How staple Americana became Indian-American dream

How staple Americana became Indian-American dream

By Greg Varner

Nothing could be more American than road trips and motels. It’s also true, though less widely known, that the owners and operators of about half of all motels in the United States are immigrants from India (or their descendants). “Chances are that anyone who has stayed in motels in the last decade has stayed in at least one owned by an Indian American,” writes sociologist Pawan Dhingra in his new book “Life Behind the Lobby,” out this month from Stanford University Press.

The total number of motel rooms owned by Indian Americans is nearly two million, with property values exceeding $100 billion. The vast majority of these motel owners come from the same Indian state, Gujarat. Even more remarkably, 70 percent of them share the same surname, Patel–an extremely common name in India–though they are not all related.

This dominance of the motel business by Indian Americans has been viewed as a characteristically American success story–the American dream realized. The neoliberal state theorizes entrepreneurs as ideal citizens, as Dhingra points out in the introduction to his book, since they are self-reliant workers who expect little or no help from the government. But the brightly shining rhetoric conceals a less sunny reality, since Indian American motel owners are also viewed as second-class citizens, subject to racial and cultural prejudice that sometimes translates into real inequality. (Indian American owners are concentrated in the bottom half of the industry, in lower- and mid-budget motels.)

“There are two schools of thought about ethnic entrepreneurs,” Dhingra says. “Ethnic entrepreneurship is a difficult road, but it does lead to mobility, and it’s basically a pathway for a group to uplift itself from difficult conditions. Others argue that ethnic entrepreneurship actually is a subtle form of exploitation–it’s the long hours; it’s the low wages; it’s the need for family resources. Those are the two schools of thought. So where does this population fit in?”

The success of Indian Americans moteliers is, in fact, downright staggering. They came to this country with little knowledge of the motel industry, and yet have come to dominate a quintessentially American business. Yet it’s also true that the recession has hit motel owners hard, especially those at the lower end of the industry, who often don’t have the financial resources necessary to weather the storm.

 A Gujarati moves to the U.S. and he can choose any business, but will go into motels. Why? Because he knows people in the business who can help him out. The sense of community facilitates his entry into that business.

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