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Experiences of South Asian Diaspora

ABSTRACT

The Canadian media tend to assemble reductive images of South Asians, homogenizing a heterogeneous community. In this reflection piece, the author discusses how South Asian subjects imagine themselves, outside the Eurocentric imperative of highlighting "cultural difference" as the prevailing paradigm for thinking about minoritized identities. She discusses some of the findings that emerged through the production of a family autoethnography, taking up issues of culture, diaspora, and South Asian social performativity through an intimate perspective.

What is my family’s experience of living in the South Asian diaspora? This is the question animating the design of a research study I undertook to understand the afffective dimensions of the more abstracted politics of globalization and migration. In mainstream news accounts, and in the existing literature, stereotypes abound about the South Asian community in Canada, distilling the complexity of our experience into a portrait of pathologized marginality on one hand, and "model minority" on the other. My experimental autoethnographic project became concerned with how we—the South Asian subjects—represent ourselves.

The results of my interviews, dialogues, and musings with my family were striking and surprising, and have opened up new perspectives in terms of thinking through the diasporic imaginary. Initially, I assumed that "race" and "culture" would be key concepts arranging their interpretations of their subjectivities, but I was startled to see how concerns of class constitute the main dimension of experience in their imagined South Asian diasporic culture. Work, education, values, and spheres of intimacy are the main areas in which middle-class South Asians experience their identities.Rising to the top in the academic domain, building a professional identity, embracing so-called "good values," living by a "strong work ethic," and settling down in a heterosexual household are all strongly encouraged. However, this is not because there is something innate to South Asian systems of thought that encourages the production of a"model minority," nor could I attribute the valuation of class to an intergenerational difference.Rather, the tendency to uphold certain class values may also be structured by the Canadian state’s immigration policies.

The immigrant generation from the 1960s (such as my parents) came to Canada through liberalized policy initiatives that required a set of skills from prospective migrants—skills that are generally marks of middle and upper class belonging in South Asia (English proficiency, postsecondary education, technology training). In this "brain drain," males like my father generally came as university students and then stayed on to work, while the majority of straight South Asian women, like my mother, came as their spouses. Marriage partners generally shared a similar class background.Consequently, the pool of South Asians who arrived in this period already came from at least the middle-class in their countries of origin. They continue to embrace and consolidate their class ideals in Canada.

Another interesting point is that "race" and "ethnicity" are qualified as conceptually distinct categories. Race is experienced by both immigrant and South Asian first-generation populations not as a productive source of organizing identity, but as an oppression that is experienced mostly in the larger public sphere.The two ideologies are envisioned and experienced differently:the effort to reproduce "ethnicity" (in this case, a specifically Bengali identity) is usually received positively or neutrally, whereas "race" is seen as a divisive notion fostering discrimination. In diasporic discourse, "the West" is often referenced as a place that encourages individualism, alienation, and economic productivity, while "South Asia" symbolizes familial relations, fluid social relations, and a rich cultural heritage, conjured through nostalgia.

But not so surprisingly, for most middle-class South Asian women, gender and sexuality are salient issues. Women bear the burden of salvaging and reproducing culture, in addition to making economic contributions to the household and the nation through paid work. However, the degree of pressure on women varies according to a particular family’s political and spiritual outlook.There are no uniform values that guide a family (or community) of South Asians into acting for or against women’s interests, despite the stereotype that "third-world culture" itself is responsible for fostering violence against women.Traditions are not uniformly constraints for women; cultural codes are malleable entities, reinterpreted, resisted, or supported by women on a situational basis, and mostly negotiated in the private sphere. Culture also serves as a ground for asserting female identity and power. So, many South Asian women do not necessarily undergo "liberation" upon arrival in Canada; rather, they must deal with racism, as well as specific forms of patriarchy in Canadian society.

Despite holding Canadian citizenship now, and living here for over thirty years, my parents, like other members of the immigrant generation, hold on to their historical allegiance to South Asia.They express their sense of being distinct from what they call the "majority culture," but also show a determination to participate in Canadian life at various levels, through their personal activities, professions, friendships, and community work.It is clear that they feel their difference from the dominant Eurocentric culture not because they refuse to integrate with the value system, but because they have to overcome an essentialized sense of difference in Canadian society, which hegemonically organizes an image of South Asian identity.Thus, they do not always create a sense of insurmountable ethnic difference and a desire for seclusion from dominant society.Rather, their assertion of ethnicity is seen as a threat to the ideal homogeneity of a Eurocentric Canadian identity.South Asian "difference" is constructed by others as much as it is embraced by diasporic agents living by it.

In the case of my brother (and myself), socialization has occurred within a middle-class habitus that includes South Asian codes, dominant Eurocentric Canadian influences, and accents from the cultural systems of subordinate ethnic groups living in Canada. Yet despite these multiple codes, there is little evidence of deep cultural tragedy, crisis, or anxiety marking our identities. There are moments when we are made to face our difference (through racist remarks, or calls to "be more Indian" from the immigrant generation), but our own sense of ourselves is not necessarily culturally fractured or marked entirely by the paradigm of a "clash of civilizations." The pressures to conform wholly to dominant Eurocentrism, or to dominant conceptions of South Asian ethnicity, are negotiated, accepted, or subverted in a myriad of ways, since we normalize our diasporic consciousness, the assemblage of cultural fragments, the differences and commonalities marking the ground we call home.We are not lost or uprooted in deterritorialization, as others may see it; we are grappling critically with the idea of a territoried self, calling into question notions of home, allegiance, and identity.

For my family, living in a middle-class diasporic habitus means contradictory and manifold things. Our hybrid habitus is legible on our bodies, in our speech, in our space, with our mixed practices, principles, values.We live in multiplicity.We speak several languages; we travel between worlds, back and forth; we eat pasta and chow mein and curry and falafel with equal ease; we listen to Paul Weller and Ravi Shankar, English and Hindi pop; we watch Bollywood and Hollywood alternately; we know Indian legends and Greek mythology; we know about Hanukkah and Easter and Durga Puja; we can wear jeans and kurtas, saris and boots. But this is not only a best-of-both-worlds scenario, and neither is it the nightmare of being “caught between cultures,” trapped in an interstitial space where some absolute allegiance is imminent. A diasporic hybridity is totally normalized by us, which is why it comes into contest with ideas of singular fealties. And being in this space allows a stance of critical engagement—and disengagement—with both Eurocentric and other cultural norms in the Canadian context.

Anurima Banerji is a PhD candidate in the Department of Performance Studies at NYU, the assistant editor of TDR, and a poet, based in New York.

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