Which Stories of Our Lives?

Which Stories of Our Lives?

October 29, 2012

Two major narratives came out of the energizing Indiaspora conference – we as Indian Americans have been immensely successful, with some exceptions, and we should attend to India’s major needs.

I find these narratives compelling and informative, especially our commitment to assisting India. But, I also wonder what other perspectives could have been present to define the Indian American experience. At the heart of my concern is the rhetorical disconnect between those of us who have “made it” in the United States and those who have not. We talk about the latter group as footnotes to our dominant narrative, not because we want to dismiss them necessarily but because we don’t see them as reflecting on the vast majority of us.

For instance, New York City taxi cabs represent to tourists “the greatest city in the world.” Sixty percent of the drivers are South Asian immigrants, with a significant number being Indian. Their concerns are not just the economic but also in terms of racial discrimination, as expendable, possibly terrorist bodies. Bharavi Desi of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, who was invited but could not attend the conference, would have changed the dominant narratives.

The Patel motel owners, whom I have gotten to know well for my latest book, Life Behind the Lobby, are seen as the American Dream incarnate. But, their economic vulnerability, exacerbated by their racial and cultural differences from customers and vendors, puts them in a precarious position.

Well-known but rarely discussed social ills also plague the community, including domestic violence and homophobia.

These are not simply tangential concerns. These individuals are our close or distant relatives, breadwinners for families, and our inevitable partners as we all get mixed together in the United States’ racial imagination. Moreover, such individuals are at the heart of how we pride ourselves in this country. Publicly, motel owners are held up by politicians as emblems of U.S. opportunity and fairness. But is this representation of our community members actually true?

Immigrants in lower-tier occupations came with little money, just like some of our most successful individuals, but without the same high educations. Privately, we hold sacred our strong families. Yet, domestic violence threatens our conception of family and devout yet powerful women. The challenges facing our community members are not always as extreme as say domestic violence, as I’ve noted in previous research, but they still warrant our attention.

These challenges do not simply complicate the narrative of a successful and well-adjusted immigrant community – they threaten the basis of the narrative itself. We need to construct a more truthful and holistic narrative of the Indian American experience.

The Smithsonian Institution’s Indian American Heritage Project attempts to do that. Its exhibition, Beyond Bollywood, slated to open in 2013, will show us a community inherently interconnected – how taxi drivers as well as doctors and engineers have moved forward by uniting for equality; how spelling-bee champions relate to Indian American hip hop artists; how jazz musicians and actors join with service organizations to combat hate crimes, and more. It will feature Olympic medals, inventions and awards from leading IT icons Vinod Dham and Vinod Khosla, early writings by celebrity chef and actress Madhur Jaffrey, murals by at-risk youth, personal photographs of Governor Nikki Haley, historic items of early Indian settlers, and much more. To see this exhibition to completion, financial donations are needed. 

By coming together, Indian Americans have taken advantage of opportunities and created additional opportunities, thereby advancing the nation. A narrative that connects the disparate parts of our community shows that by uniting with others we can accomplish our goals.