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Column vilified, insulted Indian Americans

By Rahul Parikh, Special to CNN
  • Rahul Parikh takes issue with Joel Stein's column about Indian Americans in his hometown
  • Essay was meant to be satire, but Parikh found it a xenophobic, racist rant
  • Parikh says writer distilled ancient and diverse culture into clichés and stereotypes
  • Says the piece reminded him ignorance about and fear of new people still exist in U.S.

Editor's note: Rahul K. Parikh is a physician and writer who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Dear Joel Stein,

Where do I begin? Normally, I write about health care, but your essay in Time, "My Own Private India," caught my attention for reasons that have nothing to do with medicine. Before I read it, I barely had any idea who you were. Your name was vaguely familiar, probably from having seen you on VH1 while channel-surfing in the wee hours.

I'm not the only one who noticed. Last I checked, your essay was one of the most read and e-mailed articles at Good work. You earned your paycheck. But you did it with a xenophobic, even racist, rant against Indian Americans like me and a lot of other people I care about and deeply respect.

Read Joel Stein's essay, "My Own Private India"

Have no illusions, sir. What you wrote was not funny, insightful, smart or unique. No. Every word, phrase, sentence and paragraph you produced did nothing more than distill the ancient, proud and diverse culture of India down to nothing more than clichés and stereotypes.

Calling us dot-heads and Guindians, speaking of spicy food and multilimbed gods with elephant noses -- clarification, Joel: Ganesh has the elephant nose; Siva has the multiple arms. You did it even when you were laying on the backhanded compliments. "We all assumed Indians were geniuses." Thanks for that.

By the way, I am not some bitter old man trying to lecture you. You and I are contemporaries. I'm just a year younger than you are.

In reading a little bit about you, we have some things in common. I was "dorky enough" to have played Dungeons & Dragons growing up. Given your esteemed education at Stanford, I suspect both of us excelled academically.

(Should we) trade in our samosas and chai for potato chips and Bud Light?
--Rahul Parikh

But it's clear that our consciences have been on divergent paths. I try to do just a little bit of good in the world by practicing medicine and writing. You took your pricey education and became ... a humorist ... a satirist ... a pundit? A descendant of Mark Twain, H.L Mencken or P.J. O' Rourke you are not. In the future, please leave satire and humor to trained professionals.

So ... because you weren't funny or incisive, what's your point? Are you trying to make Indians prove our worth to the fraternity that is America? Is your essay part of some kind of hazing? Put up with your callous insults, and we'll be able to live in the frat house?

What litmus test do we all have to pass to become bona fide? Does our God have to wear a big white beard and have only two arms? Do we have to turn in the dots on our foreheads for a baseball cap with "N.Y." stenciled on it? Trade in our samosas and chai for potato chips and Bud Light? Should we make our parents throw their Hindi language newsmagazine in the garbage and subscribe to Time?

If it's about fitting in with your standards of Americana, please, allow me to prove my culture's utility to you.

Some of us have become wildly successful. We run Fortune 500 companies, have been elected to political office and have won Pulitzer prizes. Many of us work 40-plus hours a week to pay our mortgage. Some have paid their dues serving this country in war. Still others struggle to pay the bills, keep their children fed or their marriages together; and yes, there are those of us who are criminals locked up in jail. In other words, we're just like everyone else.

It's obvious that you were waxing nostalgic about your hometown. If I follow your logic here, should nothing ever change in America?

Should moms stay at home while we men wear our suits and ties and head off to work, cigarette in hand? Should African-Americans still drink from a different water fountain from you? Should we revoke the right of women to vote?

If that's the case, I've got a Delorean with a flux capacitor I'd be happy to sell you to get "Back to the Future."

I also read the apology you pinned to the bottom of the online version of your essay.

"I truly feel stomach-sick that I hurt so many people. I was trying to explain how, as someone who believes that immigration has enriched American life and my hometown in particular, I was shocked that I could feel a tiny bit uncomfortable with my changing town when I went to visit it. If we could understand that reaction, we'd be better equipped to debate people on the other side of the immigration issue," you wrote.

"Tiny bit uncomfortable," indeed. You should have stopped with "I'm sorry" or just retracted the whole article. Stop trying to save face by trying to rationalize what you wrote or pin it to the immigration issue.

Finally, I do want to thank you for harshly reminding of one thing: Because the essay was published just before the Fourth of July -- and incidentally, just a few weeks before India's own independence day -- you and your publication reminded me with no uncertainty that racism, ignorance and fear of new people are as American as apple pie and Time magazine.

Like you said, the Statue of Liberty should shed a tear. And Mahatma Gandhi just did.

(Time Warner Inc. is the parent company of and Time magazine.)

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rahul Parikh.