Last week, Joel Stein, a Time essayist, wrote a piece about the changes in the New Jersey town of Edison. It been widely read and widely commented upon (see some of those reactions below, including a Time response to a WSJ article about this). SAJAforum was sent this guest post by RADHIKA MARYA, a recent graduate of the Journalism School at Columbia University and a member of SAJA. She is currently interning for NPR in Washington D.C. She's @RadTV on Twitter.
=> If you have a comment or observation about Stein's or Marya's pieces, please use the comments section below. Our thanks to SAJAer Shefali Kulkarni for her help editing this post.
Welcome to Edison, New Jersey.
Population: Brown people. Everywhere.
This is not an original observation. Edison’s heavy South Asian (mostly Indian) population is world renowned — noted in cultural studies textbooks and acknowledged by the South Asian diaspora. And this topic recently became the subject of Joel Stein’s Time magazine piece, “My Own Private India.”
In this little essay dated July 5, Stein — who grew up in Edison — laments the transformation of his hometown, referring to places like the Pizza-Hut-turned-Indian-sweet-shop. He goes on to make several gross generalizations about Indian-Americans, while waxing nostalgic about his youth.
As an Indian-American journalist, who spent her adolescence in Edison and graduated from Stein’s high school, I’m offended. I’m also not exactly sure if Stein has a point.
I started out livid when I first read the piece. I usually have a tendency to be less-than-politically-correct. I thought the outrage over Gandhi’s depiction on the MTV cartoon Clone High, in 2003, was silly. My relatively multicultural group of friends and I joke around about race all the time.
But even if Stein thought he was writing a hilarious little piece about how his once-white town is overrun by Indians, he just ended up sounding unfunny, uninformed and racist.
“For a while we assumed all Indians were geniuses… the doctors and engineers brought over their merchant cousins… the not-as-brilliant merchants brought their even-less-bright cousins, and we started to understand why India is so damn poor.”
By the end of his piece, when he likens some Indians to the Italian 'guido' stereotype, I’m left wondering: what is the point of this, Joel Stein?
Having grown up in Edison, I have made my fair share of jokes about how "Indian" the town is. I shared Stein’s regret when the Pizza Hut transformed into an Indian eatery. I even knew a few people who referred to John P. Stevens High School as John “Patel” Stevens. But there are ways to laugh at race and changing demographics without resorting to the Indian doctor stereotype or making fun of India’s poor. And frankly, the Edison I grew up in is a wonderful place for Indians and non-Indians alike.When my family first moved to the states from the U.A.E. in 1993, we lived in Woodbridge — a couple of towns away from Edison. One of five Indians in my elementary school, I got called “dot head” (the same insult Stein brings up in his piece without acknowledging the racist history of the term and the terrifying "dot-busters" attacks of the late 1980s in Jersey City) and dealt with all kinds of abuse. Things changed overtime, and when we eventually moved to Edison, I had the pleasure of growing up in a culturally rich, and incredibly diverse environment.
My Edison — the same Edison Stein puts down with hostile humor — is a place where I could openly embrace my family’s culture and learn about others. White, black, Indian, and Chinese students alike attended garba events at our high school. Kids of all races danced together to Fatboy Slim at school talent shows, and interracial dating wasn’t a big deal. We all had our teen dramas to deal with, but we all appreciated each other’s differences — and were better people for it.
I was shocked to see Jun Choi, the former mayor, and my former neighbor, in Stein’s piece. So I asked him what he thought about the final story. Here’s what he told me via e-mail:
“When Joel contacted me… I talked with him at length about Indian American entrepreneurs, innovators and their positive contributions… since he was looking to write about his hometown and Thomas Alva Edison. While I respect his right to express his views and try to be funny, I was disappointed that the article turned out to be distasteful and offensive to both Indian Americans and my hometown of Edison.”
It saddens me that Time would publish such a column in 2010. And it seems Stein honestly never seemed to expect a backlash. As he tweeted on June 28:
“Didn’t mean to insult Indians with my column this week. Also stupidly assumed their emails would follow that Gandhi non-violence thing.”
Well, as I tweeted back to him:
This isn’t 1947. Gandhi doesn't apply to digital warfare.
See reactions from other South Asians here:
Statement from Deepa Iyer, executive director of SAALT - South Asian Americans Leading Together - a major advocacy organization:
Joel Stein’s take on how immigration patterns have changed the landscape of Edison, New Jersey (“My Own Private India”, July 5, 2010) is offensive and misinformed, and definitely not funny. Relying on economic and educational stereotypes, Mr. Stein provides a cursory history of Indian immigration to Edison that neglects to mention how Indian businesses, families, and entrepreneurs have contributed to the revitalization of the economy and the cultural fabric in New Jersey for decades. Most offensive is Mr. Stein’s flippant characterization of the horrible hate crimes that Indians endured in the 1980s at the hands of the New Jersey Dotbusters in the 1980s. Why is it that Mr. Stein has a bone to pick with Indian immigrants, whose presence, experiences, and contributions mirror those of Irish and Italian immigrants in New Jersey? South Asians have been an integral part of this country’s fabric since the 1800’s, and the vibrant immigrant community that they are part of in Edison should be celebrated rather than derided.
Time magazine said something similar, but much more diplomatically, regretting that readers were offended but not that it had published the article, which we imagine is generating the sort of attention news magazines need in these troubled times.
“TIME sincerely regrets that any of our readers were upset by Joel Stein’s recent humor column ‘My Own Private India.’,” the magazine said via e-mail early Wednesday. “It was in no way intended to cause offense.”
What do YOU think? Post your comments, analysis, responses below.