I remember walking out of my apartment in the spring of 2000, when I ran into my neighbor at the time, Murugan. He looked at me at said, "Hey, there's this meeting I'm going to run by an organization called NetSAP Network of South Asian Professionals. They are having a chit-chat at the Starbuck's in Clayton about the impact of South Asians in the American workforce. You should come." I was not at all familiar with NetSAP, but I was intrigued, so I accepted my friend's offer.
At the time, I had lived in St. Louis for three years and really did not know any Indian people or other South Asians. My hometown is Rockford, IL, an industrial town in northern Illinois with a population of 140,000. It's a nice town, but not a richly diverse town. Relatively speaking, I certainly viewed St. Louis as a large metropolitan area with a fairly cosmopolitan flavor to it. I guess I did not take full advantage of everything St. Louis had to offer until NetSAP.
The Network of South Asian Professionals (NetSAP) is a non-profit networking organization dedicated to enhancing professional development, intercultural understanding, and community service within the South Asian academic and professional community. My first NetSAP meeting opened my eyes to the young South Asian demographic in St. Louis. I was sharing experiences about being South Asian in America that only my fellow South Asian Americans could relate to and understand. It was nice to be around like-minded people who shared a common ethnicity and cultural background, which is something I really did not have when I first moved to St. Louis. I did not realize what I had been missing all of this time. As I attended more and more NetSAP events such as networking dinners, picnics, and United Way volunteering events, I really developed a strong camaraderie with a lot of the people in the organization. They were giving me some intangible benefits of friendship that I really had not felt before or could not put into words. I finally had to ask myself, "What are these benefits? What's different about hanging out with this crowd?" The answer finally came to me. The benefit was a firmer sense of cultural identity.
No. No. I know what most people are thinking. I did not all of a sudden find myself. I've known I was Indian for quite some time. However, when you are with people from a similar ethnic and cultural background, you learn more about your ethnicity and culture. As a result, you learn more about yourself. That's what happened to me. Sure, I ran with South Asian crowds in college, but not to the extent that I have in St. Louis and not with the maturity of being in my upper '20s. There's just something special about hanging out with the NetSAP crowd, eating Indian food, talking about the South Asian dating scene, sharing similar arguments that we had with our parents, and discussing relevant social issues and current events. I have numerous American friends who I am very close to and who I consider to be the best of friends, so the "something special" I'm talking about is just different, not necessarily better.
Before NetSAP, my knowledge of St. Louis consisted of the West County YMCA, Westport Plaza, Chesterfield Mall, and Downtown. The only place I would run into Indian people were Seema Enterprises, the local Indo-Pakistani grocery store. Fast-forward to now, and I can't live without Clayton, the Central West End, and University City. The aforementioned places are probably some of the most diverse and dynamic communities in St. Louis, communities that I probably would not have gotten to know as well without my participation in NetSAP. I've also visited the Hindu Temple on Weidman Road on several occasions, and I can't tell you the number of times I've gone out for Thai food or Indian food. I'm definitely a better person for having eaten at the 'King and I' Thai Restaurant!
There is no negative side to being South Asian in St. Louis...not when I first moved here or now. However, thanks to NetSAP, I've made a ton of friends and learned a lot more about my South Asian culture. If it's true that "people make the party," well, then, this party rocks!
Ara Chinnusamy served as NetSAP's president in 2002.