NRI

Google fb32x32 twitter linkedin feed-icon-32x32

North American Desis

North American Desis

September 07, 2010

Indo-Americans and Indo-Canadians - continental cousins or world's apart?

For those of us NRIs who live in Canada, we're often asked by family and friends back home how life here is different than it is for our confreres in the United Kingdom or the United States, two large countries with large South Asian communities. Now I don't know much about the scene in the U.K., so let me stick to the Canada and U.S. comparison. The first thing is that we're saddled with the peculiar moniker of being "East Indians" here. Apparently, the fact that there are a lot of people here from the West Indies is the reason. Someone once told me this usage was imported from the U.K., along with chicken tikka masala, but I believe we're called South Asians there -- so what gives? In the U.S., at any rate, we're generally called Indo-Americans. I'm not sure if I like hyphenation either, but I prefer it to a gratuitous geographical tag.

As another difference, the demographic mixture is more heavily tilted towards Punjabis here than in the US, where there are a lot of, say, South Indians in the IT industry, Gujarathis running small businesses (the ubiquitous "Potels" for instance), Bengalis in academia, and so on. Here, it's mostly Punjabis, many of whom have been here for ages. As a result, the old stock Canadians (read: Anglo-Celts and French-Canadians) think that all of us are Punjabis. They're not entirely to blame, of course, since there's been a "Punjabicization" of Indian culture back in India itself, noticeable in Bollywood films and music. Still, it's a tad annoying when someone here assumes that you must eat samosas and naans every day just because you come from India. At least, they know what samosas and naans are, I'll give them that.

Of course, these are all superficial features of life here. At a deeper level, when I compare myself and other Indians in Canada to the people I know in the U.S., I sense a greater degree of confidence and pride in being Indian there than I do here. I think this owes a great deal to successful and high profile Indians in the US, whether in IT, investment banking, academia, or in politics. You know the names, so I won't trot them out. By contrast, Indians here are generally more low-key. It's true that we're starting to find a greater presence in the mainstream, most notably in government and the media, but we haven't had, in my judgement, a breakthrough of the sort achieved by Indians in the US, whether it's becoming CEO of a major multinational or breaking into US politics in a big way.

Now, someone's sure to point out that we do have prominent Indians in politics here. While that's true, the fact remains that most of them pursue parochial political agendas that don't resonate with the larger Indian community, to say nothing of the rest of Canadian society. To take a noteworthy recent example, one backbench Liberal M.P. of Sikh descent is pursuing reparations for the Sikhs, referring to an incident in 1914 in which a ship, the Komagata Maru, was turned away from Canadian shores, carrying Sikhs hoping to migrate to Canada. While I don't deny that there might be merit in this, you can see why it doesn't become a major national issue on the order of, say, fixing our broken health care system or failing schools.

There's a deeper paradox at the root of this, in my opinion. The Canadian model of multiculturalism has, in fact, become a form of de facto ghettoization, in which the true levers of power rest firmly in the hands of the old stock. Let me give you a striking and illustrative example, again taken from the government city where I live. Go and walk the corridors of the foreign ministry and the Prime Minister's office, if you can make it past the guards: these are where the mandarins sit, the real powers behind the throne in our Westminster-style democracy. Almost without exception, the upper echelons of the civil service in these powerful ministries are drawn from old stock and well-connected elites who went to the right schools and play golf on the weekend at the same clubs. Now when, someday, we have an Indian (or a Chinese, or an African) sitting and whispering into the Prime Minister's ear, or, God forbid, becomes the Prime Minister herself, then I'll say that we've made some progress here. Until then, I'm not putting my suitcase down, not just yet.


21 Comments

  • sam
    By
    sam
    26.12.12 04:00 AM
    is it true that majority of punjabi sikhs living in canada are anti india and pro khalistani suporters.i heard there are lots of such gangs and they indulge in crime.something like a ghetto.
  • sam
    By
    sam
    25.12.12 04:00 PM
    is it true that majority of punjabi sikhs living in canada are anti india and pro khalistani suporters.i heard there are lots of such gangs and they indulge in crime.something like a ghetto.
  • A Singh
    By
    A Singh
    16.07.12 08:07 PM
    Rape? Murder? Shootings?

    Sounds like the actions of almost every European coloniser suppressing the 'dominant' culture of the nation they took over
  • Janice
    By
    Janice
    16.07.12 07:48 PM
    The difference is the first few hundred years almost all settlers were white and respected the canadian culture and did everything they could to be like us. This massive 3rd world asian invasion are rude, cocky, liars, sexist and dont speak the language and dont even want to learn canadian culture. There are many people who came from canada 30 years ago who are not white and are canadian in their culture and thinking, they are westernized......We do not call these foreign people canadian we call them outsiders.........dont listen to the media they lie! Its not what canadians think, they are braininwashing people...!
  • Rajpriya
    By
    Rajpriya
    16.07.12 09:55 AM
    Do you want say there was no one in Canada when your French and Irish ancestors migrated and mixed in 1630 to produce the Canadian you are today.

    So this massive mass migration of people a year ago will relate a similar story in the year 2394. That they are a race mixed of Irish, French and Indians and what not.

    There was a time there were not that many people in Canada when the Irish and French mass migrated. The Red Indians of the United States of America made way for mass migration of Irish, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Latinos and lot more to make up the present so called Americans not forgetting Africans imported as slaves.

    When foreigners invade through mass migration a country there are always atrocities committed and because they need to assert them selves, that’s a very normal pattern of human history.
  • Janice
    By
    Janice
    16.07.12 02:18 AM
    Hello I am a white canadian woman whose family is mixed irish and french from 1630. We are the canadian settlers who first came and settled in quebec. Let me tell you something the earlier settlers had to assimulate into the culture established and canada was almost all white until 20 years ago. We had massive 3rd world immigration since then. THe immigrants who came 20 years ago respected our culture and fit into it, the ones coming in the past 10 years or so dont change at all. In fact alot of them settle into THEIR ethnic community and never leave and dont learn the language of canada (which is english and french), the canadian culture, and our ways. I do have some friends who came around 1990 and decided to just learn the dominant culture, these tend to be people who come alone and want to improve and get ahead quicker. It doesnt take a rocket scientist to figure out that hanging out with white people, learning our culture and ways will be the road to prosperity in canada. The government imposed these multicultural racist policies on the population without out consent and its costing us billions of dollars in taxes every year. All that is happening is for ex. in ottawa we now have 600 ethnic gangs with rapes, shottings and murders every day that in canada we only had one a year before massive immigration. I should know I grew up here!!!!!!!!1
  • Sap
    By
    Sap
    30.12.10 10:58 AM
    Canadian approach to multiculturalism is wrong.
    The US way is far better - first an American then an Indian.

    I have worked in UK, USA and Canada.In UK as Practice Manager for ERP, in Canada as Business Analyst / Sr Consultant and in USA as Sr. Consultant and Manager in several companies.

    I can say in professionalism USA leads followed by UK with Canada a distant 3rd.

    No Canada is not getting an Indra Nooyi any time soon or Nitin Nohria or Shyamalan or ....

    A reading of the Forbes billionaire list is telling other than RIM all is old money ..inheritance.

    So long as the country digs up minerals and sells these raw , so long as the country sells trees as lumber and pats itself on its back it will be as it always was.

    Sweden has Ikea and Canada has/ had trade wars over duties US placed on Canadian lumber!

    What is the value of brains then in such a society - limited - I think.



    So I
  • perrydhillon
    By
    perrydhillon
    27.11.10 02:46 AM
    british were used to asians+indians during colonization and at their working levels as well as economically.

    canadians (europeans) were coming to canada.
  • Ravi
    By
    Ravi
    10.09.10 04:20 AM
    On a positive note, I hope the incident at Vivek's place was just one of those random misfortunes or might be limited to only those guys who were involved.

    I also believe that with time, Indians in Canada, UK and Australia would be(look/sound) as proud, successful , confident and interesting as their counterparts in the USA.

    In no time after that (say in 70-80 years time), perhaps India would be in the position of current Canada and native Canadians residing in India then would talk about less multicultural/cosmopolitan Indians as we do now:)
  • A Singh
    By
    A Singh
    09.09.10 10:42 PM
    Hey, you like to wear kurta pyjama. You should move to Brampton. It was THE look on the street last time I was there:)
  • Vivek Dehejia
    By
    Vivek Dehejia
    09.09.10 10:34 PM
    @A. Singh

    Your comments on racism are very apt - it is certainly context-dependent, and how one dresses and the people around a huge factor. To give a personal example, I like to wear kurta/pyjama at home - it's the most comfortable and natural for me. But now post 9/11 I do hesitate wearing it in public. I think I would feel even more apprehensive if I were identifiable via a turban. I have several Sikh friends who took the painful decision to cut their hair post 9/11. All in all, this is a tough situation and perhaps too subtle to convey all the angles in a short post or reply.
  • A Singh
    By
    A Singh
    09.09.10 10:27 PM
    @Yadu - I would like to correct my earlier statement which I can see now misrepresented my viewpoint. After all, I am a British Asian and proud of my Indian heritage! What I was trying to get across was based on close observation of friends and family in the UK, US and Canada and possibly too difficult to articulate in this forum.

    There is no doubt that Indians in the UK are successful in many fields; it's a matter of record, period. However, I have noted that with Indo-Americans, particularly the younger generation, they appear to be more pro-active in instigating and participating in cultural activities. This may be down to the monocultural approach there, i.e. you are an American first, that causes them to strive even harder in connecting with their Indian roots.

    @Vivek et al - with regards to the level of racism faced by Indians in each of the countries, this is not a straightforward issue. Experiences will depend on a number like - location (Brampton or Winnipeg, Manhattan or Idaho, London or Newcastle), whether you wear a turban (like me) or not, pre 9/11 or post 9/11, internal or external political events (muslims state that they are facing problems as a result of NY Mosque issue comparable to post 9/11).

    A turbanned Sikh friend of mine lives in a very affluent area of San Diego and has faced more racism there than any other place in the US, and he has been around. In this case it is due to the disproportionately high number of millitary personnel and families and their ignorance - man + turban = taliban
  • Vivek Dehejia
    By
    Vivek Dehejia
    09.09.10 07:01 PM
    @Ravi

    Thanks for your comments. Ottawa is in fact a fairly cosmopolitan, multicultural city, which makes the sort of incident I describe even more surprising. Maybe the right word is not 'racism' but 'racial or ethnic profiling' - assuming someone is a menial worker because of their race - although in my mind this is also a form of racism. Another factor is that the building where we live is populated mostly by older, white folks who grew up in a very different Canada. OK, but don't they watch TV or even walk outside now and again to see how the place has changed? Still mystifying to me.
  • Ravi
    By
    Ravi
    09.09.10 04:40 PM
    Vivek,

    I am surprised to know that just because your wife is brown, she was asked by your neighbours several times if she works as a maid. I can only think that the local area where you live in Canada may not have many well-educated/multi-cultural/cosmopolitan people, who can otherwise identify people by what they say not by the way they look/dress-up.

    Having lived in the UK for the last 10 years, I have never heard of such an incident here, definitely not from colleagues/neighbours. I can not comment on the 'hypocrisy' content that runs through people's minds as I don't think one should bother about it. However, I don't deny the fact that my family did face a couple of racist related remarks here but they were only 2 or 3 throughout our life here and were only made by those teenagers/rowdy guys who, I guess, are nasty to anyone else, irrespective of the race, and are found on any part of the world.

    I guess it all boils down to the multiculturalism of the country. The more people are exposed to other cultures, the more tolerance they gain (only talking of democratic or nearly democratic countries with reasonably good governance).

    After reading your article, my conception about the ranking of desis outside India in pride/sense of respect they enjoy from high to low is like 1.Indo-Americans 2.Indian British and then 3. Indo-Canadians.
  • Vivek Dehejia
    By
    Vivek Dehejia
    09.09.10 12:03 AM
    @yadu and @Nikhat:

    Thank you both for your perspectives. Not having been to the UK for quite a while (well, not counting transiting through Heahtrow) I don't have a good sense of the self-perception of South Asians plus how they're seen by wider British society.

    Another area I didn't bring due to lack of space was racism. Here in Canada it was quite pronounced when I came here as a youngster. Now as Canada becomes more ethnically diverse it is thankfully getting less. Except it still rears its ugly head. In the building where I live, mostly white and older, my wife has been asked not once but several times if she works as a maid - simply because she is brown, female, and young. Three strikes and you're out.
  • Nikhat Rasheed
    By
    Nikhat Rasheed
    08.09.10 10:28 PM
    @yadu

    I don't have any evidence about British Asians - my comment is only directed to Indo-Canadians. However, from personal experience of having studied at the London School of Economics and Leeds University, British Asians are doing extremely well. My friends from uni are in excellent positions in both public and private sectors, so I actually agree with you yadu that British Asians punch above their weight in general. However, I have seen some statistics that suggest Indians do far better than Pakistanis/Bangladeshis in terms of education and employment outcomes in the UK.
  • yadu
    By
    yadu
    08.09.10 09:56 PM
    A.Singh, Nikhat,

    i have no clue where you get the feeling that British of Indian origin or Indians in Britain are not proud of their Indian-ness.

    ethnic origin Indians are amongst the most successful ethnic groups in the UK (including the native population) and punch way above their % population.
  • Vivek Dehejia
    By
    Vivek Dehejia
    08.09.10 04:06 PM
    @BB: Good point on Canada vis-a-vis the US. Part of the difference surely does reflect differences between the two societies.

    @A: Thanks for reconfirming what I'd conjectured, that South Asians in Britain more closely fit the profile of Indo-Canadians than of Indo-Americans, and for similar reasons.

    @Nikhat: You raise an excellent point. I think there is great fodder here for a future piece!
  • Nikhat Rasheed
    By
    Nikhat Rasheed
    07.09.10 11:13 PM
    It's not multiculturalism that one can blame. It's the immigration model we have in Canada, and the poor integration of immigrants into society, particularly at economic levels is to blame. Canadian employers are hesitant to hire and integrate immigrant (including South Asian, talent) and "Canadian experience" is something that society looks for. Whereas in the US, with an employer-focused policy (sure they have other problems re: illegal migration, attitude towards migrants)and at least employers are focused on productivity and employing the best people. This is why you'll rarely see an Indra K. Nooyi (CEO, Pepsico) in Canada. Although Indians have amongst the highest rate of integration, overall you'll see a high rate of unemployment and underemployment.
  • A Singh
    By
    A Singh
    07.09.10 08:02 PM
    Interesting analysis. Although from neither country, I recognise one of the profiles. It seems that Indo-Canadians are more similar to their British counterparts than their continental cousins, especially in the lack of pride in their "Indian-ness". This is probably a result from the similar policy of multiculturalism. In that sense I quite admire the Indo-Americans
  • BB
    By
    BB
    07.09.10 07:17 PM
    Interesting contrasts and by and large right on. I would only add that I think the difference in spirit between the desis in Canada and US reflects in part the two countries: Canadians, modestly competent to quietly excellent; and Americans who aspire to and broadcast their greatness whether they have it or not... bb

Leave a comment