Indian Aroma In American Melting Pot
Early Indian immigrants, mostly from Punjab, opted for farming jobs because of their traditional agricultural expertise. Punjabi settlements began in fertile lands of the Sacramento valley, San Joaquin Valley and in the Imperial Valley in California, which offered irresistible farming opportunities to them. The similarity of the California landscape to Punjab gave a sense of homeland to this unfamiliar world - fertile fields stretched across the flat valley to the foothills lying far in the distance. As they became established in farming or successful in business they began to think of staying permanently. But immigration policies severely restricted the entry of the immigrants’ families into the United States. Nothing embittered the immigrants as much as this policy of exclusion; for it was not only injustice to them, but also to their innocent wives and children back home.
Since they could not bring brides from India, many men sought wives among women living in the United States. Anti-miscegenation laws, which stayed on the books in California until 1948, prohibited intermarriage between races. This meant that it was hard for the Indian men to marry white women. Most Indian men, therefore, sought wives among the Mexican women, many of whom were themselves recent immigrants to the United States, fleeing from the violence of the Mexican revolution. While these marriages were technically between different races, according to race definitions of the time, most civil authorities sanctioned them, giving the same race on the marriage registry for both bride and groom—“brown,” “black,” or “pale white.” When a Punjabi did marry a Mexican wife it was common for her to then facilitate the marriage of her sisters or other relatives to Punjabis. Thus a small "Mexican-Hindu" community formed in California that flourished in California's Yuba City and Imperial Valley.
The two cultures experienced different rights under the law. Punjabi men were unable to legally own land. The Mexican women, however, could own land, as they were unrestricted by discriminatory laws targeted at Asian immigrants. But if a Mexican woman married a Punjabi man, she would then become ineligible for land rights due to the specifications of the Cable Act. To get around this dilemma, the men turned to 'benami' land deals in the name of Americans willing to hold land for them. Later, they also put land in their children's names, who were American citizens. Cultural differences sometimes caused friction. The men were not used to the degree of freedom the women expected. And in a system where business partners became, in many ways, like an extended family, the women found they had the strange and unwelcome duty of cooking and washing for their husbands’ unmarried partners. Still the majority of the marriages were stable unions, characterized by tolerance and love.
However, not all immigrants married and the dominant pattern of social life continued to be bachelors living in dormitory-style bunkhouses or several bachelors living together on land that one of them owned or leased. They would hire one man to cook. Men in the camps ate mostly roti, an Indian whole wheat pancake, and vegetables, many grown in their gardens, including Punjabi favorites like karela (bitter gourd) and okra. The men were fond of cooking with butter and had a saying, 'ghi banaunda salan' (the butter makes the curry). According to one estimate the Indians consumed about 15 pounds of butter a month each. Ice cream was also a food universally liked by the Punjabis, and, when visiting, it was considered polite to bring along a package of ice cream as a gift for the host. One of their favorite pastimes was narrating jokes, many revolving around their birthplace in Punjab. It is reported that these men had very few bad habits except for the heavy drinking that was a regular part of their social interaction.
The immigrants were frugal, directing most free money to the purchase or leasing of land, but they also spent some money on luxuries. They enjoyed a good many comforts, such as silk shirts and turbans, scented oil and soap and perfumery of all sorts. Some even bought gramophones and sent for records from India. Movies were also an occasional treat and the bachelors at Van Tiger Ranch had pictures of Indian movie actresses on their walls. They were fond of modern vehicles, starting with bicycles, then moving on to Fords, and finally up to Buicks and Dodges. But they never went into debt for comforts. During hard times they would lower their standard of living and stayed within their means rather than borrow money.
Gurdwara (Sikh Temple) became the center of the immigrants' movement primarily because 95 percent of the immigrants were Sikhs. After a few years of farming and service, they managed to save some money and got involved in constructing places of worship such as the Gurdwaras in Stockton and Yuba City. They would meet in the Gurdwaras during the weekends to think about their common welfare. The Gurdwaras became places to welcome new arrivals and to help these new immigrants to look for jobs or until they can look after themselves. These Gurdwaras provided shelter, food, and social life to all immigrants without any consideration of caste, creed, or religion. Hindus and Muslims were also attending and living in these Gurdwaras.
A common feeling among the Punjabis who have settled in California is appreciation of America and pride in being American as well as Indian. One reason for this is a belief in shared values. Social welfare and education rank high with them, especially Sikh immigrants, whose philanthropy is not limited to the Gurdwara, but extends to causes that help everyone, from aiding rescue missions for the homeless to running marathons that raise funds for the American Cancer Society. Fusion may well be the byword for the active, community-minded Indian immigrants in California. And while many families weathered hard times, their good humored resiliency and appreciation of the Americans have gained them not only acceptance but extraordinary success. Undeniably, most Americans welcome the Indian aroma in American melting pot.