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America is the land of dreams, dreams that are fueled by hard work and aspirations of countless waves of immigrants who have come to call this land their home. About 3.2 million Indian-Americans have built for themselves their own share of ‘American Dream’. I came into this country with a stereotypical perception of this community - a highly successful, enterprising and smart group of people who are working in hi-tech industries, building microchips, writing software applications, entertaining America through sitcoms, a group whose children are Spelling Bee champions, and are being groomed in Mathematics and Science to pursue a degree at MIT or Stanford. It turns out there is a flip side to this one-dimensional success stories.
Recently, I had a conversation with the manager of a popular Indian restaurant in Raleigh, North Carolina. My familiarity with his native language led me to have a hearty conversation about his family and his life in the US that reflected the other side of the ‘less heard Indian American story’. A middle aged man supporting his family on a small salary, working 12-14 hours a day to satisfy his employers and maintain his visa sponsorship. All this while, struggling with severe knee pain which he could not get treated because of lack of health insurance. His wife confined at home deals with social isolation and bouts of depression.
This conversation made me challenge my perception of ‘Indian Americans’. I wondered about the families of immigrants belonging to low-income groups such as taxi drivers, employees at convenience stores, restaurants and gas stations who are silently toiling and trying to naturalize themselves into this environment. It raised a flurry of questions across multiple facets:
Social and cultural: What is their coping mechanism for dealing with their struggles? How do they overcome cultural and linguistic barriers? Given that mostly the men are the only breadwinners, how do the women cope with social isolation?
Financial: How are they managing their families with meager incomes and sending back money to their parents? Do they have resources in emergency situations? How do they deal with health shocks that can further put them at a disadvantage?
Emotional: Since there are so many social and financial barriers, what about their emotional needs? What is their emotional wellbeing?
Health: Most importantly, what are their health needs? Health is so complex and intertwined that social, emotional, cultural, financial factors have a huge bearing on health. As a public health student, I am interested not in exploring their overall needs, but at a deeper level, also analyzing their health needs and health-seeking behaviors. All these factors point to a potentially huge need for addressing mental health needs, gender-based violence and emotional health needs.
A social assessment capturing these parameters, a sound documentation of these needs might mark the beginning for larger initiatives. While I am proud of the success and accomplishments of a wide majority of Indian Americans, how can we channelize these synergies and contribute towards a better quality of life for these less fortunate Asian Indians? As a public health student with sufficient grassroots experience in India, I venture out into this voyage seeking answers to these questions.
I embark on this journey across America’s millennial cities to explore these questions. Through this journey, I want to bring to foreground these stories of fear and hope, of triumphs and tribulations, of successes and failures. At the end of this journey, I hope to come back with lessons and ethnographic accounts. This social assessment will be the seed for formation of an organization that will lead to financial empowerment of working class Indian American communities by tapping into their skill-sets. Further, I also will use this opportunity to build a network of successful Asian Indian communities who will potentially fund my initiative for creation of an organization that will use conventional and traditional business models such as cooperatives, microfinance among others.
Through blogging and ethnographic accounts, I hope my journey will mark a beginning for a larger dialogue among the community members and spark bigger initiatives. I also hope to lay groundwork for other members from Indian diaspora to spur their own ideas. I intend to share results from my journey and lessons from social assessments to engage with successful Indian Americans in the Research Triangle Park area and with interested Foundations to leverage their resources for building models that can create institutions and models to financially empower them.
On a personal note, this project will be a self-reflective, insightful experience to listen to stories of existence, hope and maybe dignity?
Lakshmi Gopalakrishnan, born and raised in India, is currently in the US on Fulbright Scholarship to pursue her Masters in Public Health. Before coming to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she worked in public health and education sector consulting projects in India and also volunteered for political campaigns and grassroots organizations. Her graduate program is sharpening her public health skills and helping her develop a more nuanced understanding of public health approaches. Her areas of interests include evidence-based policy making, implementation science for scaling-up, monitoring and evaluation and social entrepreneurship. Her hobbies include cooking, reading and hosting dinners for friends. While she is here in the US on her Fulbright, her mission is to promote mutual understanding and experience American culture to the fullest.
I am extremely grateful for the overwhelming support and love I am receiving and I promise that I will continue to give it my all. Today, I have closed in on 40% of the target of $5000 that I need to raise. Once again, to all those who contributed and supported me, I want to thank you for believing in me and my cause.