A new sociological book titled Life Behind the Lobby tackles an interesting topic: why Indian Americans have gravitated toward the motel business. Here are some thoughts from the author about the study:
At first, I was caught by the numbers of it all: 40% of all motels in the United States are owned by Indians. After initial conversations with motel owners, I realized there was a lot more to learn: how they got started, how they afford motels, what happens to their children. There are so many layers, it becomes fascinating. I wouldn’t have pursued this project because of the numbers alone, but they were a key part of why I got started…
Dating back to the 1940s, the first Gujarati motel owner, Kanjibhai Desai, who came to the U.S. via Mexico, was based in San Francisco. He managed a “residential hotel,” which is the present-day equivalent of a youth hostel. People who stayed there were generally down and out.
Other Gujaratis who came to the U.S. in the 40s and 50s were typically farmers back in India, and even if they didn’t own land, they didn’t want to work for someone else. Part of the reason they gravitated towards the motel business was related to their desire to be autonomous in their work lives. They also wanted to know people who had done it before and succeeded. Those two factors helped create motivation and triggered a domino effect where others who were interested in small business and concerned about mobility went into the same thing…
At the same time, they still have to prove they are worthy owners as there are still stereotypes of Indian owners that pervade. They still have to make sure they are seen as 100% American. They’ve moved from becoming a novelty to a trend to a problem (especially following 9/11) to being somewhat accepted. There’s a lot about it that’s very impressive and it’s a testament to America, in terms of opportunity. But once you see the sacrifices the owners make—all the family living in motels, relying on kin from India to make things work—you realize they have other things that help them move up and it’s not just about meritocracy.
This sounds a little like chain migration where established immigrants bring over family and friends. However, in this case, the family and friends who came from India also often got involved in the motel industry.
This is a limited conversation here so I wonder about a few things:
1. How profitable is the motel industry these days? It may have made more sense in the 1940s and 1950s but is this lucrative today?
2. How much opposition have Indian American hotel owners had to overcome over the decades?
3. Is there competition between Indian American motel owners as they might be cutting into each other’s profits? If so, how does this get resolved?
4. How unusual is it to have this great of a concentration of one ethnic/racial group in one industry?