How to Be South Asian in America. (Not.)

October 13, 2011

In June 2002, a New York Times full-page spread described the unlikely efforts of Schenectady’s mayor to recruit Indo-Guyanese immigrants from Queens to his rust-belt city three hours North. The story received a great deal of press and piqued the interest of anupama jain, a professor of Asian American literature who was at the time in the process of moving to Schenectady to teach at Union College.  

“I was certainly curious,” jain told me over the phone, “At the time, I knew so little about the history of Guyana -- the fact that half of the country’s population were of Indian descent -- and all this was happening in my backyard.” But beyond her interest in understanding this little-known history of the diaspora, jain was caught off guard by a quote from one of the Schenectady’s most ardent recruiters. In addressing the Indo-Guyanese, the president of the Schenectady Economic Development Corporation had told them, “Quite frankly, you’re an opportunity for us. We are very much looking for a new ethnic group.”  

What did it mean for city officials to be actively “looking for a new ethnic group”? What were the implications for the already-settled communities of color? And if Robertson and the mayor were so eager to recruit a new ethnic group, what, then, did all this say about the racial politics of the US at the start of the 21st century?  

For the next several years, jain knocked on doors, meeting and listening to the various parties in this unfolding Schenectady story. She spoke with Robertson, the mayor, and with members of the Indo-Guyanese community, who had suddenly found themselves the subject of a state-wide conversation about immigration. Curiously, all of the parties, jain noticed, were writing themselves into familiar scripts of national identity. If the mayor attempted to eschew racial implications and struck a libertarian tone (“American is not about the government taking care of you”), then her interviews with the Guyanese revealed a far more complex script. Many saw their identities tied up in the colonial history of the Caribbean, as well as the capitalist promise of the American Dream.

Meanwhile, city officials were clearly projecting their “new ethnic group” against the well-established coordinates of the model minority, among which South Asian Americans have played a historical role from the mid-60s onwards. jain quickly caught onto these reductive readings (or, one might call them active misreadings) of identity. Even if “you’re [...] migrating via Guyana and actually never have seen India for probably two generations,” jain explains, “you could still be read the same way as a professional who came after 1965. These hierarchies of color and race are so pervasive.”

The story of the Indo-Guyanese immigration to Schenectady makes up one part of anupama jain’s recently published book, How to Be South Asian in America. A sprawling study that combines ethnography, literary theory, and film criticism, jain’s book looks closely at narratives of South Asian American identity that circulate through the media, fiction, and film. Central to jain’s study is the idea that forming ethnic and racial identity is akin to the act of storytelling, a kind of narrative performance where one picks and chooses from already existing scripts. How is it that we put that story together? Which narratives are emphasized? Which ones are erased?

Raised in Iselin, NJ, jain’s own story of South Asian American identity-formation was shaped in part by her experience growing up as one of the few Indian families in an otherwise white neighborhood. “We weren’t there in any kind of critical mass, so mainly we just got ignored,” she explains. The demographics of Iselin, however, would transform enormously over the next decades. By the 1990s, Iselin was known for being a central Indian business enclave, so much so that her former alma mater John P. Stevens high school picked up the nickname “John Patel Stevens” after she left.

And yet, while Iselin reflected the growing South Asian presence in pockets of the US, she explains, none of this is substantially represented in the media. Shows like NBC’s Outsourced reflected a changing global economy, certainly. But set in India and resting on tired jokes of Indian “otherness,” the show did very little to challenge the national character of the US. Reflecting on the South Asian American presence in Jersey, jain tells me, “What’s happening in [Outsourced] is so different than what’s happening in Edison where there is a South Asian critical mass. So you’ve got on the one hand a plethora of doctors, but you also have shop owners, and people who are living five to a room.” And yet, even as South Asian America becomes more diverse (regionally, nationally, and socio-economically), only a sparse selection of narratives dominate the American imagination. Others are simply erased. As jain pithily puts it: “[there’s] doctor, doctor, doctor, and then terrorist.”

How Does One Be South Asian in America (as the book’s title provocatively asks), then? If it’s partly a matter of story-telling, then, well, the choice of scripts is limited.

jain presses on this idea in a series of skillful readings of diasporic fiction and films, considering the multiple “narratives” -- both South Asian and American -- that characters assimilate into. In a chapter devoted to the fiction of Meena Alexander, Bharati Mukherjee, and Bapsi Sidhwa, jain considers how these narratives of South Asian American women’s assimilation are themselves characterized by an uneasy relationship to several “normative scripts” of identity, both South Asian and American. The immigrant women in these stories, she explains, are paradoxically “expected to be, at one and the same time, bearers of an alleged ‘ancestral culture’ in a new host country and representatives of their model minority group.” jain’s reading of Bharati Mukherjee’s work, in particular, is compelling, given the well-documented criticism that Mukherjee has received for both essentializing South Asian identity and pandering to an often simplistic view of American identity. In How to Be South Asian, jain acknowledges these complaints, but insists that Mukherjee’s characters cleverly “manipulat[e] narratives of the country in order to assimilate without, well, assimilating.” What does assimilating without assimilating exactly look like? In the case of Mukherjee’s popular novel Jasmine, her protagonist Jyoti finds ways to assert her agency as an immigrant and undo the stereotypes of the exotic “Indian princess,” while also performing these stereotypical scripts to get ahead.

The term jain uses is ambivalence. To be ambivalent toward assimilation is to confront, manipulate, and accommodate nationally-endorsed narratives (American and South Asian) to carve out an identity that reflects, as jain puts it, one’s multiple sites of belonging. 

At first glance the title How to Be South Asian in America might appear prescriptive, like some survival guide for post-racial identity-politics. But jain’s quirky title reflects the performative quality that goes into identity formation. The categories “South Asian" and “America” are both rigid and unstable in jain’s study, and at every turn, she underscores that her title’s tidy system of coordinates is actually a crosshatch of gender, race, class, and the state. And while in our present moment certain narratives vie for dominance as the narrative of South Asian Americans -- the oft-celebrated stories of upward class mobility at one pole, or the stereotypical images of Apu and Outsourced at the other -- jain’s study reminds us that these identity categories are always more complex when read more closely.

Take, for instance the historic moment that the New York Times article on Schenectady appeared: While certain South Asians were viewed as “an opportunity” for city officials in the rust belt, others, in that same moment, were attacked and harassed as suspect nationals in America’s post-9/11 landscape. jain’s book doesn’t offer any easy answers, but instead gives us more questions: What exactly are the stories of national, racial, and ethnic identity that we have been telling ourselves? Who is allowed into America’s national narratives? And on whose terms?

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Manan Desai recently finished his PhD in English at the University of Michigan.  He currently serves on the board of directors at the South Asian American Digital Archive.

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