A Collective Approach
Story by Kevin Minnick
Indian American Jasvir "Jas" Cheema and his brother-in-law Gurchetan Singh are Subway employees. Their family owns three Subway franchises in town. Cheema says Indian people own most of the Subway restaurants in town, and as a result, many of the employees are Indian American.
Midori Takagi, interim director of American Cultural Studies at Fairhaven College, says it's not just Subway franchises where one can expect to find immigrant employees. She says it is normal to see a lot of South East Asians—such as Vietnamese people—working in donut shops, nail salons, or convenience stores.
The stereotype of the minority small business owner is often acknowledged, but never understood.
"A lot of Americans mistakenly and stereotypically think that this is somehow a genetic thing—that [immigrants] all want to go into these jobs," says Takagi.
In reality, the small business employment trend among immigrants is the product of a non-Western cultural tradition—Collectivism—that emphasizes community welfare and mutual support over individual goals. Lacking the necessary work experience in this country to land good jobs, immigrants rely on a close-knit network of friends and family for support.
Asian American immigrants also face a lack of financial resources upon arrival. Josh McCudden, vice president of Business Banking at the downtown Chase, says banks inspect credit history, cash flow and collateral when lending. An incoming immigrant usually arrives with none of this. U.S. banks often do not count an immigrant's credit history from their native country.
In response to restricted finance options, Asian American immigrants not only help each other find work and a place to live, but they often combine assets as well.
"We have clear evidence of early Korean immigrants, early Japanese, early Chinese and early Indian immigrants pooling their money together in these cultural kinds of ways," says Takagi. "It's sort of homegrown out of here because of the [financial] circumstances, but it is based on older traditions of helping out one another."
Takagi says a common practice when an immigrant owns a small business is to assist a recent immigrant by providing them with a job. They sometimes then invest in helping that person buy another franchise. They in turn are helping the next prospective immigrant who might arrive in search of work.
"Working small businesses is the easiest entry way into getting a job, controlling your expenses and having some control over your work environment," says Takagi. "It doesn't require necessarily that you speak with a perfect English accent."
Cheema was first hired at the Bellis Fair Subway by a fellow Indian American Vick, who owned several franchises in Bellingham. After working there several years, Cheema and his family were given the opportunity to buy several franchises. One of Cheema's brothers-in-law now owns three Bellingham Subways. Cheema says there is a strong camaraderie among employees.
"We go beyond just helping each other out at work. I mean, we get into personal lives and stuff," says Cheema. "Being an immigrant makes you want to lead [other immigrants] through the right steps. You don't want them to go through all the trouble you went through, because you already know it's too much of a headache to get settled in this country."
Subway employee Raman Dhillon's stepping stone upon his arrival four years ago was his cousin, who lives in Bellingham.
"He let me stay with him for two months, and after that he tried to help me find an apartment," says Dhillon. " I didn't have any credit, so he did the cosign for me. He also used his contacts to find me a job at Subway."
Dhillon says he now has his own place and financial security in case something unexpected was to prevent him from working.
"[Dhillon] has built from the foundation up," says Cheema. "If one of his siblings or friends comes from India now, they aren't going to feel the same struggle he has."
Cheema says helping one another find work and a place to live is helpful for new immigrants, but there are some aspects of American life that nobody can fully prepare them for.
"After 9/11, a lot of people have thought we are Muslim," Cheema says. "Back in the day there was a lot of stereotyping, but as you get older, you notice more racism."
Once while picking up a lawnmower from the repair shop, Cheema was confronted by an irate man whose car was momentarily blocked by their van as they loaded the lawnmower.
"He came out of his car and started saying ‘You fucking sand nigger, you dirty motherfucker,'" Cheema says. "He was just saying a bunch of bullshit that didn't make any sense, you know?"
Dhillon recalls an incident a month ago in which he and his coworkers refused to give money to a disgruntled panhandler as they closed up shop.
"When he left he says, ‘Hey Iraqis, go back to your country,'" Dhillon says. "We asked him ‘Hey man, what are you saying?' It doesn't make any sense. It's just that we aren't white."
Takagi says she spoke with some of Western's janitorial staff—many of whom are Asian—several years ago and realized some of them had masters' degrees in biochemistry.
"They couldn't get jobs in their area because of things like their accent," says Takagi. "The job employers didn't want someone with a thick accent. They also didn't readily recognize their degrees from Asian universities as being as ‘good' as American universities."
Takagi says these degree-holding immigrants needed a job with steady pay and health benefits to provide for their families, so they ended up becoming janitors.
Cheema says most of the racism he encounters manifests itself in nervous glares or uncomfortable body cues from customers instead of shouting or violence. Cheema and Dhillon says they don't let it get to them.
"If you let racism bug you, you are just wasting your time," Cheema says. "It's not going to go away."
It may not go away, but racism in Bellingham certainly has come a long way from its "Hindu" riots infamy.
On the night of Sept. 4, 1907, a mob of 500 Bellingham citizens gathered nearly 300 Indian American immigrants from their homes and workplaces, roughing them up and forcing them into jail without police intervention. Within a couple days, more than 250 Indian Americans had left Bellingham in search of work elsewhere. This event would later become known as the "Hindu" riots, which sparked an even bigger anti-immigrant movement in Vancouver, British Columbia, several days later.
Has anything changed over the last 100 years? The recent Arizona immigration law seems like Bellingham's 1907 riots without the angry mob. And job competition has only gotten tougher since. Perhaps this is why cultural networking is so important to the success of an immigrant.
"There is not a lot of work anymore. I hear how hard it is to struggle everyday," Cheema says. "For immigrants who are thinking they are going to come here and live the American Dream, it's like, ‘good luck man.' There are a lot of Americans already living here, and it's hard for them to accomplish that."
Immigrants that can find a job with enough hours capitalize on the opportunity. Cheema is working 60 hours a week on top of pursuing a nursing degree at Bellingham Technical College.
"I am looking forward to no more struggles," says Cheema. "I am going to make wise investments and not do anything that is going to put me in a situation where I feel like an immigrant."
Dhillon is working toward financial security as well.
"Little savings go up and up," says Dhillon. "I'm doing well."
Dhillon's English proficiency allows him to casually shoot the breeze with customers one Friday afternoon at the Samish Subway, instead of struggling to hear their orders like his Indian American coworker. In a line full of customers, it's possible some are noticing their ethnicity. Whether their glances are curious or hateful doesn't concern Dhillon. He smiles regardless, knowing what really matters isn't the color they see, but the color he sees—and the only color Dhillon wants to see is green.