Saturday, June 19, 2010

Indian Immigrants and American Identity

Every day that I walk the dog in the woods I pass by one of the biggest houses in my neighborhood. It's an extra-long 70s trilevel, with a perfect lawn, a plastic wreath of blue flowers on the door and huge deck with gas grill out back. There is a big Winnebago parked in the driveway, along with a BMW, and since each of the three or four resident college-age children has a car, there is often a long line along the curb. I have never met the residents except to say hello, but they are obviously south Asians, and I sometimes muse that they have gone American in a really big way.

I was thinking about this because Jesse Washington of the Associated Press has a feature today on Indian-American politicians running for Congress or governor -- there are eight this year, a record. Part of the story is about whether some of these people, especially governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and likely future governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina, have shed their Indian identities in their pursuit of power. Bobby Jindal was born Piyush, and Nikki Haley was born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa, and both converted to Christianity as teenagers.

Vidya Pradhan, editor of India Currents magazine, says Haley and Jindal

were really ambitious about their politics, and they could not do it being Hindu or their old religion. I do think it was a political move. They felt that not being a Christian would hurt them.
I think this is unnecessarily cynical. Consider my neighbors, who don't seem to be running for anything, and millions of other immigrants who have thrown themselves whole hog into becoming Americans. Many Hispanic immigrants have converted to Protestantism in America, so why assume that Sikhs and Hindus who convert must have political motives?

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