By Claire Bushey |

Suzy Singh is a contestant on Fox reality cooking show "Master Chef." Photo by Erik Unger

Suzy Singh is a contestant on Fox reality cooking show “Master Chef.” Photo by Erik Unger

Suzy Singh knew she loved to cook, but as the eldest child in an extended Punjabi family, she felt pressured to get a college degree and, like many in her generation, pursue a prestigious, well-paying career in medicine or science. Ms. Singh became a neural engineer at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Last July, however, six years into her career, she enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu, which can cost up to $50,000. Though she was working and attending school full time—and facing the likelihood of an income going “from six figures to nothing”—she was so pumped to be in the kitchen, she found herself working off her extra adrenaline at the gym at midnight.

Her parents were less than thrilled. “They were like, ‘Are you crazy? You have this amazing job. . . . Why would you throw that all away, especially when you have a mortgage?’ “ the 27-year-old South Loop resident recalls.

Few Indian immigrants took leaps like that. Increasingly, though, their Indian-American children are eschewing conventional jobs for careers in the creative fields. According to the U.S. Census, 2.9% of Indian-Americans in metro Chicago in 2000 worked in the arts, entertainment or food industries vs. 6.1% of the total population. Nine years later, that figure more than doubled, to 6.1%, while the overall number rose to 8.8%.

Some, like Ms. Singh, who is among the 12 remaining contestants in this summer’s Fox reality cooking show “Master Chef,” have headed into food. [Ms. Singh shares her recipe for curried risotto with tandoori beef kabobs.] In 2004, for instance, Rohini Dey opened Vermilion, a tony Indian-Latin fusion restaurant in River North, after jettisoning a management consulting job at New York-based McKinsey & Co. Others are making their mark in dance, theater or politics.

These pursuits of the heart have brought Indian art and experiences to a wider audience, as with Burr Ridge resident Anuradha Behari, 40, who left a corporate gig for a “full-time-plus” job co-producing Eye on India, Chicago’s first Indian cultural festival, running this week at Millennium Park. Or 47th Ward Alderman Ameya Pawar, 31, who got into politics (arguably part of the entertainment industry in Chicago) after getting a master’s degree in public administration from the Illinois Institute of Technology and a second master’s, in threat and response management, from the University of Chicago.

The generational divide also has triggered delicate conversations in families across the city and suburbs, as parents are asked to reconsider what qualifies as a respectable occupation.


Indians began emigrating to the U.S. in 1965, when the U.S. government abolished quotas based on country of origin. Some 165,000 people of Indian descent live in the Chicago area today, with more than two-thirds born outside the U.S. That’s up from 117,000 in 2000 and 59,000 in 1990. Indians now are the city’s third-largest immigrant group, after Mexicans and Poles.

Census data also show that in 2009, 24.9% of Indian-Americans in the area worked in health care or education, and another 18.9% worked in professional, scientific or managerial capacities; both percentages are well over the population as a whole. Their median income was $87,000, more than the $60,000 average. Indian immigrants got a head start because many arrived already speaking English and with higher education levels than the native population.

“The first generation went with things they knew that it was good to be: a doctor, an engineer or a business owner,” says Jagriti Ruparel, president of the board of trustees of Chicago’s Indo-American Heritage Museum. “Now it’s the second generation. Now it’s OK to be different.”


Peter Alter, a Chicago History Museum archivist who focuses on immigration history, says the closest parallel is the Jewish entertainers who found success in vaudeville and radio between 1910 and 1930. Their parents, who had been peasants in Eastern and Central Europe, largely ran small shops or worked in factories. Because vaudeville and radio were new industries, Jews faced less discrimination for jobs than in established, white-collar fields.

The situation for Indians is different. The entertainment industry is no longer new ground, Mr. Alter says, and the shift isn’t from shopkeeper to vaudevillian but from industries “where workers are highly educated and highly motivated and generally earn decent salaries to another field that typically has highly educated folks but is more unstable in terms of salary.”

Anjal Chande teaches classical Indian dance at her studio in Ukrainian Village. Photo: Erik Unger

Anjal Chande teaches classical Indian dance at her studio in Ukrainian Village. Photo: Erik Unger

When Anjal Chande decided to pursue her passion for classical Indian dance, her parents supported her decision, even allowing her to teach a few classes out of their Palos Park home before she opened Soham Dance Space in Ukrainian Village in 2009. She chose to open her studio in Chicago rather than a suburb with a large Indian-American population because she wanted to attract a diverse crowd to her shows and classes.

Ms. Chande, 26, says that because her identity integrates two cultures, she can draw from a broader aesthetic vocabulary when she choreographs and performs. For example, she’ll perform a show in August with the Aakash Mittal Quartet, which plays jazz influenced by classical Indian music. Rather than follow a traditional storyline from Indian folklore, Ms. Chande’s new dance will explore the uses of human creativity.


Another second-generation Indian-American, Sheel Mohnot, 29, co-founded the Chicago branch of Subcontinental Drift, a monthly South Asian open mic night. He speaks Hindi and Gujurati, but on visits to India, he says, natives “can spot me from a mile away.”

Sheel Mohnot, right, co-founded the Chicago branch of Subcontinental Drift, a monthly South Asian open mic night. Photo: Erik Unger

Sheel Mohnot, right, co-founded the Chicago branch of Subcontinental Drift, a monthly South Asian open mic night. Photo: Erik Unger

Azhar Usman of Des Plaines used to be a regular at the club; the stand-up comedian will open a one-man show this fall at the Joynt in River North. Mr. Usman, 35, whose act pokes fun at Muslims while puncturing the stereotypes that cling to them in post-9/11 America, started doing comedy while working as a lawyer, then went professional in 2004.

At first, he says, his parents were somewhat shocked by his career change. But seeing their son featured on “Nightline” helped soothe their anxiety. Still, when the correspondent asked his father how he felt about his son “being a big comedian,” Mr. Usman recalls his father replying, “Well, he’s also an attorney, you know.”

Mr. Usman’s father, Zia Usman, is a veterinarian, and his grandfather was a doctor. In India, medical professions are more respectable than stand-up comedy, says Dr. Usman, 65, of Skokie. While the younger generation understands his son’s work, sometimes Dr. Usman encounters peers who think Mr. Usman is either mocking Islam or wasting his time and should have stayed in law.

But the father admires the son’s charismatic persona and commitment to showing audiences that Muslims are “as human as anyone else.”

“I feel proud of him,” he says.

All content and photos Copyright © 2013