There’s a moment in season one of the much-loved NBC series Parks & Recreation where Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) are making small talk on a stakeout.
“You’re not from here, right?” Knope asks, to which Haverford replies, “No, I moved here from South Carolina.” “But you moved to South Carolina from where?” she presses, not understanding that he was born in the United States. “From my mother’s uterus.”
“I was conceived in America!” an exasperated Haverford eventually blurts. “My parents are Indian.”
It’s a funny-because-it’s-true moment; white America often struggles to understand that there’s more than a single, unifying experience shared by all people of color. And it’s those preconceived notions that helped inspire Cambridge-based author Scott Haas to write Those Immigrants! Indians in America: A Psychological Exploration of Achievement. “There are so many stereotypes,” Hass explains. “And many of them are positive—but they’re still stereotypes.”
His book features interviews with 30 prominent Indian-Americans from around the U.S., many of whom immigrated to the country, some of whom were born here. Haas notes that Indian Americans have been able to achieve a great deal of success in a relatively short span of time; for example, the median income for an Indian American is $100,000, making them the wealthiest ethnic community in the country.
About five years ago, Haas noted this trend toward economic success when he interviewed about a half-dozen prominent indian Americans—all of whom were born in America—for the Times of India. Curious about how Indian Americans had achieved such economic stability, he began interviewing Indian Americans across a variety of fields. “If you look at other immigrant groups that have achieved great success … you’ll see similar levels of achievement, but not in so many professions, not in such a short period of time,” Haas says. South African Americans, for example, who are the second-highest earning group, take home a median income of $81,912, while Filipino Americans, with the third highest median income, make an average of $76,954.
This, Haas says, is often where those stereotypes begin to rear their heads—that Indians are smarter, or that they were pushed to achieve great things by “tiger mothers.” “That’s just not true,” Haas says. As a clinical psychologist, a professional observer of behaviors, he wanted to uncover the shared traits that have truly helped propel Indian Americans to greatness.
On the other end of the spectrum, of course, there are those who don’t seem to know anything at all about this group of people, another problem this book works to address. “There came a point where I got tired of hearing, ‘Why is your English so good?’” filmmaker Vaishali Sinha tells Haas. (Indians speak English.) “I felt like a novelty at times. But now it’s better.”
Haas interviewed people of all ages, genders and social backgrounds for the book, people like Stanford economist Raj Chetti—formerly the youngest member of the economy department at Harvard—but also journalist Arun Venugopal, a standup comedian, a jazz singer at the Beat Brasserie who studied at Berklee. Her story is a particularly great one; her father was an engineer who initially opposed her going into music. She had to do a Powerpoint presentation to convince him of the merits of her career choice, and now, he’s incredibly supportive.
Family support is a running theme in many of the interviews in Those Immigrants!, as is the importance of having a mentor. These are lessons Haas believes anyone—regardless of the culture they were raise in—can learn from. (For example, he would have loved to have a strong mentor: “When I think about the stupid things I did…” he chuckles.)
Of course, while there are shared experiences that are common throughout the book, Haas (unlike Leslie Knope) understands that these stories are in no way universal. “These are narratives, stories of their lives before they came here, or growing up here, and what they’ve achieved,” he says. He realizes that 30 Indian-Americans are in no way representative of the entire Indian American community, but hopes their stories will nonetheless help to demystify their experiences, “to demonstrate exactly who your neighbors are.”
And in many cases, these interviewees are quite literally your neighbors; seven of the 30 subjects Haas spoke with for Those Immigrants! hail from Greater Boston.
“I think that’s kind of cool—you’re walking down the street, or you’re at the movies, and that person next to you could be a rockstar!” he laughs.