Becoming South Asian in America
"What does it mean to be South Asian today? How has immigration, transnational adoption, and 9/11 changed the ways in which South Asians identify as Americans?" Mani asks. "This talk uses contemporary digital videos and documentary films in order to explore how South Asians create new definitions of Asian American identity and community. "I discuss three films in this lecture that focus on three distinct South Asian immigrant groups: first-generation professionals who migrated in the 1960s and 1970s; Indian adoptees who were adopted by white American families in Minnesota the 1980s; and working-class Bangladeshi immigrants who arrived in New York in the 1990s. Whereas many professional immigrants (particularly women) feel that they must choose between being Indian or being American, I demonstrate how transnational adoptees begin to create a sense of solidarity with each other as Indians and as Americans. These films document the ways in which first and second-generation immigrants create imaginative relationships with their countries of 'origin' at the same time that they embody and produce racialized subjectivities as South Asians in the United States."
Sarah Willie: Good afternoon, my name is Sarah Willie, and I'm the associate Provost. It's my pleasure to welcome you to the faculty-lecture series, and it's my pleasure to introduce today's speaker. Bakirathi Mani joined the Swarthmore College faculty four years ago as an assistant professor of English literature. She had just earned her doctorate from Stanford University where her major area was modern thought and literature, and her minor area was cultural and social anthropology. Dr. Mani earned her Masters in modern Indian history, where she graduated first in her class from Nehru University in New Delhi. Before that, her undergraduate training was at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service where she majored in non-western history and diplomacy and earned a certificate in Asian Studies. She is the recipient of several prestigious awards.
I came to know Baki her first year here over an informal conversation about teaching as women of color. Her trenchant insight and self-deprecating humor, her erudition and challenging questions have been delightful in a colleague and a friend. It encouraged both of us to come together again to apply for a [inaudible 00:01:20] funded tricollege seminar on professional development as women of color. It was that seminar that gave me occasion to learn more about her scholarship.
Professor Mani's talk today is excerpted from a larger work in progress on South Asians in America. While her interdisciplinary interests include the racial color of citizenship and the gendered contours of nationhood, her contributions to the project of understanding the modern Indian state and those who identify with it foreground the analytical tools of literary analysis. The serious examination of text, be it the novel, film, or with an excitement that is contagious and unabashed, the beauty pageant. Her prioritization of tropes, metaphors, and attention to narrative combine with an anthropological sensibility that reveals itself in thick descriptions, a focus on community, alienation, diaspora, and exile. Literature and anthropology meet with the opportunity to read culture.
In fact, no academic discipline owns the analytical categories that any of us studies, but our assumptions about how to approach categories and topics shape the answers we reach. A part of me is old school in the importance I place on making our disciplinary assumptions explicit so that we can help each other remember what it was we were trying to do, and to better assess whether we achieved our goal. That's my point, not hers. I raise this, not the police our disciplinary boundaries but, to rejoice in the abundance of what academic-border crossings offer us, especially on the topic of nation-state borders being crossed by real people all the time.
Bakirathi Mani's work does this. She is not only fluent in several languages, she is fluent in several disciplines. Quoting the Italian sociologist Antonio Gramsci in the introduction to her forthcoming book, Baki writes, "Knowing thyself is a product of the historical process to date which has deposited you in an infinity of traces without leaving an inventory". "Nonetheless, she begins with an inventory of her own life. Born in Bombay, raised in Tokyo, educated in the United States and India". Then at the close of her first chapter, she sets out the syllogism: "If immigration is understood", she writes,"Not simply as a linear movement towards assimilation, but as a literary construct that straddles the historical and material formations of multiple national constructs at the same time, then it becomes possible to think through [diasporate 00:04:21] discourse on the nation".
Finally, she makes plain her goal, having examined two works of fiction in the first chapter. "I take this opportunity", she concludes, "To push beyond the imagination of these fictional narrators, and to emphasize the urgency for a narrative modality that re-conceptualizes the complex, spatial, and temporal scales of [diasporate 00:04:49] social formations." Dr. Mani examines what is real and imagined, reminding us that we occasionally confound and confuse the two in our attempts to reach the end of the story, to sustain our own survival, or to mark our place in the contested terrain of a new home. Her work provides us with chapters from the text of many South Asian American experiences, for which she serves as eloquent witness and interpretive scholar.
Please join me in welcoming Bakirathi Mani.
Bakirathi Mani: Thank you so much to Sarah, really for such an incredibly warm introduction, and thank you to all of you. It's really such a pleasure to be able to share my work with you both faculty and students, and there are especially so many new students here whom I haven't had an opportunity to meet, so I hope that we have some time to get to know each other in the question-and-answer session, and over some food afterwards, if the food hasn't disappeared already.
There are a couple more seats in the front if people want to sit down.
I thought that I'd begin by telling you a little bit about how I came to write about the process of becoming South Asian. In the winter of 2001, I was living in San Francisco, and I was involved with a group called [ASATA 00:06:20], that was an acronym for the Alliance of South Asians Taking Action. It was a group that was formed in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City. Our objective was educational outreach, specifically in light of the increasing number of race-based hate crimes against South-Asian Americans and Arab Americans on both the East and West coasts. Many of us in ASATA were young professionals; there were lawyers, doctors and educators from various regional, religious, and linguistic backgrounds on the subcontinent. Out of the 25 people who had come to that initial meeting, 23 of us were born in the United States, that they were second-generation U.S. citizens.
At our initial meeting, as we went around the room introducing ourselves and our reasons for being part of this group, every single person talked about the ways in which September 11th made them feel for the first time, like they didn't belong in America. It wasn't until they became victims of racial discrimination from their colleagues and from strangers, and when they began to hear stories about people who are subject to race-based hate crimes that these young people began to realize that they were racial minorities in this country. It took the devastating impact of 9/11 for each one of us, with our different experiences of immigration to this country, to come together racially and politically as South Asians.
I was thinking about that initial ASATA meeting as I prepared my talk for this afternoon because becoming South Asian is a project about how first and second-generation immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, that is people from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, as well as India, come to understand themselves as Americans. Immigrants from the Indian subcontinent actually number less than 1% of the total U.S. population, so it's a really really tiny group. They are also one of the fastest growing Asian-immigrant groups in this country. There's also, as I'm sure many of you are aware, of an extraordinary cultural output from these immigrant groups. For example Pulitzer prize-winning authors like [inaudible 00:08:32] there are Broadway musicals like Bombay Dreams. There's award-winning visual and performance art, music, dance, and film.
Each one of these cultural text tells us a specific story of immigration across differences of religious background, national origin, class, gender, and sexuality. However, across this diversity of cultural text, I was struck by the ways in which writers and filmmakers, actors and artists were invested in producing a common narrative of belonging to America. I want to make clear that this narrative of belonging of what I call South Asian is quite different from identifying oneself as Indian-American or Pakistani American, or Sri-Lankan American et cetera. Instead, becoming salvation is about producing a public sense of community as visualized immigrants in the United States. The ways in which these forms of popular culture establish a collective narrative of belonging is mirrored on college campuses across the country. At Swarthmore as in campuses nationwide, there are South Asian student networks that bring together first and second generation immigrants from a variety of regional, national, linguistic, and religious backgrounds. These South Asian student organizations are far different from organizations that are based on religious identity alone. For example the Hindu Students Council or the Muslim Students Association.
In a sense, South Asian student organizations bring together people who commonly identify as Brown, even know that racial category is experienced across gender class and sexuality. I think you would have heard from Sarah Willie's introduction why I'm interested in this group of South Asians in the United States; it obviously has something to do with my personal experience, but I thought maybe one way we can begin to talk about this talk about South Asians in the U.S. is to figure out why is it important for all of us to understand how this particular group of immigrants come together as South Asians. Like other Asian Americans, South Asians share a long history of immigration to this country. The first South Asians in the U.S. were Punjabis who migrated to the [inaudible 00:10:49] North American West Coast, primarily to California and to Vancouver, but also to Oregon and Washington in the late 19th century. They worked alongside Chinese-Americans, Japanese-Americans and Mexican Americans on farms as well as on railroads and on lumber yards.
The second major wave of immigration came in 1965 after the abolition of the National Origins Act. This enabled many professional Asian Americans, including South Asians to immigrate to the U.S. as doctors, engineers, and scientists. More recently, there's been a very large increase in the numbers of working class South-Asian immigrants, as well as a rise in the numbers of people who are coming to work in the high-tech industry. There are also a couple of major differences between South Asians and other Asian-American groups.
The first important distinction is the fact that South Asians did not participate in large numbers in the civil rights and ethnic studies movements of the 1960s and 1970s. These were the national political movement that were foundational to what it means to be Asian-American today, and South Asians, because they were few in number, and because many had migrated as middle-class professionals, were not active in those political movements. the second major difference is that South Asians do not have a direct historical connection to the United States. Unlike East and Southeast Asian immigrants, like Korean Americans, Filipino Americans, and Vietnamese Americans, South-Asian Americans do not have a history of colonial encounter that explains their presence in the U.S. today.
The process of becoming South Asian in America is a much more recent social and historical phenomenon that I think has very significant political implications. On the one hand, like other Asian-American groups, second generation South Asians are beginning to understand themselves as racial minorities. This, in turn, impacts the ways in which they come to understand themselves as Americans. On the other hand, the impact of globalization means that South-Asian Americans frequently became contact with countries on the subcontinent, for example by donating to political parties in different countries on the subcontinent, or donating to nongovernmental relief efforts. Many second-generation South Asians in this country are also really familiar with popular cultural products from the subcontinent like Bollywood songs and music et cetera.
What I argue in the book is that South Asians are shaped by two dominant rhetorics of nationalism. On the one hand, the rhetoric of liberal multiculturalism in the United States, and on the other hand, postcolonial nationalist movements on the subcontinent. South-Asian Americans are neither fully assimilated in the United States, nor are they nostalgic subjects of their countries of origin. What I'm going to argue today is that becoming South Asian is about producing and inhabiting a transnational subjectivity. It's as much about creating a historical relationship to your country of origin as it is about establishing your claim as racialized minorities in the United States. It's not an either/or process, it's really a both/and process. In that sense, I feel the process of becoming South Asians is really a challenge to some of the established models of understanding cultural identity formation in Asian-American studies.
In the book, I examine various narratives of becoming South Asian, across literary and cinematic texts, as well as through public cultural events, like beauty pageants, arts festivals, and Broadway musicals. The objective of this interdisciplinary engagement is to understand how rational and national subjectivities are lived experiences, and how these processes of belonging come alive in everyday life.
I'll move away a little bit. Can you hear me if I'm away from the mic? Yeah? Otherwise, I'll give you a preview of the stuff that I'm hanging onto.
What I want to do today is talk about three documentary film and digital videos made by contemporary South-Asian American filmmakers. These include Indu Krishnan's Knowing Her Place. Knowing Her Place was one of the first documentaries about South Asians in the U.S., and that was released in 1990. Sasha Khokha's Calcutta Calling, and [inaudible 00:15:03] and [inaudible 00:15:05] BES, or [Bhangra 00:15:07] East Side. Both of the last two movies were made in 2004.
These three films track a generational shift from the migration of professional immigrants in the 1960s and 1970s to the increasing numbers of working-class South-Asian immigrants who arrived in the 1980s and 1990s. Equally important, these films map a transition from narratives of assimilation towards more complex formations of what it means to be South Asians today.
I'm going to begin with Knowing Her Place. Knowing Her Place is about a woman called Vasundara Varadhan who lives with her husband and two teenage sons in New York. Vasu's story of immigration to the U.S. is unique. As a child, she was raised in Queens, New York, but when she was 12, she moved with her parents back to Madras, India. Then, when her father died, she was 16, and her mother got her married off. When she was 16, she got married to her husband, and her husband brought her back to Queens. You can tell she has a really interesting personal narrative of growing up here, and going to India, and then coming back to Queens.
The film alternates between scenes shot in New York and Madras, the city that's now called Chennai, documenting Vasu's relationship with her husband and sons in the U.S., and with her mother and grandmother in India. One of the first things that Krishnan tells us about Vasu, is that she appears to embody a balance between two cultures. She is the traditional wife and mother at home, and a modern career woman in the workplace. What's interesting about Vasu is that she actually teaches nighttime adult literacy classes. Likewise, in India, she practices all of the Hindu religious rituals that are expected of her, whereas in America, she has a very diverse and secular social circle. The visual imagery of the film emphasizes how moving from India to the U.S. is about moving from tradition to modernity.
At the same time the film tracks the narrative of immigration that begins Vasu's Indian mother and ends with her American sons. In this story of assimilation, Vasu operates as a pivotal generational link between India and the United States. The problem, as Vasu tells us right at the outset of the film, is that, "It takes a long time to figure out where you belong". Even though Vasu appears here to strike a balance between two cultures, her narrative of her own experience is one that appears to contest that delicate balance. Vasu tells the filmmaker that her whole life, she's felt constantly pressured to choose between two cultures. I think that many of us familiar with this rhetoric of choosing between two cultures, it's what's colloquially known as having an identity crisis, right?
In this documentary, Vasu feels pressure to choose between being Indian or being American. Being Indian, or becoming American a represented to us as two very distinct ways of being. Faced with making this choice, Vasu realizes that she doesn't have the words to convey the complexity of her experience to the filmmaker. In fact, during the initial period of their acquaintance, Vasu attempts to commit suicide. The question that the documentary quickly moves from, how does Vasu define herself to why does Vasu try to kill herself? There are a number of reasons that Krishnan, the filmmaker uncover from Vasu's depression, among them Vasu's repressed anger towards her mother for marrying her off at age 16, her resentment towards her husband and sons, none of whom appear to share in the domestic labor of their home.
These are valid reasons, but I think they preclude us from understanding the complexity of Vasu's experience. What's equally important to understand is that Vasu cannot make a choice between being Indian or becoming American because the opposition between those two constructs are false. As a wife, and as a mother, Vasu is constantly negotiating these so called traditional and modern aspects of womanhood at the same time. I want to show you a scene that takes place over a Thanksgiving meal, shortly after Vasu's suicide attempt. In this scene, Vasu's just cooked this enormous Thanksgiving meal for her family, but her efforts are singularly underappreciated by her sons and her husband. After dinner, when she attempts to share her experience of immigration with her husband and sons, they belittle the crisis that she's experiencing. Here is that clip.
Speaker 3: [crosstalk 00:19:42]
Speaker 4: [crosstalk 00:19:35]
Speaker 3: You feel sometimes [inaudible 00:19:39] conflict [crosstalk 00:19:42] no?
Speaker 4: Why should I? What's the conflict? I don't decide how I want to be [inaudible 00:19:50] I am how I am. [crosstalk 00:19:54] I am what I am.
Speaker 3: Maybe for your generation, there's no conflict. In my generation [crosstalk 00:20:00]
Speaker 5: To me there's no conflict.
Speaker 3: What?
Speaker 5: For me there's no conflict.
Speaker 4: Conflict is created by the person [inaudible 00:20:08] decide whether they want to be Indian or whether they want to be American, then you create your own conflict. If you just are how you are, then what's there to decide?
Speaker 5: [inaudible 00:20:15] the conflict. It has more to do with you than being American. [crosstalk 00:20:22]
Speaker 3: See? I don't agree with you.
Speaker 6: I feel that you're experiencing conflict because of what you are [inaudible 00:20:28] [crosstalk 00:20:28] as far as I'm concerned, you have no conflict now. You get along just as fine as you do with Hindus as you do with [crosstalk 00:20:35], or as you do with Joe.
Speaker 3: Yeah.
Speaker 6: You have friends from both nationalities; you don't favor either of them.
Speaker 3: No, I don't.
Speaker 6: Every time you relive the past, and you keep saying that you went from Queens to India, back to Queens, and that's what bothering you now. That no matter what you say now can't change the past, and I feel you have no conflict in that. You have no conflict.
B. Mani: It turns out that it's actually not a laughing matter for Vasu, because as we've seen in this scene, Vasu's feelings of being [inaudible 00:21:11] are constantly pathologized by her husband and sons, right? Her husband, [inaudible 00:21:12], treats her identity conflict as a kind of neurosis. He says, "I don't have any". Her older son, [inaudible 00:21:18] says, "I am what I am", right? He quotes [inaudible 00:21:22]. "Why can't you be just like me?". Her younger son, [inaudible 00:21:27] actually shut her up, right? By saying, "You have no conflict".
The literary critic [inaudible 00:21:30] Mani has commented that knowing her place relies on a binary relationship between India and America that forms the organizing axis of this narrative. Yet, visually, as well as orally the film's material consistently exceeds this description. It's not only the fact that Vasu feels pressure to choose between two cultures, it's also the fact that Vasu's experience of immigration as a woman sets her apart from her husband and sons. As Mani writes, and this is a quote. " [inaudible 00:22:03] feels no conflict, but then why should he? His passage to the U.S. has been relatively smooth thanks to class and male privilege. Vasu's benefits from her class position, on the other hand, are tempered by her femaleness. Likewise her sons [inaudible 00:22:14] and [inaudible 00:22:14] rebut their mother's questions about cultural identity by pointing out their own assimilated ease.
Krishnan's project in the film is for us to empathize with Vasu's identity crisis as well as to resolve it, and so towards this end after Vasu's suicide attempt, he encourages Vasu to undergo psychotherapy, and emphasizes the ways in which Vasu's therapy sessions hep to resolve her conflict. Specifically, Krishnan spends a large amount of time in the letter half of this film detailing how Vasu begins to invest more time in her career, right?
What I want to point out is that, despite the cinematic emphasis on Vasu's transformation into a modern American career women, she continues to inhabit familial arrangements that are defined by gender divisions of labor. She does not divorce her husband and/or leave her children. In fact, over the course of the film, Vasu attempts to become a better mother and wife. I would argue that Vasu's choice is not about pursuing a career. Instead, her decision is to continue to participate in a set of patriarchal arrangements at home. Her continued participation in a situation of domestic patriarchy provokes us to rethink the emancipatory discourse of this film.
In order to understand the complexity of Vasu's actions, I want to focus on a conversation that takes place just after this scene that's staged between Vasu and her 90-year-old grandmother in India. Directly in front of the camera, Vasu prompts her grandmother to speak about her relationship with her husband. Her grandmother describes her husband as someone who is prone to anger and physical violence. When Vasu asks if her grandfather beat his wife, and whether her grandmother did anything about it, Vasu's grandmother suddenly becomes animated, and she retorts, "What good would it do if I went back to my father? My sisters would have no further prospects in their own lives". Here's that clip.
Speaker 7: [foreign language 00:24:14]
B. Mani: Okay, by emphatically underscoring her decision to remain in her marriage, Vasu's grandmother points out the limited conditions of the choice that's available to her, right? To exit an abusive relationship would return her to the safety of her parents' home, but actually returning home would destroy her sisters' future prospects. Likewise, the conditions of Vasu's private life in the U.S. exceeds the framework of choice that's produced in the public narrative of this documentary film.
Like her grandmother, Vasu's family creates an emotionally and mentally-abusive context for her marriage and relationships with her sons. Vasu is subject to violence precisely because she's female, and yet Krishnan insists on framing this as a conflict between two cultures. Immediately after this scene, [inaudible 00:26:02] Vasu going into a supermarket, and there's a voiceover by Indu Krishnan saying that Vasu is a cultural schizophrenia; she can't decide where to belong to, India or America. If we follow Krishnan's voiceover narrative in this documentary, we can only understand Vasu by her choice to become Indian or American. However, the framework of choice constraints the ways in which we can understand Vasu's [agency 00:26:23]. In Krishnan's voiceovers, Vasu is consistently represented as either a victim or an agent. In the context of her relationship with her husband and sons, Vasu is represented as a victim of patriarchal tradition.
In the context of her therapy, and her subsequent investment in her career, Vasu's represented as a woman who is ultimately able to recuperate her free will. Instead of foregrounding framework of choice, I look at this documentary as a narrative about the transnational formations of patriarchy. Even though Vasu is consistently depicted as choosing between India and the United States. The conditions of such a choice are false because Vasu operates within structures of patriarchy in both national sites.
In this context, how can we understand Vasu's desire to become a better mother and wife? Here, I want to refer to the work of an anthropologist called [inaudible 00:27:17] who works on contemporary Egypt. [inaudible 00:27:20] gives us some insight into the challenges of [inaudible 00:27:25] women who appear to [reproduce 00:27:24] rather than contest patriarchal traditions. She focuses on the challenges posed by women who wear the veil, and who practice ideals of modesty that in conventional Western feminist discourse, as well as in secular liberal Third World feminisms, are viewed as antithetical to feminist practice. These practices of piety that challenge conventional definitions of feminist agency as either capacity for [inaudible 00:27:52] or subversion of dominant patriarchal norms.
Instead [inaudible 00:27:55] suggests that we think of agency, not as a synonym for resistance to relations of domination, but as a capacity for action that historically specific relations of subordination enable and create. While such practices of piety apparently ensure the subordination of women, they also draw our attention to the ways in which individuals work on themselves to become the wiling subjects of a particular discourse.
In knowing her place, Vasu's decision to invest more time in her career and to expect more from her husband and sons is narrated by Krishnan, as well as by Vasu herself as part of the process of becoming American. However, we can also look at this set of practices as a means through which Vasu work on herself to become the willing subject of a dominant discourse. In this context, the discourse of choice, right? Choosing between two cultures.
Although Vasu feels trapped by this framework of choice, one of the ways she attempts to resolve this dilemma is not by breaking out of a set of patriarchal responsibilities, but instead by re-inhabiting them. She demonstrates a capacity for agency, not by resisting, but rather by performing her role as mother and wife better.
At the conclusion of this film ... Not at the conclusion, but I guess in the second half of this film, we not only see how much effort Vasu is putting into her career, she begins to teach more classes in adult learning. You can also see the ways in which she's trying very hard to reshape her relationships with her husband and her children, to become a partner to her husband, to become a better hands-off mother for her children, et cetera, right? It's those sorts of practices that I want to draw your attention to.
Vasu's embodiment of a gendered history of immigration to the United States challenges this film's narrative of immigration as emancipation. The ways in which Vasu inhabits patriarchal structures of domesticity, in both India and the United States, demonstrates how these two countries are not distinct or far apart. Instead, these places come together in difficult and frequently painful ways. Vasu's experience exceeds the framework of choice that is central to the film, and opens up new ways of understanding how [inaudible 00:30:13] subjectivities are formed.
I feel like I garnered a lot of laughter with that first clip, but now you're all somber, so I'm going to move us onto the next movie and hopefully you'll get more energized.
The next movie I want to talk about is Calcutta Calling. Calcutta Calling was released as a digital video online in 2004, and in fact, it's still available online. If you Google it, you'll be taken to the PBS frontline website. I hope you take some time to see the film afterwards. It's only a 20-minute film. This is what it's about.
Calcutta Calling is about three Indian teenage girls adopted by White American families in Minnesota, who participate in a cultural program for adoptees that brings them to India. Because they were adopted as infants, [inaudible 00:31:01], [inaudible 00:31:01], and [Lizzie Merril 00:31:02] are overwhelmed by their first impressions of the country that they have no memory of. Their trip wasorganized by the Wisconsin-based [Ties 00:31:13] program, and is meant to provide the adoptees with exposure to the country of their birth. Equally importantly, the trip is the first time that [Lizzie 00:31:19], [Kailin 00:31:19], and [Anisha 00:31:20] encounter other Indian adoptees from Minnesota, or for that matter, other Indians in India.
These young women have actually grown up in [inaudible 00:31:31] rural and suburban communities in Minnesota which are largely White; they don't really see other people of color, let alone other people from the subcontinent. As one of a growing number films that document the experiences of transnational adoption in the United States, Calcutta Calling enters an active debate on questions of racial and national identity among transnational adoptees. Within Asian-American studies, cultural studies of transnational adoption have proliferated in recent years as a means to examine the historical, social and psychic encounters between the United States and East and Southeast Asia.
Historically the first large-scale adoptions were conducted between South Korea and the United States in the after math of the Korean War, but more recently, adoptees from China and Russia, a number amongst the highest proportion of transnational adoptees to this country, along with the growing number of adoptees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Central America. Because transnational adoption is increasingly seen as an alternative to domestic-open adoptions, Asian-American scholars like David [Eng 00:32:33] have argued that the Asian adoptee serves to, "Triangulate the domestic landscape of Black-White relations".
As immigrants, the adoptees are privileged legally and economically over other immigrants from Asia, and as visualized subjects, Asian adoptees are recuperated into the politics of Asian-American nationalism. Despite being from the third most popular country in Asia from which to adopt Indian adoptees are almost entirely absent from these, at times, polarizing debates. Unlike adoptees from South Korea, Vietnam, and Cambodia, Indian adoptees have no visible historical relationship to the U.S.; that is there are no wars or colonial occupations that explain the adoption industry between India and the United States.
Moreover, current government policies in India restrict transnational adoptions to individuals of Indian descent [inaudible 00:33:28] or [received 00:33:30]. As part of the liberalization of the Indian economy in the 1990s, the Indian State asserted nationalist policies that prioritized domestic adoption for Indian adoptees, followed by adoptions to people of Indian descent who are living overseas and then only last to people of non-Indian backgrounds who wish to adopt Indian children. Whereas, over a five-year period in the 1990s, there were 35,000 Chinese adoptees arrive in the United States. In that same period of time, there were only 5,000 adoptees from India. You can see the ratio of difference.
What's striking about Calcutta Calling therefore is not only that it documents a little known demographic group of South Asians in the U.S., but it highlights the ways in which these adoptive children are shaped by multiple narratives of nationalism. On the one hand, they're incorporated into the multicultural ideology of the American national family. On the other hand, these adoptees are also inculcated into nationalist politics in postcolonial India, which determine how many adoptions can happen every year? Who can adopt them? Et cetera, et cetera.
The other thing to keep in mind about Calcutta Calling is that it's quite different from the other films that I have seen that have detailed Asian-American adoptions. Unlike the films that have talked about adoptions from Korea or China, which have really prioritized this desire for the adoptees to go back to their birth countries, or to meet with their birth mothers et cetera, in Calcutta Calling, thee young women go to India, but they have, actually very little interest in that country. In fact, many of them talk about how their parents encouraged them to go on this trip even though they had no interest in going themselves.
What's also interesting about the film, I think, is that it shows the ways in which these young women create new definitions of home. While they assert that they are Americans, their trip to India also illuminates the complex relationship between race, class, and citizenship. As the only persons of color in their schools and communities, the three young women are uniformly aware of their racial difference, with the exception of [Lizzie 00:35:37], who's lesbian parents have adopted a second Indian child, the teenager's parents incorporate the adoptees into dominant, White, and heterosexual formations of the American family.
Here's the opening scene of the film. These are [Kailin Johnson's 00:35:50] parents.
Speaker 8: Laura Ingalls Wilder home [place 00:35:54] is about two mile from where we live.
Speaker 9: Both of us are very much Scandinavian. My dad is 100% Swedish. My mom about three-quarters, 75% Swedish, very much Swedish heritage.
Speaker 8: I don't think of [Kailin 00:36:13] as being Indian at all. She's just my daughter. I don't see the color difference, or the things at all. I don't know how she sees herself.
Speaker 9: I don't either.
B. Mani: That's outside [Kailin'samarea 00:36:31] house. [Kailin's 00:36:34] mother tells us that, "I don't think of [Kailin 00:36:41] as being Indian at all. She's just my daughter. I don't see the color difference, or the things that all, but I don't know how she sees herself". By hesitating to name the visibility of racial difference, what she calls "the things", right? [Kailin's 00:36:52] mother assimilates [Kailin 00:36:53] into her family by saying, "She's just my daughter". Kailin herself doesn't really ... She says that she doesn't really know much about India; she likes Indian food, she identifies with religious icons like Mother Teresa. Similarly, another woman interviewed, [Lizzie Merril 00:37:06] says that she feels like she's American, but she's probably not as materialistic as a lot of Americans are. Then, a third women, [Anisha Pittsenberger 00:37:15], explicitly describes her discomfort as the only non-White person in her high school. She says, "I think I stick out really, really bad. People look at me before they look at my mother in the supermarket". Then she follows that up by saying, "I feel completely American; I'm just Brown".
For these young women and their families, race is a category of difference that is simultaneously recognized and [inaudible 00:37:41]. The three girls and their families travel to India for the first time in 2003, and I should probably point out that the young girls were adopted through villages, organizations in Minnesota, so that parents didn't actually go to India to get their children. For everybody involved, it's really their first time of being in India.
The three girls and their families traveled to India for the first time in 2003. Over a two-week period, they go on elephant rides, see Taj Mahal, and visit the orphanages and charity institutions from which they were adopted. Many of the adoptees are startled by the urban poverty they see on the streets of Calcutta. Children begging, lame and injured peoples, slums on the pavements. Their parent worry about their children getting lost in the crowd. [Anisha's 00:38:28] mother says, for example, that [Anisha 00:38:31] blends right in, and she can't actually identify her children within the sea of Indian people.
However, for the adoptees themselves, they're visit to India does not generate feelings of racial or cultural identification. In fact, it brings to light the differences in class and citizenship that demarcates these adoptees from Indians in India. As all of the young women come to realize, identifying with the country of their birth is difficult, especially given the visibility of their class difference from the Indians that they meet on the street and in the orphanages. At a shopping mall, [Lizzie 00:39:05] is confronted by children who are begging, and she rather [guiltfully 00:39:09] offers them her half empty cup of soda. Later, [Lizzie 00:39:14] tells Sasha Khokha, the director, that ... This is a quote from [Lizzie 00:39:15]. "You've got this feeling that you are seeing someone you could have been. It makes me feel really isolated too. It's like I can't fit in anywhere. I can fit in at home, and I can't fit in here. Even after arriving in India, you're still isolated, you're still treated different".
By identifying with the street children as "someone I could have been", Lizzie simultaneously retracts that racial identification by acknowledging differences of class and citizenship. Notably, [Lizzie 00:39:45] doesn't attempt to claim an Indian identity at the expense of her American one, right? Instead, what she and the other adoptees on this tour attempt to produce is to create a relationship to India that makes this country meaningful in their lives as Americans. As part of their trip, the teenagers visit several orphanages and charity institutions in Calcutta and New Delhi. During one of these visits, there's a scene of [Anisha 00:40:11] and [Lizzie 00:40:11] playing with some of the children that they meet in these orphanages.
[Anisha 00:40:16] helps a young boy color in a paper sketch of a child, and she startled to realize that she's encouraged him to color in the child's hair blonde, his eyes blue, and make his skin a pale white. When they complete the coloring project, [Anisha 00:40:30] is made to recognize the visual contrast between the young Indian boy and the colored paper figure he holds up to the camera. Here's that scene.
Speaker 10: [crosstalk 00:40:45] He's changing it back to black. [crosstalk 00:41:12] more Indian like with black hair.
B. Mani: That's the end of the coloring project. There are three things that I want us to think about when we look at this scene. The first is the fact that [Anisha 00:41:26] doesn't actually recognize the difference between the young boy who's holding the painting and the colored paper figure, right? She's prompted to recognize that visual difference by Sasha Khokha who's off camera. The second is that by recalling this picture, she judges this paper figure to look more Indian, as if being Indian was about being Brown, right? The third thing is that even though [Anisha 00:41:53] herself described herself as Brown earlier in the documentary, she does not identify with this Brown paper figure that the young boy has colored.
In fact, that colored project illustrates how, in this instance, racial difference operates as a difference of citizenship. That this coloring project illustrates the difference between the Indian boy and the American [Anishaand 00:42:16]. Ultimately ... I think it goes without saying, maybe, that in this scene, [Anisha's 00:42:21] understanding of America is associated with Whitness. Ultimately, the [Ties 00:42:28] program does not succeed in developing a strong relationship between the adoptees and their so-called country of origin. In fact, throughout the entire tour, the young girls are filmed talking to each other about, "Oh my God, aren't you glad we're going to go back to Minnesota? I can't stand being here; it's so claustrophobic in this [inaudible 00:42:40]. It's so hot outside". Anyway, I'll just leave it at that.
It's interesting because there were some South-Asian American blogs that were talking about this movie, and some of the people who were commenting on the movie in the blog said, "Hey, you know what? That's how I feel when I go back to India to visit my relatives. I feel exactly the same [as 00:43:00] these people who have gone for the first time".
Anyway, the Ties program does not succeed in developing a strong relationship between the adoptees and their so-called country of origin, but it does produce a sense of solidarity amongst the three adoptees. Here's a clip from one of the closing scenes of the film. You can see how in trying to argue that the adoptees are producing a sense of community with each other.
Speaker 10: It's really weird.
Speaker 11: Our hands on this side on white and brown, and they're filled with brown lines.
Speaker 12: You can see the line.
Speaker 11: Yeah.
Speaker 10: I live in a pretty nice neighborhood. A lot of people I hang out with are mostly White people, so I've always associated myself with White people, which is kind of a bad thing, but then when you're here, and I meet you guys and stuff, we have this, "I do too". [crosstalk 00:43:50] saying, "Finally'.
Speaker 11: I know!
Speaker 10: I decided that we need to go make our own country of adopted Indian kids or just Indian girls, kids ...
B. Mani: That's their parents. [Anisha 00:44:02] exults over the phenotypical similarities that she shares with [Lizzie 00:44:03] and [Kailin 00:44:06]. The fact that they all have brown hands. Whereas [Lizzie 00:44:08] talks about the ways in which she's beginning to identify, for the first time, against the White community in which she was raised. None of the three girls identify as Indians. Instead, they develop a primary narrative of belonging to each other, and they actually continue their friendship once they return to Minnesota; they meet up at a local mall some three months after this trip, and they all get their noses pierced as an embodiment of their Indianness.
In an online interview, Sasha Khokha discusses her reasons for making this documentary. As a multiracial South Asian, the child of an Indian father and an Irish-American mother, Khokha's parents considered adopting from India before unexpectedly conceiving their daughter. For Khokha, therefore, [Anisha 00:44:55], [Kaili 00:44:55], and [Lizzie 00:44:55] are her version of someone you could have been. Khokha's objective was to make a film about what she called the Indian-American experience. However, despite their shared background as Indian immigrants in the United States, Khokha continuously emphasizes the dissimilarity between herself and the adoptees. This is a quote from the interview: "When I first contacted the girls about the project, they were enthusiastic about meeting me, a young, Indian-American women. Our differences were quick to surface. I am light skinned on the outside, but have grown up feeling Indian on the inside. These girls have felt isolated by their skin colors, but feel like Swedish Lutherans on the inside".
Although Khokha intended to make a film about a shared experience between herself and the adoptees, a shared experience that revolved around being immigrants in this country. Producing that narrative of identity required negotiating a series of differences around histories of immigration and racial identification. Ultimately Khokha noted that the girls were far more interested in talking to the lead camera operator who was a young and handsome White man from rural Illinois who apparently understood more about the girls' experiences as Minnesotans.
Calcutta Calling brings to light the ways in which transnational Asian adoptees are shaped by competing discourses of immigration multiculturalism and face. [Anisha 00:46:20], [Kailin 00:46:20], and [Lizzie 00:46:20] are distanced from Indians in India by differences of class and citizenship. Indeed, their experience in Calcutta actually makes them identify much more strongly as Minnesotans. During this trip abroad, they also come to recognize themselves as racial minorities at home. Their negotiation of histories of places ... Their negotiations between history and places of belonging produces a new formation of community, what [Kailin 00:46:48] describes as "a country of our own, a country of adopted Indian kids", right? I think it also really brings to life transnational formation of belonging.
I want to end by discussion of the film there, and move onto the last film because I think I'm almost running out of time.
The last film that I want to talk about is called BES, it stands for [Bangla 00:47:12] East Side. It was made in 2004. BES documents the lives of four Bangladeshi teenagers living in Manhattan's lower East side. Mahfuja, Maroofa, Saleh and Jemi immigrated to New York as children, and as all four of them are juniors and seniors at a public high school. The film was originally intended as educational outreach project. The directors, Fariba Alam and Sarita Khurana, came to the school to videotape the students, but they also gave the students cameracameras to film each other, but Khurana and Alam were the ones who did the final edits on the film.
All four of the teenagers have lived in Manhattan and in Brooklyn for about six years, but in that short time, each one of them has come to call New York home. What's equally important to them, however, is their religious identity as Muslims. Living in a city that is altered in many ways since the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, these young immigrants are acutely conscious of their embodiment of racial and religious difference. For example, Mahfuja has taken to wearing a headscarf, or hijab, for the past year, whereas Jemi tells the directors about another Muslim girl at her school who's been taunted by her classmates for wearing a full [inaudible 00:48:27] veil, a Niqāb.
This negotiation of their religious and ethnic identities as Bangladeshis takes place in a domestic climate that's characterized by the surveillance of American Muslims. As Maroofa informs us, 56% of all Bangladeshis in the United States live in New York City. Bangladeshis are actually the fastest growing South-Asian immigrant group in this country. In New York City alone, between 1990 and 2000, there was a 471% increase in the number of Bangladeshis.
Bangladeshis have also been disproportionately affect by hate crimes, job discrimination, and federal immigration policies post September 11. In contrast to Calcutta Calling, and Knowing Her Place, which are defined by the cameras movement between India and the United States, in B.E.S., the camera stays focused on the lower East side of Manhattan, on the geography of the lower east side. This narrow [space 00:49:22] of the city is brought to life with long shots of the high school that the teenagers attend, the public-housing projects in which they live in, and the neighborhoods that define their notions of community.
By focusing on a single geographic site, Alam and Khurana locate the emergent identities of these young people within the changing demography of New York City. Here's a clip from the film that features one of their conversations in school. This is a conversation between Mahfuja and Jemi.
Speaker 13: [crosstalk 00:49:52]
Speaker 14: Maybe he went to school but he didn't take U.S. history for sure. Like National Bill of Rights. [crosstalk 00:50:02]
Speaker 13: All the past wars [crosstalk 00:50:05]
Speaker 14: That's why he has no idea what the hell are those.
Speaker 13: Because if you go to school, you know about that, you [inaudible 00:50:10]
Speaker 14: He got ... We heard that he [crosstalk 00:50:13] from high school to go to college, which is better than him. He should come and learn from [crosstalk 00:50:20] That's terrible. To be a president, that's very very [crosstalk 00:50:26]
Speaker 13: My advice, go back to school.
Speaker 14: You should be a president, you know much better than him.
B. Mani: Okay. I think what's really provocative about that clip is that it demonstrates the ways in which these first-generation immigrants, who are the children of working-class parents, claim their identities as Americans. They specifically, their claiming their citizenship as Americans. However, elsewhere in the film, they're also vested in their cultural identities as Bengalis. They describe themselves as Bengalis. For example, Maroofa is a fan of Bollywood [inaudible 00:50:56] music, and she says that dancing along to the songs, "Makes me feel connected to Bangladesh". Being Bengali is about embodying a form of ethnic subjectivity that draws upon the transnational circulation of popular culture on the subcontinent.
"It's cool to be a Bengali", says Jemi, "Because, you have that culture". At the same time, the students note that their identities as Bengalis and as Muslims in America is subject to verbal and physical harassment. Saleh, the only man who was interviewed in this documentary, says that he cannot raise his voice high after the September-11th attacks. Mahfuja, as I mentioned earlier, practices wearing a headscarf. She says that she tries not to wear it that often, but she has gotten used to it, and she feels ashamed without it. "I really love my religion", she says. "I don't think they're going to force me to take it off. This is my [inaudible 00:51:48], the First Amendment". Here's that clip from Mahfuja.
Speaker 15: Love my [inaudible 00:51:55]. I don't care what happened in the world. I understand the way I am, and I don't care what they do. I don't think they're going to ever force me to take it off because this is my own thing. I [inaudible 00:52:05] my own freedom, the First Amendment.
B. Mani: Okay. I thought what was interesting about this scene is that Mahfuja draws upon the vocabulary of U.S. Civil Rights I order to produce her gendered subjectivity as a Muslim in America. She's not Muslim just because she's Bangladeshi, she's Muslim because her Americanness legitimates and legalizes her claims to religious expression.
As first-generation immigrants, Mahfuja, Jemi, Saleh, and Maroofa inhabit religious and racial identities that are constantly under interrogation by their peers, and more broadly by the practices of racial profiling that have been instituted after 9/11. Yet, these teenagers' identities as Bengalis and as Muslim is embodied through the rhetoric of U.S. citizenship. These young immigrants negotiate a nostalgic relationship to Bangladesh at same time that they claim their political location within a multicultural America.
What I've shown across these three films are the ways in which becoming South Asian is about embodying and producing new forms of subjectivity and community. [inaudible 00:53:15] none of the documentary subjects I talked about explicitly identifies South Asian; the continue to refer to themselves as Indians or Americans, or as Bengalis. In part, the persistence of these nationalist categories of identity demonstrates the ways in which the framework of assimilation, or adaptation, is still very compelling as a narrative of immigrant experience. Throughout these films, although I've been trying to get us to read something else, I think the documentary subjects themselves continue to understand themselves at negotiating a narrative of choice, right?
What I am asking us to do is [read 00:53:51] against the grain of these films to understand how immigrants from the subcontinent embody transnational subjectivity shaped by competing discourses of racial identity and national citizenship. By negotiating the difference between history and memory, and between belonging and citizenship, first and second generation immigrants begin to produce new forms of [diasporic 00:54:18] community.
In many ways, the diversity of experiences that make up the word South Asian, enables us to understand the heterogeneity of the term Asian-American as well. As a category of racial and political identity, being Asian-American today encompasses not only South Asians but other new immigrant groups, for example Cambodian-Americans and West Asians, or Arab American. These new immigrants are not only expanding the historical and geographical parameters of the term Asian-American, but they're also redefining what being American is about. As I [inaudible 00:54:53] you, becoming South Asian is as much about developing an imaginative relationship to places of origin, as it is about inhabiting a gendered and racialized understanding of U.S. citizenship. For these documentary subjects, as well as for the group of people who came to the first ASATA meeting, the work of becoming South Asian generates new narratives of belonging.