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Category Archives: Diversity

Culturally Appropriate or Cultural Appropriation? A Few Thoughts

by Priya Chhaya

In early April, pop star Selena Gomez incited media buzz when she appeared in public wearing a bindi. She is not the first celebrity to wear something Indian, but I have to ask:

Should I feel offended that someone has chosen to appropriate a piece of Indian cultural identity for entertainment? Or is it another sign of how elements of my heritage have trickled into the American subconscious? If she “meant well,” is it OK? Or is it never OK for someone who is not Indian to wear such a symbol without preserving its meaning? And, at what point does something go from being culturally appropriate to cultural appropriation?

Selena Gomez image

Let’s consider three scenarios.

Scenario 1: So You Think You Can Dance contestants perform a Bollywood-style dance number. The performance includes elements of hip-hop and classical Indian styles.

Scenario 2: Selena Gomez hires a composer to add tabla and sitar to a song to give it a strong beat. She attends performances wearing Indian clothing, and composes a video that includes elements of Indian dancing.

Scenario 3: Akon, an American hip-hop artist is asked by a Bollywood producer to sing on a major Bollywood movie track. That song, Chammak Challo, becomes a global hit, with the hip-hop artist singing all the Hindi lyrics himself.

As I consider these scenarios, I realize: it’s complicated.

So You Think You Can Dance performances include forms from many cultures. Here, dance is like a language — without boundaries, with different dialects but easily understandable as a form of expression. I consider this to be culturally appropriate because the compositions and choreography pays due respect to the dance forms as a form of expression-without reducing its origins to a stereotype.

Chammak Challo is a little grayer. On one hand, its melds two musical forms from two different countries, but he’s a non-native speaker singing in Hindi. As a publicity/marketing piece for Ra.One, it worked really well but there is a potential for misunderstanding—did he understand what he was singing, or was it a form of mimicry? I think it was culturally appropriate, because while he was singing in a foreign language, he didn’t try and change his image or try to fit his persona into what someone-singing-in-Hindi should look like.

Which brings me back to Selena Gomez. The song has a catchy hook, but the music video places the tabla players with turbans around a fire in a desert and her dancers perform the stereotypical snake-charmer head movement that has come to represent Indian dancing. This seems like appropriation to me because it reinforces age-old stereotypes of exoticisms and the “other.”  This re-enforcement continues through her attire and performances where she tried to ‘become’ Indian in a way that rings false.

Today, Indians and Indian-Americans defy stereotypes. We are authors, congressional representatives, and CEO’s of major American corporations, and I still get excited when I see barriers being broken in the entertainment industry such as Mindy Kaling on the Mindy Project or Amitabh Bachchan in the Great Gatsby.  As such, Indians and India should not been seen or presented through one specific lens or a single caricature.

What do you think?

 

Witnessing the Dream, Searching for Stories

by Priya Chhaya

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.

–Martin Luther King, Jr.

MLK MemorialEarlier this month I attended a sneak peek of the new memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr. located in Washington, D.C. next to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. The quotation at the top of the blog frames the memorial—we walk through a split granite boulder (symbolizing the mountains of despair) before reaching the 30 foot granite sculpture-a solid figure who symbolized hope for many. Situated between Jefferson and Lincoln along the Tidal Basin, the memorial represents not just MLK’s work during the Civil Rights movement, but also his broader struggle for worldwide human rights. One of the members of the internationally composed jury for this new memorial was Charles Correa known for his work on the Mahatma Gandhi memorial in Ahmadabad and the design for Navi Mumbai—a new section of Mumbai that is best described as a planned city. Gandhi influences Martin Luther King, and so it is fitting that one of the judges for a monument—one that is meant to be international in scope—is someone with an understanding of Gandhi.

As a high school student I looked to the Civil Rights movement as a moment to question my own gumption. Would I be able to stand up and protest injustice? Could I practice civil disobedience or the Indian counterpart satyagraha (the peaceful demonstrations inspired by the words and actions of Gandhi) if needed?

I also wondered about that first wave of South Asian immigrants in the 1950s. Those that came amidst this intense transformation of American identity. How did they feel? What did they think? What stories can they tell about becoming Americans?

So—this is my charge for the readers of HomeSpun. I would like to interview someone who emigrated from South Asia in the 1950s, or their descendant, that can speak to life during the Civil Rights movement. The interview(s) will be incorporated in a blog post later this summer. Please let us know if you are interested in the comments below.

Seeing the MLK memorial reminded me once again that history does have something to teach us—and that gaining equality is a constant struggle, something to be fought for and affirmed—so that the dream continues to be realized.

Note: The dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial will be on August 28, 2011.

Priya Chhaya is a public historian that works with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American (and Indian American) identity.

 
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Posted by on June 15, 2011 in Diversity, History, Social Issues

 

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One Country, Different Cultures

by Priya Chhaya

Rangoli artwork

This design is a form of rangoli, colorful artwork that can be drawn with paint or sand, and is a decorative element during celebratory occasions. This particular set is ready made and may be used during one of the pre-wedding events for its splash of color. All photos by Priya C.

Everyone always tells you how complicated planning a wedding is, but I never actually understood until I found myself knee deep in working on address labels for invitations, multiple tastings for Indian food (not necessarily a bad thing) and trying to figure out what to say during my sister-of-the-bride speech.

Then there’s what all the wedding books say is the toughest part of planning—figuring out how to make the experience be both for the bride and the groom.  I am a Gujarati whose extended family lives in Maharastra. My future brother-in-law is South Indian—more specifically he is a Telugu from Hydrabaad. So much like planning a wedding between two different American cultures, planning a Hindu wedding for a Gujarati bride and a Telugu groom has been a learning experience.

Because Indian weddings are an amazing mix of tradition—through dress, food, and ceremony—we’ve taken the care to stop and think about what elements can incorporate both sides of the family.  For instance, the baraat—the portion of the ceremony where the groom’s side arrives at the wedding venue usually includes a horse (or at rare moments an elephant) and some engaging music. Most weddings I have attended use recorded Bollywood music, or a live dhol (drum) player.  In trying to bring in the more southern element, we realized that the dhol‘s Telugu counterpart was a mridangam, which gives a slightly higher pitch drum beat than the dhol—so now for the baraat my future brother-in-law will be dancing to the sounds of both regions of India.

Sets of daandiyas

One-Two-Three-Four! A few sets of daandiyas, a pair sticks used in a traditional Gujarati folk dance. These particular daandiyas are for one of the pre-wedding events.

That being said, this post is not about melding the details between two distinct and separate cultures, it’s about understanding and acknowledging the nuances of the same nationality.  For instance, during a Hindu ceremony one of the most important moments is when the couple takes seven steps around the fire, making their vows to each other and their respective families. For the Telugu there is an earlier moment in the ceremony, when my sister and her soon-to-be husband see each other for the first time, that is just as important. During the Jeelakarra-Bellam the groom places jaggary (a sugary substance) and some cumin on the bride’s head. This is a symbolic moment when two seemingly different items (one sweet, the other bitter) comes together forever—that is two people coming together through the good and the bad times. To some extent, this is also representative of two different parts of Indian culture finding common ground in bringing the two families together. For planning sake though—I didn’t understand the importance of this particular ceremony until the groom’s family put it in the draft to the ceremony program (which will explain the rites to those not familiar with Hindu weddings).  What this process demonstrates on a micro-level is the work needed to bring people together across any cultural divide, Indian or otherwise. It takes open communication, honesty and recognition that in some cases compromise is the best path to take.

Tiny statues of Ganesh

Tiny statues of Ganesh, the Indian elephant god who is the remover of obstacles and an important deity for auspicious occasions. These Ganesh are meant to be a gift to guests when the the formal wedding invitations are delivered.

Of course this is all in the context of planning a wedding and doesn’t include other aspects of Telugu culture—the food, the very different dance and art forms – all just as an important part of the Indian experience as Gujarati culture. In fact—going through this process has allowed me to have some great conversations about what aspects of Indian culture have dominated the American worldview of India. Some argue that the “Indian” in America vision that we see is often more of a Punjabi Indian world view—with bhangra exercise classes, and hip hop remixes at night clubs.

Which prompts me to ask readers the following questions:

  • What are some surprising places that you’ve seen Indian influences on American society?
  • What region of India is that influence from?

Priya Chhaya is a public historian that works with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American (and Indian American) identity.

 
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Posted by on March 7, 2011 in Culture, Diversity, Family

 

Indian Americans and Diversity

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.

 

An (Asian) American in India

by Xiang Siow

Guest post by former Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program intern Xiang Siow. He is currently studying abroad in India through the University of Chicago.

Greetings from India! I’ve only been here for a short while but I’m already feeling quite at home and getting back into the school routine. I’m keeping busy with three hours of class a day, including one hour of Hindi. I’m even able to read some of the street and store signs now! Aside from learning Hindi, what we’re learning in class about Indian history and current events is definitely helping me understand this tremendously complex and interesting country.

Xiang Siow on Laxmi Road in India

I’ve heard so much about India from Indians I have met at university, people who have visited here, and of course, through depictions of the country in movies, books, and music. Perhaps most so, I recall Indian American friends speaking of their experiences in India and how their extended families there always welcomed them warmly when they visit. I remember stories of abundant hugs and kisses, presents, and of course, food. I can definitely see and feel that culture of hospitality in the extremely gracious way I have been received by the staff at my hotel, various tourist sites, and local stores.

As an Asian American who has been to other countries in Asia (often to visit family—and be stuffed with food), I am struck by the similarities I see between India and other places in Asia. Since I’ve been here, I’ve felt the same amount of liveliness, excitement, and energy on the streets as I’ve experienced elsewhere. Some would describe this as overcrowdedness and sheer chaos. I like to think of it instead as a passionate intensity of life, with merchants vocally trying to sell items to us foreigners at exorbitant prices, street vendors selling local drinks and food, and people always rushing to another place. These strong sights, sounds, and smells have been some of my fondest reminders of being in Asia.

There are of course differences between my experiences so far here and in other Asian countries. There are sights, sounds, and smells unique to India, like the autorickshaws looking for customers, delicious dosas and wada pav sold on the streets and the vibrant colors of the numerous fabric shops.

One thing that is definitely different for me is being immediately perceived as “foreign” by the local population. In my previous travels around Asia, when visiting family, for example, I’ve been able to “fit in” a little better because I look like most other people on the street. Here, however, I’ve had the experience of being pointed at and stared at by people who have never seen an East Asian face. The other day, when I was in a store buying a hat, the storekeeper even took a video of me! I was quite flattered by this “paparazzi.”

I do wonder exactly what I am perceived as. Unlike most of the other members of my group, who of course have had similar (and more extreme) experiences on the streets and in stores, I am not sure I am immediately seen as American. One of my Indian American classmates used this ambiguity to her advantage by getting a 95-rupee discount at a historical fort we visited. (There are sharp discounts for Indian nationals at historical sites; foreigners often have to pay up to 20x more for entry). I, however, could not pretend to be Indian and had to pay the foreigner fee. Exactly what type of foreigner was I though? Perhaps after I open my mouth it is obvious enough that I am an Asian American and not just Asian—but do everyday Indians have a consciousness of the Asian American community to recognize that people like me exist? If they don’t, I wonder when and if such an awareness will develop. As countries throughout Asia rise on the world stage, what role will be played by Asian Americans of all ethnicities, especially those who have spent considerable time in Asia? Might we, as Asian Americans, be able to impact how the rest of world understands America and what “an American” is?

 

I say American. You say I’m not: Part I

by Rajshree Solanki

“Where are you from?” is such an innocent question. People come from all over the place to work and live in DC. It’s a way to break the ice. I’ve been living in the DC area for 10 years, and when I hear that question, it seems innocent.

Is it really an innocent question? Depending on which part of the country I am in, I am suspicious of the true intent of the question.

I had gone to a Southern university in the 1990s, at which the majority of the student population was white or black. Those “in between” stuck out. There was a small Indian student population, which was made up of mostly students who came over from India to study.

I was asked often, “Where are you from?”

I responded, “Connecticut.”

“No. Really, where are you from?”

“Connecticut.”

“I meant your family…”

“India. But my family lives in Connecticut.”

“Oh. That’s so nice. When are you going back?”

“To Connecticut?”

“No. To India?”

“…”

Connecticut.

Is it an easy way to categorize me? Put me in a nice neat little package and say, “Indian” and then dispel my American identity. I’m curious about your thoughts on the topic.

How do you respond when asked “Where are you from”?

Check out Tell Me More’s Blog entry on the topic.

 
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Posted by on September 21, 2010 in Diversity

 

Kudos to Archie Panjabi, TV star and Emmy winner

by Aditya Desai

I don’t get much time to watch TV, and so one can imagine that I wouldn’t have much interest in tuning into the Emmy Awards. However, I was very delighted to read the headlines and see that British Indian actress Archie Panjabi snagged the award for Best Supporting Actress Drama for her role in CBS’s The Good Wife.

Upon learning this, I clicked over to the show’s IMDb page and main website to see what type of character she portrayed: Kalinda Sharma, a sexy, confident, stiletto-clad private investigator for the show’s Chicago legal firm. She wears smart outfits, dishes clever words with the judges and lawyers, and is supposedly by fan speculation a closeted lesbian.

Here now I, who had zero interest in the show five minutes prior, applaud such a strong and well-defined character of Indian descent. And what is even more commendable, the show’s writers did not retroactively make her Indian upon casting Panjabi. Rather, she was originally written as a “Bollywood Erin Brockovich private investigator” as told in this LA Times interview.

This comes from a steadily growing presence of Desi characters on television, well-known examples being Kelli Kapoor from The Office or Mohinder Suresh from Heroes. But now with an Emmy win, the industry has, intentionally or not, acknowledged the Indian community’s presence in the legal world, typically portrayed in the media as being affluent and high-powered.

So I raise my glass in kudos to both Archie Panjabi and The Good Wife’s writers and production team for creating an Indian American character that simply inhabits the same great personalities played by mainstream actresses without making it about the ethnicity.

I may just decide to make some time in the schedule to tune in to a couple episodes.

 
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Posted by on September 2, 2010 in Diversity, Entertainment