and three young sons, one of the first Indians to emigrate with his family. He came because he said he wanted to be free of slavery.
He ran a general store, dressed dapperly in American suits and was naturalized in 1921. But in 1923, the Supreme Court ruled Indians were not white and therefore ineligible for citizenship under the law. Bagai had already renounced his British citizenship; reapplying would mean certain arrest because of his activism for independence.
Bagai became a persona non grata and was subjected to alien laws that, among other things, barred him from owning property. He was forced to sell both his business and his home. The final insult came when, without a passport, he could not visit India. Disappointed and humiliated at age 37, Bagai gassed himself to death in a San Jose hotel room.
By then, the Immigration Acts of 1917 and 1924 had effectively banned Asians from entering the United States and virtually ended Indian migration.
It wasn’t until President Harry Truman signed the Luce-Celler bill as part of the Immigration Act of 1946 that Indians could again gain citizenship, own property and vote. The act also established a quota: 100 Indians would be allowed into America every year.
Two decades later, the 1965 Immigration Act opened the way for Indians, including my parents, to settle in America. The act removed country-specific criteria on immigration and put all prospective newcomers on equal footing for access to the United States.
In 1960, only 12,000 Indian immigrants lived in this country, representing less than 0.5% of the 9.7 million foreign-born population at the time. Today, more than 2.4 million Indian immigrants make up almost 6% of the population. And that’s not counting people who arrive with temporary work visas; it’s estimated that 70% of the 85,000 H1B visas handed out annually to highly skilled workers go to Indians.
Where ‘we all count equally’
The shootings in Kansas and Washington are dark clouds looming over the dream at the moment. Kuchibhotla’s life was ended by a man who allegedly did not want him here. His widow said that as difficult as it would be for her, she would return to Kansas after the funeral to fulfill her husband’s dream. I hope her actions will help other Indians to be less fearful.
This week, I thought a lot about the Indians who were pioneering immigrants. Vaishno Das Bagai ended his life because he felt he failed at realizing his American dream. He didn’t live to see a place where Indians had finally achieved a status other than “other.”
I thought, too, about what we can do to protect the American dream.
I sought an answer from Bagai’s granddaughter.
Rani Cardona is 61 and identifies as a half-Indian girl (her father married a white woman) who was raised in a Jewish neighborhood in Los Angeles and who married a fourth-generation Latino from Watts but lived in Koreatown.
“America stood for something once. And we should still stand for it,” she told me.
“This is the one damn place in the world where we take a stand and say: We all count equally.”
She laughed at the idea of the Supreme Court deciding only white people could be citizens, thinking how much America has progressed since the days when black people had no rights and brown people had few.
“I thought how far we’ve come from being afraid of ‘Hindoos’ and putting Japanese in internment camps,” Cardona said.
“Our different backgrounds and points of view are indeed our assets. Those who seek a life of exclusion, fear differences, or insist on seeing life through a conventional lens of frozen tradition are missing out.”
Her words resonated. To me, she personifies the immigrant dream. I felt sure her grandfather would be proud.