In addition to winning beauty contests, spelling bees, and CEO-ships, Indian Americans now have their own exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum in Washington DC. I usually go there for the butterfly pavilion, but I recently climbed the stairs to find a large room with mustard walls and bold red-lettering, full of Indian American curios, including the façade of a motel (half of all motels in the US are owned by Indian Americans, we are told).
The atmosphere is warm and bright, even if the exhibit is weightless, with the one exception of the blue turban of Balbir Singh Sodhi, the Sikh gas station owner who was murdered after the September 11 attacks. Poignant and powerful perhaps, since it was the turban itself that led this hate crime to occur in the first place. But even this important story is lost amid the celebratory fray. In the tradition of “Ethnicity, Inc.”, the exhibit was lobbied and largely funded by Indian Americans themselves.
I’ve always felt both estranged from and pinned down by the designation “Indian American.” “Indian” is okay — a concept encapsulating so many places and peoples, communities and languages, beliefs and practices, no one in their right mind would ever fix it to one identity. The same goes for American. But Indian American? Somehow these double designations encourage us to think we can start to fix things — a trait or culture or experience perhaps. It starts innocuously enough, with histories of migration and eating spicy food, but before you know it, there is class superiority, racial denigration, and a smug richter-scale of achievement.
So I admit I had mixed feelings about the exhibit even before I saw it. And when a week later my Shimla-born, Los Angeles-living father came to town for a visit, I didn’t think to take him there. Instead, he took me for a walk down Dupont Circle’s P Street where he used to live in 1956. We found his old red-stucco building — a relic too large for a museum — where he’d rented a room for a year.
In 1950s America, there were no “Indian Americans” per se, but Americans were starting to define themselves in new ways. In my teens my dad let it slip that he’d not only met Martin Luther King Jr. when he had been a student in the south, but that he’d broken bread with him over a breakfast table and had gone to hear him sermonize not once but twice, after a fellow student had told him, “There’s this preacher we have to hear …”.
Yet, my father was also proud of his fairish skin, and told me once of a policeman in Louisiana, who on seeing his driver’s license photo, took him for a white. I always saw this pride as conflicting with his great admiration for MLK, but I know he doesn’t see it that way. My father had actually meant to migrate to Canada. After leaving India and spending a few months in England, he sailed on the Ile de France from Southampton to New York and took a train to Toronto. He had his papers in order, but they required matching sponsor papers from his brother who failed to show up in time to meet him. By the time he got there, the Canadian immigration officials were writing my father’s deportation papers. His brother passed him $60 and simply said, “Oh, Suren, you can try again from New York.”
Back in New York, US immigration gave my father twenty days to find a “diplomatic position,” the only way to change his transit visa to non-immigrant resident. My father called the Indian Embassy in DC, and they said they would look into his request. He bided his time at the Sloane House YMCA on West 34th St. and kept in touch with the Embassy by phone each day.
It is this part of the story that is, of course, hard to imagine in today’s world, or even back then. And while it’s true that my father didn’t have much money (less than $100) or any family funds to draw on back in India, he was well spoken with a BA from Hindu College. He had capital of other sorts and hence status that certainly helped see him through his officially status-less situation.
Soon he was on a Greyhound bus to DC and arrived at another YMCA with his four suitcases. He interviewed with one Mr Kalkat for a clerical position at the Indian Supply Mission, down the street from the Embassy. We recently went down Massachusetts Avenue to see if the mission was still there; it was. I took photos of my father next to the elephant statues at the entrance. He looked at the building almost as an older professor might look at a classroom of students who never age. “It looks shinier than I remember it being,” was all he said.
My father worked at the Indian Supply Mission for nine months, inviting tenders, preparing quotations, and arranging credit for the shipment of technical equipment to India. This job was followed by another as a mail boy with the Burmese Embassy, where he tells me, he was able to connect with people since half his family had lived in Burma. In between he took classes in accounting and bookkeeping. A year later he would fill out an I-94 student visa form and begin a scholarship to study in Atlanta.
Identity can’t be confined to one place or designation or even history. Identity offers recognition even as it pins us down and reduces what we are with its inclusions and exclusions. What gets lost in standardized narratives that aim to define a “culture” or a “people” is just how much back and forth there is, how identities get made and erased over and over again. How we keep multiple identities within ourselves and reveal them or conceal them, depending on where we are or whom we are with.
Growing up, my father never talked to me about the mishap in Toronto or even much about his time in DC. He would speak instead of the ship voyages from India to England and from England to North America and back again. His fondest memories always seem to be located out on the open seas, in the in-between.
The author is assistant professor of anthropology at George Mason University