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This story was published as part of a weeklong series produced by the WGLT Newsroom in March 2022.

Indians in B-N: Twin Cities are seen as inclusive, with room for better understanding

Phani Aytam
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@hme_legal
Shashi Mandhyan listens as her attorney Ben Crump, left, speaks during a news conference in February at the Rainbow PUSH Coalition headquarters in Chicago.

Shashi Mandhyan moved to Bloomington in 1999 for an IT job at State Farm. Her family migrated to the United States from India when she was young. Mandhyan recalled first 19 years at State Farm were fine. Then the IT department restructured and she ended up in a professional support job in the insurance company's banking division.

Mandhyan said that's when her problems began.

“The culture over there was making fun of immigrant names, immigrant lifestyle, immigrant culture,” Mandhyan said.

In a lawsuit, Mandhyan said her direct supervisor engaged in what the suit calls "shockingly harassing, abusive and hostile conduct." She said there many others were involved too.

“Discrimination is deep rooted in State Farm culture,” Mandhyan declared.

Mandhyan said when she took her complaints to management, they tried to tell her to just look the other way. Mandhyan said many who face abusive behavior put up with it until they quit. Many are too passive to fight the system. She said State Farm picked the wrong woman to mess with.

“This time they came across a person who is educated, who has a family support, who has a family who is educated and we know our rights,” Mandhyan said.

Mandhyan was fired, she alleges, because she blew the whistle on the abuse. Her's is the second recent discrimination lawsuit filed by a fired worker against State Farm. Mandhyan's attorney said his firm has 200 former and current State Farm employees are clients who could be seeking legal action for discrimination.

State Farm has denied the allegations in the lawsuits. The company said it's committed to a diverse and inclusive environment. “These allegations do not reflect the State Farm culture,” the company said in a statement.

Minority view

The Asian Indian population has grown dramatically over the last decade in Bloomington-Normal, but they are still a minority. Many say the community is welcoming, but not everyone has the same experiences.

Mandhyan's experience in cultural sensitivity appears to be far from the norm, according to interviews with dozens of people with Indian heritage in recent weeks. Those interviews, however, were but a sampling of a broad and diverse population. Each has their own experiences.

“I think this community is very inclusive. It’s getting there. Is it all the way there? Probably not, but we have made strides in that way."
Phani Aytam of Bloomington

Mukta Pradhan said she's never faced discrimination during her nearly 25 years in the Twin Cities.

“I believe the non-Indian community in Bloomington-Normal has done a phenomenal job of accepting and welcoming,” Pradhan said. But after giving it more thought, Pradhan recalled friends sharing interactions where people were less-than-forthcoming and maybe race was a factor. “Were they treated badly? No, but just not given complete attention, when they went to ask for some kind of information if that could be construed as something like that,” Pradhan recalled.

That may not be discrimination, but it could be an example of what sociologists call othering. That's where we see others as not fitting within our social norms.

Phani Aytam of Bloomington said he feels othered at times, even if it may not be intended.

Aytam said he considers this community home and he shows it by becoming full engaged in nonprofit volunteering. Aytam chairs United Way of McLean County board, and he founded the Multicultural Leadership Program in Bloomington-Normal.

But Aytam said he still times where his appearance sets him apart from others. “Before someone tries to ascertain my roots, they ask the question ‘Where are you from?’ And I tend to ask myself, is it the color of my skin that makes you ask that question?” Aytam asked.

Cultural evolution

Aytam said he embraces cultural differences and considers them opportunities in educate and it's often through education that hearts and minds can change.

Ramesh Chaudhary has seen that transformation over time. Chaudhary recalls a day long ago when the city's then-mayor found a unique way to pander to an Indian group during an Independence Day celebration.

Gadhirajus seated on couch
Eric Stock
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WGLT
Vasu and Surya Gadhiraju sit with their children Manu, left, and Ravi at their Bloomington home.

“His comment was, ‘Your community is pretty good. I checked on you. You guys have no (criminal) convictions,’” Chaudhary recalled.

Chaudhary said the path to tolerance and understanding hasn't been a straight line. He noted after the 9/11 attacks how difficult it was to be of Indian heritage living in the U.S.

“After 9/11, walking on University Avenue, people behind we were making all kinds of comments. There is stereotyping, there is jumping to conclusions,” Chaudhary said.

Chaudhary makes it clear he doesn't see discrimination as systemic in Bloomington-Normal. Shashi Mandhyan, the woman who sued State Farm, said her discrimination was mostly limited to her job — and only after she got moved out of IT. She said she was treated well there because people needed her.

“In the IT area, dependency is a lot on an immigrant, so some people keep their prejudices inside,” Mandhyan said.

Social status

Being treated differently based on your job is something people from India know a lot about. In India, there's a caste system where your social status is tied to your work. Priests and teachers are held in the highest regard. Unskilled laborers are among the lowest. They were once known as untouchables.

One way the Indian culture maintains this caste system is through arranged marriages. That practice continues today.

Surya and Vasu Gadhiraju of Bloomington were one of those arranged marriages. Surya Gadhiraju said his uncle arranged for them to get married. Both families agreed they'd be a good match. Gadhiraju said that's been born out over the last 17 years. They live in Bloomington with their two pre-teen boys.

They met several times before their wedding day in 2005, a practice that has become more common in recent years within Indian culture.

Vasu is the family communicator and planner. Surya works behind the scenes and handles family finances.

“Everybody understands that marriage is a compromise. It’s not that you are going to get a perfect world out of it,” he said. “I think we accept the fact that it is a compromise and we make sure that it works out in the end."

Vasu Gadhiraju said arranged marriages are not as strict in India as they used to be. She said western influence is a big reason why. Gadhiraju said some children now get more say in who they want to marry and sometimes get to meet their life partner before they say their vows. And they are given more time to establish their careers before they wed.

Vasu Gadhiraju said her American friends ask her about their arranged marriage all the time. In some respects, she said it worked out better for her.

“If I found myself in a position where it’s on my to find a husband or it’s on me to find the right guy, that would probably give me a little anxiety,” she said.

The Gadhirajus say when Indian families go spouse-hunting for their children, they are looking for a partner of a similar background, a similar education — in other words, a similar caste. That can perpetuate a cycle that makes social mobility in India difficult.

Vasu Gadhiraju said she came from a more privileged caste in India. She likens it to being white in the U.S. Her family took her to a private Catholic school and she learned English at an early age. She contrasts that with being a minority in the United States.

“It just makes me appreciate when we go back to India, I am much more thoughtful and observant of things than I was before,” she said.

The Gadhirajus say they feel Bloomington-Normal is an inclusive community, but they say it's possible their professional jobs may shield them from what others may encounter. Surya is an engineer for Caterpillar. Vasu is director of innovation and technology for the Town of Normal.

Vasu said she's mindful of their social standing when they go back to visit family in India. She said she doesn't have servants pick up after her.

“Coming here really helped me connect more to my inner self,” she said.

Vasu Gadhiraju said she's grateful for the way she was raised, even if she's moved away from many of the cultural conventions she grew up with in India. She said growing under strict rules in India while finding more freedom in the United States have taught her how to have the best of both worlds.

Phani Aytam of Bloomington also looks for ways to blend his upbringing with American culture as he raises a 5-year-old daughter. Aytam offers a message of hope that the community will be more accepting over time.

“I think this community is very inclusive. It’s getting there. Is it all the way there? Probably not, but we have made strides in that way,” Aytam said.

Aytam said despite many cultural differences he appreciates that the community shares the same values as his own family.

ABOUT THE SERIES

Why we did it

Bloomington-Normal has more Asian Indians than any other downstate metro community in Illinois. First-generation Indian immigrants and their children have shaped Bloomington-Normal in big and small ways, and that's worthy of attention. WGLT's Newsroom aimed to measure that impact in an 8-part series of human-centered stories.

How we did it

Bloomington-Normal’s Indian community is not a monolith — socioeconomically, politically, culturally — and this series aims to reflect that. The WGLT Newsroom interviewed over 30 people from various backgrounds. We acknowledge these sources do not represent every Indian in Bloomington-Normal. They represent themselves, and we appreciate their willingness to share their story.

Feedback

We want to know what you think of the series, and what future reporting we should consider. You can send our Newsroom a message at WGLT.org/Contact.

Community support is the greatest funding source for WGLT. Donations from listeners and readers means local news is available to everyone as a public service. Join the village that powers public media with your contribution.

Corrected: March 19, 2022 at 6:57 AM CDT
This story was corrected to indicate Surya and Vasu Gadhirajus met several times prior to their arranged wedding in 2005.
Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
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