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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.\