Falguni Patel is a modern-day pioneer of the Wild West. She and her husband are Indian immigrants who recently started Bombay Indian Food and Chai House in the San Joaquin Valley city of Hanford, where she says the majority of the 55,000 residents are not familiar with Indian cuisine. (The nearest Indian restaurant is 30 minutes away.) Despite a growing group of Punjabi farmers in the area, the small Indian community isn’t visible, either. As a result, despite their efforts to fit in, the couple occasionally feels like outsiders. Patel hopes that immigration reform will help normalize the immigration experience and make it easier for Americans to welcome immigrants like her and her family into their communities.
Patel and her husband arrived in the United States from India in 2008 and ran hotels in North Carolina and Central California before ending up in the restaurant business in 2013. “It’s definitely been a challenge opening up an Indian restaurant in an area where people don’t know Indian culture,” says Patel, 40, who decided to start her own mom-and-pop restaurant in a strip mall next to a Mexican bakery and Thai restaurant. About half of her clientele is non-Indian, and she gets a steady stream of business from military workers from nearby Lemoore Military Base. “The rest of our customers are people who want to try something new,” says Patel.
It’s no longer 1950’s America. We need to change the cultural rhetoric, so it’s more accepting and not so divisive.
Patel says she’s met “so many nice people” who have welcomed her family to Hanford, however she’s also encountered racism, including the time a student taunted her fourth-grade daughter after school by shouting, “Go back to your country. Why are you here?” She also wonders if other incidents are based in xenophobia, such as some former neighbors who refused to accept her invitation to dine at her restaurant. “They’d never had Indian food and wouldn’t even try it,” says Patel. “I had a feeling it was something more. It’s hard to accept another community, especially one from another background.”
Patel says she’s focused on carving out her place in the Central California Valley by getting involved in the community service organization Lion’s Club. “My husband and I are the only Indians in the Hanford chapter, but we want to increase membership by bringing in more diversity,” says Patel, who recently sponsored an immigrant from Nepal. She hopes immigration reform will start a cultural conversation that celebrates diversity by recognizing immigrants’ contributions to American society. “I want to see change so people can grow out of their boxes and learn about other cultures,” says Patel. “It’s no longer 1950’s America. We need to change the cultural rhetoric, so it’s more accepting and not so divisive.”