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May 17, 1999

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Saying Sayonara to Asian America

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Sadanand Dhume

Everyone has a pet indulgence. Mine is an on-again off-again addiction to the South Asian Journalists Association discussion list, home to a motley collection of journalists, academics, activists and nuts who submit to a daily barrage of junk email without having the excuse of living in boring old Princeton, New Jersey with a high speed Internet connection.

The SAJA list has witnessed some of the most momentous Indian American debates of our times. Did Madonna insult Hindu culture by wearing a bindi? Should Taco Bell be sued for feeding a pious Hindu a beef burrito when he asked for a bean burrito? Should fat white women in Queens be allowed to use mehndi? Ever so rarely, along comes an Indian American political issue that rises above the din of outrage over insulted gods and stolen customs. My favourite is the debate over Indians and the Asian American movement.

A small but vocal minority of Indian Americans wants our relatively young community to become part of the well-entrenched, well-funded Asian American movement. They argue that piggybacking allows Indians to use Asian American cultural and legal institutions, freeing scarce resources for other activities (such as protesting mehndi abuse.) They say the political clout of 10 million Asian Americans added to 1.1 million Indians will help us further our shared interests in immigration policy, prevention of hate crimes and stereotyping by the mainstream media. Some insist that Indians have no choice but to join the Asian American movement simply because -- hold your breath -- the United States census counts Indians as Asians.

What Indian Asian Americans (even the term sounds awkward) need to understand is that political power and cultural recognition are never won by getting others to fight your battles. The Jews, the Greeks, the Armenians and the Irish have learned this well. Whether Indians like it or not, Chinese, Japanese and Koreans will always define the Asian American movement. Instead of allowing Indian Americans to integrate into mainstream America and claim a slice of the American pie, the Asian American movement asks us to fight for the crumbs of the much smaller Asian American pie. Indians should remember that nine times out of ten the token Asian American political appointment will go to a Chang before it goes to a Chakravarti, a Kong before it goes to a Kumar.

Asian American expansionism na´vely hopes that a hastily constructed identity, or worse, a US government census form, can replace ties built on a foundation of shared culture, ethnicity and historical experience. This defies common sense. It is ludicrous to expect a refugee from Taliban ruled Afghanistan to feel some magical affinity toward his Singaporean neighbour, or for Maldivian taxi drivers to discover that they have a lot in common with Japanese sushi chefs. Ethnicity is the elephant in the room that must be acknowledged. East Asians are bound by racial ties and, to a lesser degree, by cultures with roots in Confucianism. Indians don't share this. When I stroll through Jackson Heights, Queens, home to cheap curry houses and fashions imported from Bombay, I feel an immediate sense of belonging. In Chinatown, I am an outsider, unable to penetrate the blank stares of the shopkeepers or to make sense of the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese.

Despite claims to the contrary, there is little that Indians share with East Asian Americans that we do not also share with other immigrants. Mexicans and Arabs also face racial discrimination and glass ceilings. Many Latin Americans and Africans come from sexually conservative male dominated cultures. The work ethic is prized by Jamaicans. Russian kids feel pressured to perform well in science and mathematics.

Unlike our Vietnamese, Korean and Chinese counterparts, recent Indian immigrants often speak fluent English and understand the working of a functioning democracy with a free press. Moreover, Indians have not shared the suffering that marked the early Asian experience in this country. Unlike the Chinese, we didn't come here to build the railroads in California. Unlike the Japanese, we weren't interned in prisoner of war camps during World War II. The first significant wave of Indian immigrants came here in the 1960s, when the most important battles of the Civil Rights movement had either been won or were about to be won. For the most part, these pioneers were educated professionals: doctors, engineers and professors. You don't earn the right to hold a grudge against white America by sticking needles into overfed kids in Tennessee or teaching Physics 101 to bored undergraduates.

You may ask why an Asian American identity must come at the expense of an Indian American identity. Why can't we be both Indian American and Asian American? This is a valid question, but it ignores one crucial fact: Indian Americans are yet to forge a coherent identity of their own. Cut loose from the subcontinent, we have divided ourselves by region, language and religion. To look without before first dealing with divisions within is tantamount to jumping ship. Why force-feed a feeling of kinship toward Japanese Americans when there remains such a wide gap between Tamils and Gujaratis? Between Hindus and Muslims. Between recent arrivals from India and those who arrived via the sugar plantations of Guyana or former British colonies in Africa. And between Indians born in the United States and those born in India.

The seamy truth of the Indian infatuation with Asian America is that it offers an easy alternative to Indians vaguely ashamed of their origins. Until recently, East Asia was home to the greatest post-war economic miracle since the Marshall plan put Western Europe back on its feet. Cars are made in Japan, computers in Taiwan, vacuum cleaners in Korea and toys in China. India is where Mother Teresa goes to save souls and Strobe Talbott goes to save the world from nuclear holocaust. When was the last time an American child was told to finish his peas because children were starving in Japan?

Contemporary American identity politics teaches us two things. First, that the most powerful ethnic interest groups are built on shared ties of history, customs and culture, or at least the perception of such shared ties. Second, that successfully mobilised groups often retain some affinity with their country of origin. (Israelis, Greeks, Poles, to name only a few.) The Asian American movement fails both these tests. Primordial ties are conspicuous by their absence. The interests of our countries of origin are often in direct conflict. China, for example, practically created the Pakistani missile and nuclear programs. The fuzziness of an Asian American identity prevents us from influencing US policies on trade and proliferation that affect our families in India.

Indian Americans will achieve political and cultural power only when we learn to acknowledge our weaknesses and build upon our strengths. Our weaknesses include an inability to move beyond petty regional and religious divisions and an unwillingness to accept that though many Indians are doctors and architects, many also drive taxis and wait on tables. Our strengths lie in our relative affluence, strong cultural ties, educational achievements, geographical concentration, rapidly growing numbers and large representation in key sectors of the American economy such as software and medicine.

Fostering a stronger Indian American identity does not mean quarreling with the Asian American movement, but choosing allies depending on the issue at hand. We ought to draw a firm line between co-operation and co-option. In the final analysis, this is about making choices. As an Indian, I choose Shabana Azmi over Gong Li. Vikram Seth over Amy Tan. Vadas over wonton soup.

The author works for the Far Eastern Economic Review in India.

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