Asian-Indian Immigrants and Their Children in America




Historical Background


In 1965, the United States Congress liberalized laws that severely restricted Asian immigration.  The Immigration Reform Act of 1965 was framed as an amendment to the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act, under which a quota system giving preference to skilled laborers and relatives of US citizens was articulated . This legislative action made a tremendous change. While there were only a few thousand Asian-Indians living in the United States in the 1960’s, by the mid 1980s, over 300,000 Asian Indians had emigrated from India.


These foreigners, termed “new immigrants,” distinguishing them from the “old immigrants” of European descent, were highly educated, skilled professionals, and came predominantly from the urban middle class.  Given the immigrants’ status within their country, what motivated them to leave?


In the case of Asian Indians, an overwhelming majority responded to financial factors.  However, “such a generalization does not do justice to the complexities of the issue.” Although Asian-Indians did leave for financial reasons, they also left for professional, educational, and social opportunities.  For many Asian Indians, emigration was thought prestigious. 


Financially, a professional working in the United States could make more than double their annual income in India.  The conversion of capital from dollar to rupees combined with the desire to support family members in India financially made emigration attractive.  Professionally, bureaucratic rules, bribes, and unfavorable working conditions hindered largely sought after career advancement. Moreover, Asian-Indians have placed a great emphasis on foreign education.  The colonial authority of the British Raj engrained in the Indian mentality that foreign education is better than indigenous training.


Ethnicity, Culture, & Family


In his 1782 article, “What Is an American?,” Frenchman J.Hector St. John Crevecoeur wrote, “He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds.” Since 1782, the definitions of Americans have drastically changed.  Although the post 1965 Indian-American has adhered to the new government, they have simultaneously transplanted their cultural and religious heritage, and have integrated them into their distinct bicultural lifestyle.  Because Indian-Americans face aspects of both American and Indian culture in day-to-day life, Indian-American culture is notably compartmentalized in its current form.


                                                           Indian-American Identity





             Pan-Indian Component                                                             Non-Indian Component                  





  BSCP                          Local Community Component                                        BSCP





                Religion, Family, Home                              BSCP


NOTE:  BSCP stands for Business, Social, Cultural, and Political. 


The Indian-American identity is divided into three compartments: the Pan-Indian Compartment, the Non-Indian Compartment, and the Local-Community Compartment.  Each division serves a unique business, social, cultural, and political role within the United States.  Conflicts in Indian-American life are a largely a result of these compartments.


First-Generation Indian-Americans (“New Immigrants”)


First generation Indian-Americans are acutely aware of readily apparent cultural differences.  The family becomes a battlefield where modernity clashes with tradition, where Indian culture clashes with American culture, and where theory clashes with practice.  American culture becomes the basis for interactions outside the home.  Inside the home, first-generation Indian-Americans attempt to preserve their cultural and religious heritage and expect to live according to Indian cultural values.  For example, women are expected to maintain the household (cooking, cleaning, childrearing, etc) in addition to holding part-time or even full-time job economically mandated by them in the United States.  However, the hierarchies of age and gender patterns based on traditional Indian values are broken along the lines of compromise.


Second-Generation Indian-Americans


For second-generation Indian Americans, “the sensation of being the in-betweens is particularly accentuated.”  Like their parents, the second-generation Indian American also compartmentalizes his/her life.  At home and within the local community component they are governed by the compromised Indian lifestyle developed by their parents and the broader community.  Conflicts typically arise from the cultural clash of American Individualism vs. Indian communitarianism.  For example, a second-generation Indian-American’s desire to pursue an undergraduate degree in the fine arts will not be supported by the family.  Career decisions are based on their impact on the family’s financial well being, not the individual’s.


Third Generation Indian-Americans


Thus far, research on Indian-Americans has been limited to the first and second generation because data regarding the third is unavailable.  There are several directions the third generation might go.


The first scenario rests on the observation that traditional languages are being lost.  A majority of second-generation Indian-Americans are illiterate when it comes to the native language that comprises their local-community component.  Although they are able to speak the language, they are unable to write or read it.  The linguistic divisions that differentiate sub-communities will slowly disappear.  A result of this development will be pan-Indian marriages that will blur the distinction between the pan-Indian compartment and the local community compartment.  The local-community compartment will lose its business, social, cultural and political forces by becoming integrated into its similar pan-Indian compartment component.


In the second scenario, the key observation is that there are a growing number of local community groups within the Indian-American subculture.  These groups cater to the local community compartment of the Indian-American identity.  The Gujarati Cultural Association of Bay Area in California has a membership of over three thousand families. Given its numbers it is unlikely that this organization will lose its collective force.  Marriage my happen within the local community and participants will remain members. This depends, to a large degree, on the second-generation Indian-Americans and the culture they bestow upon their children.


Concluding Remarks


The relaxation of immigration laws in 1965 paved the way for Indian-Americans to immigrate to the United States.  Attempting to preserve their religious and cultural heritage, these first-generation Indian Americans erected temples and formed local organizations representative of the subcultures (Sindi, Gujarati, Tamil, Bengali) from which they came.  Parents exposed their children to those subcultures through functions hosted by these organizations and within the home.  The second-generation Indian-American assumed the culture of both their parents and the larger American culture that surrounds them.  The compartments that arise from the cultural clash force the second-generation to pick one culture over the other giving rise to a distinct set of bicultural Indian-American values that will be passed to the third generation.  The value system and culture of the second generation is still unclear.  Determining the value system that of the third generation is mere speculation.




Helweg, Arthur. An immigrant success story : East Indians in America. Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990


Lessinger, Johanna. From the Ganges to the Hudson : Indian immigrants in New York City. Boston : Allyn and Bacon, c1995




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