Nothing could be more American than road trips and motels. It’s also true, though less widely known, that the owners and operators of about half of all motels in the United States are immigrants from India (or their descendants). “Chances are that anyone who has stayed in motels in the last decade has stayed in at least one owned by an Indian American,” writes sociologist Pawan Dhingra in his new book “Life Behind the Lobby,” out this month from Stanford University Press.
The total number of motel rooms owned by Indian Americans is nearly two million, with property values exceeding $100 billion. The vast majority of these motel owners come from the same Indian state, Gujarat. Even more remarkably, 70 percent of them share the same surname, Patel—an extremely common name in India—though they are not all related.
This dominance of the motel business by Indian Americans has been viewed as a characteristically American success story—the American dream realized. The neoliberal state theorizes entrepreneurs as ideal citizens, as Dhingra points out in the introduction to his book, since they are self-reliant workers who expect little or no help from the government. But the brightly shining rhetoric conceals a less sunny reality, since Indian American motel owners are also viewed as second-class citizens, subject to racial and cultural prejudice that sometimes translates into real inequality. (Indian American owners are concentrated in the bottom half of the industry, in lower- and mid-budget motels.)
“There are two schools of thought about ethnic entrepreneurs,” Dhingra says. “Ethnic entrepreneurship is a difficult road, but it does lead to mobility, and it’s basically a pathway for a group to uplift itself from difficult conditions. Others argue that ethnic entrepreneurship actually is a subtle form of exploitation—it’s the long hours; it’s the low wages; it’s the need for family resources. Those are the two schools of thought. So where does this population fit in?”
The success of Indian Americans moteliers is, in fact, downright staggering. They came to this country with little knowledge of the motel industry, and yet have come to dominate a quintessentially American business. Yet it’s also true that the recession has hit motel owners hard, especially those at the lower end of the industry, who often don’t have the financial resources necessary to weather the storm.
Rather than locating them in either mainstream or margin, Dhingra sees them as the “margins in the mainstream,” he says. “All that success is real in many ways, and you don’t want to take away from what they’ve done. You don’t want to emphasize their problems and take away from their success. The success is real. But they’ve been successful because they’ve learned ways to manage the problems they keep encountering, and the way they manage the problems is not necessarily helping to overcome them.” Asked for examples of some of the ways Indian American motel owners might purchase short-term convenience at the cost of long-term gain, Dhingra doesn’t hesitate.
“For those who can afford to hire staff,” he says, “what staff they hire, and for what hours, to do what jobs, is a very strategic decision. This is not universal, but often they will hire whites to be their desk clerks during check-in hours in the afternoon. That way, when someone comes to their motel, the visitor won’t know that it’s owned by an Indian. This is one of the subtle ways that they diffuse any possible tension. They’re not ashamed of being owners, but why draw attention to it? Why create possible problems?”
Dhingra’s empathy for the motel owners he has interviewed is obvious in the easy way he begins to speak in their words, whether quoting directly or simply imagining himself in their shoes. “The visitor who comes in may still stay at our hotel if they see us behind the desk,” he says, “but you don’t want to give them any kind of negative impression, because then they’ll start looking for problems. You want to avoid any of that and just have as non-foreign a motel as you can. That strategic decision about who they hire helps them in the business. It also reenforces this notion of whiteness as better than brownness. It reenforces the hierarchy. The success is real, but so are the hierarchies they’ve got to navigate. Both of these narratives work together.”
Many owners live in their motels, especially in the low-budget, independent places, which helps save money on rent but complicates their domestic life.
“They may cook their Indian food at a different time of day than they want to, so that the smell of Indian food doesn’t permeate the lobby and make people wonder what’s going on,” Dhingra says. Again, the awareness that what the customer expects to see may not be in sync with who they are racially and culturally prompts some motel owners to place self-imposed constraints on their identity.
Not surprisingly, Indian American motel owners have banded together to form a lobby group, the Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA), which Dhingra explains has virtually all-Indian membership. To give two examples of its official positions, it is pro-immigration but against increasing the minimum wage.
In “Life Behind the Lobby,” Dhingra, who was born in India but grew up in the U.S., tells how Indian Americans came to dominate the motel business. First, an undocumented immigrant from Gujarat leased a residential hotel—organized along the lines of a contemporary youth hostel, with shared bathrooms and so on—in San Francisco in the 1940s. From that small beginning, an empire has grown. While it would be an exaggeration to say it all sprang from a single person, Dhingra explains how this unlikely empire arose, mostly having to do with personal networks and the professional opportunities that did—or did not—present themselves.
“Back in the 1940s, motels were not as common. Around 1946, some Gujaratis came in and this guy was already here in San Francisco, who had sent letters home. Social networks play a huge role. A Gujarati moves to the U.S. and he can choose any business, but will go into motels. Why? Because he knows people in the business who can help him out. The sense of community facilitates his entry into that business. He owns a motel, and he works there with his wife and kids, and then his relatives come over, work with him and live with him. They save a lot of money that way, and will then purchase their own motel. And they’ll bring other family members, and then five years later, the same thing happens again.”
Another factor, Dhingra explains, is a cultural preference for self-control in the workplace. This may spring, in part, from the experience of generations of farmers in Gujarat, who became accustomed to working for themselves. They like the sense of security in controlling their own fate, and being able to grow as much as they want to grow.
Dhingra’s expertise in connection with Indian American motel owners will serve him well as he curates a traveling exhibit on Indian American heritage for the Smithsonian Institution. He has taken a two-year sabbatical from Oberlin College, where he has taught since 2003, to spearhead the HomeSpun project. The exhibit will open in Washington, D.C., in 2013 and then tour around the country.
“It’s going to be the first time a major cultural institution with national reach has represented the Indian American experience,” Dhingra explains. “The overall narrative there is the role of Indians in helping shape America. The premise is that you can’t understand America without understanding the role of Indians in it, both historically and up to the present day, and it looks at a number of different topics to further this idea.”
The exhibit will look at the work of Indian Americans in various industries, with motels as one example, as well as their role in creating social movements. It will look at Indians in the American civic sphere: In one example, the first person murdered in a hate crime after the terror attacks of 9/11 was an Indian American Sikh man, Balbir Singh, killed at his gas station in Mesa, Ariz.
Finally, it will examine cultural elements such as dance, food, and music. An example of the latter is the contribution to jazz that is being made by Indian American artists such as the saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa and the extraordinary young singer Sachal Vasandani.
“You talk to them about jazz,” Dhingra says, “and Indian American musicians will tell you it’s all about their identity as Indian Americans, which surprises me. I was under the assumption that they would learn the standards [and serve as expert custodians of the tradition], but what they told me is that to be a great jazz artist, you have to bring in your identity—otherwise, you’re not authentic. It’s about authenticity. It’s a great example of how Indian Americans, by being themselves, are helping advance an American art form.”
Greg Varner is a regular contributor to Colorlines.com.