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For Indian American, Inauguration Marks Full Passage Into U.S. Life

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 12, 2009

In less than a week, people from across the country will start arriving for the inauguration of America's first black president. Who are these people? In their stories is a portrait of a nation. One in a series.

When a Barack Obama campaign volunteer offered to help Gulshan Gachoke attend the Sikh Inaugural Ball in Washington, her response was: What is an inaugural ball?

Although it has been more than 30 years since Gachoke and her husband left their village in India's Punjab province for Northern California -- and 18 years since she became a U.S. citizen -- the 63-year-old speaks halting English, doesn't know how to use the Internet and almost never ventures beyond her Fremont neighborhood's Indian shops, lest someone mistake her for a Muslim and insult her.

But after a volunteer, Reena Johar, who shares Gachoke's Sikh religion, explained that the ball will be the first-ever inaugural gala sponsored by Indian Americans, Gachoke eagerly signed on.

"I think the moment is going to be holy, because this man is good," she said.

Indeed, rather than donning one of the red or pink "chunnis" -- or head veils -- that Sikh women favor for parties, Gachoke plans to wear saffron, a color normally reserved for important religious ceremonies. And instead of flying from California to Washington, Gachoke and several dozen members of her Sikh temple in San Jose will be making the journey by chartered bus, stopping at temples along the way in the manner of a religious pilgrimage.

Like many of the tens of thousands of Punjabi farmers who arrived in California in the early 1980s with limited education and even less money, Gachoke and her husband have achieved remarkable economic success. Where once Gachoke worked in motels and sold her jewelry to make ends meet, today she and her husband own their house and have helped one son become a doctor and another a lawyer.

Yet until now, Gachoke's participation in U.S. political life was largely limited to applauding politely -- and uncomprehendingly -- when candidates stopped by her temple to deliver a speech in rapid-fire English. For a while, she didn't bother voting, convinced that Al Gore's loss to George W. Bush in the disputed 2000 election meant the U.S. voting system was rigged.

Then, in July, Gachoke heard Johar make a presentation about Obama's platform in their native language of Punjabi. Gachoke liked what the Democratic candidate had to say about health care and felt he could be trusted.

But more than anything, she was drawn by the sense that she shared something fundamental in common with the young man whose skin color was so close to her own that Gachoke initially thought he might be Indian.

"He is one of us, you know," she said. "He feels the pain."

She said she hopes Obama's presidency will lead to greater racial harmony across the country. But his election has clearly already made a difference in her own life: "Now," she said, "I feel I can call this country my home."

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