The Quest for South Asian Identity in America

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The term "South Asian," like "Asian American," is a loose term representing different meanings for different people.  The core countries inseparable to this delineation—Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka—sometimes do include other countries under the umbrella, dependent upon source and purpose.  The United Nations' use of the term is inclusive of Afghanistan and Iran, purportedly for statistical convenience ("Composition," 2012), and the reasons for the 'diaspora' (Desi) of South Asians are complex and multifaceted.  The impact caused by the British Empire’s appropriation of South Asian labor to plantations and railways is partly responsible, while the combination of the collapse of the British Empire, WWII, the barbarous 1947 partition of India, and the mid-twentieth century demand for professional/manual labor in both Britain and the U.S. have also played large roles.  The world is witness to the results of these events, among them being the dispersion of millions of South Asian peoples across the globe tasked with establishing identities in their new homes abroad.  The focus of this paper will be on the South Asian American portion of the diaspora and, specifically, the particular challenges these peoples have faced, and continue to face, in their attempt to establish their own identity in America.

The term "Asian American," with respect to census data collection, refers to all American citizens originating from Asia and the Pacific Islands.  Irrespective of their topographic/geographic knowledge of the continent, however, people often associate the term solely with Far East countries such as China and Japan (commonly known as the "Chinese problem").  Yet the term itself is an advancement.  In the late 1960's, student and community activists initiated a self-naming process, deeming themselves "Asian Americans" in contrast to the pejorative, "Oriental," which was associated with racist metaphors and appellatives such as "yellow peril" and "slant eyes."  This broad title provided unity and political power to a people who once had none.  Despite the solidarity and empowerment experienced by East Asians under this new banner, however, South Asians found—and still find—difficulty amalgamating for various reasons.    

As already alluded to, “Asian American” is misleading, as many Asian Americans fail to include South Asians in their definitions of Asian and Asian American.  This is largely due to both the physical and cultural distinctiveness of South Asians from that of East Asians and because “South Asian” is often used interchangeably with “Indian” resulting in the marginalization of South Asians by East Asians—even the youngest South Asian generations commonly feel disconnected from the whole (Min & Kim, 1999, p.31).  To amplify the already vivid distinction and further sequester the Desi from the pan-Asian American consciousness, the twentieth century witnessed the seemingly never-ending task of the US government providing classification for South Asians, likely due to their differing physical characteristics (1999, p.92).  Despite their differences, however, many South Asians share commonalities with other Asian groups such as history, culture, language, and religion.

These commonalities which are considered points of unity by many South Asians are also considered points of dissention by South Asians.  While South Asia has provided a bounty of spirituality, peace, enlightenment, and culture to the West in forms such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Gandhi, etc., it has also often been plagued by religious conflict.  The various religions of South Asians, ranging from Islam to Jainism, while uniting those under one faith, do little to nothing to support South Asian American unity as a whole.

The other, aforementioned commonalities have largely the same dichotomous effect.  While uniting some whose origins are often from within the same national borders, language, culture, and even historical memory can serve to dissect much desired unity among the American Desi.  That said, it is history that may have the most unifying potential.  The not-so-distant memory of subjugation under white Britain, along with the most recent memories of discrimination in white America, have proven to possess quite the cohesive property for both within the South Asian American community and among it and other minority groups.  As put by Pyong Gap Min, "Their sense of marginalization in Asian America, their physical affinity with blacks, and the memory of how their ancestors suffered under white colonization and white racism may lead many South Asians to identify with blacks or other people of color" (1999, pp. 31-32).  

While forming this bond is easier for some, class and class prejudice—as likely byproducts of Sucheta Mazumdar’s vituperative essay, "Race and Racism," refers to as a "colonized consciousness" (1989)—has much to do with this. Those who fall under this category are mainly first generation migrants (the elevated sense of self often dissipates, as one would expect, beginning with the second generation).  These “privileged” few, possessing Caucasian features and “pure blood,” similar to the “privileged” pale Spanish-Mexicans who, through inherited racism, fancied themselves a cut above the rest due to their pigment-proven pedigree, earn Mazumdar's excoriation through their own inherited prejudices.  The British expansion, it certainly seems, applied to more than mere geography.

Conversely, as the essays of Sumantra Sinha and Rajinhi Srinkanth (1998; ") duly note, the socioeconomically disenfranchised South Asians relate better to other minorities which have faced similar oppression.  But even this is a complex issue.  While there is truth in this for many, there is also a fear of being confused as social underdogs; a confusion that, even today, can vitiate one's social climb. This fear is perhaps best understood in the context of what many refer to as the “black-white dichotomy.”  Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Aihwa Ong, perspicuously expounds upon this phenomenon in her article, "Cultural Citizenship" (1996): 

I maintain that the white-black polarities emerging out of the history of European-American imperialism continue to shape attitudes and encode discourses directed at immigrants from the rest of the world that are associated with racial and cultural inferiority.  This dynamic of racial othering emerges in a range of mechanisms that variously subject non-white immigrants to whitening or blackening processes that indicate the degree of their closeness to or distance from ideal white standards.

It is this dichotomy that explains the bifurcation of first-generation South Asian migrants in the social structure. Best presented through historical recapitulation, the first South Asian migrant wave to the U.S took place at the turn of the nineteenth century.  The wave consisted of no more than a few thousand Indians who were indentured for farm work.  This first wave was met by racism in forms of antisocial movements, such as the Asiatic Exclusion League (the league's exclusion was expanded from merely Japanese and Koreans to all of Asia in response to Desi arrival) as well as public policy.  Indeed, legislation such as the Alien Land Act of 1913, the National Origin Act of 1914, and the "Pacific Barred Zone" portion of the 1917 Immigration Act could just as easily have been named "Asiatic Exclusion Acts 1, 2, and 3," as they virtually halted South Asian immigration until 1965.

It was this year in which the US experienced a second wave of Desi migrants.  As part of the response to the Soviet Sputnik launch, i.e. in an attempt to close the US-USSR science gap, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was passed to attract skilled labor in the fields of medicine, engineering, and science.  It would not be until the late 1980's that this explosive wave of highly paid mavens would come to a close.  The same 1965 Act however, contained a "Family Reunification" provision that allowed extended family of the highly valued Desi professionals to immigrate to America and join their loved ones in the New World, however, the highly educated in this third wave were few and the most prolific of the working class majority attained jobs as taxi-drivers, motels clerks, and gas station attendants (Mahmud, 2001, pp. 657-86).  These circumstances were the impetus behind the polarity of Desi in the US social stratification that is still vividly seen in contemporary America.

Not unlike the dissipation of the earlier mentioned “pigmentally-elevated” sense of stature among the more Americanized generations, the barriers of education, as well as language and history, collapse as well.  These later generations experience less difficulty in finding common cause amongst fellow Desi and other minorities, as the vast majority are assured English as a first (or at least spoken) language and, therefore, are presented the opportunity to achieve higher educational goals, as well as to be represented at collegiate and community levels.  

Like all other potentially positive possibilities we have reviewed thus far, the representation they receive is not always accurate.  What was once the great fear of being associated with the black community has become, today, a fear of being associated with Middle Easterners.  Most prominent since 9/11, fearful citizens have been pointing a disdainful and blaming finger at anyone wearing a turban or bearing a similar complexion to what has become the face of terrorism in the United States.  Often finding no refuge amongst the East Asians, the past two decades have raised the Desi concern of looking over one's shoulder above that of establishing identity.  Indeed disambiguation of ethnicity seems even more important now than it did to past generations.

This, for many, often accentuates the existing need for self expression amidst, and differentiation from, their immigrant community. Balancing what is expected in the family with what one wants or is expecting in an increasingly secular and increasingly liberal society can be a very difficult task.  For many South Asian parents, the education and marriage of their children are their most prominent goals.  While some prove to successfully navigate under the pressure, others deem themselves failures as the process proves too much. Compounding this difficulty is attempting to balance their familial and social lives.  South Asian families are generally conservative and take issue with some social norms such as drinking, partying, and dating—a frequently difficult situation to escape as unmarried children, irrespective of age, are generally expected to remain in the same household as their parents.  Nonetheless, despite the strong ties of this custom, an increasing number of children are breaking free from tradition and moving out prior to wedlock—even with the support of their parents.  However liberally minded the posterity of South Asian American immigrants may be or grow to be, balancing their multicultural identity will likely always prove to be a struggle, however worthwhile it may be.

The South Asian American identity is descriptively inextricable from both the history of the portions of the diaspora that entered America and the ongoing strain to distinguish oneself as both an individual and as hailing from south of east.  From the beginning of their entrance to America, distinguishing themselves by origin of country has proven to be more difficult than distinguishing themselves from blacks or associating themselves with the not so ambiguous Asian Americans.  Even when recognized as South Asians, there is obviously still much to be desired as, despite commonalities between groups under this umbrella, there are also many differences.  

South Asians have been plagued by racism and marginalization since their arrival, and as such, some have found common ground with other marginalized non-whites.  Classism and racism also swelled from within the South Asian population towards those with darker complexions, including among their fellow Desi.  Second generation and beyond share similar struggles with their preceding generations but also face new pressures of their own, the cultural balancing seeming to be the most arduous.  Though this paper is far too brief to do any justice to the topic of Desi identity in any region, it should be noted that, regardless of how generally applicable the above are to the Desi population in America, the search for identity is as much an individual quest as it is a cultural one.


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