a man in a suit and turban standing in front of a wall of paintings framed in gold

How South Asian Americans Are Building a New American Dream

They're expanding on the success of their immigrant parents, creating a blended cultural identity—and turning the tables on old stereotypes.

At Hoboken, New Jersey’s City Hall, Ravi S. Bhalla, the new mayor, stands in front of portraits of past mayors. An Indian-American civil rights lawyer and a Sikh who wears a turban to express his faith, Bhalla was elected in November. “We are a diverse and welcoming community,” he says.
This story appears in the September 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The stand-up comic Hari Kondabolu, who is Indian American, had just finished telling a joke about being brown in America when the laughter was interrupted.

“Thank you, come again!” a heckler yelled mockingly in a thick, faux Indian accent. The phrase is instantly recognizable to millions of fans of The Simpsons television show as the signature utterance of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, who is portrayed unabashedly as a racial stereotype: the thrifty, borderline unscrupulous, and somewhat servile Indian convenience store owner.

To Kondabolu, those words at a show in October 2015 were even more familiar. Like many people of South Asian heritage in the United States, Kondabolu had “Thank you, come again!” aimed at him countless times while growing up. Now his irritation found expression in a smiling comeback. “I know you from high school, even though I don’t,” he said, pointing at the heckler. “You are the reason I do comedy, sir.”

Kondabolu, 35, has a boyish appearance, with a mop of wavy, dark hair on top of a chubby face that seems to bear a perpetual expression of mild amusement. His friendliness belies the scathing quality of his humor. “Knowing that the accent was used to mock us made me very apprehensive to have people meet my family,” Kondabolu told me about his adolescent years, when I met him and his immigrant parents, Ravi and Uma, in Queens, New York. His response was to find a comedic voice of his own to skewer the often cartoonish, one-dimensional portrayal of brown people in American media and popular culture.

One of his early jokes was a riff on a caption he says he read on a picture of the Koh-i-Noor diamond, which is part of the British crown jewels, describing the precious stone as having been found in India in the mid-1800s. “Right. It was just found in India. It wasn’t taken from India. It was just found there,” he says, because Indians didn’t know what diamonds were and were “grinding them up, putting them into curry,” and making “diamond biryani” until “luckily the British showed up.” Another joke was about how his mother would pretend to call adoption services whenever he and his brother were being troublesome. “One day we discovered there was nobody on the other end of the phone, and so the next time she said it, I told her I would be calling immigration, and that ended that.”

It was satisfying to Kondabolu that he could reference the same racial tropes that irked him to challenge stereotypes. “When you get to a place where you are telling your own stories, that’s huge,” he said. “That’s control.”

Kondabolu brought his journey as a satirist full circle with his documentary film, The Problem With Apu, which opens with a clip of his response to the heckler. The film argues that the character is racist. Kondabolu finds it ridiculous that one of the most visible representations of Indian Americans on TV is a caricature voiced by “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.” (The Simpsons appears on Fox TV, which is owned by 21st Century Fox, the majority owner of National Geographic Partners.)

Kondabolu is one of many second-generation South Asian Americans, predominantly of Indian heritage, who have gained prominence in mainstream American comedy in the past few years. Their success represents a significant milestone in the integration of people of South Asian descent into American society. By mining their immigrant experience for laughs, Kondabolu and others are giving expression to a self-assurance that many first-generation immigrants did not have.

The increased visibility of South Asian Americans in popular culture mirrors the rise of this relatively new immigrant group in various walks of American life—in science, medicine, technology, business—and now increasingly in politics and public service, as exemplified by Ravi S. Bhalla, the new mayor of the largely white city of Hoboken, New Jersey, who, like many Sikh men, wears a turban. In recent years South Asians have been one of the fastest growing immigrant groups in the United States, increasing in population from 2.2 million in 2000 to 4.9 million in 2015. About 80 percent of the demographic is Indian, with a median annual household income of $100,000—nearly double the median for all U.S. households.

Even though some communities with roots in South Asian countries, like Bangladeshis and Nepalis, are generally far less affluent, the overall success of South Asian Americans is no mystery. It can be partly explained by U.S. policy, which since the 1960s has selectively encouraged educated foreign workers and high-performing students to immigrate. Owing to its large English-speaking population, a result of British colonialism, and the quality of some of its educational institutions, India became a major source of such talent. And family-based immigration opened the doors to a broad array of South Asians.

Second-generation South Asians are building on that success, with many such as Kondabolu venturing outside career paths typically favored by their immigrant parents. As they find their place in the nation’s ever changing tapestry, they are forming a cultural identity that blends values and traditions they inherited into a new way of being American.

“When you are the child of an immigrant and you are running for office, or you are a journalist telling a story, or you are an actor-performer who has a platform to speak, this is all new, but it’s examples of us saying, ‘Hey, we are valid,’” Kondabolu told me. “‘Hey, see our stories? They aren’t stories of foreigners. They are the stories of people here in America.’”

When I set out to write this piece, I had more than a journalistic interest in second-generation South Asians. I am an Indian immigrant, having arrived in 1999 to go to graduate school, where I met my future wife, who grew up in the U.S. I still hum Bollywood songs and habitually surf Indian news sites, but I have a deep sense of belonging to America. Our two children were born here, and last year I became a U.S. citizen. Learning about the lives of second-generation South Asians, I hoped, would help me imagine my children’s future.

Many second-generation South Asians were born to highly educated immigrant parents and have had a privileged upbringing, like that of Subash Bazaz, a 47-year-old cardiologist. On a recent Sunday morning, I went to Great Falls, Virginia, to meet his family. I took off my shoes at the door, as is customary in many Indian homes, and was greeted by three generations: Bazaz; his parents, Bansi and Veena, who immigrated from India in 1970; and his 16-year-old son, Abhishek. Bansi Bazaz, an 80-year-old retired doctor of internal medicine with large eyes and a slight frame, was visiting for a weekly ritual: driving with his grandson to his class in tabla, a pair of traditional drums played by hand.

The contrast between the lives of grandfather, son, and grandson offers a glimpse into how being South Asian in America has evolved since the first big wave of immigrants began arriving in the 1960s, when long-standing barriers to immigration from Asia were removed. Bansi was part of that wave—one of many South Asian doctors who immigrated. “It was a gold rush,” said Bansi, who grew up in Kashmir and studied medicine in Bangalore. He took a job in Ogdensburg, New York, a town with fewer than 15,000 residents then. “What the white doctors didn’t want to do—those were the only jobs that were open.”

It was there that his son, Subash Bazaz, a mild-mannered man with a soothing voice, grew up. “There was a very small Indian community, mostly made up of other doctors like my dad,” he recalled. The families mainly socialized with each other. His parents, like many immigrant parents, wanted him to stay focused on academics. “We couldn’t go out all the time, couldn’t have sleepovers. Dating was really frowned upon,” Bazaz said. “The Indian background did put barriers between myself and my white peers.”

Bohemia, a Pakistani American known as the king of Punjabi rap, performs in New York City. Born to a Christian family in Karachi, he moved to the United States as a teenager. His first album was an autobiographical account of his experiences in America. His music has found an international, multiracial audience.
Bohemia, a Pakistani American known as the king of Punjabi rap, performs in New York City. Born to a Christian family in Karachi, he moved to the United States as a teenager. His first album was an autobiographical account of his experiences in America. His music has found an international, multiracial audience.

At school he did his best to avoid drawing attention to his Indian heritage, never bringing lunch from home because the spicy aroma would have made him stand out. Although Bazaz went through a phase of trying to shed his Indian identity—“I didn’t want to be seen clinging to other Indian folks”—by the time he finished college, his closest friends were Indian Americans. This arc of shunning and then embracing one’s heritage is a familiar theme in the lives of many second-generation immigrants.

As an immigrant doctor, Bazaz’s father told me, he had to fight for fair treatment and equal opportunity. By contrast, Bazaz says he faced no perceptible barriers. When he entered the profession, doctors of Indian ancestry were more the norm than a novelty. He had the option of pursuing opportunities in cities big and small and joined a practice in the Washington, D.C., area with three Indian-American cardiologists.

After Abhishek consumed the omelet made by his mother, Sameera, who is of Indian descent, I went with him to the house of his tabla instructor. “Playing the tabla is one way for me to appreciate Indian culture,” said Abhishek, who rarely listens to Indian music.

He and his grandfather both commented on how different it is growing up Indian American now because of the large South Asian population in some cities. That was in evidence at the instructor’s house, where one batch of students—all of Indian heritage—was leaving as Abhishek, a broad-shouldered boy with a shy smile, sat down cross-legged with seven other boys. As he tapped fast and furiously on his tabla, Abhishek’s fingers became a blur.

Some second-generation South Asians grew up in less fortunate circumstances than Bazaz and Kondabolu. They were raised by parents who slaved away in physically demanding blue-collar jobs that more often than not were low paying. Notably many Indians from the state of Gujarat bought and ran budget motels. South Asians without money or advanced education washed dishes, stocked shelves at grocery stories, and drove taxis, which is what Tanzina Ahmed’s father did. (Click here to read about how Indian Americans came to own half of U.S. motels.)

When Ahmed came to New York City from Bangladesh in 1990 as a five-year-old, she barely spoke English. The language barrier made it difficult to make friends at school. Despite her struggles or perhaps because of them, Ahmed excelled in school. She got impressive results on the SAT, including a perfect score in the verbal section.

Ahmed’s family, however, had arrived as undocumented immigrants, and she discovered this made her ineligible for most scholarships and financial-aid programs. “It was like having a window you think is open for you just a crack slammed on your face,” she said. Ahmed, who has sparkling eyes and a sardonic wit, subsequently discovered a rare scholarship program—at the City University of New York—that wasn’t closed to undocumented students. She received a full merit scholarship to CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College.

Her parents were eager to see her on a path to citizenship. The only solution they could think of was to arrange a marriage to a U.S. citizen, and so, while Ahmed was pursuing a doctorate in psychology, she married a Bangladeshi-American man found by her parents. Their marriage ran into trouble but lasted long enough for her to get citizenship.

Ahmed, who has taught at Bronx Community College, is now remarried—to a Malaysian-Chinese American she met through mutual friends. Over the past few years, she said, “I have grown so much more comfortable with my identity as a Bengali-American, Muslim woman.”

For much of her life, she says, she resented her Bengali roots—first because of bullying and harassment at school and later when her parents found her a match. After her divorce the resentment began fading away. “I realized that there are parts of my identity and this cultural background that I’m really proud of,” she said. “I like the fact that we come together as a family, and we choose to live near each other and help each other out a lot. I like the fact that we don’t endorse things like going on Tinder and dating five million people.”

A defining characteristic of many South Asians—and Asians generally—is a keen aspiration for career success. The pressure to do well at school is a common theme, reflected in the prevalence of South Asian kids participating in—and winning—spelling bees and competitions in science and math. Their parents are more inclined to nudge them toward professions such as medicine and law, but increasingly second-generation South Asians are following their hearts.

Kondabolu, too, felt that pressure to walk a familiar path. When he was trying out comedy in school and in college, his parents hoped it was just a phase. “They said, ‘Don’t let it interfere with your studies,’ which it did,” he said. After college Kondabolu wanted to pursue stand-up, but his mother wanted him to go to graduate school.

At the time he felt angry. “I remember thinking, All these white kids get support—‘Yeah, be what you want to be’—and I couldn’t get that support.” Kondabolu moved to Seattle to work as an activist for immigrant rights and did stand-up in the evenings. He got noticed. After appearing at an HBO comedy festival and on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, he felt ready to dive headlong into comedy. But when he was accepted at the London School of Economics to do a master’s in human rights, his mother, a tall, poised woman who trained as a doctor, wanted him to go. “I had a career that had just started,” he said. “And my mom said, ‘You’ve got to do the master’s.’”

Kondabolu got the degree but began doing comedy full-time after returning to New York City. “In six months I wanted to quit,” he told me. “I was like, What am I doing? I have a master’s degree. My classmates are working at the UN, the World Bank, UNICEF, and I am telling jokes in the basement of a bar that takes me two hours to get to and two hours to get back?” But his parents, reassured he had a fallback, encouraged him.

Kondabolu kept at it, and success followed. The material that he and fellow South Asian comics present has found a diverse and growing audience over the past decade. “Because our stories were suppressed for so long, everything is new and exciting and interesting,” Kondabolu said. In the early years he used a thick Indian accent in some of his comedy—like the bit about his mother calling adoption services—but later dropped it, feeling that it detracted from his desire to tell jokes from “a place of empowerment and not of self-deprecation.”

With his documentary Kondabolu has arguably started one of the most important public discussions about South Asians in America. After airing on cable in November, The Problem With Apu sparked a debate between those who agree with his criticisms and others who feel he’s being overly sensitive. His parents, Uma and Ravi, were never bothered by Apu in the way that Kondabolu was, a divergence attributable perhaps to how differently the generations view their place in American society. “When we came, we knew we were entering a foreign place,” Uma told me. “This country doesn’t owe us anything.”

Kondabolu, on the other hand, took for granted that he was entitled to a voice in America. “I believe that this isn’t about me turning into you,” he said. “This is about us sharing and coming up with something different. That’s what America is—it’s about changing with every new idea and person that comes here.”

For some South Asians, parental expectations go beyond achieving high levels of professional success. They also can come under pressure to conform to cultural traditions. That can mean running into opposition within the family when deciding to marry outside one’s religion, caste, or race—an experience that Ambar Zobairi faced.

A 44-year-old Pakistani-American woman who grew up in Carbondale, Illinois, Zobairi works at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems in Washington, D.C. She has spent more than a decade helping to increase public participation in elections and governance throughout the Middle East and North Africa. In countries such as Lebanon and Libya, Zobairi, who has deep-set eyes that convey warmth, has focused on empowering women.

Twenty-five years ago Zobairi had to fight her own battle to be with the man she loved. In 1993, three months after she had begun dating a white American college classmate named Mark Henderson, her father, Riazuddin, then a professor of religious history at Southern Illinois University, gave her an audiocassette. As she listened to it in her room, tears streamed down her face.

“He said how much he loved me and that he knew that I must be in love. He expressed that he always wanted me to be happy but that he really wished for me to be with somebody who was Muslim,” Zobairi recalled. She said her father also worried he would lose his standing in Carbondale’s conservative Pakistani community.

Despite her emotional turmoil, Zobairi was steadfast. She had strong, independent-minded women in her family to take inspiration from, most notably her mother, a Pakistani Christian, who had married Zobairi’s father over the objections of her family. “I always knew that if there was a path I needed to take, even if it was going to be difficult, I was going to continue on that path,” she said.

Zobairi stopped meeting with Henderson in public, but they kept the relationship going through phone calls and letters. Her life at home went on as usual, although tensions remained in the background. Henderson—worried about the possible estrangement between Zobairi and her father—eventually told her father he would embrace Islam. Reciting a one-sentence testimony of faith at the Islamic Center of Carbondale, he became a Muslim. In the summer of 1997, Zobairi and Henderson married.

During the weekday rush hour, while riding a train in the San Francisco Bay Area, I found myself in a sea of brown faces. It was a reminder of the immense presence of people of South Asian origin—more specifically, of Indian origin—working in Silicon Valley, many of whom entered the country under the H-1B visa program to fill a shortage of technology workers. Not only do Indian immigrants and second-generation Indian Americans constitute a significant slice of the U.S. tech workforce, but they also lead major companies such as Google and Microsoft.

For a close-up of life inside this prosperous enclave, I visited Nirav Tolia, the 46-year-old co-founder of Nextdoor, a social-networking service for neighborhoods that recently was valued at more than one billion dollars. Tolia is trim, with a youthful face that has no hint of facial hair. The son of Indian immigrants who are both doctors, he grew up on a cul-de-sac in a predominantly white neighborhood in Odessa, Texas, where neighbors would give him rides to school, babysit him, and watch him when his parents were traveling. They invited him to swim in their pools and play tennis on their courts. “We’d come back from visiting relatives in India, and I’d literally want to kiss the ground,” Tolia told me.

The memory of that warm and nurturing community is what inspired Tolia—along with six partners, including another Indian American—to found Nextdoor. Launched seven years ago, it enables users to connect with neighbors and share information useful to the community, from car break-ins to used-toy giveaways. Tolia describes it as an online tool for strengthening bonds between neighbors—bonds that have frayed all over the world.

Tolia started out at Yahoo!, where many of his colleagues, including his boss, were of Indian ancestry. He was also being mentored and supported by the Indus Entrepreneurs, a South Asian networking nonprofit with thousands of members in more than a dozen countries, which helped him when he co-founded his first start-up, Epinions, a consumer review site. “Not only is my race and identity not holding me back, but I’m in a place where some of the most successful people in the industry are my race,” he said.

After Epinions merged with another company and went public, Tolia made a fortune, but not without controversy. He resigned from the new company in 2004 after it was discovered that he had misrepresented his degree and experience on his résumé. He was also sued by some of his former partners, who had made nothing on the deal, resulting in an undisclosed settlement.

On a recent afternoon Tolia and his wife, Megha, an Indian American who went to Harvard Business School and is now a vice president at Method, which makes environmentally friendly cleaning products, gave me a tour of their home—an elegant, 8,000-square-foot, five-level modern mansion. While showing me the master bedroom, which opens out to a large terrace with a breathtaking view of San Francisco Bay, Tolia heard the second of their three sons, four-year-old Dylan, stirring awake from his nap. Dylan was still under the covers, yawning, when we entered his room.

Tolia had told me earlier that he and his wife were raising their boys in a way that “blends the best of multiple cultures.” When Dylan jumped out of bed, Tolia asked if he would sing a Sanskrit prayer for me. Dylan sang Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” instead. A little later, when asked again, he happily obliged. “Twameva mata cha pita twameva, twameva bandhush-cha sakha twameva,” he sang. The words, addressed to an eternal and universal God, loosely translate to “For you indeed are my mother, my father; you are my kin, my friend.”

Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, a contributing writer for the magazine, came to the United States from India when he was 26. Ismail Ferdous moved from Bangladesh to New York City about two years ago. This is his first feature for the magazine.

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