Ever checked into a motel and noticed an Indian behind the counter? Not surprising, since Indian Americans own half the nation's motels. Interestingly, more than 70 percent of them have the same last name, Patel, even though they aren't all related to each other. But they are related to us, because their immigrant story of their struggles and triumphs is an American story. It is our story and it is important that we understand these struggles and triumphs so we can protect the bond that unites us all as Americans, across racial, ethnic and religious lines.
That's why I'm recommending Pawan Dhingra's book, "Life Behind the Lobby: Indian American Motel Owners and the American Dream." The book describes how and why so many Indian Americans got into the motel business while exploring the dichotomy between their story as an example of the American "pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps" entrepreneurial legend and the reality of their continued separation from the mainstream of American culture.
Part of the separation is literal. By the very nature of the business, locations tend to be isolated. Picture a remote Days Inn on an interstate highway exit in West Virginia. To save money, many hoteliers live in their motels, further compounding isolation from mainstream neighbors who may have otherwise traded curries and apple pie across their backyard fences, or sent their kids out to play with the other kids in the cul-de-sac.
Interestingly, most of the American Indian moteliers come from the same region in Gujarat, from a group that has a long tradition of entrepreneurship. To finance the motels, they borrow from each other, live inexpensively, including in the motels, use their families for motel labor and sponsor each other in motel ownership.