The woman at Sumitomo consulted with Ron Chapman, another loan officer. She argued that Lall's honesty made him "creditworthy." Chapman says he "wasn't wild about the deal. The economics for 12 units are very challenging -- more units mean you spread your overhead over more revenue points." Besides, Lall had no business experience, nothing like managing a motel. On the other hand, the motel's location, blocks from the Navy base, meant steady customers, families of service members who'd like the motel's basic rates. Better still, Lall could benefit from the late-1980s savings-and-loan crisis. Ever since the government stepped in, bank-owned properties, including many motels, had glutted the market. "Even good properties were going for a song," Chapman recalls.
And then there was Lall's promise, in Chapman's phrase, "of leveraging his family's resources." Family money and family labor pledged was good enough for Chapman. He said yes. Lall got the loan and bought the Holiday Motel. He hired workers to replace the windows, paint the walls, and relandscape the grounds. New carpet and furnishings were added. Lall moved in. "By now," he remembers, "we had a very nice home overlooking Mission Bay, in Bay Ho, and I left the home and my family to stay at this junky motel. My hours were such that I could do both jobs. At nighttime, I would rent you a room, and by day, I would treat your high blood pressure. Honest to God. If I do something, I have to do it well. That's what my parents taught me -- be fully committed." At the corner, Navy personnel late for curfew, racing off the bridge toward the base, screeched to a halt at the Third Street stoplight. Some nights the street noise -- and the noise in his heart that he missed his family -- rattled him.
His wife and his father remember backing him in the motel purchase, albeit "reluctantly." Lall's memory is that "neither of them supported me. They wanted me to stick to medicine." Lall says that he wanted for once in his life to make a decision on his own. His single regret was that "I had forced myself to become a doctor only because I said I would." He reasoned that because he was unhappy in medicine he could, therefore, leave the profession: in fact, that's exactly what being in America was commanding him to do.
After Lall had moved into the motel, his cleaning person sometimes called in sick. So he'd rush over midafternoon, run a load of wash, and clean the toilets himself. An Indian-American cousin from Canada came in, at a small salary, to staff the desk during the day. Every morning when his shift began, the man saw a pile of torn cards in the trash can, the previous night's receipts. The cousin told Lall, "Look, this is a business. You can't be throwing your records away. You've got to have proof for taxes." Lall had no idea about taxes and balance sheets, overhead and cash flow. He figured he'd learn everything as he went along. And yet he needed help. Which meant making his "inside" wishes known, lowering his financial risk by letting his father and mother assist. The road was still long, but the path was clear: to be free he would have to depend on his family, the way of an Indian, as much as he would have to depend on himself, the way of an American.
And yet, as Lall may or may not have known, he was not alone in his desire to own a motel. Underpinning his dream is a cultural and commercial empire of Indian-American hoteliers, the clan of the motel people. Today, Indian-Americans (sometimes called South Asians) own more than 20,000 hotels in America, more than half of the economy properties, and nearly 37 percent of all hotels. (There is an Asian American Hotel Owners Association, whose membership is 8700 and whose annual confabs have featured President Bush and Senator John McCain.) Not only have Indian-Americans dominated U.S. hotel ownership as an ethnic group, but they've done so by sponsoring and installing immigrant relatives in the properties as managers. Chances are you have stopped at a TraveLodge in Winslow, Arizona, tired of the great desert drive, all chaparral to Albuquerque. You may have smelled curry or wondered at the shrine to Krishna in the lobby. An overbusy Indian man no doubt rented you a room. He seemed (if you noticed) American and Indian and to be everything and everywhere at once: owner, manager, night clerk, housekeeper, maintenance man, plus husband and father of a family you may have glimpsed in the apartment behind the front desk. Chances are the Indian and his brood (his wife in a sari) were recent arrivals, having waited 10 or 15 years to get in, and now here, work this opportunity 24/7 with the efficiency of a short-order cook.
How is it that Indian-Americans, who are roughly one percent of America's population, not only own these hotels and motels in such high numbers but also are niched into the hospitality business as managers? The phenomenon begins with the security of family-based immigration to America and in the subtle changes in immigration policy over the past century.
The two most critical years in American immigration policy are 1924 and 1965. In 1924, following the unregulated tide of foreign arrivals between 1880 and 1920, the government passed the National Origins Act, ostensibly to check the tide, but, as Gordon Clanton, sociology professor at San Diego State University says, actually to "keep out the Czechs, the Poles, the Jews, and the Italians -- who were considered undesirable. The clever strategy of that law was no particular national quota, except calculated as a fraction of your population already in the country. And that went back to the 1910 census: take the number of Italians in the country, and the annual percent of Italians allowed into the country will be something like one percent of that number." In effect, Clanton says, there was "a quota of zero for any group that had not come into the country substantially by 1910. So, after 1924, if you were from England, it was easy to get in because there were a whole lot of English descendants. For Poland there was a very low quota, maybe 20 times smaller than the quota for England."