Thursday, August 28, 2014
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Book report: What Indian American motel owners can teach us about our nation

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.

Book report: What Indian American motel owners can teach us about our nation

Pawan Dhingra is the author of "Life Behind the Lobby: Indian American Motel Owners and the American Dream."
Pawan Dhingra is the author of "Life Behind the Lobby: Indian American Motel Owners and the American Dream."

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.

My chief criticism of the book, published in 2012, is its scholarly tone. I would have liked many more stories about the lives of the motel-owners.

Even so, Dhingra's book teaches us about an industry and provides a window into how many immigrants prosper in the U.S. along with an understanding of the price they pay for that prosperity. This book and others like it are important to us as Americans, because we need ways to learn about the lives of the people around us, people who have chosen to join us, to become us in our shared nation. The bond that we have as Americans is fragile. Look around the world to see the alternative, expressed in war and strife.

To that end, if we love America, we need to protect that bond of shared nationhood. Today and every day. 

Jane M. Von Bergen Inquirer Staff Writer
About this blog

Jobbing covers the workplace – employment, unemployment, management, unions, legal issues, labor economics, benefits, work-life balance, workforce development, trends and profiles.

Jane M. Von Bergen writes about workplace issues for the Inquirer.

Married to a photographer she met at her college newspaper, Von Bergen has been a reporter since fourth grade, covering education, government, retailing, courts, marketing and business. “I love the specific detail that tells the story,” she says.

Reach Jane M. at jvonbergen@phillynews.com.

Jane M. Von Bergen Inquirer Staff Writer