How South Asians are redefining the American dream

South Asian Americans living in the New York area and across the country walk the fine line between assimilation and maintaining ancestral cultural identity. It's redefining the American dream by removing limitations on what it can mean.

"For millions of people around the country and around the world, we essentially bridge the gap between our two identities," Trisha Sakhuja-Walia, the CEO and co-founder of Brown Girl Magazine, told FOX 5 NY. "I know for a fact that I'll never just be American, and I will never just be Indian."

Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla described it this way: "What the next generation is doing is that they're expanding that base, beyond just a few categories."

Embracing the American way without forgetting where you're from is a difficult balance.

"I struggle a lot because there are so many cultural aspects of myself and my family," Yasmin Virani, the host of the Brown Colored Glasses podcast, said, "and my faith and my religion."

It has resulted in a new generational journey of cultural identity.

"We've had a lot of time to reset and reflect, and so who are we? Why are we here? What's important to us?" entrepreneur Mona Patel said. "I think that reflection of identity might be coming out." 

Let's take a closer look at the roots of the South Asian American journey. The term "South Asian" refers mostly to people from the Indian subcontinent. You can be from Sri Lanka, Punjab, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet — all of these places and more.

It also means acknowledging the sins of stereotypes on American soil. The Apu character popularized on The Simpsons is perhaps the most debated example in pop culture.

"We all seem to face the same, or similar problems with racial profiling," Bhalla said. 

Bhalla, born and raised in the Garden State, is the first person of Sikh faith elected mayor in New Jersey and one of a small number elected to public office across the country.

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His parents immigrated to the United States from India. The family encountered a culture shock early when his dad was urged to remove his turban before attending Penn State (not by university officials).

"He decided not to do that, he decided that there is no conflict between being South Asian and being Sikh, and being a successful American," Bhalla said. His dad would later become a successful small business owner.

Bhalla's push into politics is an example of second-generation South Asian Americans charting a new path beyond what many of their parents envisioned.

"As immigrants, when you come here, you try to stay in safer lanes — what is the fastest path to security, stability, prestige," Patel said. "In a way, upward mobility — doctor, lawyer, engineer."

Patel, whose parents also immigrated from India, would know about challenging stereotypes. The former NASA intern didn't pursue a career in either medicine or aerospace science. Instead, she founded several companies including a marketing firm with clients like Nike.

Now she's a playwright and, before the pandemic, an avid public speaker. Her experiences as a strong businesswoman also stretch the limits of cultural gender norms.

"Very strong women who've shown up and, and like equality and expect it. I think that there's some dynamics there that are still working themselves out," Patel said.

Nearly 5.4 million South Asian Americans live in the United States, according to advocacy organization South Asian Americans Leading Together, or SAALT

Within that group, people descending from India have a median income of about $100,000 a year, according to Pew Research Center. That is about $20,000 more than the national average listed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"It's not magical, it's nothing about genetically being superior or culturally being superior," said Sangay Mishra, a political science professor at Drew University. He pointed to U.S. immigration policy of the 1960s as a reason for economic success today.

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"Which really put focus on bringing in people who have higher education," he said. "Once you kind of integrate into the middle-class, upper-middle-class segment of American society, then it's easier for you or your children to actually move up."

Economic success is, of course, extremely important. But life in the United States is far more complicated than dollars and cents, especially in recent years. The racial tensions in this country have forced some South Asian Americans to examine their own racial identity with American society.

Virani's podcast, Brown Colored Glasses, takes a closer look at traditions clashing with evolving attitudes. She created it after the George Floyd protests to try to find her own voice on race.

"How we can begin to change the rhetoric, the narrative, especially as second- and third-generation South Asian Americans living in the USA," she said.

The challenge is doing all this while hanging on to her roots, Virani said. Her family just celebrated Nowruz, the Persian New Year. This spring her daughter will also enroll in American Ninja Warrior classes for kids.


Now, with Hollywood also embracing new stars in non-cliché roles, it is clear the beginning steps of change are here — even if they are baby steps.

"We've come far but it's taken a lot of time and effort," Brown Girl Magazine's Sakhuja-Walia said. "And we still have a lot more to do."

With Brown Girl Magazine delving into just about every aspect of South Asian American life, Sakhuja-Walia is watching it all closer than most. At just 31, she knows this journey is far from over.

"I've been grateful enough to have seen the South Asian community grow from the sidelines," Sakhuja-Walia said. "I know what it's taken us to essentially carve out that representation for ourselves."