Neela Banerjee

Tule Lake at the National Border Patrol Museum

Like George Bush, I recently took a trip to the border town of El Paso. My brother moved there in July to begin his four year stint at the nearby Holloman Air Force Base. El Paso is a fascinating place. Just across the border from Juarez, the fourth biggest city in Mexico, it is also home to Fort Bliss Military Base – which is receiving over 16,000 new troops this year from the series of military base closings and restructurings. Being in this super militarized border town made even a trip to the corner store steeped in layers and layers of socio-political context. My family refused to accompany me on a photography trip to the Juarez border after Thanksgiving, so I decided to visit the National Border Patrol Museum. I was expecting the skewed discourse about the hordes of illegal Mexican immigrants trying to break into America’s Southern Frontier at any cost, which there was plenty of. Occasionally the literature on the walls of the museum would ask questions like: “Will the trend of illegal immigration continue?” And the answer would be: “Yes. As long as people of the world quest for a better life, the rise of illegal entries will continue.”

Asians in France?

There were several articles in Bay Area papers recently about Sikh Americans. The first was a blasé piece about Sikhs continuing to be harassed after 9.11. I wasn’t sure exactly what the news hook on this story was, but it had one really gnarly quote that drove the point home for me. Sikhs from the Fremont’s gurdwara traveled to the Gulf Coast to provide Katrina relief and were met with some ignorance: “We asked if they knew who we are,” Ram Singh recalled with a sigh. “Almost everyone said, ‘You're from the Middle East and are here for the oil.’”

There was also a Sikh protest against the French ban on wearing turbans at the French consulate. The French ambassador was in town and Bay Area Sikhs took the opportunity to voice their strong opinions on the issue, which the French see as a part of their traditional upholding of secularism.

This protest made me wonder about whether there are any Asians involved in the riots in France, which are going on 10 days now. Most stories I’ve read focus on the Afro-French population, but the continuing Sikh protests allude to a South Asian population. Has anyone seen anything or know anything about this? A quick search brought me to an interesting article about the Bhangra scene in France. Also, Radikha Jha’s not-so-good novel is about South Asian refugees in France, but I am curious to see reporting regarding other marginalized peoples in France.

Hullabaloo at Yale University

Graduate students at Yale are protesting what they say is discrimination against Chinese graduate students at the University. Xuemei Han, 26, is at the center of this particular protest, saying that her "imperfect English" is the real reason behind her department asking her to leave.

It seems like debate and controversy about Asian graduate students and their English skills have been a hot topic for years. There was a great post on South Asian issues blog Sepia Mutiny back in June that I thought was a good perspective on the issue.

I would be really interested to find an Asian American student who is interacting with an international Asian graduate student. Do they have the same issues? Most of the students who complain seem to be Anglo students -- check out the all-American girl in the NY Times article who complained about her prof at Berkeley. Now, how many Asian American students were there in her same class? Did they have the same problems? Are Asian American students or immigrant-family students better at deciphering accents?

True Crime: The Murder of Reena Virk

A new true-crime book on the violent murder of Reena Virk, a 14-year-old Indian girl living on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, recently hit the stands. 1n 1997, Virk was lured to a popular hangout spot and then beaten, kicked and burned with cigarette lighters by seven girls and one boy. She escaped, only to be followed by two people who made sure she didn't survive. Her body washed up a week later. The book, entitled "Under the Bridge", got a pretty bad review in the NY Times. This murder, which happened in 1997, kicked up a lot of media on the violence of young women but mostly failed to raise the question of race -- focusing instead on the way Virk was overweight and didn't fit in with her peers. Here is an interesting piece on the way race was ignored during the media coverage of this case.

When this incident occured, I remember being fascinated by the hip hop references that these young Canadians were making, like that Reena tried to fit into the crowd by being more into hip hop and that the girls who killed her identified with mobster John Gotti, a la rap lyrics. Kelly Ellard, the alleged mastermind behind Virk's murder and the one who finished the job, recently was sentenced to life in prison after a third murder trial.

Shoot First, Hire Culturally Sensitive Police Officers Later

Back in August, police officers fatally shot two Korean men in Dublin, California while responding to an alleged domestic dispute. This shooting has galvanized the Asian American community -- once again -- and many believe that the use of deadly force was unnecessary. This confused-police-officers-reaching-for-guns issue has happens over and over in Asian American and Latin communities. Recent cases include a 1997 shooting in Rohnert Park of Kuan Chung Kao -- who was armed with a wooden stick, the 2003 shooting of Cau Tran in San Jose -- who was armed with a vegetable peeler, and last year's shooting of Rudy Cardenas in San Jose, who was unarmed. The Asian American community has been coming together to organize across ethnic lines around this issue. There will be a candlelight vigil on Sept. 20th at the Dublin City Hall.

Dhol it out

Working off calories to a bhangra beat.

Before walking into Vicki Virk's Bhangra Dance class, my experiences with the folk dance originating from the Punjab region of India had been in sweaty clubs with over-enthusiastic Desi boys wriggling their shoulders a little too close to my personal space. While Jay-Z's recent discovery of Panjabi MC brought the infectious dhol (a large barrel-shaped drum) sounds to the masses, bhangra has been ruling mainstream Desi parties for the last 15 years. But shaking my badunkadunk (yes, that’s a bhangra bassline in Missy Elliot's “Get Ur Freak On”) in a bhangra class at the gym?

Can I Get a Purse with That?

A foray into the world of Asian American chick lit.

Writer Neelanjana Banerjee | Illustrator Adrienne Yan

The other day, I boarded a crowded bus in a posh section of town. I had just completed an awkward celebrity interview for a women's magazine and I was hung over from staying out too late the night before. So when the hyper-looking white woman offered me her seat, I didn't think twice about why she was giving it to me over all the other people crushed into the front of the bus.

Most Expensive Wedding Ever

So, I was home sick from work yesterday and ended up watching The Fabulous Life of Celebrity Weddings on VH1. I attended FOUR weddings this summer and am now well-versed in the intensity and craziness that is an Indian wedding. The term BLING was created for Indian nuptials. My boyfriend and I were joking about how these Hollywood types don’t have shit on Indians and how the real show would feature fabulous Indian weddings, complete with horses and elephants and a bride worth her weight in gold. And then – it happened! This show featuring Christina Aguilera’s engagement ring and Donald Trump’s wife’s $200,000 wedding dress, featured an Indian wedding held at Versailles this June – which was apparently the most expensive wedding ever. This wedding was held by Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, whose net worth is somewhere in the ballpark of $54 billion, for his 23-year-old daughter Vanisha. Apparently, the wedding of the universe was all over the British and Indian media. As excited as I get to see South Asian culture getting props on MTV and VHI, I have to admit that this opulence makes me feel pretty disgusted.

Funny Desi Girl on New MTV Comedy Show

Check out Rasika Mathur Thursday night on the new MTV, Nick Cannon, comedy show Wild 'N Out. From what I hear, the show is a more hip hop version of something like Whose Line Is It Anyway, which sounds fresh. It is awesome to see South Asian sisters being represented by the likes of a loud, in-your-face comedian like Rasika, who I saw back in 2002 at this amazing South Asian arts festival in LA called Artwallah. Speaking of representations of South Asian women, this site had me laughing and identifying. While we are on the topic of strong South Asian women, I picked up the latest Stuff Magazine in the airport the other day because it was featuring the women of the latest Owen Wilson/Vince Vaughn vehicle The Wedding Crashers. I am interested in going to see this movie because the duo supposedly crash an Indian wedding in the movie. And sure enough, there was a South Asian women, Naureen Zaim in there posing in her skivvies. Anyway, reading her brief bio I found at that she is a semi-professional boxer who has a 6-0 record with two knock outs. Now that's badass.

Go Jin, Tell It Like it Is

What's up Hyphen Blog aficionados? I am back with a vengeance, after spending many weeks marinating in the over-stimulating/over-stimulated nation of India. While I was far away from the destruction of the tsunami, I did feel India move (slightly) under my feet and watched as the waters in the ponds and rivers rose up in some kind of angry agreement with the ocean. I’m still trying to process the energetic vibrations of the earth’s shifting and the departure of so many thousands of souls.

Desi Musical World Domination

At a Hyphen editorial retreat earlier this month, Todd brought up the idea of an Asian American anthem. Stay tuned for his in-depth research into this field, but it really got me thinking about the South Asian music scene and how crazy it is. I was at an awesome APA queer party last night called Persuasion -- and I was dancing up a storm to a set by DJ KBug (an awesome DJ who spins world beats). It was a "dress in drag" party and my tie was flapping around as I busted my bhangra, garba and filmi movies. Tonight is Dhamaal -- the big SF Desi party, with two floors of music. This DJ collective got a Best of the Bay award from the Guardian this year and their party is always packed with a diverse crowd. And you can usually find me in the basement sweating through 4 or 5 hours of beats at this party.

I have been hounding my more musically knowledgeable friends about why South Asian music has become so popular in terms of electronic fusion. Now, somebody please correct me if I am wrong, but I don't really see the same thing happenning with Chinese or Korean or Japanese classical music. Some say it is because the free from of South Asian classical music -- similar to jazz -- makes it especially compatible with turn tables and collaboration. Others says it has to do with the commodification of South Asian culture that dates back to the 1960s with the Beatles going to India. Everyone should check out Mutiny: Asians Storm British Music, for a little history lesson in the origins of the Desi music scene. It really gives you a perspective on how long this scene has been a formidable force in music -- and it goes way back before that annoying Truth Hurts song.

I am also especially interested with the study and play of classical Indian music by young people in this country. Masters like Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan were young men back in the 1960s and there was an explosion of interest in instruments like sitar and tabla. But now there really is a new generation of Asian Americans playing this music and continuing this ancient tradition on. In fact, tonight Alam Khan -- Ali Akbar's 22-year-old son and prodigy -- will be playing one of his first solo concerts ever with tabla master Zakir Hussein. I met Alam back when he was 20 and found him fascinating. Here was a kid who grew up in San Rafael, California, listened to hip hop but has dedicated his life to the study of the sarode. I am equally as fascinated with Anoushka Shankar, Ravi Shankar's daughter.

Then there is Oliver Rajamani, who will be in San Francisco on Sunday night. Honestly, seeing this man live is absolutely mind-blowing. Identifying as Indian and Roma (or Gypsy), Rajamani is based in Austin -- so you Texans should check him out on his home turf. He is a world music extravaganza -- his set travels from Southern India up to Spain down to Africa and then over to Brazil. I know world music often gets a bad reputation for being cheesey, but this man is just pure musical genius. He just keeps singing and picking up different instruments and the audience goes nuts.

Anyway, among all these outlets, I really wonder what will happen to these forms of music a few generations down the line. Will electronic fusion become as common a genre as r&b or country? Will classical music become the hip thing to do for young South Asians? I can't wait to find out.

Happy Diwali and Ramadan

So, this Hyphen blogger has been AWOL for a couple weeks due to excessive running around the country. But first, speaking of bloggers, have you all heard about this lovely hapa lady, whose tell-all blog got her into all kinds of trouble and then into all kinds of bad publicity? There is another great article about how blogging the details of your sex life does not a feminist make.

Flying While REALLY Angry

So, I’m back in Ohio – yes, Swing State central – getting more and more disillusioned by the number of Bush/Cheney signs that I’m seeing everywhere.

The last 48 hours has consisted of a full day in airports and planes, gorging on the delights of my mother and aunt’s cooking, and trying – in my broken Bengali – to explain to my aunt (a retired Geography professor from Kolkata) about how ridiculously mythologized Thanksgiving and Columbus Day are. On a good note, I did just watch the collector’s edition DVD version of The Sixth Sense. The bonus materials include extensive interviews with M. Night, who talks a lot about being South Asian and how that influences his life and filmmaking -- plus a little outline of clues to follow through the movie. I know Night’s kinda silly and Hollywood, but I can’t help but really appreciate that man and his work.

Anyway, even though my flight back to Ohio the other day was relatively uneventful – except for me missing my flight because I was lying bed and listening to NPR at 6 a.m. – airline discrimination continues to be a major problem in this country. One, as a South Asian woman, I can’t seem to ignore. I remember feeling so stunned when writing this article about Ashraf Khan, a Pakistani American man who got ejected from a Delta flight right after Sept. 11. Now, three years later I am completely uncomfortable when in airports and on planes because of the level of insecurity and fear emanating from everyone.

Just this summer I sat in front of a couple of late 20-something white people on an Air Trans Air flight from Atlanta to Dayton, OH who began to discuss – in graphic detail – the Nick Berg “beheading” right after the seatbelt sign was turned on for our descent. Far from buying into the hoax theory, these people were out for blood. Their conversation went something like this:

Woman (with LOUD nasally voice): “Those people are such barbarians. I can’t believe people are against this war. We should turn [the Middle East] into a giant crater.”
Man (with somewhat of a Southern accent): “Wow, you seem really excited about this.”
Woman (laughing): “Oh, you have no idea. I get so pumped about this stuff. Go troops!”

The woman went on to say how rude Mexicans are for always speaking Spanish around people who can’t understand it; that black people are lazy, etc.etc.etc. At that point, I -- honestly -- was ready to find a parachute and jump out the window or actually make a serious complaint to a flight attendant because I felt really uncomfortable by their conversation. But the seatbelt sign was on and I was afraid I might get taken for being threatening. I wondered what would have happened if I had been having a really loud conversation about the Nick Berg beheading with the black man who was sitting next to me.

This -- combined with a flurry of other incidents that my friends and I have experinced lately -- made me look into what has been happening with all the lawsuits that the ACLU filed, back in 2002, against four major airlines for discrimination. Most airlines have settled by now, paying up to $2 million in damages. The ACLU filed another case just this year against the no-fly list that has been targeting South Asians and Arab Americans since 9.11. Here is the latest on that case.

And just to help piss y’all off as much as me, here is what Ann Coulter had to say about these lawsuits in her column back in May. I try not to pay any attention to what she says, but her continual jabs at Norman Mineta for not racially profiling really make me want to punch her in the neck.

Anyway, stay tuned for more stories about airline woes. In the meantime, read this BBC article about whether “integration is a two-way process”. There is another blonde chick with some killer quotes.

Just Vote, Yaar

Yipee. Welcome to the Hyphen Blog. A wonderful world of Asian American quirk from the editors/staff of Hyphen.

I was in a bad-ass (or maybe ass-bad would be more accurate) mood on Friday. I was moping in my room watching The Gilmore Girls on DVD under my down comforter, trying to drown out the debate from the living room of my apartment. Isn't that sad? Even with Yoko Ono interrupting my regularly scheduled MTV programming to tell me that this is the most important election of my life, I still could not drag myself out of bed to watch two candidates who are barely any different battle it out on national television. Sigh. I know I'm just being a pessimist, but as a Green Party member and a proud Nader 2000 voter, Kerry just doesn't do it for me. In fact, voting for Kerry is going to make me feel downright dirty.

I went to see writer/anti-globalization leader Arundhati Roy speak in front of a crowd of adoring fans in Berkeley back in August -- and I'm not a huge fan of the charming Miss Roy myself, but that's a whole other entry -- but she did say some stuff about the election that really stuck with me. Writer Sandip Roy-Chowdhury (a Hyphen Advisory Board member) got her to talk about it when he interviewed her for India Currents and KALW's Up Front. In answer to a question about distinguishing between American people and the American government, Arundhati said:

"Look at the clash between Bush and Kerry. Kerry has said he supports the war, Kerry said he would support the war even if he knew WMDs were not to be found, Kerry just wants UN cover. Which means Indians and Pakistanis will go to Iraq and die instead. And French and Germans and Russians can share in the spoils of Iraq. This is a difficult question the anti-war movement has to ask itself. If it openly campaigns for Kerry, is it openly supporting soft-imperialism -- killing me softly?"

Something to think about. Nice one, Arundhati. Now, was it really that necessary to wear a snug-fitting, white tank top in the poster for your speech?

But anyway, whine whine whine, I guess that's not really the point about this upcoming election. Dirty or not, I still want to vote for Kerry and maybe I'll even go join South Asians for Kerry on Sunday in San Francisco for a phone banking for swing states event in order to feel better about myself. I do have to give props to South Asians for Kerry -- this organization is breaking down the boundaries between Indians and Pakistanis and forming a progressive coalition that's been making some serious waves. Plus they have cool t-shirts that say "Just Vote, yaar." Nice.

-N. Banerjee