BY ANGELA MONTEFINISE
For the past 10 years, Queens College Professor Madhulika Khandelwal has made Queens her laboratory for a study on the Indian population of New York City, observing and interviewing immigrants from Richmond Hill, Flushing, Jackson Heights, and Eastern Queens to get a comprehensive look at the group’s collective experience.
This past month, the New Delhi native released the results of her work – the book Becoming American, Being Indian: An Immigrant Community in New York City – and said, “This book is basically a study on Indian immigration in New York City with a focus on Queens . . . It’s the immigrant story from the perspective of immigrants, as well as a look at what’s happening in Queens.”
She describes the book as a case study that uses research, historical interviews, and extensive field work to piece together a glimpse of the City’s Indian population, which she said is “as diverse as the American population.” She said, “Indians don’t identify themselves solely as ‘Indian.’ They identify with their region of India, with their religion, with their language, and with their cuisine . . . . The Indian population in Queens is very diverse. It’s not just one group. It’s truly a Diaspora.”
Although Khandelwal uses Queens interviews and research to look at the City’s Indian population in a general sense, she does explore the population at a neighborhood level in one chapter. She explained, “So far, the Indian networks have not been geographical. You won’t find all Indians in Flushing, for example. They organize more on the basis of their cultural backgrounds. An Indian group in Floral Park might identify more with an Indian group in Texas than a group in Jackson Heights.”
She explained that in the Eastern Queens neighborhoods of Glen Oaks, Bellerose and Floral Park, the dominant group is Malyalee, while in Richmond Hill, the dominant group is Punjabi. “In India, there are 20 official nationally-recognized languages. These are not dialects, they are separate languages. Then, there are regions, and each region corresponds with a different cuisine,” she said.
“In America, people think that Indians are just one group. When I first came to America 18 years ago, I didn’t know what curry food was,” Khandelwal said, “I had never heard that word. But everyone kept giving it to me, so I said, ‘What is this?’”
Indians struggle with the “vast differences” between American culture and Indian culture, and she said, “For immigrants, that’s probably the number one issue they feel. They feel Americans don’t understand their culture. There is a sense of gap there, but when you think about it, Americans have so many cultures to understand, it’s understandable why there’s a gap.”
In her research, she said she discovered that while many Indians are professionals, many are getting work in non-professional sectors, contradicting the trends of the 1980s, when Indians came to the United States for work as doctors and nurses. She said, “There are an increasing number of Indians acting as store clerks and taxi drivers and things like that . . . There is also an increasing number of younger, progressive Indians who organize taxi drivers or store clerks. We’ll hear more from them in the future.”
In addition, she said that Indians are moving East “in search of better housing,” and “A highly-educated Indian may come to America and not be part of the upper class. It’s a different class system . . . Now, many of those people have adapted to this country and are moving into bigger and nicer houses.”
She said they move into Eastern Queens neighborhoods like Bellerose and Floral Park as soon as they are economically secure, and said, “They live the American dream, too.”
The book looks specifically at culture, religion, careers and class, family and gender, Indian organizations and different Indian generations, or a look at the children of immigrants and the parents of immigrants who join the family after they are settled. Khandelwal said, “It’s interesting to look at elders who have to adapt to American culture . . . . I’m a historian by discipline, and I use oral history in this book to tell the story from the immigrants’ mouths. The goal was to a paint a picture of their struggles and successes, and I’m happy with the result.”
Khandelwal is currently the director of Queens College’s Asian American Center, and a professor in the school’s urban studies department. She returned to the school this year after teaching there from 1987 to 1997, and she said, “They brought me back in a way.”
While doing her research for the book, she lived in Flushing, but she currently lives in Nassau County. Still, she said, “I think of myself as a Queens person . . . I figure I spend most of my days there, so it’s alright.”
The book is available in book stores and on Amazon.com.