If I ever meet TIME columnist Joel Stein on the street, I’ll ask him where he’s from. He’ll tell me, “New Jersey.” The next words out of my mouth will be, “Which exit?” Though I don’t know him personally, I anticipate he’ll smirk and roll his eyes – or perhaps want to punch me in the stomach – but he’ll know exactly what I mean.
It’s banter that only people from New Jersey or the surrounding region may understand, but it is a tongue in cheek way of saying that (corrupt politics aside) most people know nothing about Jersey except that it has its own Turnpike. Similarly, in his controversial column “My Own Private India” Mr. Stein (tongue firmly in cheek) admits he knew nothing about the ability of the Indian immigrant community to assimilate in his home town of Edison, New Jersey – a city which has undergone a demographic shift that caught even a native like Mr. Stein unawares. Indeed it is his testimony that explains how a community can become so Indian and yet remain so quintessentially American.
Mr. Stein is acknowledging that the Indian-Americans of his home town have successfully assimilated in a way he would never have imagined – to the point where he now feels like the immigrant. While Mr. Stein’s column cites the use of offensive terms, it does so in such a way that mocks the previous generation’s inability to process the wave of Indian immigrants. His occasionally pedestrian humor cloaks the essence of his point as he dances close to a few third rails. But we must recognize that he is writing in a self-deprecating way, emphasizing the fact that the places he remembers from his youth, though still standing, are completely unfamiliar as they now embody Indian culture. However awkward that may be for him, it is what makes America great and Mr. Stein acknowledges this.
The column summarizes a conversation between Mr. Stein and Jun Choi, the former Mayor of Edison. Mr. Choi states that in a town, not unlike most in America, which is struggling economically, the Indian community has brought a tremendous amount of support and economic opportunity with it. What’s more, Mr. Choi emphasizes that a great number of Indian-Americans possess strong educations and highly valued professional skills – in other words, without them, things would be much worse in Edison.
Mr. Stein also cites examples of theaters, grocery stores and restaurants which are no longer catering to people known by racial epithets, or even people known as “Indian immigrants”, but rather members of the community – in other words, Americans. And more impressive than that, the Indian-Americans he remembers have become members of that more exclusive tribe, New Jerseyans – brethren with Bon Jovi and The Boss.
So, Mr. Stein, the next time you are in your home town, please let me know. I’d love to meet you for a beer and/or samosa to discuss the fact that not only is your Edison changing; but your Nets are now owned by a Russian billionaire; your Giants were on track to play in a stadium named by the Germans; and the Devils have a squad in which Canadians outnumber Americans 11 to 5.
I’ll meet you anywhere…just tell me which exit.