19 January 2005

Blessed Are the Risk-takers, For They Shall Inherit LA

For ten days I drove throughout greater Los Angeles, stopping every fifteen minutes or so to walk in a different neighborhood. The media image of the L.A. riots and the O.J. Simpson trial had prepared me for a city as divided as Washington, D.C. But in LA., where eighty-one languages are spoken, that's not what I found.

TAKE ZAHEER VIRJI (an alias), a twenty-seven-year-old ethnic Indian immigrant from the East African nation of Tanzania. Zaheer wore a blue velvet baseball cap, a white T-shirt, jeans, and running shoes when I met him and his American wife, Heather, in a Santa Monica hotel lobby. Zaheer's family, which imports goods from Hong Kong to Tanzania, is part of a merchant community from the Indian subcontinent that forms the middle class in Tanzania and several other African countries. Zaheer remembers police thugs of the former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere harassing his relatives and arresting his parents. He told me that race relations are "so much better" in southern California than in Africa, where Indians and Africans completely stereotype each other. "I came here to escape not just Africans but Indians, too." He went first to England, then to Canada, where there are large Indian communities. But he didn't feel free. "In those places, the community is what is happening. Here in the U.S., it's you that is happening. There is less of system here, fewer laws to restrict you."

Zaheer came to the United States six years ago and has no college degree or green card yet. In the previous six months he had earned more investing in the stock market than his wife had made at her job, a reflection not only of his skill but of an economy where the prices of stocks and other assets have risen but wages have not. With this money, along with funds from his family in Tanzania, he was looking to a buy a business: a flower shop, a gas station, whatever he can get the best deal on. He is using a broker. If he buys a gas station, he told me, he needs to know about the underground tanks and the environmental regulations. He wants to be partners with the current owner for a three-year transition period; that way he will still keep some of his money even if the business does not turn out as advertised. Ten years from now, he explained, he wants to be the owner of a small business with good employees so he can spend his time investing the profits in the stock market. "Everything is a risk. A few years ago, to make some money, I bought a hundred and fifty tons of rice in Tanzania and sold it in Zaire. That was more risky than buying a business in Los Angeles, I can tell you."
SOURCE: An Empire Wilderness: Travels into America's Future, by Robert D. Kaplan (Vintage, 1998), pp. 82-83

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