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September 8, 2000

A foot in both places
Indian-Americans say their deep devotion to India does not come at the expense of their love for the United States

By MICHAEL J. PAQUETTE
ADVANCE COLUMNIST

The prime minister and spiritual leaders from their homeland are in town for a worldwide summit, so a local group of influential Indian immigrants plan to honor the visiting dignitaries with a colossal, day-long reception.

The affluent immigrants are a socially aware and politically active bunch, some of whom have established a domestic support group for a prominent Indian political party and regularly host or attend fund-raisers for causes abroad.

To the outsider, it appears as if they spend inordinate amounts of concern, time and money on a country they left long ago.

It seems like that to some insiders, too.

"Indian-Americans are still obsessed and fixated on what is happening in India," says Sreenath Sreenivasan, a journalism professor at Columbia University and president of the South Asian Journalists Association. "Somehow they have a foot in both places, more than any other group I know."

Is this an indication that, despite living for decades as citizens of a nation that has brought them increased freedom and prosperity, Indian-Americans retain a questionable allegiance to their native land?

Or, perhaps, are they simply finding it difficult to assimilate?

Not necessarily.

Their strong affinity to India may have more to do with being well-educated, well-to-do immigrants living in modern America than a stubborn unwillingness to cut ancestral ties, some immigration experts say.

"The bottom line is, given their educational levels and resources, this era of instantaneous communication affords them an ability to stay in contact with the home country that was not possible in the past," says Steven Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

In other words, this is not your great-grandfather's immigration era.

Camarota explains: "For European immigrants, their experience with urban living and education and all things modern was in the United States. They came of age, if you will, here. This was especially true of uneducated Italian immigrants, so their attachment to their home country was relatively weak.

"Educated immigrants from India, on the other hand, are likely to have been urban dwellers and educated before they came here. They are more likely to have come of age in India and, as a consequence, the attachment they have developed to the homeland is stronger."

Indeed, many of the nation's 700,000 foreign-born Indian-Americans are highly educated and work as doctors, engineers, and other professionals. Only 6 percent, says Camarota, live in poverty.

That's a striking contrast to other new immigrant groups, where one in every five people is trapped in poverty, and to the mostly poor Europeans who flooded America's shores at the turn of the last century, he says.

It's that kind of economic clout that makes possible an event like tomorrow's, when more than 10,000 people from up and down the East Coast are expected to descend on a South Beach ball field to publicly receive and honor Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and some 100 Indian spiritual leaders from a spectrum of faiths.

The tab will be picked up by the Indian-American Community, a coalition of organizations representing some 300,000 people in the New York metropolitan area, which will host a $500-per-couple, invitation-only dinner to help cover the cost, which organizers have yet to tally, according to Dr. Jitendra Sukhadia of Todt Hill.

Organizers and others say the event represents more than an opportunity for the prominent community to flex its swelling financial and political muscle before the wider community, thus proving the immigrants are serious players on the American stage.

"This is not a show of arrogance," says Dr. Sukhadia. "We don't need to do that."

"For them, it's an honor to have the prime minister there for their own sake," says Sreenivasan. "It is a community event to show the community is strong, but I don't know how much of it is aimed at non-Indians."

The South Beach rally also is illustrative of the Indians' deep devotion to India, which, some say, is part of the national psyche and difficult to explain to others.

"The attachments to the motherland are somehow deeply ingrained into the Indian culture and the society," says Dr. Mukund Patel of Todt Hill. "Ask the average person, 'Where would you like to die?' They may have lived in this country all their life but they would want to die in India."

Others, like Dr. Mukund Mody of Todt Hill, chair of tomorrow's event, maintain the Indian-American affection for India is no different than that of other first-generation immigrants.

Nonetheless, the immigrants agree, their strong bond with India does not come at the expense of their love for and commitment to the United States.

"By having ties to India, I'm not out of the American mainstream," says Dr. Mody, who arrived 33 years ago. "I'm quite involved in the American political process, in American society and in charitable causes . . . If I could be reborn, I would be born an American. What America has given to me, has given to the world, is so much more than any other country."

"We are as much concerned and involved in the community locally here because we are American citizens," says Dr. Sukhadia, who immigrated 28 years ago. "Staten Island is our hometown. We are no less concerned about what goes on here."

"India is my motherland, where I was born, so naturally I'd have an affinity, a respect that is inborn," says his wife, Dr. Ila Sukhadia. "But we are concerned with both [countries]. We are involved here but we still have to take care of our brothers and sisters at home. It's a moral obligation."