‘My Own Private India’

[Note:  Items tagged ‘no endorsement here’ are provided for the convenience of readers and do not represent the opinion of RR. ]

By Joel Stein

I am very much in favor of immigration everywhere in the U.S. except Edison, N.J. The mostly white suburban town I left when I graduated from high school in 1989 — the town that was called Menlo Park when Thomas Alva Edison set up shop there and was later renamed in his honor — has become home to one of the biggest Indian communities in the U.S., as familiar to people in India as how to instruct stupid Americans to reboot their Internet routers.

My town is totally unfamiliar to me. The Pizza Hut where my busboy friends stole pies for our drunken parties is now an Indian sweets shop with a completely inappropriate roof. The A&P I shoplifted from is now an Indian grocery. The multiplex where we snuck into R-rated movies now shows only Bollywood films and serves samosas. The Italian restaurant that my friends stole cash from as waiters is now Moghul, one of the most famous Indian restaurants in the country. There is an entire generation of white children in Edison who have nowhere to learn crime.

I never knew how a bunch of people half a world away chose a random town in New Jersey to populate. Were they from some Indian state that got made fun of by all the other Indian states and didn’t want to give up that feeling? Are the malls in India that bad? Did we accidentally keep numbering our parkway exits all the way to Mumbai?

I called James W. Hughes, policy-school dean at Rutgers University, who explained that Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 immigration law raised immigration caps for non-European countries. LBJ apparently had some weird relationship with Asians in which he liked both inviting them over and going over to Asia to kill them.

After the law passed, when I was a kid, a few engineers and doctors from Gujarat moved to Edison because of its proximity to AT&T, good schools and reasonably priced, if slightly deteriorating, post–WW II housing. For a while, we assumed all Indians were geniuses. Then, in the 1980s, the doctors and engineers brought over their merchant cousins, and we were no longer so sure about the genius thing. In the 1990s, the not-as-brilliant merchants brought their even-less-bright cousins, and we started to understand why India is so damn poor.

Eventually, there were enough Indians in Edison to change the culture. At which point my townsfolk started calling the new Edisonians “dot heads.” One kid I knew in high school drove down an Indian-dense street yelling for its residents to “go home to India.” In retrospect, I question just how good our schools were if “dot heads” was the best racist insult we could come up with for a group of people whose gods have multiple arms and an elephant nose.

Unlike some of my friends in the 1980s, I liked a lot of things about the way my town changed: far better restaurants, friends dorky enough to play Dungeons & Dragons with me, restaurant owners who didn’t card us because all white people look old. But sometime after I left, the town became a maze of charmless Indian strip malls and housing developments. Whenever I go back, I feel what people in Arizona talk about: a sense of loss and anomie and disbelief that anyone can eat food that spicy.

To figure out why it bothered me so much, I talked to a friend of mine from high school, Jun Choi, who just finished a term as mayor of Edison. Choi said that part of what I don’t like about the new Edison is the reduction of wealth, which probably would have been worse without the arrival of so many Indians, many of whom, fittingly for a town called Edison, are inventors and engineers. And no place is immune to change. In the 11 years I lived in Manhattan’s Chelsea district, that area transformed from a place with gangs and hookers to a place with gays and transvestite hookers to a place with artists and no hookers to a place with rich families and, I’m guessing, mistresses who live a lot like hookers. As Choi pointed out, I was a participant in at least one of those changes. We left it at that.

Unlike previous waves of immigrants, who couldn’t fly home or Skype with relatives, Edison’s first Indian generation didn’t quickly assimilate (and give their kids Western names). But if you look at the current Facebook photos of students at my old high school, J.P. Stevens, which would be very creepy of you, you’ll see that, while the population seems at least half Indian, a lot of them look like the Italian Guidos I grew up with in the 1980s: gold chains, gelled hair, unbuttoned shirts. In fact, they are called Guindians. Their assimilation is so wonderfully American that if the Statue of Liberty could shed a tear, she would. Because of the amount of cologne they wear.

TIME responds: We sincerely regret that any of our readers were upset by Joel Stein’s recent humor column “My Own Private India.” It was in no way intended to cause offense.

Joel Stein responds: I truly feel stomach-sick that I hurt so many people. I was trying to explain how, as someone who believes that immigration has enriched American life and my hometown in particular, I was shocked that I could feel a tiny bit uncomfortable with my changing town when I went to visit it. If we could understand that reaction, we’d be better equipped to debate people on the other side of the immigration issue.\


24 thoughts on “‘My Own Private India’

  1. You know that I have read this guys column regularly in time magazine, and normally he is quite funny. Then, last week, I read this one. I was sick. I could not believe it was the same guy to print such a racist article. But yet it was. I cannot believe time just published it either. Very racist.

  2. How could you possibly not understand that this was going to cause offense?

    Unless, perhaps, you don’t actually view the people you’re writing/publishing about as, well, people?

  3. ah man, we’ve been overdue for another racist “satire” article! The Asian friend is a nice touch too, he can use it in defense as proof he’s not really racist.

  4. The only way for this to have been funny at the same time it said all the racist things it said would have been for the author to subvert the racism; subtly turn it around to making fun of white racists.

  5. This article sounded like he was trying to point out racism, but immensely failed. As Alison said, it would have been better if he used it to make fun of white racists.

    Throughout the article, I was expecting him to throw in the line, “My best friend, who happens to be Indian..” but ah, close enough in the second last paragraph. #9.

    It makes me cringe to know that people reading this article are laughing..

  6. Trying to be funny about racism is like trying to be funny about sexual assault. It never works. This article is appalling on so many levels.

  7. We get Time magazine. I read this essay in disbelief. I, too, kept waiting for the part when he made fun of the people who were complaining about how the town had changed. But . . . nope. Just one big racist rant. Truly incredible that this could have been published. Did he THINK he was being satirical??? Is he that stupid and out of touch with reality? It was just awful an disgusting.

  8. ‘we regret that our readers were upset…’ – good old, passive-voice victim-blaming! I mean, afterall, it wasn’t that the column was “offensive”; it’s that we’re so sensitive, and so we didn’t get how awesomely funny it was. But hey – they’re sorry about us having this terrible problem, so it’s ok.

  9. Maybe Joel should have read what the Native American’s had to say about his forefathers immigrating to ‘his’ area 250 years ago BEFORE he wrote his piece.

  10. From previous articles I have read of his, I believe he is Jewish. As a result of this, he should of all people, be sensitive to this kind of negative stereotyping that people do with Jewish folks all the time.

  11. “I was trying to explain how, as someone who believes that immigration has enriched American life and my hometown in particular, I was shocked that I could feel a tiny bit uncomfortable with my changing town when I went to visit it. If we could understand that reaction, we’d be better equipped to debate people on the other side of the immigration issue.”

    Maybe he should’ve just said that in the beginning, and skipped all that racist stuff, huh? Maybe even delve into the uncomfortable possibilities of recognizing racism in yourself? That would’ve been some interesting commentary…

  12. MA, I kind of have a problem with that statement. Just because he’s Jewish doesn’t mean he understands oppression and prejudice, and even so it’s not quite as easy as equating the oppression of say ‘your’ struggles with those of ‘others.’ In this instance, Jewish or not I think his white privilege and sense of entitlement is what’s letting him think his article is ok to publish.
    hmm… let me sit on this for a bit, can’t quite article this properly. Maybe it’s the “he of all people” part.

  13. Hmmm. I suppose you are right. I guess I was thinking that as a person who belonged to a people who had suffered oppression and who often was portrayed in certain medias with negative stereotypes, that he would be more sensitive to doing the same thing to others. On the other hand, from reading that article, it sounds as if he never did suffer such indignities, and only treasured his white priviledge which now has been over taken by Indians. (Poor thing) He and his friends sounded like delinquents that would have been in jail if he had been a minority.

  14. I have cancelled my subscription to TIME magazine because of this issue, I suggest everyone do the same.

  15. What this guy does not realize is that he is an immigrant once upon remember the history that they were thrown from europe, this is nobody’s land and called land of opportunity and he gotta go back to school to learn history before he gets his ideas twisted.

    As for Indians they were not thrown out but making contribution to the economy of US of A.


  16. No apologies can counter outright racism!

    “In retrospect, I question just how good our schools were if “dot heads” was the best racist insult we could come up with for a group of people whose gods have multiple arms and an elephant nose.” Have you never heard the terms “metaphor” and “personification”? BTW, India is one of the largest secular countries with people of ALL religions, and not just Hinduism.

    “…disbelief that anyone can eat food that spicy.” I am sure most Indians can’t believe anyone can eat food that blank; but that does not get published in a national magazine for the sole purpose of racially offending a culture.

    I have often been surprised how little tolerance people have towards other cultures. But this article is just strengthening their points. Can Time publish a well-researched pro-Indian article to counter this one, please? (And a well researched one please, not some patronizing stuff!).

  17. Mr Joel Stein should quit writing atleast for some time till he gets training on how to deliver something with original humor. Any guy with a below average IQ would write this kind of an article.

  18. Hey Mr Stein and others with similar thinking,
    The reason India is poor is not because it lacks geniuses, it is because since the time America was not even DISCOVERED, the WORLD was After INDIA’S WEALTH.So many Countries raided and in the end Britain(yup your forefathers and relatives as you are not Native Americans) sucked every bit of wealth, they COULD from India

  19. Please note that there are much more areas (uneducated about India) Mr. Stein has covered and wrote about in his article by insulting Indians. He has insulted our GODS and more over our culture. Our heritage and our pride. Our contribution to US economy and paying the dues. Dr. Parikh has covered every areas in his rsponse. I think he is in total oppose of the TRUTH here. The issues are not what he is talking about humor or the population. It is about the respect Hinduism (all religions) and its values deserve. Indeed, the population of his former town (home town) has grown by Indians. Now bigger question to you and for him is,
    Did the value of the real property declined or increased?
    Ask him to Go and find out. If it has increased even in this down economic conditions.

    More on India, I want Mr. Stein AND the TIME to know, INDIA opened the doors for millions and millions of surrounding country when disaster (flood) struck. Are you kidding about taking over your neighbourhood? By the way, I am 3000+ miles aways from Mr. Stein former home. But I know what I am talking about.
    My request to all, Stop your subscritions to TIME. We Indians have kicked out British with non violence and YES WE CAN, we are capable of sending strong message to TIME and to Mr. Stein for his job security at TIME.
    We are humans. Lets respect all. Live and let live. I rest my case.

    Naresh D. Bhakta
    El Monte, California

  20. I am astounded by the bigotry and incompetence of the editors of Time magazine.

    I urge each one of you to boycott Time Warner – CNN, Time magazine, cable, TV, internet services, long distance etc. until they take action on the Time magazine editors. Fire them all.

  21. Totally resist, the aruor is totally STUPID MORON. That being said who are original Americans? America is made up of immigrants and I believe Asian immigrants are really hard working and educated. Look at any toppers at university mostly Asians- Korean , Chinese and Indians.

  22. I MYSELF AM AN INDIAN-AMERICAN LIVING IN EDISON, NEW JERSEY. I am only 13. I was born in Texas, USA. But when I read this displeasing article, I was outraged. I think what this article is summing up is that when it comes to culture, it is not the easiest topic in the world to debate. YES, there are indian sweet shops, groceries, restaurants, and malls. YES, there are only indians in my public school. This is not an appropriate article. And I am completely outraged since I am a victim of the “dot-heads”. When when I wear my “dot”, I feel proud to be an Indian American living in Edison, New Jersey. Proud to be an Indian American citizen. Proud to be me. AND NO ONE WILL EVER TAKE THAT AWAY FROM ME.

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