Asian Indian population growing fast

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Charts: Asian populations in Puget Sound, Washington

While the Seattle Mariners struggled for a lone run in a recent game against the New York Yankees, the bats were blazing across the lake at Marymoor Park.

Microsoft Cricket Club #1 lighted up the King County Cricket Club for 152 runs and held on for the win. "Lovely shot!" teammates shouted as balls floated over the white-suited fielders.

For team captain Manish Prabhu, the cricket matches awaken memories of his childhood outside Bombay, where the kids would play on pavement or dirt roads. In Redmond, over several years, newcomers like him leveled the cricket pitch and installed its woven-coconut runway for the batsmen.

This thriving cricket league is evidence of what may be as sought after an Asian import as Ichiro: highly skilled engineers and programmers from the Indian subcontinent recruited here to work at Microsoft and other high-tech firms.

The population of Asian Indians in the state nearly tripled from 8,203 to 23,992 during the 1990s, the largest percentage increase among Asian ethnic groups, newly released census figures show.

Many Indian immigrants eke out livings as taxi drivers or in other blue-collar jobs. But the engineers and programmers are writing a new sort of immigration history, landing directly in the middle class.

Unlike on the East Coast, the settlement of Indians here is largely a suburban phenomenon. Nearly one in three residents of Redmond reports Indian ancestry. Bellevue now is home to more than 2,800 Asian Indians, the highest number in the metro area.

Their influence will not end with finding a niche in high-tech, predicts Vijay Vashee, a longtime Microsoft manager.

"You cannot be just a community that produces geeks," he said. "It's not enough to succeed economically. To be part of mainstream America, you have to get into a whole lot of other things ... charity, fund-raising. The Indo-American community is growing up to do that."

Although Indian immigrants are still a tiny minority of the state's 5.9 million residents, their imprint can be seen in a variety of settings.

At least a dozen high-tech companies have been started in the Seattle area by Indo-American entrepreneurs, said Vashee, including, a gateway to online information; Talisma, which offers services to companies doing business through the Internet; and vJungle, which provides e-commerce technology.

A Web site that helps these techies locate potential spouses,, was launched last year by a Redmond couple who say it is difficult for single Indians to meet mates through casual American courtship customs.

Each weekend in Renton, Hindi movies are screened at the remodeled Roxy Theatre and about 2,000 Sikhs, followers of a religion that combines elements of Islam and Hinduism, worship in the new Gurdwara Temple.

The surging Indian population illustrates how the definition of being Asian American - once virtually synonymous with being Japanese or Chinese American - is being redefined. Overall, the state's Asian population increased 65 percent during the 1990s. Asian Americans now make up 11 percent of King County's population.

After Asian Indians, the fastest-growing group on a percentage basis were the Vietnamese, who began immigrating to the U.S. in large numbers more than 20 years ago. Filipinos and Chinese are still the largest groups.

The number of people identifying themselves as Japanese Americans increased by only 5 percent in the state, and actually decreased nationwide. Experts attribute the drop to low immigration and birth rates, as well as a high rate of intermarriage.

A thriving Sikh community

Sixteen miles from Redmond, the airport's Sikh taxi owners work long hours for a modest income of $1,500 to $2,500 a month.

Sikh cabbies are a majority at Farwest Taxi and STITA, the Seattle-Tacoma International Taxi Association. They generated unwelcome publicity when a dispute between Sikh cabbies led to a homicide in downtown Seattle during the 1999 Christmas-shopping season that embarrassed the community.

Still, most are happy to be here, said Sew Singh, as he evaded aggressive drivers on Highway 518 last week.

"Everybody helps everybody here. No corruption. Everything is fine," he said.

Sikhs, many of whom are originally from the Punjab region of India, are moving here from other states to be near relatives in British Columbia, where there are an estimated quarter-million Sikhs, said Sharanjit Singh, executive director of the Renton temple.

They include Boeing engineers, doctors and retailers as well as drivers. In the temple, all eat and worship on the floor, without furniture, as a sign of equality.

Temple members have bought adjacent land to build a fully accredited Punjabi-English school.

The high-tech lure

The growing numbers of Indian high-tech workers here results as much from the economic needs of American companies as of the immigrants themselves.

In the past three years, Congress, at the behest of the technology industry, increased the number of people who could enter the U.S. under the H1-B visa program - meant to fill high-skill jobs for which domestic workers are reportedly unavailable - from 65,000 in 1998 to 195,000 this year.

According to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 43 percent of all H1-B recipients came from India during the six months ending in February of last year. Critics such as Washtech, a Seattle labor organization, argue that the influx of H1-B visa holders puts downward pressure on wages here.

Approximately 2,000 overseas Indians work at Microsoft in Western Washington, estimated Vashee.

Immigrants say there is not much guilt over leaving India to seek a higher standard of living here. They say Indo-American entrepreneurs are pouring money back into India in hopes it will become the next Asian tiger economy.

"If these guys had not come here to get educated, none of it would have gone back to India," said Akhtar Badshah, an urban planner. "You can see it as a brain drain; you can also see it as a brain gain."

For example, Digital Partners, founded by Badshah and local entrepreneurs, is launching development projects in India and Africa. The group raised $600,000 in donations for victims of the Jan. 26 earthquake in western India.

Some prominent Indian Americans are comparing themselves with another group, the Jews.

Both have dispersed and prospered throughout the world, both place great emphasis on education and both feel a responsibility to nurture a homeland. They are well-represented in the professions, and Indian business leaders say they aspire to wield comparable political clout.

Vashee also draws lessons from the persecutions of other overseas Indian communities. Idi Amin expelled Indians from Uganda, and in Fiji there have been tensions between indigenous islanders and the large Indian minority, he said.

"That kind of stuff can happen to you," Vashee said.

That makes it important for Indian Americans to be involved in arts, literature and politics with the rest of society, he added.

Meanwhile, some Indian immigrants hope to lure non-Indians to the slow charms of the cricket pitch. At one recent practice game, Brian First, the first white American player for Microsoft Cricket Club, scored three runs.

"He has played baseball all his life. He is doing amazingly well," said Prabhu, his team captain from Bombay.

Mike Lindblom can be reached at 206-515-5631 or Computer-assisted-reporting specialist Justin Mayo contributed to this article. Information from Knight Ridder News Service was included in this article.