At Home: American Masala

At 21, Amit Sharma has a resume that would impress most parents--just not his own. After graduating as the valedictorian of his high school in Carbondale, Ill., he entered the University of Chicago, where he majored in biology. His college years were, in many ways, typical: he joined a fraternity, played intramural football and spent summers in a lab. But earlier this year, he rocked his parents' world. He decided he wanted to go into business, not medicine, and this summer will start work at JP Morgan as an investment banker. His parents are disappointed; they had groomed him to be a doctor since he was a child. But "I grew up in a town where every Indian was a doctor or a professor," Sharma says. "There is so much more out there."

Raised in America by Indian-born parents, many of today's twentysomething "Desis," as they call themselves, are doing more--and less--than what's expected of them. They're moving beyond science and engineering into fields like business, journalism, literature--even acting. These jobs are certainly within reach. Indians come from one of the best-educated groups in the United States, with 66.7 percent of adults over 25 holding at least a bachelor's degree, compared with the national average of 27 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. They're also earning more; their median household income of $67,424 per year is top among ethnic groups.

How did a generation so young and so relatively small--only 2.4 million Indians live in the United States--come to be defined by so much success? For one thing, their parents, most of whom immigrated in the 1960s and '70s, were able to get good jobs as doctors, scientists or engineers when they arrived here. But what sets them apart is a strong work ethic combined with the grace of people comfortable with living among strangers: India was, after all, colonized by the British. "Becoming part of America comes more naturally to the Indians than perhaps the Chinese or Japanese cultures," says Arvind Panagariya, an economics professor at Columbia University.

As a sign that they're settling in, some of the parents of these twentysomethings are beginning to see that prestige can be measured in more than M.D.s. "In the end, if you do excel, you're going to succeed in your field," Panagariya concedes, referring to his 22-year-old son, whose Web comic Applegeeks is in negotiations to be published as a book. Other young Indians are also finding success in the arts, the last frontier. Kaavya Viswanathan, a 19-year-old sophomore at Harvard, has signed a reported deal close to $500,000 for two novels with Little, Brown. Kal Penn, the star of 2004's "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle," is at 28 a hot new commodity in Hollywood. Later this year, you can see him as Gogol Ganguli in "The Namesake," the film adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's best-selling novel. He's also set to be in a "Harold and Kumar" sequel due in 2007.

Kumar, a pothead slacker who deceives his father into thinking he's going to medical school, is a caricature--but there's truth in how trapped he feels. "There are Indian-Americans who get fed up with the narrowness of the community," says Sunaina Maira, author of "Desis in the House." "Some of them try to find their own space." That's why certain college students would much rather host a splashy Bollywood party than embrace their parents' religion. Monika Kasina, an 18-year-old junior at the University of Washington, was surprised on a recent visit to India to see even the beggars went to temple. "I wondered where that faith came from," she says. Kasina does plan on becoming a doctor, a cardiac surgeon, but she insists it's her decision--not her parents'. She's living the American Dream, and that is the answer to her whole family's prayers.