Preserving a piece of home in a high-tech world

Attracted to U.S. by technology, Indians yearn for familiar things

Mia Penta; The Associated Press, Staff writer Marcelene Edwards contributed to this report.

Shashi Brahmaroutu misses the food, clothing and religious temples of her native India.

Shashi and her husband, Suri Brahmaroutu, who both work for Intel in DuPont, have had a hard time finding the everyday touches - spices, music and others - that were such a big part of their lives in India. And they didn't have the Indian culture surrounding their two daughters.

"It tends to be a little isolated here," Shashi said.

But the couple and others around Puget Sound have tried to create their own Indian communities in an effort to preserve their traditions for themselves and their children. Some are getting together socially and others are networking and starting businesses such as restaurants, jewelry stores and theaters that keep them connected to their roots.

Suri estimates there are between 70 and 100 workers at Intel who have moved from India. They get together regularly for potlucks, to watch Indian movies and to celebrate Indian holidays.

Sometimes Shashi and Suri drive to Seattle or Portland to get together with the larger Indian community for big festivals and events.

Suri moved to the United States in 1988 and Shashi followed in 1992 after they got married.

"You get to see your own culture," said Arif Azhar, whose family owns a theater. "It's your own people, your own language. Even though you are far away from home, you feel closer."

Growth of Indian communities has been most notable in California, followed by Texas and New York. All have major high-tech industry centers and Indian populations exceeding 60,000, according to the Indian Embassy's Web site.

In Seattle, the 1990 Census - taken before the region's high-tech climate took off - reported nearly 4,000 Indian residents. The Indian Embassy estimates that population has since grown as high as 20,000.

Microsoft is among the top 10 companies in employment of workers on high-tech visas, with 8 percent of its 20,000-employee work force in the region from other countries.

That trend could continue as the high-tech industry lobbies Congress heavily to issue more high-tech visas, an arrangement which lets college-educated foreigners work up to six years in the United States.

In the Puget Sound area, no one community is considered an Indian enclave. India natives scattered throughout the region use their technology backgrounds to network through the Internet.

Technology plays a large part in the emergence of Indian communities across the nation, said Suresh Ramal, an information analyst at the Indian Embassy in Washington, D.C.

When Anjali Sikka's husband got a job at Microsoft three years ago, she had to leave friends, family and the security of her hometown in India.

She struggled to find simple comforts, such as the type of lentils she likes, or a beauty parlor that performs the services she got back home. Mostly, she was desperate to find other Indians in Seattle.

"I still miss having a big community back at home," said Sikka, 26.

Sikka started her own Web site, seattleguru.com, to help relocated Indians find the area's nearly 200 Indian businesses. It also helps Indians find roommates or apartment buildings where other Indians live.

"Being new to Seattle, it's hard to find people from your same hometown," Sikka said. "It's hard to locate grocery stores. You miss what you are familiar with."

There are dozens of Indian restaurants in the area, and Indian beauty salons are starting to gain popularity.

Jenny Juma visits Khoobsurat Beauty

Parlour in Kent every two weeks to have

her eyebrows plucked the Indian way - by quickly looping thread around the hairs and yanking them out.

Holding her bulging abdomen on a recent visit, she joked that the pain would put her into premature labor. Juma said waxing loosens her skin but later revealed the real reason she endures eyebrow threading at Paramjit Kaur's beauty shop.

"(Kaur) does it the way I'm used to," Juma said. "When she finally opened her shop, I was like, 'Yes, finally I get what I want.'"

Kaur said she started her business after hearing Indian women complain about missing Indian herbal facials and threading. She also does mehndi - intricately designed temporary henna tattoos on the hands and feet of Indian brides, considered symbols of happiness.

Alpna Sharma arranged for Kaur to do tattoos for the first of her two traditional weddings - one Hindu and one American.

"It's a part of tradition," she said. "It's something I want to continue. Growing up here, it's easy to lose your culture."

Weddings are not the only way Indians hold on to their culture. The India Association of Western Washington sponsors four celebrations a year offering traditional Indian dance, food and music. The biggest celebration is Diwali, the changing of the Hindu calendar.

"It's a nice cultural reminder," said Varsha Jayasimha, a native of India who came to Seattle in 1996. "It's nice to be in touch. It reminds you of what goes on at home."

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* Staff writer Marcelene Edwards contributed to this report.

© Associated Press