Wednesday, July 14, 2010

My Own Private India. No. Really!

This is a response to an unwittingly crafted so called 'humor' column in Time magazine, published on July 5, 2010, by Joel Stein.

At the face value, this column came across as genuinely funny.

But then I did some research on Mr. Stein to understand where he was coming from. And boy am I not glad I did that!

Born into a Jewish family in Edison, NJ, he went to Stanford, worked briefly for Martha Stewart, got hired by Time magazine as a staff writer, honeymooned on a luxury island (not that it matters), taught humor writing at Princeton, and is now a full time columnist for the Time magazine.

Further, his writings have always been off-beat, sarcastic, slightly dark, but mostly caricature-like. Example: the way he wittily came up with an article on the Amish in the 'What's next' series was fabulous!  Or even how he pulled hair off his own employer (Time)'s legs about how they rank the top 100 most effective people in their fields of work, and started his own Joel 100(TM) list was unmatched:-) Hell... he had even (sarcastically) praised George W. Bush II for reducing his taxes in this article!

So what do you expect from a writer who could not digest the fact that his home town had actually become home to countless geniuses (engineers, inventors, doctors, merchants) who were actually smarter than  the  merchant families that he grew up with, so smart as to build the whole town slowly with their hard work and wit? That frustration had to come out somehow? And it did. In the questionable article.

To be fair, Jewericans (as in Guindians, refer to Joel's original article here) have been known in history to be aggressive about creating huge businesses, by hook, or by crook. In fact I sense helplessness in Stein's statement where he coins the term 'not so genius merchants'. If they were not so genius, how the hell does Edison, NJ now have 25% of its population with Indian heritage? And if you wanted to keep the town 'the way it was when you grew up', why did you not do something about it?

Please face the change, and admit it like a man. Don't just eek it out in a 'humor column'.

Now if you still want to change the dynamics of 'legal' immigration and assimilation and cultural fusion, just because your hometown isn't what you saw when you were a kid, may I recommend being a little more welcoming to legal immigrants who already have it hard on them (perhaps just the way your parents may have?).

I have resisted sharing this here until now (and I really do not like to talk about it either), but here it goes. Right outside Princeton university campus, a few years ago, an empty liquor bottle came flying and crashed next to me on the sidewalk. When I looked back, it was an open Jeep Wrangler with a few seemingly teenagers, screaming and telling me to go back where I came from.

I was on a research project in a very competitive field, and got accepted from among hundreds of applicants. I had no clue why someone could hate me so much. I still do not know. But I did not make a big deal out of it. I did not write a hate blog right then and there. Rather I went back to my project, finished it, earned a U.S. research degree, worked very very hard (legally) and made a professional career out of it. I wonder what any of those kids are doing these days. Perhaps writing humor columns for Time?

First try explaining that, then let us talk about whether Mr. Stein's article has humor in it or not.



Disclaimer. The author of this blog, Prashant Chopra, apologizes if this column hurts Joel Stein's feelings. It is a humor column and is in no way intended to hurt anyone, let alone any specific community of people.

P.S. If you would like to let Time magazine's team or Mr. Stein know about your concerns about his article, please click here, and send them a message. Remember: always assert when you see unfair behavior.

P.P.S. Here is another great rebuttal on cnn.com by a well read physician of Indian origin, if you are interested. Thanks to Shwetal for sharing!

P.P.P.S. Since many people raised concern about such a string rebuttal, I am trying to justify my thoughts here:


The first time I read Mr. Stein's column, I wanted it to be funny, and it got pretty close with references to the not-so-genius merchant cousins, the Guindian kids, the dot-heads, etc, etc.

Half way through the text, I thought it is getting dark now, and boy there is some fun ahead, as I love dark humor!

And then it was over. And I am thinking to myself: was it a sarcastic admission to the defeat of local community at the hands of legal immigrants? Or does it root somewhere deeper? I asked a non-Indian friend to read it, and although he didn't find it offensive, he didn't find it funny either.

That forced me to do some research on Mr. Stein's writing and his life. Perhaps that's his style and I just didn't get it? The more I read about him and his previous articles, the more I found him to be a strongly egotistical comic (and he even admitted to this in one article) who wrote bashingly (yet smilingly) about the Amish, the Time's 100 most effective people list, the economy, G. W. Bush II, and his love for classic Rock.

Fine. I have no issues with humor, satire, or sarcasm in general. But knowing what I know about him now, all these strong stereotypes must represent something somewhere.  I cannot help but shiver at the thought of kids still growing up, going to school with immigrant (Indian, Chinese, Spanish ...) kids, coming back home with questions, and finding these stereotypes in the answers their parents give them.

More than the hint of racism (which I found to be there, minimally, but not strongly), I am more concerned about what the 2nd or 3rd generation non-Indian or non-Chinese parents are teaching their kids about resilience, patience, assimilation, and cultural fusion.

Sigh!

P.P.P.P.S.

[1] Why does Joel find it so hard to understand the dynamics of legal immigration? In his own words "I was shocked that I could feel a tiny bit uncomfortable with my changing town when I went to visit it.". Why was he shocked? Isn't response to change bi-lateral? So the ones assimilating are supposed to understand that there will be resistance to change. But the ones accepting the change will not?

[2] References to phrases like "India is so damn poor", "whose gods have multiple arms and an elephant nose", "not so sure about the genius thing" are directly offensive and are in no way humorous. You talk about the freedom of speech. But do you also have the resilience to take similar insults back, at its face value? Indian 'culture' teaches you to be patient, non-violent, and respect for elders and family (yes there are exceptions, but in general that is the case). American style of life and culture is more open to criticism, and open discussions. That is a very big gap right there. And change (read assimilation) bridges that gap. But the change has to be from both sides.

[3] The geniuses did not move to Edison on their will and certainly not before immigration rules were relaxed to attract foreign born talent. They started moving to U.S. on invitation. Even today, how many legal Indian/other immigrants do you think can stay in the U.S. just because of the lifestyle? They stay because there are employers and opportunities that recognize their talent and skills that are really scarce in the 'native' population. So no, the exits didn't start running all of a sudden to Mumbai. Rather, a red carpet was thrown all the way to Mumbai, and Delhi, and Calcutta, and Chennai/Madras, and Beijing, and Tokyo, and London, and Moscow, and many other cities, to get the 'best' of Indian/foreign talent on board without which most of the advanced R&D would be happening overseas and U.S. importing it. And I am not talking about writing simple computer programs. I am talking about robots that guide rockets, perform surgeries, physicians that are humane to patients, and merchants that create jobs and pay taxes and bring prosperity to the whole nation.

P.P.P.P.P.S. There are two ways you can react to a culture that is different from where you grew up:

[1] You take your time. You understand the differences. You learn about the other culture. You show them what you bring to the table. You pick the best of both, they do the same to some extent, and you slowly assimilate.

[2] You come in, you are insecure because more than you are proud of the good things about how you grew up, you immediately notice the 'negative' points and are readily ashamed of it. Not knowing how to keep up your heritage AND be a respected citizen of the world AND a worthy multi-cultural American, you kneel down, and say "I leave everything that I grew up on, please accept me". And that moment onwards, you uncomfortably do what it means to be 'American', and write it all out here to assure yourself that you did the right thing.



P.P.P.P.P.P.S. This is what an author wrote on CNN: "bottom line is there is no racism - only economic fairness. Come to our country and assimilate - become an American and raise your family here - bring your extended family here - live a great life - I am 100% behind that American Dream. I am against using our country so you can have a 47:1 currency conversion to rupies and live like a king back in the slum that is India. "


And this was my response: "I think you have a hard shell of a brain. Did you not read a single line of what I wrote? You contradict yourself when you say 'come live here the America dream' and at the same time you say 'oh make immigration difficult, there guys are taking our jobs, changing our towns'.

Would you be ok with immigrating the whole immediate family if just one of them is valuable to US economy as a technical/economical resource? Let me guess your answer: NO.

Would you be ok with guaranteeing a no hassle immigration to deserving hard working legal immigrants at fair pays, so they wont have to worry about taking their bags and go back because of administrative delays and take their savings with them? Let me guess your answer: NO.

Take your head out of the beer pot that you seem to portray you have, and be rational. It is easy to talk the talk. It is hard to try to know the reality on the other side and not base your impressions on a hollywood blockbuster that showed slums in glory.

I can tell I am glad I never got to work with you. You may not be racist, but you are so misinformed and narrow minded my head would explode just talking with you.
Have a happy dreamy colorful American life! "