This is America: Racism, Friendliness, Supremacy – In Equal Parts
A former Indian ambassador talks about his travels and experiences in the US, while on holiday recently.
My association with the USA, a truly amazing nation of immigrants, goes back three decades. I was posted in New York in the late 1980s and have been a regular visitor since, having travelled a fair bit across its stunning expanse, and made some wonderful friends.
The country never fails to surprise me with its energy, pace of life, sense of confidence and humour, geographic beauty, demographic diversity, prejudices, and contradictions. The good and not-so-good co-exist, and so does cutting edge innovation and ignorance.
The Eminence of Indian-Americans
Countless people of Indian origin (PIO) have made their fortune in this land of opportunity. Indian Americans, including non-resident Indians (NRIs), add up to some 4 million or over 1 percent of the country’s population. Not just Indians, some 43.7 million immigrants from around the world have made the US their home (as of 2016), accounting for 13.5 percent of its population of 323 million. One-fifth of the world's migrants are living there.
Fortunately, the stock of Indians is quite high in the US given their diligence, language abilities, literacy levels and prosperity.
Indian Americans now boast of the highest per capita income in the country. They also hold a slew of prestigious positions in industry, academia and politics. Over 82 percent of them, in the age group of 25 or above, held a college or university degree in 2015, compared to the national average of 49 percent as per a study by PEW. Similarly, their median annual household income was USD 100,000 (USD57,230 for the US).
Nikki Haley, former Governor of South Carolina, became the first PIO to hold a cabinet level position in the federal government with her appointment as the US Ambassador to the United Nations last year.
In 2016, Haley was named among ‘The 100 Most Influential People’ by Time magazine. Satya Nadella, has been the CEO of Microsoft Corporation, an iconic American IT powerhouse, with market capitalisation of USD 760 billion, since 2014. These are just two examples of illustrious PIOs.
Hate Crimes in the US
On a lighter note, some years ago, I saw a nice leather briefcase in a leading store in New York. The only issue was that someone had played around with the combination number of one of its locks which did not latch. The manager summarily pronounced it as defective but offered a 50 percent discount if I wanted it. Of course, I grabbed it, needing just to figure out the correct combination code. While leaving, I overheard another salesman asking him why I would buy such a piece? “Oh, he is Indian. He can fix anything,” he replied.
Yet, many of the same Americans cannot distinguish Sikhs from Arabs. An estimated 500,000 Sikhs live in the country, many in New York and California.
The Huffington Post notes ruefully that despite their 150 years of history in the country, Sikh Americans are still misunderstood. They are often discriminated against and on occasion, targets of hate crimes. An Indian Ambassador was even asked to remove his turban by airport security in 2010.
It is not just the common man who is incurious. In November 1999, Texas Governor and the Republican presidential front-runner George W Bush, was asked to name the Indian PM during an interview. (Vajpayee had ordered nuclear tests earlier in May). The exchange is worth recounting (courtesy – Washington Post). Bush: “The new prime minister of India is – no.” To mask his embarrassment, Bush asked, “Can you name the foreign minister of Mexico?” The reporter, “No sir, but... I'm not running for President.” (Ironically, once in office, Bush turned out to be the greatest friend of India). Not to be outdone, President Trump reportedly pronounced Nepal as ‘nipple’ and Bhutan as ‘button’.
America’s Tryst With Political Correctness – and Incorrectness
Americans can also be needlessly curt. Yet they cheerfully greet strangers, hold open the door and routinely say ‘thank you’. Admirably, the US is a rule-bound and orderly society. People queue up patiently, vehicles come to a halt at stop signs, and the pedestrian’s right of way is fully respected.
The US has started taking political correctness to an extreme.
President Obama’s light-hearted comment about his friend Kamala Harris – ‘… she is brilliant and she is dedicated and she is tough… she also happens to be, by far, the best-looking attorney general in the country’ – was dubbed sexist. It kicked up a storm of sorts. Harris had no complaints, but Obama had to publicly apologise.
Similarly, it is no longer appropriate to refer to an African-American as ‘Black’. Yet there is still widespread prejudice against them. They remain at the bottom of the societal and economic pyramid. Violence against them by the police is endemic and their incarceration-rate is shockingly high.
An Unparalleled Land
Again, even deadly assault rifles can be freely bought with cursory checks across the nation. The per capita possession of firearms by civilians, is the highest in the world. With sickening regularity, deranged individuals open fire in schools, universities, malls and public places, extinguishing countless innocent lives.
Politicians make pro forma soothing noises, people shed tears in sorrow, candle-light vigils are held, the media swoops down in droves, and gradually, it is business as usual. Calls for banning lethal firearms fall on deaf ears. Reason? The gun rights lobby led by NRA (National Rifle Association) is well networked, powerful and generous with political donations.
That being said, the US remains a nation without parallel. Its vast land is bestowed with abundant natural resources.
But its strongest suit is its exceptional human resource, spawned by freedom of thought, spirit of enquiry, chutzpah and preeminent educational institutions. People dare to dream and rise to the top, by dint of hard work. The US has also been successful for decades in attracting and nurturing the best brains from all over the world. Its gene pool is getting steadily enriched by a growing number of inter-ethnic and inter-cultural kids.
The fourth industrial revolution is the next frontier that the mankind aims to conquer. The US is the best placed to do so, and benefit exponentially. I continue to bet big on this unique nation!
(The writer is a former High Commissioner to Canada, Ambassador to South Korea and Official Spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached at@AmbVPrakash. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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