REDMOND, WASHINGTON – Long before Microsoft set up its headquarters here, and before the 520 highway extended this far, the RajGuru family moved to this Seattle suburb they knew almost nothing about. The year was 1969.
“People would stop me because I was wearing this long dress, sari. ‘How beautiful your sari is,’” says Madhavi RajGuru. “Everybody wanted to see my dress.”
Now women in saris or Indian clothing would hardly turn heads in downtown Redmond – where one in 10 residents is from India. The suburb has become a tech hub that draws a large Asian Indian workforce at a time when Indians are the fastest-growing immigrant population in the country. The Indian community in Washington state is growing faster than anywhere outside of Hawaii.
Devki RajGuru, now in her mid-40s, was just a toddler – and her brother in grade school – when they moved halfway around the world. She drives us toward her childhood home in Redmond. It was a convenient location for her parents at the time, who both got jobs with the local school district in Kirkland. From the highway, Devki waves out to where the neighborhood kids used to ride bikes.
“We’d make ramps, and go over stumps, in between trees,” she says. “Now, that’s all Microsoft campus. It was virgin land.”
The company, which moved to Redmond in 1986, is now headquartered on 500 acres here.
We park near a quiet cul-de-sac, at a split-level home with faded blue paint. Devki’s parents sold the home years back. But they lived here almost 30 years – at first the only Indians in this rural suburb.
Devki says she and her brother were always the only Indians at their school, all the way through high school.
“We were it for Redmond,” Devki says. “We had a newspaper article done on us in the Redmond paper. And in Bellevue, too, in fact.”
The RajGurus were pioneers in a sense. They came here just a few years after U.S. immigration policy relaxed toward India. New immigrants flocked to big cities like New York and Chicago.
The RajGurus picked Seattle because they knew an American couple here. Long ago, that couple had visited India. They had met and remained good friends.
Devki says it was pretty easy to fit in. But there were times it was tough to be the only Indian, like one day at school, when a new teacher stumbled over Devki’s name.
“I came home, ‘I hate my name. I want to change it. I just want to be Stephanie, or Mary or Kelly or Suzie,’” Devki recalls. “My parents were mortified. ‘What’s wrong with Devki? It’s a beautiful name.’”
And then, there was the major Hindu holiday every fall, called Diwali, when Devki’s father would fill their windows with lights.
“And I was like, ‘Oh my god, we’re the only family with Christmas lights up.’”
Sometimes, the lights went up before Halloween.
Devki says people seemed to view them as interesting, not odd. But they were a novelty in Redmond, for sure. The family nicknamed themselves “four raisins in a rice bowl.”
We drive to a senior community in Redmond, where Devki’s mom lives. Devki’s father died several years ago.
Devki knocks. “Hello, Mom, this is my friend Liz.”
“You eat first, then we talk,” her mom, Madhavi, says to us.
We sit down to a traditional Indian meal and Madhavi names the dishes for me – spicy potatoes, toor dal soup and rice.
Devki grew up on Indian food. But Madhavi says ingredients were sometimes tough to find. It’s gotten easier.
After lunch, Madhavi relaxes on the couch. The wall behind is a mosaic of family photos, including her 13 siblings and relatives in India.
I ask her why they moved. She laughs.
“Just for fun,” she says. “We wanted to see the world.”
That idea percolated at the office where Madhavi and her husband worked in India – at the American Embassy in New Delhi.
They moved here with just four boxes. Madhavi packed kitchen items and dozens of colorful saris, which she still keeps neatly folded in a suitcase. She wore the saris every to work in U.S. until she retired.
She remembers some struggles from those early days and the way she sometimes felt.
“Not welcomed,” she says.
Remember, it was 1969. The total Indian population in the U.S. at that time could have easily fit in Safeco Field where the Mariners play. Now it’s around 3 million.
Madhavi says some apartment managers in Bellevue turned them away, even though signs showed vacancies.
Eventually, once they settled in Redmond, Madhavi says they set out to find other Indians. They’d scan the Seattle phone book for Indian names, then call to tell them: “We have just arrived in the United States.”
That was enough to form a deep and lasting friendship back then. Or, whenever two Indians crossed paths, Madhavi says they’d stop to meet each other.
In King County, the Asian Indian community grew slowly but steadily. By 1990, it totaled about 4,000 people according to U.S. Census figures.
Then the Microsoft "boom" happened. And since 1990, the Asian Indian population in King County has tripled every decade. Census estimates from 2013 show 58, 465 Indians living in King County.
“I see so many Indians now,” Madhavi says with a chuckle.
She says she still makes a friendly gesture when she sees another Indian on the street. But unlike before, not everyone reciprocates.
Seattle University Professor Nalini Iyer made similar observations about this community’s growth. Iyer is co-author of a book published last year called “Roots and Reflections: South Asians in the Pacific Northwest.”
“The number of people spiraling upwards has made this community difficult to know in a comprehensive way,” she says. “And we had ringside seats to it living on the Eastside.”
Iyer, originally from Mumbai, has lived in the Seattle area since 1993.
In that time, she has watched what she calls an explosion in the Asian Indian community, as "Little Indias" sprang up in Seattle’s suburbs and made it easier for new immigrants who want to hang on to their culture.
“The community is big enough you can arrive from India, you could live in an apartment complex that is pretty much all from India, you meet people just like you,” she says. “You go shop at the Indian stores. So it’s a self-sufficient network.”
Back in the car with Devki, we stop at one of those Indian grocery stores. The store is tucked in a strip mall with an Indian bakery, Indian video store and a Pizza Hut.
Women chat in the produce aisle. They speak Hindi, English and other Indian languages. Some wear bright Indian tunics; others are in jeans. Bollywood tunes blare overhead. Cell phones ring.
And everything just blends together.