5 things we can learn about Phoenix, through the eyes of Indian immigrants
Opinion: Immigrants who moved to Arizona from India tell us about our city, our state and ourselves.
When 54-year-old Babu Raman thinks of Phoenix, his heart warms.
He stepped onto American soil one month before the turn of the century – leaving behind the familiarity of his coastal home in Bhubaneswar, the capital city of India's Orissa state.
His first big decision? Buy a McDonald's hamburger.
Almost two decades later, he is the president of the India Association of Phoenix. The nonprofit organization is a civil necessity, considering Indians are Arizona's third-largest immigrant population.
Raman and his community offer unique perspectives on who we are as a city, a state, a people.
In a nation built by immigrants, their voices resound what exactly makes America great. And in order to blossom as a society, it's crucial that we listen.
1. This place gets into your heart
As Sujaya Nambiar prepared for her move to the U.S., her father worried about the country's high crime rate.
But the young bride was eager for excitement with her new husband, far from everything she knew in the Indian port city of Kochi, Kerala.
Initially, they put down roots in Kansas City, Kansas. Word of the heat in Phoenix didn't thrill her – and she fretted over the possibility of a landscape absent of trees.
However, at 48, Nambiar can now say that she appreciates different aspects of the city, big and small: the hiking opportunities, the allure of the McDowell Mountains, good friends and a great life.
"Gradually, we started loving each and every thing about Phoenix," she said.
For Raman, this place is also home.
Compared to congested India, he describes Phoenix as easygoing, yet cosmopolitan – a sprawling metropolis with clean city streets.
Yes, the high temperatures sometimes have Raman wondering what he's doing here. And his relatives equate the desert to sand.
But his constant reply is: "You have to see Arizona to believe that the desert can be so beautiful."
2. Phoenix is brimming with opportunity
Other Indians are taking notice, too, settling here for economic security and better futures.
Nambiar first sought out this community the old-fashioned way: by flipping through the local phone directory to find Indian last names and potentially connect.
The population continues to grow in Gilbert and Chandler, Tempe and Scottsdale – cities with close proximity to corporations like Intel and Microchip Technology Inc.
"Right now, I think there are almost 45,000 Indian families living in Arizona," Raman said. "Most of them are working in either IT or health care. Some of them are entrepreneurs."
And the religions of the South Asian nation follow. Hindu temples and Sikh gurdwaras have cropped up throughout the Valley.
3. Racism is rare, but not unheard of
Dr. Rachel Misra, 71, remembers her childhood in southern India vividly. She would read British texts about the Native American populations overseas and imagine running into them.
After a stint in Illinois for graduate school, serendipity hit full force when she eventually made a home in New Mexico, then Arizona. In both states, her job involved securing federal grants for tribes, like the Navajo Nation and Gila River Indian Community.
Raman's days in an Indian convent school also exposed him to the U.S. early on. Taught by missionaries, he held a high opinion of Americans.
His first impression remains.
Although friends warned that he was settling in a "hillbilly area" with rude residents, Raman has never experienced racism – and neither has Nambiar.
Misra notes that her husband has dealt with slight difficulties because of his cursory English proficiency.
The only negativity Raman has faced is due to road rage, a burgeoning problem statewide.
But that's not to say bigotry doesn't exist here.
It's well-known that a hate crime murder happened in Mesa following the Sept. 11 attacks. Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot because of his turban and beard, misidentified as Muslim by one heinous man.
For the record, Sikhs wear turbans, or dastaars. And the Indian community has not forgotten his death.
4. Customs are easy to share
But over the years, Raman has met many more curious minds than prejudiced, wondering about his culture.
And Nambiar often finds herself gravitating towards immigrants of different backgrounds, like Iranians, with whom she can compare and contrast experiences.
Discover India, the annual IAPHX fall festival, gives Arizonans the chance to learn more about the nation's 28 states and their individual customs.
Thousands of non-Indian guests attended last year, drawn in by traditional foods like tandoori chicken.
Today, that flourishing love for South Asian cuisine is evident. When Raman first arrived, three Indian restaurants existed in the Valley. Now, there are around 55.
Nambiar still makes dishes reminiscent of home – any sort of curry with rice will do.
Misra is partial to international cooking with Indian spices and so appreciates the flavors of the American South.
Some might be surprised to discover that the average Indian speaks multiple languages – typically English, Hindi, his or her state's language and neighboring states' languages.
Raman himself can speak seven.
And each language group has a corresponding affiliation here, like the Oriya Association of Arizona and Kannada Sangha of Arizona.
5. India may be far, but community isn't
Although he's formed many friendships in Phoenix, Raman's greatest hardship was the distance from his family.
As an only son, Indian society had expectations of him. "We don't really encourage parents to live by themselves in their old age," he said. "That's the tradition: That kids take care of their parents."
Misra faced similar fears. One of seven siblings in a tight-knit family, she questioned if she'd find that intimacy in the American "fast life."
But she made close friends that served as substitute grandparents for her children – and hasn't regretted believing "the sky is the limit" in moving to this country.
Support local journalism.Subscribe to azcentral.com today.