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Expatriates Still Friendly Despite India-Pakistan Rift

Culture: In heavily Asian Bay Area suburbs, many immigrants from the rival nations are socially integrated.


HAYWARD, Calif. — Every day around noon, Brij Dhir leaves his personal injury law office here and heads next door for a cup of cardamom spiced tea with his friend, restaurant owner Mohammad Shahbaz.

Dhir is a native of India and a Hindu. Shahbaz, who owns three Bay Area South Asian restaurants, is originally from Pakistan and is Muslim. Both men retain strong cultural and political attachments to their respective homelands.

Both acknowledge that they are deeply troubled by the recent tensions between India and Pakistan that have nuclear-capable armies poised in a potentially deadly standoff over the disputed territory of Kashmir. But so far, the threat of war hasn't interrupted their Hayward tea ritual.

Likewise, Shahbaz said Indian customers continue to throng to his Pakwan restaurants, known for their spicy curries and Punjabi specialties. And Shahbaz, who plays a recorded recitation from the Koran every morning to bless the working day, said he still shops for lentils and dry pulses in the Indian-owned grocery a few doors away in the Haymont Plaza Shopping Center, a strip mall. To get there, he walks past an Indian-owned shop that sells Hindu statues.

Few communities are more sensitive to tensions in South Asia than the Bay Area cities of Fremont, Hayward and Union City--home to one of the largest concentrations of Indians, Pakistanis, Fijian Indian and Afghan populations in North America.

In the 2000 census, Fremont recorded one of the largest increases of Asians in the country, jumping 150% to 81,000, including a large percentage of South Asians. Hayward and Union City added 23,571 people who identified themselves as Asians.

Fremont has an eight-screen movieplex for films in Hindi and Urdu. South Asian restaurants, temples and mosques are proliferating along Mission Boulevard, which connects the communities sandwiched between Oakland and San Jose.

But unlike India and Pakistan, which were separated by the partition of British India in 1947, these communities tend to be much more socially integrated despite their religious and geopolitical differences. In some respects, in fact, the American communities have re-created the atmosphere of coexistence last seen in pre-1947 India.

Hindu restaurants, for example, often offer halal, meat prepared by Muslim butchers according to Islamic rites. Pakistani films and newspapers are available in many Indian shops.

To Agha Saeed, president of the American Muslim Alliance in Newark, Calif., a small suburb next to Fremont, the interdependence of the South Asian community has created a sense of accommodation that allows people to ignore all but the most serious of conflicts between their homelands.

"People have learned to live with and disregard the average level of conflict," said Saeed, a native of Pakistan who teaches political science at UC Berkeley and Cal State Hayward. Thus, even in the gravest of crises, he said, most people are able to go about their daily dealings with their South Asian counterparts with little thought to politics.

"I was in two Indian places to check out videos," Saeed said this week. "The crisis did not enter my mind. But at a conscious political level, I am aware that there is a potential conflict with incomprehensible consequences."

But Saeed said the current crisis is the worst since the two countries last went to war in 1971. "This is going one step farther," he said. "The tension is much higher."

Asim Mughal, a Pakistani-American Web site editor who lives in Sunnyvale, north of San Jose, said Saeed paints too rosy a picture.

"This apparent environment of tolerance," Mughal said during a discussion in the Muslim Alliance office, "does not mean that there are not differences. I know people who will not go to Indian shops." Mughal, who works for the Internet news service, said he is one of them.

Grocer Gajjan Singh Bal, owner of the Haymont Produce Shop, said he worries that more tension could drive his regular Pakistani customers away.

"So far it has not been much of an issue," said Bal, whose family immigrated to California in 1973, settling first in Fresno, "but we continue to worry about the effect. The Pakistani restaurants are among my biggest customers. The other day I became concerned when I hadn't seen one of my Pakistani customers for several days. But eventually he came in."

Bal, who is Sikh, said his steadiest clientele are Sikhs, Hindus, Fijian Indians, Pakistanis and Afghans who come to buy ghee (Indian clarified butter), yogurt sodas and Golden Temple Flour, which are not available in other stores.

Varsha Patel, owner of the Sagar Emporium and Bridal Shop in the Haymont Plaza, said she has experienced some decline in business from her Pakistani customers. "I think they just stopped coming out," said Patel, a Hindu who grew up in India and moved here 15 years ago.

But she said that although she has lost some customers, she has been able to maintain her "incontestable friendships" with Pakistani neighbors and friends.

College-age people appear to be the least affected by the crisis.

Rizwan Khalid, 20, and Mazhar Ali, 22, are Pakistani students at San Jose State University, part of a large contingent of South Asian students who refer to each other using the neutral term "desi," which means "from the homeland" and can apply to either Indian or Pakistani.

Khalid and Ali were in one of the Pakwan restaurants this week, feasting on platters of Punjabi-style tandoori chicken.

"Except for a little joking, we don't see any changes in our friendships with Indians because of this situation," Khalid said. "Somebody might joke: 'India is kicking your butt.' That's the extent of it."

"Most of us realize that it is just the two governments having problems," he said. "It doesn't affect us at all. Frankly, I don't even care if India gets all of Kashmir, as long as people's rights are observed."

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