Interstate 44 now has several billboards in the Punjabi language directing drivers to a gas station in Strafford that offers Indian food. (Photo by Steve Pokin)

OPINION |

As you drive Interstate 44 and near Greene County, you often see without really noticing all the familiar billboards: Fantastic Caverns, Wild Animal Safari, Case Cutlery and, of course, the Uranus Fudge Factory.

But what’s this? A billboard of a different kind. Words of a foreign language.

The translation is “Indian Food Restaurant” in Punjabi, the main language of the people of Punjab, a state in northern India

The signs point the way to the One9 Sinclair Station at 325 E. Evergreen St., at the northeast corner of I-44 and Highway 125, in Strafford, in Greene County.

Yes, there’s Indian food, ‘pizza is coming’

A year ago, new owners — originally from India — took over and about six months later, they put up the billboards.

Interstate 44 now has several billboards in the Punjabi language directing drivers to a gas station in Strafford that offers Indian food. (Photo by Steve Pokin)

The billboards are working, says Anjana Awasthi, who works there. They are attracting people of all nationalities who happen to like Indian food. And they all aren’t truck drivers.

I had asked to speak to a manager or to the owner. Awasthi tells me she is the sister of the manager.

She also happens to be the cook. That means she cooks everything from fried-chicken sandwiches to Indian dishes, which include vegetable korma, samosas, paratha bread, biryani and butter chicken.

Anjana Awasthi, the cook, prepares not only the Indian dishes, but many others, too, such as the fried chicken sandwich. Soon, she says, there will be pizza. (Photo by Steve Pokin)

“Pizza is coming,” she tells me. “What kind of pizza I don’t know.”

Sitting nearby is a trucker from India

Oddly enough, when I ask her what the billboard says, she does not know. Although she is from India, she does not speak or read Punjabi. India is a country of many languages.

But Jazz Singh, a 31-year-old truck driver from Bakersfield, California, happens to sit at a nearby table.

Many over-the-road truckers in the United States are from India, and there are many truck stops now offering Indian food. (Photo by Steve Pokin)

He is from the Punjab region of India and stopped here to eat. He had been here three or four times previously. He came to the United States when he was 16 and is taking a load from Cuba, Missouri, to California.

He tells me there are places like this gas station along interstates offering Indian food across the nation because so many over-the-road truckers are from India, particularly from Punjab.

It’s been that way for years and, he says, he drives over the road because the money is good.

Singh tells me he has used the shower facility in the gas station/restaurant and also has parked his rig in the big lot out back and slept.

North American Punjabi Trucking Assoc.

In fact, there are so many over-the-road truck drivers in the United States and Canada from Punjab that there is a North American Punjabi Trucking Association, based in Fresno, California. The group has over 10,000 members

About one-third of the truck drivers in California are of Indian descent, says Raman Singh, chief executive officer.

“Almost every interstate exit in California has a place where you can get Indian food,” he tells me. They usually offer vegetarian options because many Indian truck drivers are vegetarians, he says.

Of all the Indian truck drivers in the United States, about 90 percent are Punjabi.

Of all truckers (of all nationalities) in Eastern Canada, about 60 percent are Indian. In Western Canada, it’s 80 percent, he says.

Not a shortage, he says, it’s poor retention

Why?

It’s a long tradition, he says, and driving a truck is a skill that transfers from India to the United States.

I tell him I’ve read national news stories that say the primary religion of the Punjab state is Sikhism and that many leave India to come here because of religious discrimination. They become truck drivers (or continue to be truck drivers) in this country.

Singh tells me no, that’s not accurate. He says religion plays no part in why people leave Punjab and become truck drivers here.

Nevertheless, a 2019 story in the Los Angeles Times — with the headline “Sikh drivers are transforming U.S. trucking. Take a ride along the Punjabi American highway” — states the following:

“Punjabi Americans first appeared on the U.S. trucking scene in the 1980s after an anti-Sikh massacre in India left thousands dead around New Delhi, prompting many Sikhs to flee. More recently, Sikhs have migrated to Central America and applied for asylum at the Mexico border, citing persecution for their religion in India; some have also become truckers.”

Wikipedia has an entry for the “1984 anti-Sikh riots,” in which the government estimates 3,500 Sikhs were killed.

He says difficulty is retaining truck drivers

He also tells me that, in his view, there is no shortage of truck drivers in the United States. Instead, he adds, the main problem is retaining truck drivers because of the low pay, hard conditions of being away from home and family and the increasingly long delays of waiting to both load and unload.

Truck drivers often can spend hours waiting, he says. They typically are not paid for their time, but for the number of miles they drive.

“An Uber driver with no experience and no professional training won’t wait for you, but people expect a truck driver to wait hours and hours for free,” Singh says.

‘Bob’s Parking’ interested in new foreign-language billboard

I called Bob Mericle, who owns Bob’s Parking. It’s on the south side of Interstate 44 in Strafford, just west of the Wild Animal Safari.

Bob Mericle of Bob’s Parking is interested in a new billboard in an Indian language. (Photo by Steve Pokin)

I wrote about him and his business in July. Mericle, son of a trucker, turned 15 acres of vacant property into a secure place for over-the-road truckers to stay for a night or more.

He charges $10 for 24 hours or $80 a month. It’s $60 monthly for vehicles under 30 feet in length.

Many of his truck-driving customers are of Indian descent, he tells me.

“They have been good customers. There are not a lot of people who want to drive trucks. It is a tough life.”

Mericle already has one large billboard up along I-44 for “Bob’s Parking.”

It’s a simple proposition, says Bob Mericle, owner of Bob’s Parking, along Interstate-44 in Strafford. Secure parking at a low price for over-the-road truckers. (Photo by Steve Pokin)

Before I called, he already was aware of the new billboards for Indian food, but he wasn’t sure what the exact Indian language was on those signs.

He now wants to put one up, in the appropriate Indian language, for his business along I-44.

This is Pokin Around column No. 83.

Steve Pokin

Steve Pokin writes the Pokin Around and The Answer Man columns for the Springfield Daily Citizen. He also writes about criminal justice issues. He can be reached at spokin@sgfcitizen.org. His office line is 417-837-3661. More by Steve Pokin