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A Folk Group: Indian-Americans in Greenwood, SC

Dr. John (second from the left) and four of his brothers
Dr. John (second from the left) and four of his brothers


by Dee Dunagan. Dunagan is a Chemical Engineering student in the South Carolina Honors College at USC. This paper was written for the Fall 2007 class "Folklife in America."

In Greenwood, South Carolina there is a large group of Indian American immigrants and their families, and the leaders of the group are Dr. Chacko John and Mrs. Renu John. This group, at first, does not seem like a typical American folk group, but when studied, it actually has many of the same qualities. Typical folk groups consist of families, friends, or co-workers who share common interests, and the groups are held together by the practices and expressions of the members. In these groups, the people share customs, games, jokes, stories, and traditions which strengthen the group’s identity1. This is very much the case with the John family and their close friends. This group has all of the qualities of a folk group including the way in which the group was formed, the reason why it was formed, and the types folklore it shares.

When examining a folk group, it is important to first consider how the group was formed. Folklore scholars have identifies different ways a folk group typically forms: necessity, obligation, or circumstance; proximity; regular interaction; or shared interests or skills. A common group born out of necessity is a family. When a person is born into a family, they adopt the family’s values, beliefs, and traditions. The values and traditions learned from the family establish the person’s membership in that folk group. When a group is formed because of proximity, it is usually ethnically based. The location or proximity of the members’ ethnic origins are close geographically, and thus share similar traditions and culture which bind the group together. In addition, when groups are derived from either regular interaction or shared skills, the members, typically, first meet in a formal situation, and then later share informal experiences. A common example of this is an occupational group who may gather together outside of work and share jokes, stories, and experiences1. The formation of the Indian American immigrant group in Greenwood, South Carolina contains facets of all four of those methods listed. The group first began when the John family moved to Greenwood ten years ago from Durham, North Carolina. In Greenwood, at the time, there was only one other Indian in their socioeconomic class in town, Dr. Samrendra Singh. At the time, Dr. Singh was a professor at Lander University. When the John family moved to Greenwood, an article on Dr. John was printed in the local newspaper because he was the first neonatologist employed at Self Memorial Hospital. Soon there after, Dr. Singh contacted them, remembering his difficulties with being the only Indian in Greenwood. He knew they would need a friend who shared the culture and could show them around town. They quickly became close friends and would regularly get together for dinner where, typically, Mrs. John would cook traditional Indian cuisine.

Also, Dr. Singh would invite the Johns to go to the Indian parties in town; however, the Indians at these parties were different. They were not of the same occupational class as the Johns and Dr. Singh. As the years progressed, more Indians who were of the same occupation class moved to town. The Johns and these new Indians broke off from the other Indians and started meeting on their own. The Johns quickly became the leaders of this new group, and most of the parties were held at the Johns’ house. After the group was completely broken off from the other Indians, the new group still continued to grow because the Johns would contact the new comers in the same way Dr. Singh contacted them. Since Dr. John worked at the hospital, he would meet many of the new members through his job. Every time a new Indian doctor would move to town, the Johns would invite them to one of their parties. Twice, I remember reading about a new Indian doctor being employed at Self Regional Healthcare in the newspaper, and sure enough, these doctors were at the next party. The first time I recognized this was several years ago. I had read about a neurosurgeon from Saskatchewan joining Greenwood Neurosurgery. At first, I did not think anything about it, but several weeks later at a Valentine’s Day Party at the Johns’ house, I was introduced to Dr. Lal, a new neurosurgeon. More recently, over the summer, I saw an article in the Index Journal about a new Indian cardiologist hired at the hospital. Later that week, I went with the Johns to the Singhs’ house to have dinner, and while we were their, Dr. John called the new doctor to come over and join us. She stopped by for dessert, and they shared experiences about being the new doctor in town.

When I first started attending these parties, the majority of the group members were friends of the Johns; however, the majority quickly changed several years later to members of the John family. Dr. John was one of seven children, and he was the first of his family to move to America, which was twenty-five years ago. Three years ago, five of his brothers and their families received their visas, so they could also move to America. Over the past three years, the families have moved one or two at the time to Greenwood. The first two families to move three years ago were one of his younger brothers’ family and his oldest brother’s family. The younger brother’s family consisted of a wife and two pre-teenage children, and the oldest brother’s family consisted of a wife and one teenage child. Both families moved at the same time, and both families lived with the Johns at their house. When these families moved from India, they were completely dependant on the Johns; they essentially had nothing, and thus, became a part of the group out of necessity. They had to completely start over a new life and learn a new culture at the same time. The Johns had to teach them everything about living in America and particularly the south. For example, although they all new English to some degree, they found it difficult to understand the southern accents of the natives, so they first had to become use to southern accents before they could attempt to find jobs. The Johns main method of teaching them how to understand southern Americans was to have them talk to me. In addition, there were so many small things that Americans do not think twice about that they did not know and the Johns had to teach them, including anything from the currency to how to pump gas. Once they knew the basics, then, the Johns had to help them get drivers licenses and jobs, so they could later buy a car and eventually a home. Soon after the first two families bought their own homes and moved out of the Johns’ house, this entire process was repeated approximately a year and half ago and again only several months ago. There are currently two families living with Johns. One couple has three small children, and the other couple has two children. Below is a picture of Dr. John and four of his brothers.

After examining how a folk group is formed, one must then examine why the group formed. Simply put, folk groups form because the members share something in common, and that something is their lore. However, as stated previously, in order for a group to be considered a folk group, they must be informal, and the traditions must be actively practiced and have an importance within the group1. In the case of the Indian Americans in Greenwood, the group formed in order for the members to celebrate their Indian heritage and traditions. This group gets together in an informal environment and regularly celebrates their culture and identity as Indians. The Indian Americans in Greenwood celebrate their Indian identity by wearing traditional Indian dress, eating traditional Indian food, and celebrating Indian holidays. Many of the parties that the Johns h