Indian population booming in Philadelphia area

Bride Ekta Patel arriving at the Loews Philadelphia Hotel for part of her five-day traditional Indian wedding celebration. Patel and groom Nirav Amin are among the Philadelphia area's growing number of residents of Indian ancestry.
Bride Ekta Patel arriving at the Loews Philadelphia Hotel for part of her five-day traditional Indian wedding celebration. Patel and groom Nirav Amin are among the Philadelphia area's growing number of residents of Indian ancestry. (LAURENCE KESTERSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 03, 2011

Last year, when a Time satirist showcased "the new Edisonians" of Edison, N.J., as chutney-loving " 'dot heads' . . . whose gods have multiple arms and an elephant nose," Indian immigrant groups were outraged.

But in Upper Uwchlan, Chester County, Vini Nair had to chuckle. The 37-year-old software developer had seen his town's Indian population soar - from 20 when he arrived in 2000 to 993 last year.

Stereotypes be damned, he thought. In the affluent exurb where his ethnic group had gone from 0.3 to almost 9 percent of the population, he would have the last laugh.

The region's Indian population grew enormously last decade, doubling to more than 80,000 in South Jersey and Southeastern Pennsylvania and climbing as much as 200 percent in parts of Philadelphia and the surrounding counties, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

With rapid growth has come a feast of Desi traditions: dozens of new Indian restaurants and groceries; Sikh societies, Muslim mosques, Indian churches, and Hindu temples in cities and towns; coming-of-age rituals of song, dance, and ceremonial first haircuts; grand celebrations for Diwali, the fall festival of lights; and spectacular wedding marathons, such as the one this past week for 600 guests in Philadelphia and Newtown set to span five days and four venues, including the Loews Philadelphia Hotel for a garba raas folk dance and henna-tattoo party, the Water Works plaza for tying the knot, and Sunday's reception at the Please Touch Museum.

The marriage of Langhorne dentist Ekta Patel and groom Nirav Amin, a physician training at Hahnemann University Hospital in orthopedic surgery, was announced with a crimson-and-gold invitation printed at the finest shop in Ahmedabad, India.

The celebration of the two 30-year-olds blends the traditions of their ancestors from the state of Gujarat with Schuylkill-side fireworks set to the "Jai Ho" soundtrack of Slumdog Millionaire.

"You want to try to marry in the culture. That's the mind-set," said the bride, who stepped in to organize the nonstop nuptials after her overwhelmed wedding planner quit.

Generally fluent in English, tech savvy, and often professional, Indians are America's most educated and affluent immigrant group, giving them "advantages in negotiating their way in the U.S.," said Fariha Khan, associate director of Asian American studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

"Class and education levels definitely mark them as different from other immigrants," said Kahn. "They are contributors. They have technical skills."

Some Indians, though, find work in less-skilled jobs. They are, for instance, gas station attendants, shopkeepers, and restaurant clerks.

Most arrive legally, having waited years for permission after relatives already here applied to bring them over, or on employer-sponsored visas.

Most find America a welcoming land.

While some Indians cite mistreatment based on skin color, ancestry, national origin, or religion, their complaints have been relatively few, said Shannon Powers, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, a government agency that tracks illegal discrimination.

Between 2006 and 2010 there were 16,101 such complaints, but only 74 were by Indians, according to annual reports.

"Indian stereotypes, by and large, are positive," said Powers. "But I have talked to kids who are tired of the assumption that they will be good in math just because they are Indians. It's like growing up tall and others assuming that you'll love basketball. It's not necessarily a negative stereotype, but it does affect your life and people's perception of you."

Tom Chennat, 73, a retired chemist living in Exton who came to the United States in 1974, estimated that Indians staffed 15 percent of the region's biotech and pharmaceutical-industry jobs. From 2003 to 2008, a company he founded, Philadelphia-Bangalore Consulting, added to the Indian influx by recruiting hundreds of nurses from his home state of Kerala to work in U.S. hospitals.

He said Indians also excelled as entrepreneurs.

"Gujaratis are born for business," he said. "They run hotels and motels, Dunkin' Donuts, and 7-Elevens."

The influence of Indians on the corporate culture of Dunkin' Donuts is so strong that at a recent annual meeting of Chicago-area franchisees, a cricket match was the featured activity. About 65 percent of independently owned motels in America are run by Indians, according to some surveys.

While Indians have come to America in significant numbers since the 1960s, their rate of arrival accelerated last decade.

Between 2000 and 2010, the Indian population of the United States grew 70 percent, according to the census, to more than 2.8 million.

New Jersey has the nation's third-largest Indian population, behind California and New York. Pennsylvania ranks eighth. While Chinese are still the largest Asian immigrant group in the United States, Indians outnumber them in 25 states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties added 7,877 Asian Indians last decade. Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties added 22,390. The Indian population of Philadelphia grew 44 percent, to 18,520.

Dalpat Patel, 72, said he was one of the first minority residents in rural Mansfield, Burlington County. A civil engineer, he moved there a few years after arriving in Philadelphia in 1966, when he decided to buy a 28-room motel.

In 2010, 328 Indians resided in Mansfield, up from 35 in 2000. Those who come are likely to arrive "from Passaic and North Jersey," Patel said, not directly from India. They come for "the open space . . . cheaper housing," diversity, and supportive culture.

Software developer Nair, who came to the United States as a Kansas State University graduate student in 1998, has worked for Bentley Systems Inc., based in Exton, since 2000. That same year saw a nationwide uptick in the hiring of software specialists, including many from India, to counter the "Y2K" threat that computers would crash en masse at the arrival of the new millennium.

When Nair started at the company, which provides software to major industry, including the departments of transportation in 48 states, just four of its 400 employees were from India. Today, he said, about 40 are from India, and Bentley has five satellite offices there.

Ajay Raju, 41, managing partner in the local office of Reed Smith L.L.P., a Philadelphia law firm with offices worldwide, said Indian immigration had expanded business opportunities here and in India, creating "a bridge of commerce moving in both directions."

Raju, who arrived in the United States at 14 in 1983, founded the Global India Chamber of Commerce, a nonprofit created in 1999 to help American and European companies that wanted to invest in India. Now, increasingly, his clients are "large Indian conglomerates" seeking to enter the U.S. market.

He has received calls from "a U.S. toy manufacturer wanting to enter the booming Indian retail sector," and a big Indian company inquiring about opportunities in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale.

A board member of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, Raju describes himself as "born in India, made in America."

Among the traditions Indians have brought with them that are helping to spur the region's economy are extravagant weddings.

Drexelbrook, an Upper Darby banquet facility, hosted its first Indian wedding in 2003. Now it does about 18 a year.

"I have never seen one that is not done to the max," said assistant general manager Jean Fernandez, recalling how, at the first wedding, the groom made his entrance riding on an elephant for a pre-wedding procession called the baraat.

The Patel-Amin extravaganza has 400 guests staying at the Loews Philadelphia alone, Ekta Patel said.

There, on Friday, men in dapper kulta gowns and women in sparkling saris began the revelry in a ballroom sprinkled with rose petals around a statue of the Hindu god Lord Krishna. Amin's groomsmen bore him on their shoulders. The bride and her entourage danced barefoot to a band's hypnotic beat. On a kidney-shaped sofa, women applied mehndi - celebratory henna tattoos - to the backs of their hands.

Patel, who officially will wed on Sunday, was born in Fiji, raised in Montgomery County, and graduated from Norristown High School. She met Amin, a California native, at a club in Philadelphia.

"With so many different types of Indian styles," she said, she and Amin were amazed to discover both had ancestry in Gujarat, a largely working-class state on India's west coast.

In Gujarati tradition, said Patel, brides show respect for their guests by stooping to touch their feet. Each time the bride does this, she then rises as she touches her heart and forehead. At a recent family gathering, Patel did that about 100 times and really felt it in her sore leg muscles the next day. Preparing for the wedding, she said, "I'm resting my knees."

Come Monday, the newlyweds will be recovering from their marital marathon and watching Philadelphia's fireworks from the roof of a Center City apartment building.

Across the Delaware River, Anjani Kumar, 45, who lives in Mansfield, plans to watch fireworks, too, at the nearby military base in Wrightstown.

After traveling the world with her husband, Dhru, an Army sergeant who retired this year, the real estate agent feels at home in Mansfield. She wanted a community with outdoor space and some Indian neighbors to whom her mother, not fluent in English, could talk.

What she got was a rich blend of small-town America and Hindi classes in nearby Chesterfield, Bollywood movies at the Regal Cinema in Burlington, and a weekly produce market that sells bitter melon and all the other vegetables she grew up eating.

Kumar's daughter, Arissa, 17, who used to be the only Indian student in her classes when they lived in South Carolina, now can chat in Hindi with other Indian students at Northern Burlington Regional High School.

Arissa and her friends, Kumar said, have "the advantages of both worlds. American lifestyle. Indian lifestyle. Whichever one they choose."


Watch a garba raas dance, part of a five-day Hindu wedding celebration for Ekta Patel and Nirav Amin, at the Loews Philadelphia Hotel on Friday at www.philly.com/hindu

 Also, Bhavik Varsani and his parents, Gopal and Valbai, talk about their journey to America from Gujarat, India, at www.philly.com/journey

 


Contact staff writer Michael Matza at 215-854-2541 or mmatza@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer John Duchneskie contributed to this article.

 

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|