Ethnography and the South Asian American Experience
Lesson Plan by Fariha Khan, Ph.D.
Associate Director of Asian American Studies Program, University of Pennsylvania

Student Activity: Interview a first generation South Asian American based on South Asian American Digital Archive’s First Days Project

Time: 1 to 2 hours

1. Students learn the history of South Asian Americans through SAADA
2. Students examine the diversity of experiences related to migration through the First Days Project
3. Fundamentals of ethnographic research are introduced through basic interview and listening skills
4. Writing skills are honed to incorporate ethnographic methods and secondary research
5. This project not only introduces you firsthand to fieldwork methods but allows the opportunity for an intimate glimpse into a moment in an immigrant’s life

Supplies for this activity:
1. Internet access to
2. Tape recorder or any recording device

1. After an introduction to South Asian American migration history that covers key moments including early immigration, Bhagat Thind Singh, Dilip Saund, Luce-Celler Act, etc., the class can explore the SAADA site. Again key moments and individuals can be discussed with examples of archival material on SAADA such as pictures of farm laborers in the Imperial Valley, legal documents on marriage and citizenship, and letters from early students.
2. The First Days Project can be discussed with attention paid to the diversity of voices, gender, time of migration, and point of origin represented.
3. Basic ethnographic skills can be discussed that focus on finding a South Asian American individual who is willing to share experience, building rapport, organizing research questions, confirming use of recorder, obtaining permission, asking questions, and active listening.
4. Interview someone in person from South Asia about their first day in the United States. The interview should be based on one particular aspect or memory of arriving in the United States. Follow examples from SAADA First Days Project:
5. Once interview is complete, students must focus on writing about one moment of the interviewee’s migration experience that was shared. This should be written with a limited page requirement to encourage students to focus and highlight on one aspect. Such focus allows a more nuanced perspective for both the interviewee and the interviewer.

Instructor’s Notes on the Activity:
The assignment methodology encourages an interactive relationship between a person and his/her environment. The assignment based on the First Days Project incorporates fieldwork methods including participation/observation, interviewing and tape-recording skills. This assignment emphasizes research, analysis and documentation of the changing nature and emergent traditions of individuals, South Asian American ethnic groups and their folklore.
Questions to engage the students in discussion include:
1. How does point of migration impact experience?
2. Does class impact migration experience? In what ways?
3. What is the relationship of the migration experience to gender?
4. What is the most surprising thing you have learned about your interviewee in terms of what they remember?

The main challenges of this assignment may be difficulties in finding individuals to interview and writing a paper that is focused on one moment of time in a migration narrative. If students do not know of any individual to interview, the instructor will need to suggest a few people who have migrated to the United States from South Asia who may be potential contacts. In addition, the interviewee may talk at length about the overall experience or refer to their experience only in general terms. It may prove challenging to students to focus on one moment in this situation and to highlight a singular memory in order to complete the project successfully.

Suggested Bibliography of ‘Folklore and Fieldwork’:
• Sims and Stephens, Chapter 1, Chapter 3. Living Folklore. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2005.
• Elliot, Oring, “Ethnic Groups and Ethnic Folklore.” Folk Groups and Folk Genres: an introduction. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1986.
• Wolcott, Harry, “Ethnography: A Way of Looking and a Way of Seeing.” Ethnography: A Way of Seeing. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 1999.
• Condaris, Christine. “Studying Ethnic Culture: The Local Community as a Resource.” Folklore Forum 24:l (1991) • Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. “Studying Immigrant and Ethnic Folklore.” Handbook of American Folklore. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.
• Jackson, Bruce. “Part One.” Fieldwork. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
• Wilson, William. “Documenting Folklore.” Folk Groups and Folk Genres: An Introduction. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1986.

Suggested Bibliography of ‘South Asians in the United States’:
• Rajan, Gita and Shailja Sharma. New Cosmopolitanisms. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006.
• Subramanian, Ajantha. “Indians in North Carolina: Race, Class, and Culture in the Making of Immigrant Identity.” Comparative Studies in South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, Vol. XX, Nos. 1&2, 2000, pp. 105-113. • Prashad, Vijay. The Karma of Brown Folk. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
• Rudrappa, S. Ethnic Routes to Becoming American: Indian Immigrants and the Cultures of Citizenship. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004.
• Williams, Raymond B. “Negotiating Tradition: Religious Organizations and Gujrati Identity in the United States.” Williams on South Asian Religions and Immigration: Collected Works. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004.
• Kurien, Prema. “Being Young, Brown, and Hindu.” A Place at the Table: Multiculturalism and the Development of an American Hinduism. Piscataway: Rutgers University Press, 2007.
• Mohammad-Arif, Aminah. “A Masala Identity.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Volume 20, Number 1&2, 2000.
• Kibria, Nazli. Muslims in Motion. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2011. • Dhingra, Pawan. Life Behind the Lobby: Indian American Motel Owners and the American Dream. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012.
• Maira, Sunaina. Desis in the House. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002.
• Dave, Shilpa. East Main Street: Asian American Popular Culture. New York: New York University Press, 2005.
• Desai, Jigna. Beyond Bollywood: The Cultural Politics of South Asian Diasporic Film. New York: Routledge, 2004.