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Iselin, New Jersey -- a Little India


Every week, newly-arrived immigrants settle in what often turn out to be ethnic enclaves all across the United States -- places that offer not only social acceptance, but also familiar ambience and customs.

Over time, some of these communities have become near mirror-images of the distant homelands.

VOA's George Dwyer recently traveled to once such community -- a place that has become a "home away from home" for thousands of Indian-Americans.

Less than a generation ago the village of Iselin, New Jersey might have been described as "All-American". Today, one of the largest commercial markets for Indian-Americans in the country has taken root right here, along Oak Tree Road.

David Gillen is a journalist who was born and grew up just minutes from this spot. "Oak Tree Road is unrecognizable from even what it was 20 years ago. This neighborhood was a neighborhood more of Italian, German and so forth and now it's a Little India," says Mr. Gillen.

This strip is now home to more than 100 Indian retail businesses, including restaurants, groceries, jewelers and clothing stores, serving some 60,000 Indian Americans in the surrounding community.

Journalist Mitra Kalita is a first-generation Indian-American, and author of "Suburban Sahib," a book about New Jersey's "Little India." She says, "The strip of Oak Tree Road is a place where you can walk along today and get your spices, get a sari, get your latest Bollywood movie, the soundtrack to that movie, maybe some posters from that movie. It's really sort of a one stop shop for the Indian immigrant…"

"What they've tried to create along Oak Tree Road is an environment very similar to India, where you can step outside and buy your paper and your cigarettes, and create an environment that isn't necessarily dependent on a car, so you actually have ethnic enclave in the suburbs," " says Ms. Kalita.

Jaswant Singh was among the first to set up shop here in 1986. He runs a restaurant and sweets shop.

Mr. Singh says, "Within a one mile area there are 52 other Indian restaurants because mostly people they like a one-stop market, within one stop they can buy everything."

That fact alone draws visitors from hundreds of miles away…

"The smells are the same, the is the same and the people are the same, wearing the same clothes and all that so we more feel like we are back home," says one woman.

Another woman adds, "And the spices and the clothes and the whole bazaar itself, the music stores, everything here we enjoy and we like to see and buy and enjoy ourselves."

Professional services such as banking, real estate brokerages, and travel agencies are also part of the scene here.

"So you have the creation of kind of these entreprises that are trying to bridge the two different worlds here, the American and the Indian," says Ms. Kalita.

Many young Indian-Americans here will one day cross that bridge to find their way in more diverse areas on the U.S., as Mitra Kalita has done. At the same time, many non-Indians will continue to come here, to experience a closer view of authentic Indian culture.

David Gillen sees a hint of America's future in that cultural exchange, and brings his children here to be a part of it. "You know this is the world that they're going to live in and we want them to be engaged in it," says Mr. Gillen.

The phrase "all-American" once conveyed the world portrayed by artist Norman Rockwell -- an idealized world of mostly white Americans with a narrow range of values and lifestyles. That phrase has taken on a whole new meaning in towns such as Iselin.

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