The South Asian Question in a New York Minute

Monday, October 12, 2009


The New York Minute
Living in New York is a mixture of fast and slow moments - this week, I've experienced the latter half. But, even when God deals you an idle hand, you must embrace it. And therefore, we must write.
Thus, this week, I present to you a warm-up article for the actual one that I am writing to (hopefully) enter into Awaaz, our South Asian publication. This article is only an editorial, but describes some key issues I have been exposed to this week.

The South Asian Question
Second-generation immigrant children get a bad rap for living between worlds.
Though we may learn the language of both countries, we speak with an American accent. The schools we attend teach colonial history with an anglophile’s fervor. The food and clothes we prefer may shock and numb our parents and revert them to pointless adages such as “when I was your age…”
The source of these discrepancies, especially for a South Asian-American, rarely comes from a sense of abandoning culture and rebelling against it, but from a more ambiguous place. Cultural confusion and ambivalence reign strong in American teenagers – they are just trying to find their niche in a society where one needs the right clothes and the right slang to fit in.
Living between two worlds entails that we meld with both our parents’ South Asian society and the society of our peers, which is often multicultural and largely based on mainstream media. The expectations are high. Sometimes they are overt, such as when I am asked by my father’s friends what I am majoring in; when they hear “creative writing,” they will nod and change the topic, no doubt wondering how I will make an income in the future. Other expectations are much more subtle, such as, when going out of the house, I become hyper-conscious of how short my skirt is – even when I’m wearing tights. Even while living on the Barnard campus (where no one is short of personal expression), I sometimes feel as if I’m straddling a cultural boundary when I explain to people that I am not a vegetarian just because I don’t eat pork and the location of my home country, Bangladesh, is not north of India, but to the east.
Most people at Columbia, I am glad to say, are receptive to the idea that there is not just one type of South Asian. But simple acceptance is often not enough. South Asian youth are often muddled into one category, Indian, with little more than a second thought.
But what is Indian? And, for that matter, what is Pakistani, Bangladeshi, or Sri Lankan? Just below the surface of this seemingly innocent question lies a startling answer that is mired in vague terms and body counts. If the issue is surrounding the unity of the subcontinent as a whole, these ties are sorely lacking. Following colonialism, border wars have continued daily – from the massive extinction of Muslim brother by Muslim brother in the 1971 independence war of Bangladesh to the long-ignored Sri Lankan conflict that is the longest running civil war, uniting the states of South Asia presents more problems than solutions.
And why shouldn’t it be difficult? We are of contrasting backgrounds, histories, cultures and languages. Our children grow up eating different types of meat or none at all, the education of our parents depends on their location, and even religious progress is questionable in a society where caste determines whether you are liberal or conservative or have no say at all.
This struggle is what South Asian immigrant parents retain with them as they travel the ocean to America – consequently, the way they teach their children about culture is reflected along the same lines. A Hindu may not understand a Muslim and a Sikh may not understand either of them, but Americans tend to see black as black, white as white and brown as brown. Thus, when expected to make new friends, second-generation immigrant children forego these distinctions and make friends of all stripes and colors. The question is: does this mean we are losing our culture? Are we, as the sons and daughters of parents who have left their countries, expected to uphold their legacy or walk our own paths? The question is one of stirring debate that has plagued every immigrant community, not just those of South Asia.
As youth in America, we are emboldened by the freedom of choice. There is always the possibility to forge your own path and make your own destiny; however, the culture lines that make our country the great salad bowl are still visible. Caught between two worlds, the children of the subcontinent must carve out a unique space in America – one that satiates individual expression and satisfies their quest for identity in a multicultural society.


If you're interested in more opinion pieces, take a look at Discrimination and Mixed Metaphors and Single Sex Education for Women and Girls.
You may also enjoy my audio-recorded story about South Asian women.
Check out some more posts featuring my photography.