"What I hope for you is that you make visible what, without you, might never have been seen." - Red Burns, co-founder of Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at NYU.
Ask any average American about what they think of South Asian immigrants in the US -- the typical responses you will get are nerds, Spelling Bee champions, mathgeeks, scientists, doctors, techies, journalists, filmmakers and the et cetera group. All the monikers used to describe Indian immigrants give an impression of smart and accomplished people. Not even the entertainment industry would deviate from the stereotypes. In my current favorite sitcom, Big Bang Theory endorses the Indian Kunal Nayyar as a science geek.
But, what about the 'et cetera' immigrants and refugees toiling away in restaurants and grocery stores working 60 hours a week? What about the grocery store employee who stacks goods as he cannot face customers because of his lack of English language skills? These hardworking immigrants represent a silent, but significant segment of the South Asian community we rarely read about.
It is this segment of the South Asian immigrant community I reached out to through the Millennial Trains Project. The Millennial Trains Project is a crowd-funded, transcontinental train journey that took 24 millennials across the United States in a mobile innovation lab across seven cities in ten days to advance projects of their own design. As an international student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, this was an opportunity for me to discover how my compatriots are playing their part in shaping tomorrow's America; understanding their challenges and struggles; and bringing out the stories with my project "The Other Half."
In my endeavor, I interviewed more than 20 different immigrants from multiple South Asian ethnicities in San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Denver, Chicago and Pittsburgh. Reaching out to the right people wasn't easy, and getting them to share their struggles was truly a difficult task. Somehow when everything fell into place, their stories knit a narrative full of colors and contrasts; joys and ambitions; suffering and loss. These are the stories of hardships, tribulations and ultimately courage and perseverance.
Of the many people I interviewed, a few of them stand out in my memory. Meet a Sikh restaurant owner. Now 55 years old, he came to the US during the mid-1980s from India, escaping political persecution during heyday of Punjab conflict. He started out as a dishwasher in a restaurant, and within a decade, he owned that very same restaurant in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He recalled how he was advised by a local sheriff to buy a gun to protect him during the post 9/11 phase of racial hatred directed towards all people who resembled the Taliban extremists. Instead, he chose a more peaceful solution; he started wearing turban donning red white and blue colors designed for him by his mother, giving a message that patriotism and peace aren't exclusive to each other.
Further along in my journey, I met an Indian architect, who is gay, in San Francisco Bay area. He came to the U.S. to pursue his Masters in Architecture, and in that pursuit, found he was able to overcome his hesitance about his sexuality. His decade-long struggle to earn the acceptance of his family and friends has run parallel to the America's struggle to accept homosexuality. Now, he aims to help other members of LGBTQ community to deal with coming out, social pressures and health issues. He has also been proactive in the community by initiating a help line for South Asian community members to reach out. His life is a story of accepting difference with grace and dignity.
In the course of my journey, I also met immigrants who made decisions to get their foot in the door by sacrificing their own cultural values in the name of community. This was the case of a Bhutanese man living in Salt Lake City, Utah. Driven out of his own country because of ethnic cleansing, after two decades as a refugee in Nepal 18 years, and he was granted asylum in the US. He supports his parents, a disabled sibling, wife and children on a modest income comes from his job at an Indian grocery store. After years as an outsider, he made the decision to trade Buddhism for Christianity to find a supportive network within his community. Still, with scant English skills he has gained from his six-year-old daughter enrolled in public school and his inability to navigate the health care system, his story is a life-long struggle of overcoming displacement and coping with the present.
After my journey, some common themes emerged; these themes are far removed from the stereotypes associated with the South Asian immigrant community. Not all of South Asian immigrants are math nerds or STEM specialists. Many of their problems are glossed over under the shadow of the model minority. In fact, what I gauged from my interviews was that most of Indian immigrants live under the radar of the more successful compatriots. They struggle to make ends meet and are caught up in the issues of their own identity: religious, sexual and cultural. Their journey to this nation might have been different, but they each strive toward the common goal of finding their own ground here, and their slice of the American Dream.