Category Archives: Identity

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?


SALGA Artifacts Acquired

SALGA Postcard

SALGA Postcard

Through the joint efforts of the Asian Pacific American Program’s HomeSpun Project and the National Museum of American History (NMAH), The South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association (SALGA) recently donated a variety of materials to the Archives Center, NMAH, Smithsonian Institution.

Founded in 1991, SALGA is a New York City based organization promoting the civil rights of all South Asian Americans through awareness, empowerment, and the provision of safe spaces. SALGA participates in a range of activities ranging from HIV/AIDS awareness, to immigration advocacy, to support groups, to book clubs, to social gatherings.

SALGA Newsletter

SALGA Newsletter

The materials will join the Archives Center Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Collection (click to download PDF). This collection contains publications, advertising ephemera, posters, and other materials related to the LGBT community throughout the United States. SALGA newsletters, flyers for events, and outreach materials inform its members and non-members of critical issues facing primarily LGBT South Asian Americans. These materials helped connect people in an age before the Internet, facilitating their adjustment to life in New York City.

SALGA has gained prominence within New York City’s Indian American community. It has worked collaboratively to be able to march in the annual Indian Day Parade in New York City. They are widely known and acknowledged by mainstream gay and lesbian communities as serving a demographic otherwise unattended.

2000 Parade

2000 Parade

The organization’s generous contribution of artifacts and documents, only some of which are shown here, helps HomeSpun include the multiple voices of the Indian American community and helps the Archives Center house a more comprehensive LGBT collection. The SALGA materials housed at the Archives Center will provide researchers with an opportunity to learn about the experiences of the South Asian LGBT community during the late 1990s and early 2000s. This is part of the Smithsonian’s larger effort to represent LGBT communities in terms of civil rights, HIV/AIDS awareness, and visual arts. People who have lived through an era are able to have their history documented for future use by researchers through their organizational records. The SALGA materials are a precious primary resource documenting the history of an important facet of the LGBT experience.

Gay City Newspaper Feature

Gay City Newspaper Feature

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Posted by on September 14, 2011 in IAHP Updates, Identity


You Can Take It With You

by Priya Chhaya


A room once full of books, electronics, posters, and photographs now bare. Each item packed away into cardboard boxes that all look the same. Boxes, filled with nearly everything you own in two cars.

Moving Out.

Two words that mean so much more than just the act of packing up your belongings and transporting them into a new living situation. Here in the United States the traditional path is that kids leave home after college (or even earlier, after high school) either because a parent wants the kids to learn responsibility, and other times because the kid wants some independence. To feel more like an adult.

For Indian American children moving out, while more commonplace than years past, is connected to jobs and opportunities that are in areas not close to where they grew up. And having said that, for many female Indian American’s moving out is an even tougher decision—and much of that has to do with the belief that the daughter stays in her father’s house until marriage.

It’s hard to tell how many girls today are bound by that belief, in my case the rationalization for staying at home had a lot to do with saving up rather than any restrictions by my parents, but as I took that leap from home to apartment a few weeks ago I found myself wondering: How much of my “Indianness” is based on where I lived? I know for some Indian American kids that tug of war can be strong and combative, while for others remains a gentle pull. And as a friend recently reminded me, where you stand depends on how much of the ritual, the traditions, you actually understand.

In my case, after five years post-graduate school, I wanted to try to live a version of the American dream. I wanted to take care of myself, to be independent, to make a space my own. So as I put my books, clothes and posters in boxes, as I bought furniture, and cooking supplies, and took an inventory of clothes to take, and what to give to the Salvation Army, I also began to pack up my life lessons from my parents: doing aarthi before going on a long trip, actually making roti and daal on my own, calling India to talk to my grandmother—instead of waiting for my turn when my parents called. Habits and ways of life that I wanted to take with me without the prompting and encouragement of my mom.

As for things I’ll leave behind? I think dependency is one of them.  Living at home was never terrible—but I think it unconsciously limited me from taking risks and being spontaneous—staying in the city to meet up with friends for example. Sometimes being comfortable means that there isn’t room to grow, room to stretch, room to become what you want to be.

While it has only been two weeks, I’m not entirely sure what I’ve taken and what I’ve left behind, but I know that it has been a definite learning experience. Not to mention moments when you miss the two people who have given you all the encouragement and support in the world.

For those intrepid Indian Americans thinking of moving out here are a few things to add to the “To Do” list: Check to make sure you are within an auspicious month. Then if you are Hindu like me, be armed with statues of Ganesh (I now have at least three in my bedroom) to bless the house. My roommate who is from Chennai boiled some milk (a ceremony known as pal kachal, which is symbolic of the first domestic act in the house/literally a house warming), while my mother (we are from Gujarat) did a short prayer and left a booklet of prayers in the house so it would be there before I actually spent the night. Finally, when setting up your furniture bring a compass to make sure your bed is facing in the right direction—North/South is best.

Remember, while moving out is for all a way of “cutting the chord” that tethers you to where you grew up, not everything has to stay behind. That culture, that history, those lessons are parts of your identity that you can take with you into the future.

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.


Posted by on September 9, 2011 in Culture, Family, Identity


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Come As You Are: Maximum India

by Priya Chhaya

Suspended from the ceiling
A map filled with arts
Dancing over a wheel, a chakra
Calling for virtue from the people.

And at the crowded, energetic stage
Sounds of Rajasthan flow into the melody of the violin

Embrace the dance styling of Punjabi rhythm
Din. Dinaka. Din Din. Dinaka. Din Din.

The art, the dance, the music, the film
All merge together amidst the written word
Imagining the city, embracing the politics
Tagore debates Gandhi
Margins and Majority on the silver screen

India is more than just the sum of its arts
More than a saffron-colored sari, or an exotic smell
But for a short while there is a glimpse,
An attempt to encompass, to gather, to embrace
India at the Max.
Maximum India.

India Map artwork

Part of the Kaleidoscope exhibition, this map of India comprised of traditional crafts floats above the chakra, a prominent symbol in the Indian flag.

For the last twenty days, I attended a variety of shows at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.  From March 1-20, the festival known as Maximum India strove to reveal India to audiences from a variety of perspectives including art, literature, film, dance, song, and comedy. These performances piece together a vision of complexity and variety.  My mission for the festival was to enjoy as many of the free performances as I could. What I couldn’t attend in person, I streamed the recording at home as a live webcast or watched an archived performance.

At every performance, I kept in mind one essential question, “If this festival is about Maximum India, what India are we seeing?” I believe that an Indian identity cannot be deciphered through words alone. That identity comes from the collective culture across class, geography, and race. Or, as Nayantara Sahgal stated in the last session I attended: “Identity is something you want it to be, not what others decide for you.”

Tiffin Boxes

Tiffin boxes from the Kaleidoscope exhibition.

So, what did I find? I learned that music is a universal language. The rock beats of Raghu Dixit included watching an older couple, dancing cheek to cheek, while waiting to go to the opera. A few yards away, a father and daughter bounced up and down while a smallish mosh pit crowded together near the stage.  During a Rajasthani music performance, where a female dancer moved with tiers of pots upon her head, a little boy crawled over my foot to get a better view.

During a literature panel discussing the depiction of Delhi, Mumbai, and Calcutta in novels, I listened to how authors struggle to portray India beyond the exotic stereotype (spice smelling air and flashes of color). I also visited the exhibit Kaleidoscope: Mapping India’s Crafts.  My experience walking through the exhibit was enhanced by video reels, installed at either end, of an individual navigating through an Indian city. Between the two films, various bicycles were on display holding tiffin boxes, pots, ice machines, and other mainstays of crowded urban markets.

Indian Sari

Two of the 20-30 saris, each either stretched out to view the fabric in its entirety or draped.

As for the other paid performances? I talked to one non-Indian who experienced the Henrik Ibsen play, When We The Dead Awaken, where all lines were read in Manipuri. Even with subtitles, she found it difficult to understand (and screaming of the lines also became a little jarring). I also checked in with my mother who excitedly described her itch to stand up and dance in the back of the theater during the The Manganiyar Seduction where a group of musicians brought in the sounds of the desert while sitting in a series of boxes as high as the theater ceiling. One of my uncles talked about sitting on stage for the maestro Zakir Hussain, and another friend watched in awe as two classical dance forms from different areas of the country came together.

Perhaps that is one of the great things about having festivals such as Maximum India. Even when there is something different for everyone to go to—no two individuals experience the same show in the same way. We all bring our own perspectives to the world around us, and while some may jump up and down at a rock concert, others like to hang back and take in the sounds. The emotional connection that resonates from hearing and seeing is an individual experience.

Stamp art display

From Reena Saini Kallat: Falling Fables. Made out of hundreds of rubber stamps, this pillar represented many of the architectural ruins that are slowly falling apart and disintegrating.

My last event involved listening with rapt attention as the niece of Nehru and award winning author Salman Rushdie talked about religion, politics and the Indian narrative—marking the changes in India since independence—and showing how the nation changes with every generation. The lecture even stepped outside of India talking about the influence of Tagore in South America, and Gandhi in movements on the other side of the world. Their conversations about how the written word equals resistance and that literature and politics go hand in hand in defining the Indian identity, and that perhaps this festival, and all that we write about it can continue to explore India to the max.

One final note, as I write this from home, I am listening to Panjabi MC (on the webcast) close out the festival. As the song winds down with familiar tones from his 2002 hit with rapper Jay-Z, he calls out over a crowded room for hands to be raised in the air like a pair of drummers hammer out a beat: Din. Dinaka. Din Din. Dinaka. Din Din. I can see that even as this festival becomes a memory—mixing all the conversations I’ve had and images I’ve seen—this festival was also, above all else, a whole lot of fun.

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.


Posted by on March 24, 2011 in Culture, Entertainment, Identity


…And that’s the Beauty of the Open Mic

by Priya Chhaya

It is a chilly Monday evening and I step inside a room on the second floor of a building along U Street in Washington, DC.  I am, as usual, casually late, thirty minutes to be specific which is really on time, if you think about Indian Standard Time (IST). As I walk up the stage the strumming of the guitar fills the air and I realize that the audience inside is rapt and at attention. The silent observance is for a few seconds a tad unnerving. Where am I? I am at my very first Subcontinental Drift, an open mic event directed towards South Asians of every persuasion.

In the next two hours I heard a cross-section of a very creative group. Some sang, some spoke–some made me laugh, and others made me (if it wasn’t a public place) want to cry.  At one point a flautist played a melody in a minor key that resonated, vibrations giving me that awesome creepy crawly feeling from a song that, while sung in English, felt like a haunting foreign language.

There was one performer who sang Tagore (the infamous Bengali poet) in Bengali–and I couldn’t help be impressed. Open mics take guts, they take gumption–and to stand up in front of a bunch of your peers and sing in a different language–that is courage. I’m a bit handicapped in this area–while I understand Hindi and Gujarati, I don’t speak either fluently (one of my yearly resolutions that is never fully realized), and so I am always really proud and impressed when someone else shows mastery beyond a conversation.

The mission of Sub Drift on their webpage is “to foster and provide a supportive and collaborative South Asian American community for creative expression, encourage the sharing and involvement of community events, and expose ourselves to new mind food.” And everyone is beyond encouraging–at one point, one performer named Sundeep gave us a little spoken word that included call and response–  the response being, of course “and that’s the beauty of the open mic.”

…and it’s true. The beauty of the open mic, especially at Subcontinental Drift, is to bring together a community who has so much in common to listen, to hear, to see, and to feel the myriad of opinions that make up our South Asian cultural mosaic. Since every piece counts, we’ll see if I can find a way to add to the conversation.

Check out the link above for information on Subcontinental Drift.

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Posted by on January 14, 2011 in Culture, Exhibitions, Identity


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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?