Response to Joel Stein’s piece on India in Time Magazine: My Own Selective Xenophobia

Rick Zimmerman, Guest Blogger

Today’s guest post was written by Rick Zimmerman.  I had the pleasure of meeting Rick through our work at ICMIS (International Center for Management and India Studies – formerly known as the Centre for American Education) in Bangalore, India.  When I read Joel Stein’s controversial piece in Time magazine recently, I asked myself to look at it through an Indian lens and then an American lens.  Needless to say, I can see why there was such an uproar. While Time magazine and Mr. Stein both apologized about the piece, I was curious to hear Rick’s thoughts about it. I asked Rick to serve as a guest blogger, as he has extensive experience in India, and like me, a true passion for this phenomenal country and its people.

I was asked a few weeks back by a friend of mine if I had read a certain piece in Time magazine by Joel Stein. The article was entitled “My Own Private India” and was about Stein’s hometown of Edison, N.J. and the Indian immigrants that lived there. I had not. So he asked me to read it and tell him what I thought about it. Stein laments in his article that Edison, which was “mostly white” when he left in 1989, is now one of the largest Indian communities in the United States. I was born in New Jersey too, in Hoboken, not too far from Stein. Hoboken, unlike Edison, was like the United Nations.
Edison is now unrecognizable to him. The place where he and his drunken friends would steal pizzas is now an Indian sweet shop and the A&P was replaced by a grocery that sells Indian foodstuffs. The restaurants and cinema, horror upon horrors, caters largely to Indian tastes.
Now, in his defense, Stein was writing what he called a humorous piece. His style is purportedly tongue-in-cheek. The problem with ethnic humor, which can be hysterical, is that the teller has to be inclusive in his delivery. Stein goes on to claim that the Indian immigrants that first came to Edison were brilliant but were replaced by merchants and their mentally challenged cousins in the 90s. “We started to understand why India is so damn poor.”
LOL! LOL! Right? I get it. Indians do not read Time.
Then there is “dot-heads,” and driving down the street yelling for its new residents to “go home to India.” Indians eat very spicy foods and their “gods have multiple arms and an elephant nose.” Stein also feels a sense of loss like people in Arizona. Brilliant!
He does cite the American-born as being more assimilated. They’re called Guidians because “while the population seems at least half Indian, a lot of them look like the Italian Guidos.” See, he is being inclusive here.
Please do not misunderstand me. In this country (the U.S.), being stupid is not illegal; nor is saying stupid things. You’re even allowed to dislike people for whatever reason you choose. But this also means you can be called out for it.
I, personally, feel that political correctness is equally stupid and offensive, but this just seemed plain mean-spirited. That is the real offense here. I am surprised that the ever-so-benign Time magazine published it. Perhaps offending Indian-Americans is fair game.
I used to go to Edison and neighboring Iselin all the time for the sole purpose of eating, shopping and meeting with friends. My significant former used to get “threaded” there (Google it). It is this very Indian-ness that draws me and countless others. But growing up amongst immigrants from all over the place probably made it easier for me than for those who grew up in a mono-ethnic society. Who can say? Some people just aren’t interested in getting out of their own backyard.
I haven’t been to Edison for almost 3 years. One of the reasons is because I moved back to Bangalore (that’s in India) for a job. After a stint in Florida, I am India bound next month and my friends there are pretty excited about it. The guy who originally hooked me up with this gig is the same one who mentioned Stein’s article. Well, this friend just taken the oath of citizenship and celebrated his first 4th of July as an American citizen. He was born in India.
Photo of Joel Stein from Time magazine article about Indians in Edison, New Jersey, USA
About the Author: Rick Zimmerman is a consultant, trainer/facilitator and educator. He began his international career as a military journalist and public affairs specialist and has lived and worked across Asia, Latin America and Africa. With a degree in Diplomacy and International Relations from Seton Hall’s Whitehead School, he traveled to India to do research and took a consulting/teaching job at the Centre for American Education (now known as ICMIS). This led to his work there as a corporate trainer in communications and crossing the cultural divide. He believes that curiosity is both a blessing and a curse, but it is also absolutely essential for those who dare to attempt addressing the bridge.
  • Sue Babcock

    The Time article just did not fly with my students, here in Asia.
    I’m sorry…but to be insensitive to one’s surroundings, whether in
    the U.S. A. or another country, just does not make it, within the
    international community. Shame, shame on all parties invovled in this one.

    • Thank you for your comment Sue. It really helps to hear how people around the world are reacting to this article. May I ask where you are and what age group your students are?

  • Sue Babcock

    Good morning, Missy, from Taipei, Taiwan.

    That was a very impressive rapid reply.
    I am a faculty member at the National Taiwan Normal University.
    The students are university students from the Department of English.
    One of their summer reading assignments is to read weekly English
    publications, such as Time, Newsweek, the Far Eastern Economic Review, etc.
    They are to keep a response log and submit it, on a weekly basis. Hence, where the comments came from. I had not read the Time article, until they pointed it out. It appears that we are now in an age, where the printed word carries a lot of weight and responsibility.

    Hope your summer is an enjoyable one.
    Cheerfully,
    Sue

  • Thanks Sue! I’m so pleased to hear that your students surfaced this particular article and felt obligated to write about their concerns. Wishing you a delightful summer also – and more profound journal entries from your students. Best, Missy