BN Indians: Twin Cities seen as inclusive, with room for better understanding
Shashi Mandhyan moved to Bloomington in 1999 for an IT job at State Farm. Her family emigrated to the United States from India when she was young. Mandhyan recalled that the first 19 years at State Farm went well. Then the IT department restructured and she found herself in a professional support position within the banking division of the insurance company.
Mandhyan said that’s where his problems started.
“The culture there made fun of immigrant names, immigrant way of life, immigrant culture,” Mandhyan said.
In one lawsuit, Mandhyan said his direct supervisor engaged in what the lawsuit calls “scandalously harassing, abusive and hostile conduct.” She said many others were also involved.
“Discrimination is deeply rooted in State Farm culture,” Mandhyan said.
Mandhyan said that when she complained to management, they tried to tell her to just look away. Mandhyan said many who face abusive behavior put up with it until they stop. Many are too passive to fight the system. She said State Farm picked the wrong woman to play with.
“This time they came across a person who is educated, who has family support, who has a family who is educated and we know our rights,” Mandhyan said.
Mandhyan was fired, she claims, because she spoke out about the abuse. This is the second recent discrimination lawsuit filed by a fired worker against State Farm. Mandhyan’s attorney said his company has 200 former and current State Farm employees who are customers who could sue for discrimination.
State Farm has denied the allegations in the lawsuits. The company said it is committed to a diverse and inclusive environment. “These allegations do not reflect State Farm’s culture,” the company said in a statement.
The East Indian population has grown significantly over the past decade in Bloomington-Normal, but it remains a minority. Many say the community is welcoming, but not everyone has the same experiences.
Mandhyan’s experience of cultural sensitivity appears to be far from the norm, according to interviews with dozens of people of Indian descent in recent weeks. These interviews, however, were only a sample of a large and diverse population. Everyone has their own experiences.
“I think this community is very inclusive. It gets there. Is it all the way there? Probably not, but we’ve made progress in that direction.”
Phani Aytam of Bloomington
Mukta Pradhan said she had never faced discrimination in her nearly 25 years in the Twin Cities.
“I believe the non-Indian community in Bloomington-Normal has done a phenomenal job of acceptance and welcoming,” Pradhan said. But after thinking about it more, Pradhan recalled friends sharing interactions where people were less enthusiastic and maybe race was a factor. “Have they been abused? No, but they just didn’t get their full attention, when they went to ask for some kind of information if it could be construed as something like that,” Pradhan recalls.
It may not be discrimination, but it could be an example of what sociologists call otherness. This is where we see others as not fitting our social norms.
Bloomington’s Phani Aytam said he sometimes felt impaired, although it may not have been intended.
Aytam said he considers this community house and shows it by fully engaging in nonprofit volunteerism. Aytam chairs the United Way of McLean County Board of Directors and founded the Multicultural Leadership Program in Bloomington-Normal.
But Aytam said he still had times when his looks set him apart from others. “Before anyone tries to determine my roots, they ask the question ‘Where are you from?’ And I tend to wonder, is it the color of my skin that makes you ask that question?” Aytam asked.
Aytam said he accepts cultural differences and sees them as educational opportunities and it is often through education that hearts and minds can change.
Ramesh Chaudhary has seen this transformation over time. Chaudhary recalls a day when the city’s then-mayor found a unique way to pander to a group of Indians during an Independence Day celebration.
“His comment was, ‘Your community is pretty good. I checked you out. You don’t have any (criminal) convictions,” Chaudhary recalled.
Chaudhary said the road to tolerance and understanding has not been a straight line. He noted after the September 11 attacks how difficult it was to be of Indian descent living in the United States.
“After 9/11, walking down University Avenue, people behind us were making all kinds of comments. There are stereotypes, you jump to conclusions,” Chaudhary said.
Chaudhary clarifies that he does not view the discrimination as systemic at Bloomington-Normal. Shashi Mandhyan, the woman who sued State Farm, said her discrimination was mostly confined to her job – and only after she quit IT. She said she was treated well there because people needed her.
“In IT, reliance on an immigrant is big, so some people keep their biases inside,” Mandhyan said.
Being treated differently depending on your job is something Indians are familiar with. In India, there is a caste system where your social status is tied to your job. Priests and teachers are held in high esteem. Unskilled workers are among the lowest. They were once known as the Untouchables.
One of the ways Indian culture maintains this caste system is through arranged marriages. This practice continues today.
Surya and Vasu Gadhiraju from Bloomington had not met until their marriage in 2005. Surya Gadhiraju said her uncle arranged for them to marry. The two families agreed that they would get along well. Gadhiraju said this was born in the last 17 years. They live in Bloomington with their two pre-teen boys.
Vasu is the communicator and family planner. Surya works behind the scenes and manages the family’s finances.
“Everyone understands that marriage is a compromise. It’s not that you’re going to get a perfect world out of it,” he said. “I think we accept the fact that it’s a compromise and make sure it works out in the end.”
Vasu Gadhiraju said arranged marriages are not as strict in India as they used to be. She said Western influence is a big reason why. Gadhiraju said some children now have more say in who they want to marry and sometimes meet their life partner before taking their vows. And they have more time to establish their career before getting married.
Vasu Gadhiraju said his American friends constantly ask him about their arranged marriage. In some ways, she said it worked better for her.
“If I was in a position where it’s up to me to find a husband or it’s up to me to find the right guy, that would probably give me a little bit of anxiety,” she said.
The Gadhirajus say that when Indian families go looking for a spouse for their children, they are looking for a partner of similar origin, similar upbringing – in other words, similar caste. This can perpetuate a cycle that makes social mobility difficult in India.
Vasu Gadhiraju said she came from a more privileged caste in India. She likens it to being white in the United States. Her family took her to a private Catholic school and she learned English at an early age. She contrasts this with being a minority in the United States.
“It just makes me appreciate when we go back to India, I’m much more thoughtful and observant of things than before,” she said.
The Gadhirajus say they think Bloomington-Normal is an inclusive community, but they say it’s possible their professional jobs shield them from what others may encounter. Surya is an engineer at Caterpillar. Vasu is director of innovation and technology for the city of Normal.
Vasu said she was aware of their social status when they returned to visit family in India. She said she had no servants to pick her up.
“Coming here has really helped me connect more with myself,” she said.
Vasu Gadhiraju said she was grateful for the way she was raised, even though she strayed from many of the cultural conventions she grew up with in India. She said growing up under strict rules in India while finding more freedom in the United States taught her to have the best of both worlds.
Bloomington’s Phani Aytam is also looking for ways to blend his upbringing with American culture as he raises a 5-year-old daughter. Aytam offers a message of hope that the community will accept better over time.
“I think this community is very inclusive. It gets there. Is it all the way there? Probably not, but we have made progress in that direction,” Aytam said.
Aytam said that despite many cultural differences, he appreciates that the community shares the same values as his own family.
ABOUT THE SERIES
Why we did it
Bloomington-Normal has more East Indians than any other southern Illinois metropolitan community. First-generation Indian immigrants and their children shaped Bloomington-Normal in more or less significant ways, and it deserves our attention. The WGLT Newsroom aimed to measure this impact in an 8-part series of human-centered stories.
how we did it
The Bloomington-Normal Indian community is not a monolith – socio-economically, politically, culturally – and this series aims to reflect that. The WGLT newsroom interviewed over 30 people from a variety of backgrounds. We recognize that these sources do not represent all Indians in Bloomington-Normal. They represent themselves and we appreciate their willingness to share their story.
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