Buying Culture

10 08 2009
Frozen in India, Served in America

Frozen in India, Served in America

Before the 1940s and 50s, an immigrant to the United States had to strip himself of his old traditions to match those of the host culture in order to be assimilated. This meant that he had to change his language, his religion, and even his food.

With the consumer revolution of the fifties in the Cold War years, Americans completely twisted their values. Being an American meant being a consumer. During those times, buying American and spending your money on the American economy meant that you were not a Communist, and thus you were an American. To prove American status, one had to drive the same car that his neighbor drove. He had to watch the TV shows that everyone else watched. He had to conspicuously consume in the same way that everyone else did. Instead of only consuming to show wealth, one consumed to be an American.

The possessions a person owns inevitably reveal something about the owner. “Western possessive individualism thought to underlie American and European concepts of self is notably absent in India, thus providing a markedly different context in which to examine the relevance of possessions to identity” 1. The Indian ideals of strong family obligations and high respect for the elders and authority can be seen in possessions such as heirlooms and dowries. The most valued possessions to Indians are those that carry a memory or a history2. For Americans, the items with most value are those that show off the individual, like fancy cars and boats.

The first Indian immigrants of the mid 60s found it relatively easy to fit into this culture. Like many immigrants into a new culture, the Indians were reluctant to adapt any part of American culture into their own lives. Stereotypes of Americans led them to believe that the culture was “drug infested and sexually permissive”1. It was certainly not the kind of environment they wanted to raise their children in. Initially their intentions were to earn a degree from the highly acclaimed American universities and then return to India to resume their life there. But “despite ambivalence about remaining in America…the pressure to at least superficially conform to American values [was] great”1. The first generation of Indian immigrants quickly adapted to American consumption habits. In a sense, they became American rather rapidly simply by buying what the Americans bought.

However, eventually the immigrants would decide to remain in the country to raise their families. The children of those Indians had to straddle the line between Indian and American cultures while growing up because no real place existed for them. Their parents received a firm upbringing instilled with Indian ideals. Upon moving to America they kept these ideals and only added consumption to the mix to fit in. But how would the children learn to appreciate Indian culture? Their only example of their parents’ museum-ized and romantic version of India sharply contrasted with absolutely everything else around them. They were forced to actively create their own identities that distinguished their American and Indian identities but honored both cultures as well.

A growing Indian community was only in its beginning stages in the early 70s. “Newly established places of worship began to serve as secular social spaces for Indian immigrants”3. By the 80s a visible Indian community had firmly planted its roots in the larger cities. The population of Indian immigrants had reached considerable amounts by this time. Indian children growing up in places like New Jersey, New York, and Los Angeles had a lot more Indian peers. They had temples, formal events, Indian shops, Indian theaters, and Indian restaurants to go to. The list goes on. They could go to an Indian store and buy Hindi music and rent Hindi films or buy Indian food. The pressing need to express one’s identity finally found its proper outlet through the availability and use of Indian commodities. What made them feel Indian was showing off their newly-bought Indian stuff.

These kids were able to grow up “more Indian” than the kids growing up in the 70s because they had wider access to their cultural roots through these commodities. The previous generation tended to have perceptions that were more American than Indian. Most of their friends were American, and they took part in more American events than Indian events simply because there was not enough of an Indian community.

Nowadays an Indian immigrant can live in someplace like Edison, New Jersey and be saturated in a “hyper Indian” culture, which through consumerism, glorifies and exaggerates what it means to be Indian. With the explosion in availability of Indian products, the second generation kids can be Indian, but in an American way. An Indian is someone of Indian heritage with at least some knowledge of their culture, while a “hyper-Indian” is an Indian who expresses his or her Indianness to a further extent through the use of Indian commodities. He or she may not know all the stories and the history, but is Indian by the mere fact that they “act” Indian by buying new things to prove it. It’s easier to explain their culture to the Americans who might otherwise have a hard time understanding. The language of consumerism is one in which both cultures have become fluent.

Sounds good! Actually if you could get pictures of a whole bunch of people at some Indian function that would be nice. Or exiting/entering a mall. Those sound good, also, what about car ornaments? Juxtaposition of something American with something Indian. I think I have a photo of a Ganesh dashboard figure and a rearview ornament of an American band. I might also have a shot of an OM sticker-type thing on the outside of a vehicle and/or the inside. yup that sounds good! i’m going to go through edits and take out comments, i think we’re done here.

I’m going to take the photos today around the Dallas area. I searched everywhere and couldn’t find the car ornament pics. I ought to have something by tonight.

1. “Artifacts, Identity, and Transition: Favorite Possessions of Indians and Indian Immigrants to the United States”
Raj Mehta; Russell W. Belk
The Journal of Consumer Research > Vol. 17, No. 4 (Mar., 1991), pp. 398-411

2. “Socialization Values and Practices of Indian Immigrant Parents: Correlates of Modernity and Acculturation”
Nisha Patel; Thomas G. Power; Navaz Peshotan Bhavnagri
Child Development > Vol. 67, No. 2 (Apr., 1996), pp. 302-313

3. “What Is Indian about You?: A Gendered, Transnational Approach to Ethnicity”
Monisha Das Gupta
Gender and Society > Vol. 11, No. 5 (Oct., 1997), pp. 572-596


The Cultural Value of an Indian Store

12 06 2009

Like many South Asian Americans, I wade my way through the dense thicket of Indian aunties and the crying babies to get my Indian groceries. It’s a small price that I readily pay to be an Indian in America. A single Indian grocery store is really nothing exciting. Yet the simple act of consuming cultural goods with other members of the community provides a sense of closeness and belonging. For most of my life, I have felt as though people point at me and sing “Which one of these is not like the other?” The anonymity in an Indian-American store allows for a certain community bond between Indian shoppers to develop. The Indian store is a place where an Indian can enjoy being Indian without anyone noticing.

Dallas (technically, Richardson, TX) has a million little South Asian niche shops and grocery stores like the almighty Taj Mahal Imports. Taj (as it is called locally) has a huge selection of South Asian foods and condiments, specialized cooking utensils, Indian books, Indian instruments, religious idols, and fresh vegetables. Within walking distance used to be Atlantic Video. They sold a huge selection of new and old Bollywood music and movies. Next door you can buy your gold jewelry, salwar kameez1 and kurta pajamas2 for the next wedding, then stop by the sweets shops and the restaurants too. To the unfamiliar eye, these stores sell an unimaginable variety of everything Indian. It’s like being a kid in a toy store. Ultimately, it’s a gathering place for the South Asian community.

I don’t remember the first time that my family and I drove to Dallas for the sole purpose of shopping at those Indian stores in Richardson. I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a fairly large city with a tiny South Asian population. It was a regular Saturday trip for friends and family to carpool down to Texas. It seems like an odd thing to do, I suppose. How many people do you know who regularly drive more than 200 miles from home simply to buy their cooking necessities? For us, it was better than the alternative. Tulsa only had three small stores scattered throughout the city that sold Indian stuff in the ’90s. Their selections were always very limited. Prices were too high and the staple food products like flour and rice came only in small quantities. Finding fresh eastern vegetables was rare since they weren’t sold at the regular American supermarkets. We bought only the bare necessities at these stores, then moved on to the next errand.

Without a central place for the entire South Asian community, it took a strong effort to sustain our heritage in Oklahoma. Anthropologist Caroline Brettell asks how “the locality dimension of an immigrant community [is] constructed” in her research about spatial patterns of Asian Indian immigrants in Dallas3. She looks at the way these immigrants create meeting places to keep the community together. South Asian immigrants typically settle in the suburbs among white Americans, causing them to lack a certain centrality. To keep the community from disappearing into mainstream America, they need an assemblage akin to the consumerist face of the Little Italy’s and Chinatowns of the major American cities. In contrast to Tulsa, a large population of South Asians in the Dallas area allowed a greater community to arise there.

Brettell cites Taj Mahal Imports as one of the places that ethnic communities in the suburbs created as informal meeting places to “serve as leisure locales where social bonding occurs among users.” South Asians come to Taj to eat freshly made street foods like pav bhaji4 and pani puri5 over at the chaat6 corner with their friends. They catch up on the latest gossip and happenings of the community, all while buying their flour, rice, daals7, and South Asian vegetables for their day-to-day needs.

The outsides of the Indian stores in Dallas prove to consumers that they are in America. The inside of the store reminds them that the South Asian culture in America is sturdy, and that they have the strong common desire to maintain that culture. The stores allow South Asians to connect with their fellow countrymen in a way that bridges the power of consumption and its strong ties to cultural identity (which is another topic altogether). These places are so powerful that they attract visitors from hundreds of miles away. It reminds us that our larger South Asian American community is indeed big and thriving, whether we live in the heart of it or not.


1. salwar kameez: literally, “pant shirt.” traditional clothing worn by South Asian women

2. kurta pajama: also “pant shirt,” the male version

3. Brettell, Caroline B., (2005). “The spatial, social, and political incorporation of Asian Indian immigrants in Dallas, Texas. Urban Anthropology & Studies of Cultural Systems & World Economic Development.” Vol. 34 (2-3), pp. 247-280.

4. pav bhaji: Indian street food made from a veggie mashup with bread. Wikipedia explains it better than I can;

5. pani puri: Indian street food involving stuffed puris and flavored water.

6. chaat: the term for street food

7. daal: blanket term for dried beans like split lentils and others that are often used to make soups or stews