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Life Behind the Lobby: Indian American Motel Owners and the American Dream Paperback – April 25, 2012

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 264 pages
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press (April 25, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0804778833
  • ISBN-13: 978-0804778831
  • Product Dimensions: 8.7 x 5.5 x 0.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #858,662 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


"This book is necessary reading for any race, ethnicity, or immigration scholar as it provides a critical and necessary contribution to the literature—one that further reveals the subethnic, socioeconomic, and gender diversity within the ethnic category of Asian Indian Americans, and more broadly, within the racial category of Asian America."—Monica M. Trieu, American Journal of Sociology

"Nearly half of the motels in the U.S. are owned by Indian Americans . . . Pawan Dhingra set out to examine why such an ubiquitous and distinctly American roadside fixture became so popular among this community, focusing on a surge of Gujarati motel keepers who contributed to the 'Patel motel' phenomenon . . . From participating in community volleyball games to attending local Diwali festivals, Mr. Dhingra dove headfirst into a world he described as being 'uniformly generous.' In tracing the daily lives of Indian American moteliers, Mr. Dhingra discovered a world brimming with long hours, low wages and an intense dependence on the family network."—Aarti Virani, The Wall Street Journal

"In Life Behind the Lobby, Dhingra, who was born in India but grew up in the US, tells how Indian Americans came to dominate the motel business. . . Dhingra's empathy for the motel owners he has interviewed is obvious in the easy way he begins to speak in their words, whether quoting directly or simply imagining himself in their shoes. . . Dhingra's expertise in connection with Indian American motel owners will serve him well as he curates a traveling exhibit on Indian American heritage for the Smithsonian Institution."—Greg Varner,

"For many motel owners, Dhingra says, it's more than a job. 'They talk about it in the same way as if they'd built their own car—in a really sincere and emotional way,' he said, adding that when he'd walk through a motel with the owners, they would often brag about how they'd done remodeling, new wiring or put in new carpeting. 'It's not just a business to them; it's a way of life. They may not make a lot of money, but most are able to send their kids to college, provide a living and it's also seen as a property investment.'"—Matthew Hilburn, Voice of America

"Dhingra conducted more than 100 interviews with motel owners, observing their families at work, over a period of several years to research in detail the grand story of entrepreneurship, the American dream and exceptionalism. The question he poses: Are the achievements of motel owners' proof of acceptance and openness of an American society or are their battles with race or culture evidence that discrimination and inequity continue to exist?"—Nitish Rele, Khaas Baat

About the Author

Pawan Dhingra is Associate Professor of Sociology at Oberlin College and Museum Curator (2011-2012) at the Smithsonian Institution.

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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Durjoy Bhattacharjya on August 27, 2012
Format: Paperback
I'm of Indian American descent and while traveling, even I've often wondered about the phenomenon of Indian American motels and hotels. I found out about this book after hearing about it through both the WSJ and NPR- which rarely agree on anything.

This is just one of those books that needed to be written- half of the motels in the United States are owned by a single minority group. It is somewhat similar to the Korean-American owners of bodegas or Chinese-American laundromats in NYC. This book answers how a single minority group (Gujratis within a minority group of South Asians) come to exert such industry dominance for an entire country.

The book is slightly scholarly at times- but perhaps I've just gotten too used to glib Malcolm Gladwell-esque pithy observations. But the amount of research and the quality of writing is very clear- and it's well worth the time to anyone interested in American exceptionalism, entrepreneurship and American success stories.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By William Morris on August 20, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I bought this book after hearing about it on NPR. I've noticed lots of motels are owned by Indians but never understood why. It's amazing what they've accomplished. It's a true American story that these immigrants arrive with nothing and end up owning so many motels.

The book is dense, nuanced, and deeply researched. It is written at a college level and contains extensive references. It is not light summer beach reading.

I'll never look at a motel the same way again. I highly recommend this book. It's a compelling story about immigration and the American dream.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Jeffrey Swystun on November 4, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This was a tough read. I was expecting a treatment like "Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States" or anything by Mark Kurlansky, author of Salt and Cod, all of which were eminently readable, entertaining, and educational. Instead it read like a college paper or thesis (that may have been challenged). And that is a shame because the subject matter is fascinating and worthy of attention. Indian American motel owners "claim about half of all the nation's motels and hotels". These proprietors own upwards of two million rooms. Even more intriguing is the fact that seventy percent of these owners share the surname, Patel, and have come from the Indian state of Gujarat (but not all are related to each other). The narrative aspects of the book fall short too and that is a shame given the amazing sweat equity these entrepreneurs pour into the trade.
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