Motels in the US: the domain of Indian Americans

Community owns  4 out of every 10 motels, says author.

By Deepak Chitnis

WASHINGTON, DC: About 50 percent of all newly constructed motels in the United States are being built by Indian Americans, and nearly all of those are franchises, according to Pawan Dhingra, author of the book “Life Behind the Lobby: Indian American Motel Owners.”

Speaking at an event hosted by the Indian Embassy on Tuesday, Dhingra shed light on the history of Indian American motel ownership, specifically, ownership by immigrants from the state of Gujarat.

According to Dhingra’s research, four out of every ten motels in the US are owned and operated by Indian Americans, specifically Gujaratis. Why is this?

“Most people believe that Indians began owning hotels in the 1960s,” says Dhingra. “But in fact, it goes all the way back to the 1940s.”

Indians began to see hotels as ideal places of work because there was little competition, no technical skills were required, and only a rudimentary mastery of English was necessary, says Dhingra. Ownership of motels could be passed on to the next generation quite easily, and the hotel itself was something of a home, which meant there was no need to purchase a separate one. Hotels also became easily available at that time because they were mostly owned by Japanese-Americans, who were forcibly interned in camps during World War II.

The trend is that Indian Americans tend to operate not just one motel franchise, but several. But because of the omnipresence of Indian motel ownership, many have had to start hiring predominantly white staff in order to cater to Americans who many have qualms about staying in a foreigners’ establishment, he said.

Dhingra recounted a hotel owner’s story in which he described how at least once a week, a Caucasian American family will ask whether the hotel is owned by a white person or by someone who’s Indian, Arab, or Muslim.

Motel owners also face difficulties from the government, who often see motels as low-class establishments that should be torn down rather than built up.

In parts of the country, motels in low-income areas can become hotspots for drug sales and prostitution. This, in turn, becomes a problem for the families operating these motels if they live in them (which many do), as the children are forced to grow up at a much more accelerated rate due to what they encounter at home/work.

Dhingra pointed out that while this helps children of motel owners mature, it also creates the problem of many of them not wanting to continue their family’s business. They feel like they’ve been cheated out of a proper childhood – growing up in a house, inviting friends over, dating girls, etc. – and resent their parents’ motel ownership, therefore not wanting anything to do with it.

Nevertheless, motel ownership by Indian Americans continues to remain steady and high. The Indian Ambassador to the US Nirupama Rao, in her opening remarks prior to Dhingra’s address, said that, for the most part, “Americans see Indians owning hotels and motels with appreciation for the entrepreneurship that [Indians] undertake in this country.”

Pawan Dhingra holds a doctorate in sociology from Cornell University. He is the founding curator of the Indian American Heritage Project at the Smithsonian Institute, and is the to-be chair of the Sociology Department at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

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