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Activist, Scholar, Dandy

Listening in on South Asian America

By Amber Abbas |
DECEMBER 5, 2011
I have just finished listening to the most lovely interview! It made me laugh, it broke my heart, it surprised; it taught me about the challenges of migration, adaptation and love that South Asian migrants face when they come to the United States. Theirs may not be a story dominated by a sense of overt discrimination, and while many stories we hear suggest that “things were not so different,” many stories reveal a profound sense of dislocation in America.

The comedian Russell Peters does a sketch in which he tells us that although America has been very welcoming to immigrants, and has invited them to “Come in, sit down, be American” all immigrants complain about America. They all say “Americans have no culture.” (He goes on with a hilarious bit about how “hamburgers and hawddawgs are not culture!") But this is actually a very significant response that betrays a serious sense of loss that South Asian migrants feel in leaving their home countries. And it is hiding there, behind the myth that South Asians are a “model minority.” Behind mythic tales of financial success in America there are stories of happy letters written home that conceal loneliness, difficulty communicating, concerns about raising children without support. The sense that America has no culture raises the specter of whether migration will strip away what is valuable in life. For you can have a big house and fancy car, but without your sense of belonging, without your culture—is it worth it?

In the interview I just heard, it was love that made it worth it. It was an arranged marriage that brought the narrator to the United States. “It was first marriage, then love.” It was love, not for country, or god, or home, but love for the people in her life that made her want to stay...It was a mother’s love for her children that kept her here even after that marriage ended. It was also a woman’s love of herself, her desire to pursue her own dreams that kept her here. It was love, not for country, or god, or home, but love for the people in her life that made her want to stay, even though it meant leaving other loved ones behind.

The collection I am curating for the South Asian American Digital Archive consists of interviews conducted by my undergraduates at the University of Texas in a course on “South Asian Migration to the US” that was offered through the Center for Asian American Studies in the Fall of 2011. I had 23 students, each of whom conducted an oral history interview with a South Asian migrant who came to the United States under their own power (was not born here or brought by a parent or family member). The narrators who generously shared their stories reveal the diversity of South Asian America. They are Muslim, Hindu, Parsi, Christian; Sri Lankan, Indian, Pakistani; they came in college, high school, graduate school, in early career and after retirement; they have made love marriages, arranged marriages, interfaith, interracial and intercaste marriages, or chosen not to marry; they speak Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, Bengali, Urdu, English, Punjabi, Tamil, Malayalam, and Sinhalese; they are men and women; they have been here from three years to sixty years; some came directly to the US from their home country, some came via Africa, England or the South Pacific. This collection reminds us of the wonderful wealth of experience in South Asian America and offers a lens into this world. Ultimately, oral history interviews of this kind invite us to explore the meaning of experience, and this collection offers a wide range of experiences and perspectives on migration, identity, home, work, family, faith and love.

(Editor's Note -- Over the next few months, Amber will be preparing a collection of oral history interviews that will be included in SAADA and I hope you’ll check back to listen in on these interviews with South Asian America. In the mean time you can listen to Amber's oral history interview with her father, Tariq Abbas)
Amber Abbas is a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research looks at graduates of the Aligarh Muslim University who had been students during the years in the run-up to independence and partition and how these students were active in formulating and spreading expectations about Pakistan and the future of Indian Muslims.