What Exactly Does "American-Owned" Mean?

As I was going through a few of my Googie images the other day, I was reminded of a somewhat cryptic phrase I've noticed on a significant number of motel signs over the years: "American-Owned." I couldn't quite understand what that meant exactly. Was there a large foreign corporation that's been buying up motels across the United States and running them from overseas? Or was the cynical side of me correct when it detected an undertone of racism?

Turns out, unfortunately, that the latter appears to be closer to the truth. What's being exhibited as a cry of patriotism looks to be, at best, a misperception of ownership within the lodging industry and, at worst, outright bigotry.

Road-trip aficionados, or anyone else who's spent a great deal of time on the road, have almost surely noticed a considerable East Indian presence behind the counters of highway inns. I — and I like to assume all the fans of the Roadside Resort, as well — couldn't give a damn either way. But it's certainly evident.

Why such an obvious relation between those of Indian descent and the lodging industry? Well, the trend, although it dates back to the 1940s, really became noticeable in the '70s when a number of otherwise unrelated circumstances arose. First, the United States was undergoing an oil shortage, which was keeping many travelers close to home. As a result, hotels and motels across the nation were suffering financially, and owners of many a failing inn were looking to sell.

Second, Indians living in East Africa were hoping to escape political unrest in the region and began moving to the U.S. in large numbers, many of whom hoped to take advantage of the U.S. government's offer to grant permanent residence to any immigrant willing to invest at least $40,000 in an American business.

And what sort of business could be had for about $40,000? You guessed it: a motel. Plus, it was the perfect business suited to an immigrant family. One didn't have to speak perfect English to get started, and a small family could operate the whole establishment themselves. Plus, owning a motel provided a place to live without having to purchase a separate residence right away.

The outcome became known as the Patel Phenomenon, a term that refers to a surname common among those who entered the industry. (According to BBC News, almost a third of motel owners of Indian origin share the name.) Today, the Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA), a business organization catering to hoteliers of Indian descent, claims more than 8,000 members, who together own more than 50% of economy lodging and almost 37% of the U.S. hotel industry overall.

Business savvy, hard work and cooperation through the AAHOA have helped Indian-Americans establish a strong foothold in the industry. Unfortunately, many have taken exception to this fact, even referring to the phenomenon derogatorily as the Patel "Invasion." And, apparently, such is the inspiration for those two-word addenda tacked onto the bottoms of so many mom-and-pop motel signs, a trend that, not surprisingly, saw an increased occurrence following Sept. 11, 2001.

Knowing all this, it's easier to see the phrase "American-Owned" as the xenophobic remark that it probably is, rather than the patriotic slogan most would claim it to be. The phrase appears to imply "we're not immigrants like those guys down the street," who, despite the implication, are almost certainly American citizens themselves.

The ironic part is that, if it weren't for the influx of East Indians buying up the properties and investing in their restoration, an alarming percentage of America's classic motels would now likely be gone. In fact, it was a Patel family who purchased the historic, yet badly dilapidated, Wigwam Motel in Rialto, California, in 2003, one of only three remaining Wigwam establishments built in the 1930s, '40s and '50s famous for their individual teepee-shaped accommodations. The Patels ran out the prostitutes, removed the tasteless "Do It in a Tee Pee" sign and restored the motel to its former glory. (Manoj Patel, incidentally, who now runs the Wigwam, was born in the U.S.)

Of course, the question remains: should establishments displaying an "American-Owned" sign be avoided? It's possible a few such motels posted the phrase after seeing it somewhere else and honestly, though naively, meant it to be patriotic, so singling them out without individually inquiring about their intent might be just as bad as discriminating against others based on their heritage. I'll admit that's unlikely, but it's hard to say for sure. So, I'll leave the decision up to you.

As for myself, all I can say is that simply declaring yourself "American-Owned" won't do anything to gain my favoritism.

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