I bet you know a Patel. Patels are everywhere. Literally. The Patel diaspora from India is such that there are over 500,000 of them living in countries outside of India (1). In the United States alone, there are over 145,066 Patels and according to the 2000 U.S. census, the surname ranks 174th on the list of most common surnames in the country (2). And they’re not all related.
Most Patels are from the Indian state of Gujarat. Their is some debate over the exact origin of the Patel surname, but it’s likely the term Patel first referred to village leaders and/or a caste of landowners or farmers in Gujarat. Nowadays, Patels are involved in many types of professional occupations ranging from doctors to lawyers to engineers, though they are most often associated with small business trades, particularly motels and franchises.
Patels immigrate to America for the many of the same reasons as people from other countries.
For economic opportunities. For educational opportunities for their children. For a better life. My parents were no exception- they immigrated in the early 70’s seeking the American dream.
If you know a Patel, it’s probable that you know someone who is hardworking, independent, bent on accumulating wealth, and driven to help their children find educational success. Whether it’s the Patel motel owner. The Patel husband and wife 7-11 owners whose tireless dedication to the business allows their two children the opportunities to become Dr. Patel and a Patel engineer. Steve Zwick gives an interesting account of Patels on Devon Avenue in Chicago, highlighting their roots in Gujarat and their reasons for immigration to the United States (3). These stories abound, and I’ve been witness to my fair share growing up as a first person on both sides of my family to be born in America. Stories about the financial triumphs of friends of my parents. Stories of amazing academic achievement of the children of immediate and extended family members. Stories of the prosperity of unrelated Patels that spread in family gossip like the colored powder on Holi.
Patels often pay a price when they permanently move away from Gujarat. The price could be working two jobs with no days to rest. The price could be difficulty with adjusting to the American culture and language. It could be discrimination. The list is long, and not unique to Patel immigrants.
But, there is something missing from the Patel immigrant story. Something that casts a long, dark shadow. Something that I fear many Patels, including myself, haven’t been able to name. Something we don’t handle because we are so thankful to live in the land of opportunity. It’s something that crept into the suitcases of our parents as they boarded the Air India flight from Mumbai to London to New York City. Something that was easily caged or hidden in the cultural confines of Gujarat, where the close knit homogenous social network allowed for good of the whole and the good of the individual. But, once out of this cultural safety net, the something started it’s slow sabotage. And some Patels suffered. Like fish out of water.
I’m sure many Patel immigrants escaped unscathed, and achieved the American dream shielding themselves from the explosive mixture of old and new. But this wasn’t the experience for a number of the Patels I’ve known. For although they may have secured some financial stability and perhaps even amassed great wealth, their most intimate relationships broke. Couples. Parents and children. Adult siblings. From the outside, no one could see the damage, because there might not have been divorce or CPS involvement. No actual splitting of families.
But I’ve seen the collateral damage. The problem is that Patels don’t talk about it. Even as they whisper about rumors in the Patel community or chitchat over chai no one speaks of the long term emotional ramifications of malfunctioning interpersonal relationships in families. Maybe in Gujarat, the endless social supports from other Patels provided enough cushion to prevent or diminish these negative emotional outcomes, but in the States, I’m sure it’s a different story. Balancing adjustment to a new culture while trying to hold onto the old culture creates interpersonal relationship strains and situations unheard of in Gujarat. Some Patels weren’t ready. And perhaps tending to the emotional needs of a spouse or child wasn’t as much of a priority as making it in America. It’s the breakdown of the interpersonal relationships in some Patel families that I think has profoundly affected the succeeding generations. Me included. So much so that I chose the medical speciality of psychiatry, with a focus on children and adolescents, despite being told by several Patels that a psychiatrist is “not a real doctor.”
One thing I know for sure from my years of helping children, teens, and adults in individual, couples, and family psychotherapy is that the healing process absolutely requires talking truthfully about the elephant in the room. And that elephant in the room is often some sort of malfunctioning interpersonal relationship issue.
Since my experience as a Patel was that no one speaks about interpersonal relationship issues, I often wonder how emotionally hurt Patels find healing. I don’t think they go to psychiatrists. Plus, there isn’t much out there in fiction or nonfiction about Patel interpersonal relationship issues, particularly in the young adult genre. Either way, I want to shed light on these interpersonal issues that affect Patels just as much as they affect the families from every culture and nation, immigrant or not.
That’s why I chose the name Rani Patel for the main character in the young adult novel, Rani Patel in Full Effect. Rani Patel, her parents, and their experiences are based on a subtle alchemy of Patel individuals and families I’ve known and some of the non-Patel teen and family patients I’ve treated. Rani Desai, Rani Shah, or Rani Amin would not have had the same impact.
You probably know a Patel. It is my hope that Rani Patel in Full Effect challenges you to think beyond the Patel stereotypes and truly see their humanity in their family relationship complexities. There might be more than you could’ve imagined going on behind the closed doors of the Patel that you know.
1.Global Gujaratis: Now in 129 Nations. The Economic Times. July 4, 2015. http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2015-01-04/news/57663531_1_gujaratis-patels-united-nations
2.Global Gujaratis: Now in 129 Nations. The Economic Times. July 4, 2015. http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2015-01-04/news/57663531_1_gujaratis-patels-united-nations
3.Zwick, Steve. Who Are All These Patels? Chicago Reader. February 10, 2000. http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/who-are-all-those-patels/Content?oid=901436