The Balancing Act: South Asian American Identity

Given at a Tasveer Youth Voices panel, Seattle, 2012

When I heard about the opportunity to speak I was excited. I do not have anything to perform or show. I am not exactly gifted by the way of musical or artistic talent, so I thought I would simply share some thoughts I have about South Asian identity. I should preface this by saying that these are just my own personal opinions, and there is one instance of explicit language in my talk.

A little while ago I was prompted when writing an assignment to reflect on the question: does a South Asian American community exist?

In answering the question, I found myself torn. You see, I have always, for as long as I can remember felt affinity for communities through my other identities: as a son, a younger brother, a writer, an introvert, a soccer player—all of which I privileged over my ethnic identity as a South Asian American.

In many ways I held naive dream, that I alone could dictate my identity. As I have learned over the years, however,  this isn’t always the case.

Four years ago, 8 years after September 11th, I was playing soccer for my high school team.

It is a day that lingers in my memory and refuses to leave, a day when the California sun beat upon the back of my neck and evaporated sweat as quickly as it appeared, leaving me encrusted in a salty glaze. As soon as I stepped on the field that day and the whistle blew, I regretted my choice of black cleats, now turned to ovens in the blinding rays of the sun. As my feet baked, I took in my surroundings. Players jogged back and forth exhausted, gasping for air in the suffocating heat while the sun cast a haze that distorted their bodies into unrecognizable shapes, dissolving and mixing into a yellow-gold impressionist painting before my eyes. I blinked, once, twice, determined to stay focused, that is, until I heard voices from the sidelines.

“Hey India! India! Hey! Hey! Over here!”

I turned, smiling, thinking one of my friends on my team was playing a joke. Instead I came upon unfamiliar faces cackling like a pack of hyenas on the away team’s bench.

The shouts from the field, the referee’s whistle, my coach screaming from our technical area, all gave way to a humming in my ears. I stood there paralyzed, the hum growing louder to a buzz, growing louder to jackhammers drowning out any other sound. I temporarily bottled the small thunderstorm growing inside me and managed a pitiful,

“What did you say?”

“You heard us. Why don’t you go back to fucking Afghanistan and blow yourself up.” I was spellbound. All my life growing up I had heard stories. Stories about racism, about ignorance, about merciless bullies and taunts, but none of it had adequately prepared me that day. So I just stood there, dumbfounded, and listened. The game went on around me but I paid it no heed; I was transfixed.

With only a few skilled, well-chosen words—they collapsed my identity into brown skinned man—they brought me crashing down.

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This February, 11 years after September 11th, the associated press published its investigative report on NYPD officers infiltrating Muslim Student Associations at universities throughout the northeastern U.S, Shah Rukh Khan is again detained at the airport—and we are reminded that the words Muslim and terrorist are still hardwired in our nation’s consciousness.

You see, if there is one thing I have learned from all of these events it is that there are some identities you create for yourself; while others are thrust upon you.

Which I believe only underscores the importance of discussions about South Asian identity and community.

I would argue that a South Asian American community exists, though it manifests differently across generational lines. Fundamentally, it remains a question of identity. “Community” means something very different to people like my parents, part of an immigration wave during the late 1970s, and myself, an American born in the Midwest in 1990. For my parents, community grew among their fellow immigrants, though it remained fractured along religious, ethnic, and linguistic lines. A common sense of solidarity was formed in the shared experience of exploring and assimilating (or not) in a new and unfamiliar land. Safety could always be found in a neighbor or coworker who understood where you came from because he or she came from the same place.

The South Asian Americans of my generation are anything but strangers to this country. We were born in the United States, raised in the American cultural milieu, and maintain unique identities, often as Americans first and South Asians second. Our nascent community is still growing, stretching its boundaries and finding its feet. It is not outspoken or clearly defined like the African-American or Chicano communities, but it exists.

Abraham Verghese, in his book, My Own Country, speaks of the merging of geography and destiny. He says that you have made a place your own when, “where others see brick, a broken window, a boarded up storefront, you feel either moved to tears or to joy.” When “The map of the town becomes the map of your memories, the grid on which you mark your great loves and your enmities.” When I think of the identity of South Asian youth, I think of this, and how those who came before us have fought to make this country a space we can call our own. Today, we are here to stay, our destiny and geography inexorably linked; we seek to stake a place in this country and have our voices heard.

It is a community unlike the one our parents experienced, no longer tied to a place of birth but fortified by shared culture and experiences, by protective mothers, extended families, spicy foods, and names that never seem to be able to be pronounced correctly. It is these similarities, oversimplified and trivial as they may be, which bind our community together. Our dual identities as Americans of South Asian descent mean that our community remains simmering beneath the surface, caught between complete assimilation into the country of our birth and the strong legacy and heritage our parents bequeathed us.

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It is a constant balancing act, and we must be careful not to overlook the individual voices that make up our community. This summer I had the opportunity to intern in DC, and work and befriend and incredible group of fellow South Asian Americans. One evening we all attended a panel discussion showcasing South Asians in politics—people who had made it in DC and were now graciously spending time with us to share their advice.

I remember asking the panelists how much being South Asian shaped their experiences on Capitol Hill. They all replied along the same lines: it hadn’t. As professionals, they were judged on their merits rather than their heritage or background.

On the one hand, their responses said something promising about America, echoing Dr. King’s dream of a nation that looks not to the color of the skin, but to the content of a person’s character to lay judgment.

And yet, on the other hand, I couldn’t help but feel there was some sort of disconnect—that Dr. King did not envision a colorblind America in which race plays no role, but rather one where it would act as a banner for individuals and communities to celebrate their diversity, their heritage and their culture.

And that’s where it becomes complicated when it comes to South Asian Americans. It was often repeated to me during that summer in DC that it is important that more South Asians get into politics, so that we can be better represented. But does greater representation mean anything to a community that, as we discussed as a group many times, lacks a strong unified sense of identity—a community more apt to find comfort in regional or religious groups than subscribe to the notion of pan-South Asian unity?

More than anything, my short, 21 years of experience, as a South Asian American male has made me cognizant of the fact that the South Asian American community speaks with thousands—millions—of different voices. Voices from Berkeley, California to Bethesda, Maryland; from Houston, Texas to Bloomington, Indiana; conservative voices and liberal voices; Hindu voices, Muslim voices, Atheist voices; male voices and female voices and everything in between.

And it is here, among the cacophony of different voices, that I believe the importance of programs like this is realized—because it calls this diverse community to look into the mirror, to acknowledge its ascendancy, and grapple with the question, what does it mean to be a South Asian American?

It’s a question that will always remain a work in progress. The story of South Asian Americans is not unwritten; it’s just yet to be fully revealed.

And so, the talent of my fellow presenters today, and of those performing this entire weekend is truly humbling. Among them, I see those who share a stake in our future who will ensure that these types of conversations, so important to the vitality and prosperity of this community, continue to be had.

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