Madhulika Khandelwal likes to multitask. While writing her new book, “Becoming American, Being Indian,” she said she did research in stores, asking fellow shoppers about their personal experiences as immigrants to New York City.
At a Master’s Tea in Silliman College Monday, Madhulika Khandelwal discussed with 15 students the subject of her book — Indian immigrant communities in New York City. She spoke about several issues she said are not often discussed, including the unique experiences of women and elderly immigrants.
Khandelwal was born in India and educated in both India and the United States. She earned a Ph.D in History from Carnegie-Mellon University.
Khandelwal said she became interested in studying the immigrant experience when she was working on her degree at Carnegie-Mellon. She said she noticed that very little social science-based research had been done on the local Indian community in Pittsburgh. Then Khandelwal went to New York City, which has the largest urban population of Indian immigrants in the United States.
In New York City, 70 percent of Indian immigrants live in the borough of Queens. Khandelwal said she spent much of her time interviewing and researching the lives of local men, women and children.
“I was interested in how culture and religion transform when immigrants come to the U.S.,” Khandelwal said. “There is also much socioeconomic diversity within the Indian population in this country, which is very evident in Queens, ranging from wealthy professionals at the top of their careers to blue collar workers or even very poor, downwardly mobile immigrants.”
Khandelwal also addressed the so-called “brain drain” of the 1960s, a time during which she said a demand for professionals — especially doctors — brought a large influx of educated immigrants out of India and into the United States. She also spoke about how this wave of immigration has affected subsequent generations.
She also described other generational and gender differences.
“Though many Indian immigrants from the older generation once said, ‘This is the land of work for me, but once I retire I will go home,’ they often cannot,” she said. “Many women also simply don’t want to go back after having been here.”
Khandelwal said her book, which has also been published in India, is meant to extend beyond an academic readership.
“I want my book to be accessible and understood by many people,” Khandelwal said. “I hope that students and policymakers will read it. The book touches on multiculturalism, not only between groups, but also within one population. Indians come from a range of religious backgrounds, and even Hinduism, for example, is a diverse and varying religion.”
Tamara Micner ’07, who is from Vancouver, Canada, said she came to the Tea because she was interested in hearing another outsider’s view of America.
“I didn’t know much about the Indian immigrant experience, though there is a large Sikh Indian community in Vancouver,” Micner said. “A lot of the issues there are the same as [Khandelwal] described in New York — I also had never realized how much there is a glass ceiling not only for professional women, but also for immigrants, because of their race.”
Udyogi Hangawatte ’04 said she found the subject of Khandelwal’s talk relevant to many classes that she has taken.
“Though I wish [Khandelwal] had given more concrete examples of the general trends she talked about, she was a great speaker,” Hangawatte said. “She was clearly very well informed and she hit upon every major issue.”
Khandelwal serves as director of the Asian-American Center and is a professor of Urban Studies at Queens College, City University of New York.