“Everybody wants to bring their country here”

By Michelle Chen Feb 24, 2009

Adjusting the focus on South Asia through two narratives: one set halfway around the globe, the other just around the corner. Juan Cole and Mitu Sengupta both reflect on the cultural impact of Danny Boyle’s dramatization of slum life in India. To Sengupta, Slumdog Millionaire “grossly minimizes the capabilities and even the basic humanity of those it so piously claims to speak for.” Cole says the fantastic portrayal overlooks the “dense thicket of social and economic networks” girding India’s impoverished enclaves and “eschews the urban working class for an unrealistic focus solely on the criminal element.” Yet in this hemisphere, South Asians play a far different role in the social imagination of some “mainstream” white Americans. The New York Times points to Bellerose, a community on the cusp of Queens and Long Island, as a microcosm of a culture clash between working-class white residents and South Asians who have started to call the place home. The influx of immigrants, which has seeded a burgeoning business community, is reshaping the local economy as old establishments fade away. The local backlash has crested with the disappearance of Frozen Cup, a beloved ice cream shop. The demographic changes have brought shifts in political power; nostalgia for a more homogeneous past; and rising xenophobic tensions. A snatch of a conversation at a local bar:

“Everybody wants to bring their country here,” said Bruce Holloway, one patron who lives in Bayside, Queens. “They don’t want to look like Americans, they don’t want to dress like Americans, and they don’t want to speak English.” “But they do come for the benefits,” volunteered his drinking buddy, who gave his name as Franco and said he grew up in Bellerose and used to go to the Frozen Cup for strawberry ice cream with chocolate sprinkles. And of the South Asian grocery stores, he added, one of which opened a month earlier down the block and had the word “bazaar” in its name, “It’s not the kind of store an American goes into.” Of the newcomers, a group he describes simply as “the Indians,” he said, “They change everything that’s been here.” And he wondered aloud, “Where the hell do they get the money from?”

It’s fascinating to see how class divisions intersect with racial stereotypes. In a community that is economically and culturally disoriented, class resentment colors in the lines that define the outsider. On the big screen, stories of tragic poverty project an ugly cinematic close-up—uncomfortably intimate, yet safely within the bounds of sympathetic fiction. Image: Suzanne DeChillo / The New York Times