By Adnan Syed and Sumit Karn Herald Writers
BOTHELL — A few years ago, Harjeet Kaur saw a niche she knew she could fill.
Immigrants from South Asia — especially India and Pakistan — were growing into a community in Bothell. A Hindu temple draws in the faithful, as does a mosque and a Sikh temple, within a few miles of each other. There are grocery stores, a few restaurants and even a place to get chaat, Indian street food.
A beautician and garment merchant originally from India’s Punjab state, Kaur knew what people would need. Indian and Pakistani weddings are incomplete without the bride getting her hands tattooed with henna. An Indian bride also needs a red or orange-colored cosmetic made of powdered cinnebar. During a Hindu wedding, the groom dips his thumb into the powder and draws a line along the parting of his bride’s hair. This is called a sindoor, and signifies that she is a married woman.
Traditional dresses and types of bangles called kangan and choodian enliven Indian festivals the whole year. Wedding dresses, sometimes handed down through generations, need careful alteration.
So six years ago Kaur moved from Kent and opened Khoobsurat Boutique and Khoobsurat Beauty Salon on Bothell-Everett highway. She applies henna tattoos, and sells henna and cinnebar powder among other Indian cosmetics. Her clothing shop is a rainbow of colors and styles. She fixes saris, kurta pajamas, sherwani and salwar-kameez.
“We are the only store in Bothell for Indian clothes,” she said. But her customers come from a bigger melting pot. “Our clients are Mexican, American, Fijian, and, of course, Indian.
“Americans who attend Indian festivals, marriage ceremonies, they come to us and get some suggestions such as ‘what should we wear?’ and whatnot.”
There has been rapid growth of South Asian communities in the Bothell area during the past decade, according to experts and community leaders. Boeing, Microsoft and Amazon have hired many professional South Asians, and the commute from Bothell is time-saving for them. Northshore School District is ranked among the best in the state, and housing stock is somewhat newer and a bit more affordable than Bellevue, Redmond or Seattle.
Amy Bhatt, who ran an oral history project at the University of Washington Bothell while earning her master’s degree, co-wrote a book about Washington’s South Asian community, “Roots &Reflections, South Asians in the Pacific Northwest.”
“There are a couple of reasons the community has grown so fast in Bothell,” said Bhatt, who is now on the faculty of the University of Maryland’s department of gender and women’s studies.
First, there are the technology firms that have established themselves in Seattle’s Eastside suburbs, “making Bothell a geographically interesting place to live in,” she said.
“And of course, the growth of the H-1B visa,” resulting in more temporary immigrants landing in Bothell, Bhatt said. “And the third reason is the presence of cultural institutions, such as the Hindu Temple and Cultural Center that has been leader since the 1970s.”
According to the U.S. Census, Washington’s estimated population of Indian immigrants rose to 44,087 from 29,143 between 2007 and 2011.
“Economically and culturally, it’s been very positive for the city,” Bothell Mayor Mark Lamb said.
A lot of South Asian immigrants are undergoing a relatively different kind of immigrant experience than people before them, Lamb said. As a country, “we are more welcoming of immigrants.”
“The Hindu Temple in Bothell is actually the largest Hindu temple in the Pacific Northwest, which is a pretty remarkable thing,” Lamb said.
“The second and third generations of immigrants are gradually taking part in political and social activities” as they become part of American society. Both the Hindu temple and Islamic Center of Bothell have long participated in the city’s annual July 4 parade. And this year’s city council election is seeing the first candidate, Nadia Mustafa, who has South Asian roots.
“The growth of South Asians is helping Bothell become a diverse and more interesting place to live,” Lamb said.
Part of the immigrant experience today includes a measure of harmony not common in countries like India and Pakistan, where politics, religion and in some cases caste are persistent causes of conflicts.
In the U.S., most of that can be forgotten. Pakistanis and Indians can be friends and colleagues. When the Islamic Center was going through the building process, leaders met with those from the Hindu temple to see what they could learn to make the process go smoother.
There also are groups that help South Asian immigrants adapt to American culture.
“Community organizations here allow South Asians to interact, which might not have been possible back in home country,” explained Bhatt. In India, someone could live their whole life without meeting anyone from Pakistan. Here, “proximity is different to various types of people that you have access to.”
Immigrants all become South Asian, neither Indian nor Pakistani, she said.
“The American public might not understand the differences that those regions have,” she said. That creates the ability to connect in ways that, in India or Pakistan, would be viewed as unusual.
Just as immigrants from around the world before them, South Asians divide generations into first, second and third in a process of transition from home culture to complete Americanization, she said.
“When people come from abroad, first generation people, they keep thinking about going back, but it never happens,” said Syed Ghulam Mustafa, president of Pacific Islamic Community and Cultural Services in Bothell. “The first and second generations are divided on that, but third generation is pretty clear: They will go back as tourists, not as the citizens of India or Pakistan.”
The former Pakistani Air Force pilot and engineer brought his own family to the West Coast more than 30 years ago. He made it a priority for his family to fully participate in American society.
Working with Pakistanis and Muslims from other countries, his group encourages the first generation to become part of their new homeland.
“I think immigrants have a lot to offer. So we think that instead of waiting for the third generation, we encourage people from the first generations to get involved in activities of American society. We encourage people to send their children and grandchildren to golf, baseball activities. We also encourage people to take part in political activities.”
Jaswinder Singh, president of Sikh Center Gurdwara of Seattle, arrived in the U.S. from Punjab 22 years ago. The Sikh temple opened on the Bothell-Everett Highway four years ago and attracts hundreds of families every weekend, and up to 1,000 on Vaisakhi, or Khalsa Day, an annual Sikh festival.
“The third generation has the best of both worlds. They have best from our culture and best from the American culture,” he said.
That doesn’t come without some concerns. In both India and Pakistan, for example, parents often decide their child’s husband or wife, college major, and their companions.
For parents, it’s a balancing act, Singh said. South Asian culture believes that until children are in a position to decide what is good for them, they are kept under their parents’ guidance.
“We just need to find the happy median where our kids can make independent choices.” he added. “There is always the dominance of the majority culture, with which we have no problems. We just don’t want our kids to feel like they’re lost.”
That’s where religion helps.
Vaishali Bhonsle, a software engineer, recently moved to Bothell to be closer to the Hindu temple, which houses statues of dozens of Hindu gods. In addition to holy festivals, the temple organizes activities such as yoga and Sanskrit language classes.
“We have an 8-year-old son, Sohan,” Bhonsle said. “He asks questions about our gods. We can practice our values here. We try to show our kids our culture, so we bring them here.”
About the reporters
Reporters Adnan Syed and Sumit Karn reported and wrote this story during their spring internship with The Herald.
Syed, 29, of Hyderabad, Pakistan, and Karn, 21, of Bihar, India, were Fulbright Scholars who spent a year in the journalism program at Everett Community College as participants in the Community Colleges for International Development program.