Whiz Kid

By Torri Still / May / June 1998
December 28th, 2007
Why is it," a teacher once asked Piyush "Bobby" Jindal '92 when he was in elementary school, "that all Indians are so smart and well-behaved?" The question, although intended as a compliment, struck at the heart of one of the most enduring stereotypes about Asian Americans. "She thought there was a secret that we all knew," Jindal said during a visit to campus in February. "I, being a smart-aleck, told her it was the food."

The anecdote was one of many that Jindal, a Louisiana native whose parents are from India, related in an Asian-American History Month lecture titled "Asian Americans in Politics." The stories, which Jindal stressed weren't intended to be proscriptive, illustrated his own confusion over growing up - and eventually returning to work - in the deep South, where tension between Caucasians and African Americans often overshadows the stories of other ethnic minorities.

A rising political star at the age of twenty-seven, Jindal stopped on campus shortly after becoming executive director of the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare, a seventeen-member panel set up by the White House and Congress under the 1997 budget agreement. The biology and public-policy concentrator gained national attention after a stint as Louisiana's secretary of health and hospitals. Appointed at twenty-four, the former Rhodes Scholar eliminated the department's $400 million deficit and created a $170 million surplus within two years.

Jindal used his Salomon lecture as an occasion for reminiscing about being Indian American in Louisiana. Except for the occasional insensitive remark, such as the question from his elementary-school teacher, or the time he was called a "dirty Indian" on the playground, Jindal said he didn't think a lot about his own race while growing up in Baton Rouge. But at age four, he was tired of repeatedly spelling Piyush, his given name, for people, so he started calling himself Bobby, after a character on The Brady Bunch.

"Kids teased African Americans a lot more than they teased Asian Americans," he recalled. "People were either classified as African Americans or `not.' I was placed in the `not' category." Later, when the governor introduced his cabinet to the press, a reporter asked about the "all-white" group. The governor did not point out that his cabinet did, in fact, include one person of color.

As a student at Brown, Jindal said he "wasn't very self-aware" and was surprised when he was approached one day by an Indian-American father and son who were visiting campus. "They didn't know me, but they singled me out and approached me, asking me to talk about Brown," Jindal remembers. "They assumed that my values were the same as theirs. It's like we were in a secret club because we looked the same way."

The patchwork of anecdotes - variously amusing, disturbing, and touching - coalesced in a serious point: "I can't tell you how to be Asian American," Jindal said. "No longer are we [clustered] in certain professions or geographies." Looking out into the audience of future Asian-American leaders, Jindal smiled. "I hope you're excited about the diversity, too."

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May / June 1998