Saturday, February 07, 2009


Asian Indian community's growth not just in numbers
Del. population finds balance between cultures
By RHINA GUIDOS • The News Journal • January 27, 2009

Buzz up! Space is running out at the Sikh temple in Elsmere. On a Friday or Sunday evening during services, members squeeze together to sit in prayer. The women, backs against the wall, crowd into one room, the men in the other, and when those fill, any small nook will do.

To follow building code, temple organizers have set up two large services to accommodate the growing population. They're also planning an expansion this year on the existing grounds of the Elsmere property.

The growth, even for Sikhs -- a minority group within the Asian Indian community -- mirrors a boom found in the U.S. census.

In Delaware, the 2007 U.S. Census shows that Asian Indians, with 8,416 estimated members, are the second-largest immigrant group. Nationally, the census put the Asian Indian population at 2.5 million.

As a student at the University of Delaware, Bill Swiatek, now a senior planner with Wilmington Area Planning Council, documented the rise of the group in Delaware through research for his undergraduate and graduate thesis.

Delaware has attracted many Asian Indians, says Swiatek, largely because of the strengths of its industries. Swiatek found that many came as doctors and engineers in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

"Delaware was a big feeder," remembers Prem Tandon, an engineer who ended up in Delaware working for what was then a Getty refinery in Delaware City.

They were few in number but, like many immigrant groups, they came looking for opportunities with companies like DuPont, Hercules and others that coveted their skills.

"Forty years ago, it was much different," Tandon recalls. "There were probably a total of 15 of us. I don't blame the non-Indians for saying, 'That guy looks strange.' But now the Indian community has made great progress and we're in the mainstream."

Jitu Asthana, also an engineer, came to Delaware during that time with his wife. They were in Nashville for a while before landing in Delaware. It was easy to socialize with other Asian Indians here, he said, because the numbers were so small. They watched movies together, held parties, marked professional and personal strides together.

"But we made a big effort to get organized," he said.

Building a community

Organization is a skill not lacking in the wave of Indian immigrants that Asthana and Tandon arrived in.

Do a search of Delaware and Indian organizations and a small phone directory worth of names pop up: There's the Hindu Temple Association, the Gujarati Samaj of Delaware Inc., undergraduate student associations, graduate student associations, merchant groups and two Hindu temples on the long list.

Asthana and Tandon are part of the Indo American Association of Delaware, whose mission is to educate others about Asian Indians, to promote the Indian heritage for younger generations and to promote unity among the Indo-American community.

As Tandon is careful to point out, India is a big country and it certainly isn't made up of a monolithic group of people.

"India itself is so huge, there's so much diversity," he said.

You'll find the same diversity in Delaware's Indian population: Hindus make up the largest religious group, but, as the Elsmere temple shows, there are also Sikhs, Muslims and Christians.

But there is one thing that ties those groups together, Tandon says.

"Delaware is one of the best places to raise a family," Tandon said, and if you know anything about Indians, you know that family is big.

Swiatek, the researcher, said that those family ties seemed to have brought a second group of Indians to Delaware: the merchant class.

Sid Sharma, of Newark, who came to Delaware in the 1980s to study in nearby Drexel University said he noticed the rise of the merchant class as he drove between Delaware and Pennsylvania.

In a matter of years, Indian stores began cropping up one by one in Delaware, a change from when he first arrived and had to buy goods for home in Philadelphia. He also noticed something else about the new wave of arrivals.

"The person who came started bringing their families here, which were non-professional," he said.

Tandon added: "And it was good that they brought them. It made it more emotionally peaceful for Indians."

The families, and single members of the Indian community, would gather to socialize and watch Indian movies at UD, where Asian Indian student groups also started making their presence known.

Branching out

For the most part, Swiatek says, Asian Indians settled in exclusively "white middle class" areas in northern New Castle, mainly in Hockessin and Christiana. Because most were highly educated and fluent in English before they came, they were able to settle anywhere in the region.

Being part of the mainstream community is important to the professional class.

"I didn't want my kids to be different than Joe Blow on the street," Tandon said.

In the past decade, however, some things have changed. Swiatek has noticed that those in the merchant class have settled in some of the area's less-affluent neighborhoods and tend to congregate with one another more than the more professional groups did.

The population has gotten so big, the earlier arrivals say, that it's a lot harder to keep track of what each group is doing and what the new trends bring. They point out that Asian Indians have become part of the nation's mainstream. They point to Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana, who is being touted as a rising political star, even as presidential material.

"The first generation who came were doctors or engineers," Tandon said. "Our kids have diversified. They used to be doctors or engineers. Now they are journalists and politicians."

However, while moving into the mainstream, they're careful to note that they haven't forgotten to honor their heritage.

"They see themselves as a hybrid, as being an Indian and an American," Swiatek said.

The next step, Tandon says, is to focus on helping those outside the Asian Indian community.

"The association is focusing on work we can do with the non-Indian community," Tandon said. "We feel we had the opportunity to stay here, make money and we can do something for the community and that is to provide charity. The more we do these things, the more comfortable people are and they don't feel, 'These are strangers.' "


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