I only had to deal with “being Asian” after moving to the United States three and a half years ago — even though I’ve long been drawn to ideas of Asia as a political and cultural project and anti- and post-colonial notions of Asian resurgence.
Growing up in India in the 1990s, the Asian identity did not mean much and had long ceased to be a label that was generally affirmed. That classification, however, was assigned to me when I moved here for my doctoral studies.
The category of “Asian American” can, I feel, encourage coalition-building and solidarity among people of different races, ethnicities and nationalities, but it disregards their varied experiences in attempting to make the United States their home. For example, Indians who came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and built ties with Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans and African Americans had very different lived experiences than those who came following the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 and were expected to be “model minorities.”
Yet this entire sweep of people is often flattened and viewed as one.
I saw this flattening challenged last summer when I taught a course on Indian cinema at Carnegie Mellon University. Among the 10 undergraduate students who enrolled in my class, a good portion were second-generation Indian- and Chinese-Americans. While everybody enriched our conversations, this group — often lumped together in this country as “Asian Americans” — was keen to find similarities and differences among themselves.
This history course, titled “Indian Cinema Since 1947: Seeing the Nation on Screen,” used cinema to explore post-colonial India. We saw six films over six weeks, from Bimal Roy’s “Do Bigha Zamin/Two Acres of Land” (1953) to Zakariya Mohammed’s “Sudani from Nigeria” (2018), and studied scholarly texts that matched their themes.
We examined questions of migration and the vision and ideology of the post-independence period. We looked at how gender, class, caste and race were understood and contested. Finally, we addressed the changing complexion of India and Indian identity both at home and in the world.
As complex and provocative as those issues can be, the students’ perspectives and reactions served to supplement the material in rewarding ways.
When Ved Kenjale and his mother were perusing the options for summer courses, the course on Indian cinema stood out. The students would likely be watching the movies Kenjale saw growing up, she told him. “It just seemed natural for me to take it and be able to experience my culture through a film style that my family is familiar with,” said Kenjale, a second-year physics major.
Kenjale and a friend, who is of Korean heritage, found similarities in their upbringing and their immigrant parents’ expectations for their children. Kenjale learned about the impact of conscription (mandatory enlistment) in South Korea on students. He also came to understand some of the cultural differences that exist among students of Indian origin.
“The town I grew up in, in California, was predominantly white. There were, like, five other Indians in my high school,” Kenjale said. “And so, coming to CMU and just having discourse with so many other people really opened my eyes to these different perspectives.”
The class talked often about colonialism and its influences on India, junior Kevin Fang said. The collision of cultures “brings up these very interesting discussions about how we can view race, culture and personal and political identity today,” he said.
All of my students agreed that minority groups are expected to be performative and visible only culturally. Indian Americans can be expressive through events such as “Diwali Night” and “Bollywood Dance” and Chinese Americans can be so on the occasion of “Lunar New Year.” Minorities, particularly those characterized by some as the “good” kind, are obligated to exist in a depoliticized realm and steer clear of “trouble.”
I wondered if this was the reason not a single student, including the Indian Americans, had heard of the Dotbusters, a hate group targeting South Asians in Jersey City in the 1980s and early 1990s.
For the Dotbusters, South Asians were not American enough. In week five, we used Mira Nair’s film “The Namesake” (2006) to reflect precisely on this question: How do you become American? In my reading of the film, second-generation immigrant Nikhil “Gogol” Ganguli, played by Kal Penn, only feels truly American once he comes to terms with and becomes secure in his Indian identity.
I asked my students if they had to renounce their “Indianness” or “Chineseness” to feel “at home.” They passionately argued that Asian and American identities need not contradict each other and, moreover, hyphenated identities were the norm in this country. The non-Indian American students sympathized with Gogol’s torment in trying to make sense of his place as a Brown person who looks but does not sound like his parents, but those students were bewildered by the continuing role that Indian parents played as matchmakers when it came to marriage.
All of them thought their respective communities to be largely “traditional” but perceived that, in the case of Indians, this was in considerable measure inflected by religion.
We used the example of General Tso’s chicken to question fixations with authenticity and labeling. Before making an appearance at eateries in New York City 50-odd years ago, the dish originated not in mainland China, but in Taiwan. We determined that General Tso’s transnational origins did not make it any less American. In fact, it was central to its appeal and popularity.
Half of my students were majoring in STEM and the other half in business programs. Unlike their majors, the humanities and social sciences have conventionally not found ambiguities and uncertainties to be awkward. I would like to think that my students left the course with a newfound appreciation for the ambivalences of the human condition.
I found my students to be perceptive and frank in their engagements in class. Our films prompted them to share anecdotes about themselves and their families, which enriched our exchanges. I also appreciated their intellectual disagreements with me.
About a month ago, I traveled from Martinez, California, to Seattle, Washington, on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight. As we were passing through the state of Oregon on this scenic route, I recalled the Ghadar Movement. Ghadar, or “revolution” in Urdu, was an anti-imperial organization fighting the British occupation of the Indian subcontinent from American soil. Founded in Astoria, Oregon, in 1913 and later headquartered in San Francisco, the Ghadarites also contested exclusionary sentiments and legislation toward Asians and other people of color in the United States.
Today, it would not be inaccurate to suggest that hardly any American and very few Indians have heard of the Ghadarites. I made a reference to the Ghadarites in one of our classes in the context of early Indian migrants in this country, who in large measure (though not wholly) wished to eliminate racial hierarchies rather than integrate into whiteness. Stories like theirs are crucial to recover because they challenge a neat, homogenous and docile Indian American narrative. Furthermore, without privileging the notion that national identity depends on when one’s ancestors arrived, they remind Americans of the long-standing presence of Indians — not to mention other “Asian Americans” — in this country.
Arko Dasgupta is a Ph.D. candidate within the Department of History at Carnegie Mellon University’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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