A First-Generation New Yorker, A De Niro Intonation

By Angelo Verzoni
Boston University News Service

Ronak Patel (Photo courtesy of Lindsay Hall)

BOSTON – Ronak Patel slouches on a sofa, wearing American Eagle jeans and a Banana Republic jacket. He adjusts his black, thick-rimmed glasses and clears his throat. “It’s pronounced lawn-guy-land,” he says. He is from Bohemia, N.Y., on the South Shore of Long Island.

Patel’s parents were born in India and immigrated to the United States in the mid-1980s. His mother, Hansa Patel, came to New York in 1985 to live with her brother, who had moved there from India 10 years earlier. Short on money, his father, Harshad Patel, came to New York a year later on a loan. “He always tells me, ‘I came to America without a dollar in my pocket,’” Patel says, smiling.

Living with his wife, brother-in-law and sister-in-law on Long Island and without any money or a car, Patel’s father worked at a gas station, where he had to walk five miles there and back every day.

Patel’s sister, Puja, was born in 1989. He was born in 1992. And in 1998, when he was 6 years old, good fortune struck the Patel family. Patel’s father played the New York Lottery on a whim, Patel says. They split the $25 million prize with three other winners. It amounted to about $6 million before taxes, he says.

Winning the lottery brought the Patels a new house, a new car and a convenience store to call their own.

Patel is a junior in the School of Management at Boston University. He has sable hair, cut short and gelled, thick stubble, brown eyes and chestnut skin. He speaks with a New York accent, butchering the word “ask” as if he is quoting a Beastie Boys song. He is a fan of rap music and the New York Knicks.

“I’m kind of a hybrid,” he says, laughing. “Growing up with immigrant parents is different.” They do not fully understand American culture, he says. “The way they grew up in India is totally different from growing up here. They did change their mentality, but not completely.”

Patel keeps in touch with his Indian roots, visting India every so often and following some cultural traditions. He is not very religious and neither are his parents, he says.

When asked if he faced any racism growing up, he shrugs. He recalls a time nine years ago. He was 11 years old, and he and his teenage cousins were taken out of a line at the airport to be searched. He bitterly chalks the incident up to racism and post-9/11 paranoia.

Upwards of 11 million illegal immigrants live within the U.S.’s borders, according to a 2011 study published by the Pew Research Center, and the pressing issue has become what to do with them. Patel bears a romantic inclination to deport all illegal immigrants. But it could not be done, and a substantial workforce would be lost, he admits.

The fact that his family came here legally may bias him against illegal immigrants, he acknowledges. “It’s a tough process,” he says about immigrating to the U.S. legally. “But it’s a fair process. My parents went through it… my whole family went through it.” Amnesty, which would pardon illegal immigrants for their political offenses and grant them citizenship, has been proposed by certain groups and President Obama, who has long been a proponent of a bill that would grant illegal immigrants citizenship, but not before registering and paying taxes and a penalty for their crimes.

Amnesty just does not feel right, Patel says.

After catching wind of the politics being discussed, Chris Towner, a white B.U. student from Chicago and a friend of Patel’s, rushes to the scene to plug his two cents. “We give them amnesty,” he says about illegal immigrants, “and we tighten our borders.” It is the only plausible answer to the problem, Towner says.

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