by Xiang Siow
Guest post by former Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program intern Xiang Siow. He just finished studying abroad in India through the University of Chicago.
It’s hard to believe how quickly my time in India passed. Between classes, organized field trips to historical sites, traveling on my own, and actually living in a foreign country, it was a very busy ten weeks which actually felt much shorter. The experience wasn’t perfect, and there were a lot of things I missed about home, but I will never regret it. I think I learned a lot about India, America, the world, and myself.
One of the things about India which I will remember is the tremendous diversity in the country. In the U.S., where we are quite proud of our diversity, it’s easy to take for granted that other places are not as diverse as we are. This is especially true given the limited scoops of other cultures that we’re given by the media, restaurants, books, and newspapers. Most of us have a clear image in mind when we think of an “Indian” person, “Indian” food, and “Indian” clothing.
And yet India as a nation is just as diverse as the U.S., if not more so. Having traveled to 6 different states and seeing both the North and the South, I was able to experience this diversity first hand. In different parts of India, people eat different foods, dress differently, and experience life in different ways. Perhaps most amazingly, India is a country whose state lines are drawn based on language: so there are two dozen different major languages spoken in India today, many of which even have different scripts. For example, although we learned Hindi in class, I found that the Hindi I had learned did not serve me well at all in states like Kerala (where Malayalam is used) and Karnataka (Kannada).
So perhaps the most important thing I learned about India in my 10 weeks is that there is no such thing as a typical “Indian” person, a typical “Indian” dish, a typical “Indian” piece of clothing. Instead, regional cultures have continued to thrive throughout the country, just as they have for hundreds of years.
One sometimes wonders how the modern nation of India has succeeded, despite its internal differences, since its founding in 1947. After all, regional empires were in power as little as two hundred years ago. It is also of course quite difficult to govern such a vast and diverse land: diverse not only in language and culture, but also in terms of religion, socioeconomic status, environment, and topography. Indeed, these were questions faced by the nation’s founders too. There are a myriad of possible answers, and no right one. But one thing which certainly has a lot to do with it is a belief, a leap of faith of sorts, in the idea of a conscious Indian identity. In order for the Indian nation to work, people have to believe that despite their differences, they do indeed have a lot in common, that there does exist a certain set of values, culture, and practices which can be termed Indian.
This belief is important too for the Indian-American community, which is just as diverse as the Indian nation. Before I went to India, I used to ask Indian-American friends where their families had originated in India. I was always provided with an answer of a certain state and sometimes even a city or town, but I never knew why this was important. To me, India was all the same and all Indian-Americans simply came from India. I couldn’t understand why, when I was invited to the homes of different Indian-American friends for meals, the food would always be different. But now that I have a better sense of the cultural geography, cuisine, languages, and society in different regions, I have a greater understanding and appreciation for the diversity within the Indian-American community.
I understand too why the idea of an Indian-American community can be problematic, because the very idea of an Indian community is already difficult for some. But even though the Indian-American community may trace its roots to parts as far apart as Assam and Kerala and may work in the U.S. in Silicon Valley on H1B-visas or as taxi drivers in New York just trying to scratch out a living, there is something these different parts of the community have in common. They are able to share in a beautiful, lively, and colorful culture, which, instead of erasing or shunning its diversity, has grown with it and incorporated it into a culture which truly attracts the world.
Now, the experiences of Indian-Americans in the U.S. have added a new and even more complex layer to this story. The encounter of two cultures as diverse as Indian and American has created a community which has been afforded a unique way of understanding the world. The consciousness of this community, like the existence of India, may be a leap of faith, but, like its partition and decolonization, it is a leap which can lead to amazing things.