Half - Century of the Telugu Experience in the USA

Nehru E Cherukupalli
Reprinted with thanks from "Telugu" - Pravasa Andhrula Prateyka Sanchika, published by Telugu Academy, Hyderabad, India v. 29, issue 4 - Oct - Dec. 2000, p. 369-376. Editor Dr. A. Manjulatha

The early years

With the exception of Native Americans the rest of us are all immigrants. However, the Telugu immigrants are recent. They only have a history of approximately half a century. Before the 1950s, many people had not heard of immigrating to the USA. If they did, they were so few that nobody knew anything about them. Most of the Telugus who came to this country back then were students, scientists, or professionals. They came on short visits for a duration of a few months. They came on temporary non-immigrant ‘student or exchange visitor visas’. They returned to India after a few years when their study or assignment was over. Most of the students came on scholarships from US universities, either from Fulbright, the Government of India, CSIR, or major oil companies who were operating in India. New York City was the major port of entry into the US and thus had a large population of immigrants. Back in the mid-fifties the total population of Telugus in New York City was very small – less than about fifty. This included students, professionals, and those working in the US consulate and the United Nations. The total population of Telugus in the entire US could be counted in numbers far less than a hundred.

New Immigration laws and admission of immigrants

With the change in immigration laws in early sixties in the USA, more professionals were admitted. This brought mostly scientists, engineers, medical personnel and a few others of exceptional skills that were in short supply in the USA. Despite the increased numbers, most if not all of the Telugus (Indians in general) who came to the US were highly skilled and educated and came for higher studies or to get higher training. Once their training was over, they applied for immigrant status and were admitted. In addition, their families were also allowed. This paved the way to an increase in the Telugu population in the USA and by mid-seventies, most metropolitan areas had a sizable population of Telugus. New York and Chicago were the centers of the Telugu immigrant population. These Telugus who came as students and professionals eventually became the pilgrims who settled in the country and, in due time, became the early leaders of organizations that started in larger cities such as New York, Chicago and Washington D.C.

One hundred Telugus (including many families) were in attendance when there was a picnic held in a northern suburb of New York City in the late sixties. This was a pleasant surprise to the organizers. With increased immigrants and their affluence came the need for them to join hands and float Telugu Organizations in the US. Along with the concept of forming organizations for bringing Telugus together, the concept of contemplating places of worship evolved in New York. The Hindu Temple Society of North America was the first one to be conceived and fully supported by South Indians It took several years of hard work, dedication and fund raising for the “Ganesh Temple” to become a reality in New York back in the sixties and seventies. The Pittsburgh “Venkateswara Temple” was conceived next and was built in Pittsburgh suburb. The Tirupathi Devasthanam helped both these temples. Telugu immigrants have been involved in these projects right from the beginning. Nowadays, there are many temples across the US, and Telugu immigrants have a large role in these projects in terms of donations and management.

The late seventies and the early eighties saw a dramatic increase in the immigrant population. This is largely due to Indian people migrating from other parts of the world, especially Africa. Though this influx has increased the total population of Indians in the USA, it has not added significantly to the Telugu immigrant population.

India used to talk about the ‘Brain Drain’ and lamented the migration of scientists and other professionals out of India. Medical doctors also fell into this category. The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in cooperation with UNDP, introduced the TOKTEN (Transfer of Knowledge Through Expatriate Nationals) in the early eighties and as a result several of the scientists did return to India on short visits. This program did not have any lasting results.

Originally when Indians doctors came to this country in the late sixties and early seventies they came primarily for the purpose of training and were on ‘non-immigrant visas’. They worked long hours and earned lower salaries than the scientists and engineers. In those days they were afraid of being drafted into the armed forces and sent to Vietnam. After the Vietnam War was over and the draft situation eased up, the medical professionals who came to this country changed their status and sought immigrant status. The move to change to Citizenship came in the late seventies in order to facilitate sponsoring their relatives – mostly brothers and sisters, into the country. The preference categories that were used to bring in brother and sisters even for the citizens were taking so long that they had to think of other ways to achieve their goal. Bringing their parents after they came here on immigrant visas, they would in turn sponsor their unmarried sons and daughters for immigrant visas. This lessened the time it took for getting immigrant visas for their kith and kin.

The Indians and the Telugus had the advantage of their proficiency of the English language and in conjunction with the professional experience they brought with them, had no problem in adjusting to the local environment. In fact most of them did well in their jobs and have risen to higher positions. They became quite affluent, had a better standard of living than the local Americans, and became the envy of the local people. This was the time during which the Americans felt jealous of the achievements of Indians. The “Dot Buster” movement is a reflection of this feeling.

During the same period there was another change that occurred in the Indian community in the USA. People with lesser skills and educational qualifications started to immigrate into the country and the job market became tight. Unemployment was high during this period and even the educated and qualified immigrants had difficulty in getting jobs. Even some of the medical doctors were working in pharmacies and clinics until they could find better employment in line with their qualifications. Less qualified people worked as gas station attendants, in supermarkets and the like. The same scenario can be applied to the Telugu people who came as immigrants. By this time there were so many Telugus in this country that came from almost every village in Andhra Pradesh. Some villages had two, three, or more families and their siblings in this country. The network of relatives and friends had grown so big that the social structure of the immigrant populations was changing drastically. With the advent of sponsoring sons, daughters, and other relatives, a large influx of Indians into the USA resulted in the late seventies and continued into the nineties.

The medical professionals ruled for over a decade and a half until the health profession started to change in this country. HMOs became the rule, insurance costs became prohibitive for medical doctors, and it became obvious that they had to adjust to the change. While this was going on, the computer revolution was quietly taking over the US and the rest of the world. Bangalore was the center for computer specialists, and many of them who came through TATA agencies (either from Mumbai or even straight from Bangalore) were introduced to the US work force. They arrived as consultants in small numbers and their numbers became noticeable as the Y2K (Year two thousand) projects became quite significant. Meanwhile Hyderabad became the center of Computer specialists under the able vision, guidance, and help of Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu. His visit to the US and that of Bill Gates to India and Hyderabad paved the way for more and more computer professionals coming to the US. Software companies grew at an unprecedented rate and the number of Telugu people who came to the US became so large that nobody could keep track of the statistics. Young men and women with a degree, and some even without a degree but armed only with a diploma, made it to the US without any difficulty and earned good salaries. Husband and wife teams came as computer professionals and started to make as much as the medical doctors. Although most were not earning as much as doctors, the talk of the town is that they were making more money and the doctors were feeling quite jealous. The scientists, engineers and educators who came to this country back in the fifties, sixties and seventies were left behind in their jobs and forgotten in the frenzy of the “dot com” generation. Telugus benefited most since the late nineties through the dawn of the millenium. It proved to be a time of great promise because of the computer occupation explosion in this

Where there is a boom, there is always room for problems. The American Consulates in India, especially in Madras, became more strict in allowing visas for “dot com” types into the US. As a result, this cut down some of the fraudulent cases of entry. There is a general saying “once you come into the country you never leave”- you will find some way of staying around for good. There are very few people who went back – I know some that did, with their families, but these numbers are extremely nominal.

Big houses and expensive cars which were the hallmark of medical doctors have now became commonplace among businessmen, while luxury living has become a way of life for many Indians and Telugus in this country.

Young couples with one or two small children are commonly seen when the local association screens a movie or has a cultural program. This new generation of computer specialists (or for that matter the new generation of immigrants) is extremely smart and possesses all the knowledge regarding life in US. They arrive here and are welcomed with friends who are already residing in town. They have no problem in settling down. Life is no longer difficult like it used to be in the past- primarily in the late fifties or early sixties.

There was a time when one would yearn for the feeling of the Diaspora- one would give anything to be invited to dinner by a Telugu (Indian) family. Slowly the young bachelors learned to cook. Also the number of Indian restaurants started to increase and the food problem was slowly solved. “Dosa Hut” is a popular place to visit in many of the big cities. There are locations where can travel to ethnic shops and eateries in every big city and, nowadays, even in the suburbs of big cities.

As immigrant Telugus started to raise families, they needed the support of their parents or uncles or aunts and this brought in the older generations to come and give them a hand. Some of them even went to the extent of sending their young ones with the grand parents for the purpose of an upbringing in India. All this was done in the name of professional need. The newborn American citizens became the insurance for the immigrant parents to gain green cards without a problem.

Increase in population of Telugus over the last three decades has been quite high. In particular there has been phenomenal growth in the Telugu population in the last two or three years.

The local Telugu associations grew big and back in the late seventies formed an umbrella organization called TANA- Telugu Association of North America. This flourished for several years until there were problems in elections and this led to the split of the organization in two. The new organization is called ATA – America Telugu Association. The two organizations are labeled as belonging to the two dominant castes of Telugus. In recent years there has been some talk about floating another caste based organization. Some claim it is already there and has not made its mark felt yet! Ugly election politics are the root cause of such divisions and some of the pundits claim that they have not only imparted their wisdom but brought with it other aspects as well.

Children growing up in his country are more Americanized in their habits and outlook. To many of them India is a novelty and visiting India is fun but they want to come back home (US for them) after a short vacation in India.

In the early days – through the eighties – the parents would look for brides and grooms for their children in India, even go to India to perform the marriages. This practice has now given way to celebrating marriages locally in a grand way. Big weddings and expensive receptions are the norm rather than the exception. American born and educated girls do not like to marry Indian born grooms. I was told they do not like them because they tend to be bossy. On the other hand American born and educated boys like to get married to Indian born and raised girls because they are docile and are easy to live with? The net result is that we see many inter-racial marriages. In many cases, we find that American born and educated girls marry American boys yet we do not see that many boys doing the same. Despite these remarks there is no dearth of matrimonial advertisements that run through TANA Patrika, ATA magazine and other local Telugu magazines and ethnic newspapers.

Back in the seventies Telugus used to say that the main reason they came to this country was for the sake of their children’s education. As a matter of fact, (as an educator) I believe that the education in India is quite good up until one has received their first university level degree. Postgraduate education is quite good in the USA.

A total of one hundred people in the mid-late sixties grew to a few thousands by late seventies. They are not only settled in big cities, but have also settled in smaller towns in the mid-west. California is the one state, particularly Los Angeles, is where the major concentration of Telugus resided to the west of Colorado and Missouri. Most of the population was centered on the East Coast- New York, Washington, Boston, Pittsburgh and some in the mid-western cities such as St. Louis, Detroit and the like. Texas, Georgia, Virginia and other similar states attracted Telugu immigrants mostly only in the late seventies and eighties.

To give you a concrete example, TANA Patrika, a popular magazine, now gets mailed to more than eight thousand families across the United States. The number of voters in the last election was at about 8 thousand Telugus and the number of voters being claimed in the upcoming election of TANA is estimated at about 17 thousand plus. The once-in-two- year conferences conducted by TANA attract approximately ten thousand Telugus each time. In particular, the 1993 World Conference conducted by TANA in New York attracted about ten thousand people and a similar number attended the last Cincinnati TANA conference. The total number of Telugus in this country residing primarily in New York, New Jersey, Texas and California is now estimated at about 200 thousand or more. It is estimated that there are about 15 to 20 percent of Telugus among the total Indian immigrants (now reaching 1.4 million) in this country.

Over the years the Telugu community has played host to many movie artistes, writers, politicians and other dignitaries from Andhra Pradesh. There have been several Telugu artists who have settled in the US with their sons, daughters, or spouses. Some of them run dance schools for our children. It is said that in this country we encourage our children to learn the art of dancing (Bharata Natyam, Kuchipudi or any other classical form) more than our counterparts in Andhra Pradesh. I wish we would place equal amount of importance and as much interest in teaching them at least the rudiments of our mother tongue, Telugu. This generation of children born and brought up in this country do not have good grasp of the Telugu language, and I am afraid that the language will be remote after the present generation has given way to the next generation. The newly imported immigrants from Andhra Pradesh are of course quite conversant with the language, however their children may not be. How long we will maintain the first generation of immigrants is a big question mark. The temples in every town being maintained are a symbol of our religious culture and will keep our faith well into the next generation of Telugus in this country. Can we say the same thing about our language? Every questionnaire that was circulated among the immigrants comes up with the conclusion that they would like their children to be knowledgeable in Telugu but it does not seem to happen. The children keep asking us “what good is learning Telugu? How would I use it here?” These are difficult for us to answer. Imagine what parents in Andhra Pradesh say about their children: “We are proud of our children who go to convents and learn English before they learn Telugu!”

In an article published on immigrants in the 11th TANA conference held in Los Angeles in 1997, Dr. P. Venugopala Rao of Atlanta who is an educator of long standing in this country, remarks “The one kind of experience the Indian immigrant has not yet encountered is the stage of retired life. Only a few of us are on the threshold of retirement. The number will increase into thousands by the year two thousand. They have no role models to follow now. This retiring first generation shall set up examples for the future generations.”

Dr. Vemuri Venkateswara Rao, another respected educator of long standing in this country, observed in an article published only a few years ago - “We Indians- not just Telugus – adapted remarkably well to the professional environment of this country. Many among us occupy exalted and enviable leadership positions in this country. In an alien environment the Telugus learned to flourish and excel. But we never learned to grow up. We are living in a time-warped world; we never came out of the comfort and security of our shells of tribal ancestry”. (Telugu Paluku, Los Angeles, 11th TANA Conference, 1997)

A few years ago, in an editorial of TANA Patrika, I wrote that we Telugus (Indians in general) inherited the best of both worlds – India and USA and are fortunate for this. It is up to us to teach our children the same values we believe in and give them the best of both worlds as well.