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Monday March 12, 2001

Indians Weave Traditions Into New Lives Here
By Cass Cliatt Daily, Herald Staff Writer

As a young girl in India, Neeta Mundhra dreamed of someday leaving home, going to college and getting a job.

She didn't see herself in the traditional role of a married Indian woman, draped in the simple elegance of a sari and staying home to manage a household.

Then, when she was 21, an arranged marriage steeped in Indian tradition ended up giving Mundhra the untraditional Indian life she wanted -- but in Chicago's Northern suburbs.

There, she joined an estimated 90,000 to 100,000 Indians who call the six-county Chicago metropolitan area home, according to Chicago's Indo American Center, a nonprofit community services agency.

Recent 2000 Census figures highlight the growth of Hispanic populations in the Chicago area. But Indians are the second-largest group of immigrants who are not U.S. citizens.

Researchers studying South Asian immigration say Mundhra is part of a new wave of Indian movement into the United States, where Chicago is one of the top three areas to settle.

"It's accurate to say the numbers have grown by leaps and bounds," said Sreenath Sreenivasan, co-founder of the South Asian Journalist Association and a professor at New York's Columbia University.

"Among the reasons for the growth (since a slower influx in the 1960s) is the explosion in information technology, and then the demand for doctors has grown in the past several years," Sreenivasan said.

Many of the Indians who immigrate to the United States work in medical and information technology fields.

"There are so many stories about South Asians and they are never told. People are always talking about Hispanics and blacks. … Indians are also looking for the American dream," Sreenivasan said.

Indian immigrants tend to be among the most educated of foreign populations, receiving less attention during discussions of federal funding for social services, researchers said.

Besides California and the New York-New Jersey area, Chicago is among the Indian immigrant hot spots because of the proliferation of high-tech companies.

Many Indians settle in the Chicago suburbs to join communities established by previous immigrants who found homes near their technology jobs in the 1970s.

Now, members of the younger generation, like Mundhra, have branched out in their interests, weaving themselves into the fabric of daily life throughout the Northwest suburbs.

"Right now I am working and I am taking evening classes (at Oakton Community College) in Des Plaines and I'm doing it by myself," said Mundhra, now 25, at her home in Morton Grove.

Dressed like the average 20-something American woman lounging in denim overalls, Mundhra said she enjoys working at her family's gemstone and diamond business in downtown Chicago.

"If I were in India, it would not be like this," she said. "In our society, like 20 percent of women work. And if you get married, you stay home."

The stories that brought Indians here might not be as well known as tales about other immigrants. But the number of immigrants moving into the Chicago area from India is second only to new arrivals from Mexico.

A report on suburban immigrants indicates that 34,943 Indians became new neighbors to Chicagoland residents in the past 10 years, compared with 95,370 people from Mexico.

The report, titled "Suburban Immigrant Communities" and released last year by the Fund for Immigrants and Refugees, tracked growth by counting people born outside the United States who recently moved here and have yet to become citizens.

The report showed that the area's other top immigrant groups are from Poland, the Philippines and Korea.

Neeta's new life in the United States is a long way from the small Indian town called Farrkuhabad where she grew up. She met her husband, Rakesh, through relatives when he decided to return to India to find a wife in 1997.

"I asked him, ‘Why do you want to marry me?' because there are a lot of girls here (in the Chicago area) from India," Mundhra said. "He said he wanted a girl from India. … I wasn't afraid to come here because the main thing was I liked my husband."

Rakesh Mundhra, 29, has lived in the United States since he was 7 years old, when his father came to work here as an engineer.

The family has long been a part of the Indian community in the Northwest suburbs, but Rakesh Mundhra wanted a wife raised with traditional Indian values, including a willingness to live with his family.

Neeta Mundhra had the option of denying Rakesh's marriage request, but the couple met twice and liked each other. They shared many of the same values and decided to marry.

"I thought I was going to say, ‘No,' but when I saw him, everything was different," Neeta Mundhra said, laughing. "He was very handsome, and I liked his family."

Neeta Mundhra explained that young, single people in the United States have different ideas about life and marriage than those in India.

For many Indians, the constant support and cooperation of family members is important, while most Americans move away from home in their 20s.

Mundhra carried her beliefs with her to the United States and marveled that American youth have multiple long-term relationships before getting married.

"I just believe in one," she said. "I love American people, but the traditions we have, we cooperate with each other and complement each other, and I like that."

Still, the arranged marriage that brought Neeta Mundhra to the United States became a wedding of two cultures.

Local Indians said it is different living in a country where even people who aren't rich can have such luxuries as cars and cellular phones and heat in their homes.

"The Indians who come here have the education and might be more affluent than other immigrants, but they still have more opportunities to have things here," said Sumit Roy, a master's degree candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago, studying his native South Asian culture.

Roy's family immigrated to the Chicago area in 1981, and he now works in the technology industry.

"A lot of people come here as professionals and open a business, and it's much cheaper to open a business in the suburbs," he said. "But it doesn't mean they totally give up their culture to come here."

From the Shamiana grocery store in Schaumburg and the similar KC Mart in Bloomingdale, to the India House banquet hall -- also in Schaumburg -- and the appearance of boutiques selling traditional garments throughout the suburbs, Indian culture has made its mark here.

There are Hindu temples in areas such as Bartlett, Lemont, Itasca and Aurora that display an Indian presence.

In the Mundhras' home, a traditional crimson cloth on the marble coffee table shapes the Indian flowers that welcome guests.

A drapery of the same fabric hangs from the hall ceiling, embroidered with metallic thread to form leaves making a "bender ber" -- a sign of God and an Indian symbol of good luck.

Another symbol of luck marks the entryway with white paint, but otherwise, common leather sofas and other furnishings surround Mundhra in her living room as she talks about adjusting to life here.

Mundhra enjoys being able to use public restrooms without paying, and also not paying for water in restaurants, she said.

It is faster shopping for clothes in India, but cheaper and easier shopping for groceries here.

"In India, you go (clothes) shopping and they treat you like you're everything," Mundhra said. "They will bring you tea and sit you down and bring everything to show you."

But you have to haggle over prices in bazaar fashion for groceries in India.

"Here you have it all on paper," she said. "This is on sale and that is not on sale, and it's all easier."

She almost bubbles with excitement when talking about the first time she saw a fully automated car wash.

This is the life she never would have had in India, Mundhra said. She is going to school to get her high school equivalency diploma and then hopes to go to college.

"When I was in India, this was my dream," she said. "So my dream came true."

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