Category Archives: Social Life

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?


Yoga in America: 10 Things You Should Know

Photo from the book “Yoga for Americans” by Indra Devi, 1959.

By Emily Vallerga, Spring 2013 intern

Yoga has a long and involved history in America. Some aspects of it are better known than others. It started as an unpopular tradition, evolved into a time-consuming practice for the wealthy, morphed into a fitness regimen, later became known for its spirituality and is now available in many forms, from workouts to spiritual philosophies, for just about anyone.

Here are ten things you should know about yoga in America:

1. The word ‘yoga’ is derived from Sanskrit yoga meaning “union.” Scriptures on the philosophy of yoga say its purpose is to create a union of the individual Self with the supreme Self.

2. Henry David Thoreau practiced meditative yoga in his Walden home from 1845-1849. He described the experience as allowing him to see the world more clearly and more beautifully.

3. In 1893, Swami Vivekananda brought meditative yoga to the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. He taught the practice of Raja yoga -royal yoga- which focuses on meditation to unite the individual Self with the supreme Self, and pranayama – breathing exercises. Many of Vivekananda’s followers were wealthy, female Americans who had time and money to participate in his guided meditation and yoga classes.

Indra Devi on the cover of her book “Yoga for Americans”, 1959

4. Pierre Bernard founded an intensive and expensive yoga school in Nyacks, New York called the Clarkston Country Club in 1919 that taught Hatha yoga, which is the practice of postures, breath control, and mediation to strengthen the body in order to promote union with the Supreme Self. He taught simple to complex postures as well as the philosophies of transcendence.

5. In the 1930s, yoga became a part of the American obsession with adventure stories. In a time of depression, adventure stories helped Americans ‘escape’ from the hardships of hunger and deprivation. The film Lost Horizon, told a similar story to that of Theos Bernard and his adventures in India learning yoga postures and philosophy.

6. 1938 Margaret Woodrow Wilson, daughter of President Woodrow Wilson, joined Aurobindo’s Ashram in India, the only place where she truly felt at peace. Aurobindo developed Integral yoga, where he taught his students that humans would eventually evolve into supreme beings, and that yoga was just a way to speed up the process of evolution.

7. Indra Devi brought Hatha yoga, the most common yoga in America today, to Los Angeles in 1947. Her yoga was an exercise routine that focused on asana, or postures, to promote youth, health, and physically fit bodies. She did not include the religious philosophy of yoga in her teaching.

8. Marilyn Monroe practiced Hatha yoga asanas, and was photographed doing certain yoga asanas to advertise her health regimen.

9. During the counter culture movement of the 1960s, yoga became a part of the psychedelic experience. It was a way to get “turned on” and remain turned on. Many who had psychedelic experiences claimed that the philosophies of yoga best described their experience; they felt as though they had united with the Universe, were in the never ending present, and could sense all the vibrations of the world.

10. As of July 2012, the number of Americans practicing yoga is reported to be 15 million. 72.2% are female and 27.8% are male.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images from the Examiner article “New York Yoga offers something for everyone and more”

Emily Vallerga, a recent graduate of the University of California at Santa Cruz, is an intern with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s Indian American Heritage Project.


There is Just One Rule: Be Funny, But Be Real

Vijai Nathan

Comedian Vijai Nathan

by Priya Chhaya

There is a point in Vijai Nathan‘s comedy show where she imitates her South Indian grandmother describing her favorite television show….in Tamil. All around me the audience is in stitches–my friend who understands the language is grinning, while I’m responding to the familiarity of the tone and body movement.  Then as if Lucille Ball was really Lucille Ranganathan, Vijai says the only English word in sixty seconds: “Ricccckkkkkky!”

It’s this type of layered comedy that permeated Vijai Nathan’s show “Good Girls Don’t, But Indian Girls Do” at the Capital Fringe Festival earlier this year. Filled with humor that is at times racy, Nathan tells her personal story of being an Indian American with a confidence of someone unafraid to own the two countries of her heritage.

The youngest daughter of three, Nathan grew up in Potomac, Maryland, a suburb of Washington D.C. She majored in English literature at McGill University (which, she adds was “OK with my dad, because he considered it “Pre-Law”) and ended up working as a journalist first for Newsday in New York, followed by The Baltimore Sun. After three years of being in “the wrong job, the wrong place, with the wrong fiancé” she found herself needing to find an outlet for just herself and took a course the art of stand-up comedy in D.C.

During our interview, I asked Vijai how her coworkers reacted when she put on her two weeks’ notice (almost 14 years ago) to do stand up full time. Her reply: “speechless,” but she recognized that while she was taking a  “slightly foolish” risk, it was a choice that allowed her to confront her identity issues as an “ABCD [American Born Confused Desi].”

When she first started, Vijai said her jokes were much of the standard fare—made up boyfriends, airplane food, anecdotes that any other comedian could do—because she simply wanted to prove she was an “American.” But, she realized she wasn’t being honest with herself—she wasn’t just “American” she was an “Indian American” and so Good Girls was born. With jokes that I would blush at if my mother was sitting next to me, Nathan gives an open portrayal of growing up Indian in the USA. For example, one of the segments in her show is about the time her father confronted the three sisters about losing their virginity. As she walks us through the conversation (complete with impressions of her father and older sisters), it becomes apparent that her dad is really asking her because of some “supposedly” discovered contraband in Vijai’s bedroom. It’s funny because of how realistic and honest it is, poignant because she has to decide if she is going to “tell the truth” and potentially lose her place in the family.

Making the switch to less conservative material was hard, since she knew that she might lose audience members before she gained new ones. But Vijai also knew that with any job—especially when it is something you are passionate about—takes hard work, especially since comedy is often about trying to convince others to engage with material that may be foreign to them.

This is evident when we talk about giving shows to audiences that may not be ready for her humor and honesty about herself, such as the more socially conservative South Asians. As we talked about a recent performance for an older South Asian audience, she made a discovery: even her choice of clothing can have an impact on how the audience will react.

“I usually wear salwars and kurtas when I perform at large Indian events, but this time I decided to wear an American cocktail dress and their reaction to some of my racier material was much more open. I think there was something about me in a salwar talking about dating or sex that made the audience think ‘I can’t laugh at this. She looks like my daughter, or my wife, or my mom…’” It was almost as if psychologically the way she dressed created a distance between her Indianess and some of the innuendo in her sketch.

Her advice for someone thinking about going into comedy:

  • Say yes to everything (just be careful that you are not being taken advantage of.)
  • When you start out you want everything to be perfect. You think you need the right clothes, the perfect venue, but you really don’t. Growth happens during imperfect situations.
  • The first few shows are like magic. They build up your confidence, and give you the energy to do the hard work that comes next.

Want to see Vijai Nathan live? More information can be found on Facebook, but when not traveling the country, Vijai hosts a regular monthly show in DC bringing together comics from a variety of places for a themed night of hilarity. The one rule? Be Funny, But Be Real.

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 October 13, 2011 in Social Life


The Contagious Effect of Cricket

by Aditya Desai

“The cup stays in South Asia!” exclaimed my roommate, breathing, eating, and drinking India’s glory win last weekend as champions of the ICC Cricket World Cup, top tourney in that “other” sport that’s played everywhere except America. The final match against Sri Lanka, in a photo-finish final score of 277-274 runs, capped off a Cinderella sports story for India.

Indian Cricket Champions 2011

The champions celebrate with the World Cup trophy, India v Sri Lanka, final, World Cup 2011, Mumbai, April 2, 2011. Photo by Associated Press

Here in the States, while spring is mostly dominated by March Madness, there is still an undercurrent of Cricket Craziness. Thanks to the burgeoning South Asian community, cricket fans are alive in the West with the same fervor as any Sunday tailgater or home-plate season ticket holder.

In places with large populations of South Asian Americans, the sight of this unusual and “foreign” sport being played on baseball fields and in parks has become common.

The reactions and perceptions are almost cliché: Cricket is kind of like baseball—it has a bat, you hit the ball, and run to score. But the bat is flat? And why do you swing your arm around in a circle to toss? And what the heck is a wicket?

But I digress. Cricket is not so much of an otherness-sport anymore. The rising influence of immigrant communities in America has exposed many people to cricket, just as soccer has caught on with record U.S. viewership of the FIFA World Cup last year.

There are a few reasons to explain cricket’s growing popularity in the U.S. Many Indian immigrant players have spread the joy of cricket to their American friends. Over the years, cricket has become widely organized in largely populated Indian American areas. Cricket leagues sponsor games and local tournaments that are open to anyone who creates their own team.

In my locale of Washington, D.C., both the Washington Cricket League and the Washington Metro Cricket League organize games for teams comprised of players from all backgrounds: young and old, men and women, working professionals and students, Indians, Pakistanis, Nepalis, Sri Lankans, and more.

Similar teams and leagues exist all around the country. As a result, cricket is certainly alive and well in the States (yes, by the way—there is a USA Cricket team and a USA Cricket Association). Cricket, like all sports, has grafted itself into the national DNA of many countries over time. For these people, to play cricket means to celebrate their heritage. In the U.S., where different cultural groups rub shoulders, cricket has allowed South Asians to come together in healthy sportsmanship.

In the ICC, a lot of nationalism rhetoric swirls amongst the teams. This is especially evident between India and Pakistan, opponents in sport and the global political stage. Of course, they carry the identity of their home countries, and everyone knows it. Cricket is another arena for testing the rocky relationship between these two nations, leading to very real threats of rioting or worse. During that semifinal match, more than 1,000 police security personnel guarded players from both teams in their hotels.

Tensions that extreme don’t seem to carry overseas. In the U.S., many of my own friends (South Asians from all backgrounds) skipped work and school entirely to watch a satellite feed of the game from the early pre-dawn hours into the midday. Outside of the subcontinent borders, there is less geopolitical focus in the competition. As the semi-final, and then the final win for India culminated, my Facebook news feed was flooded with people cheering and exclaiming for joy—from those who lived cricket and those who still weren’t even sure how it was played.

I’m certain this level of sports fanaticism is familiar to Americans, even if the game isn’t. No matter what your background is, most people understand the act of donning on a jersey, snacks in front of the huge flat screen TV, and jumping out of the couch and screaming for joy when your team scores. The only difference is that Indians, and South Asians, have to adjust to the time zones.

Aditya Desai is pursuing a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of Maryland, College Park.


Posted by on April 12, 2011 in Current Events, Social Life


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?


Getting to Know You: Making Connections

by Priya Chhaya

When I was younger there were three things that I feared when my parents told us we were taking a family trip to India. The lack of American/European toilets (something that has mostly ceased to be a problem), spending time with cousins I barely knew, and consequently wasn’t sure I liked, and the rain.

Over the years, the first has become less of a problem, and the third is easily avoided by going to India during the non-monsoon season. Getting to know my cousins is another ball game.

This past month I traveled to India for three weeks. Why?

1) My grandmother turned 80
2 )Wedding shopping (my sister is getting married in May)
3) Vacation time—I finally got out of Mumbai and got to spend some time in Goa

It’s been about three years since I’ve seen most of my cousins face to face (two or three of them have managed to visit the U.S. for the first time in the interim), and this past visit made me realize the value of a particular tool in strengthening our relationship and making it easier to communicate across oceans and continents.


Of course, age does have something to do with it. When you’re a teenager, you are loathe to enjoy a trip that takes you away from the typical American summer activities, and meeting family doesn’t seem like an awesome way to spend your time. But as we’ve grown up—we’re all adults now—we’ve come to realize that we have a lot more in common besides blood. Enter everyone’s favorite social media site.

In previous years, we’d arrive as almost-strangers—scrambling to be filled in on what had happened in the intervening years, trying to find that comfort you feel with close family—something usually achieved right as we head back to the airport. Now, thanks to Facebook, we come in knowing that one cousin has been working on a purse design business, and that another went on a trip to Ladakh, and that another cousin and his wife redecorated their new place in Pune. In a way, Facebook has replaced those single sheet, blue airmail letters that we grew up watching our mothers and fathers send back and forth, and phone calls can now actually be filled with a conversation instead of awkward filler. Facebook is even going to let me get to know my cousin’s future husband despite not being able to go back to India for the wedding.

The Family, in Khandala

And that is why I think this trip was so successful—from the 21-person field trip to Khandala, a hill station just outside of Mumbai, to the excursions to shops all over the city—the trip was filled with camaraderie and a more familial repartee… and the best part of all, memories with family members that I love.

For more information on my visit to India visit 

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Posted by on October 16, 2010 in Family, Social Life


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“American Hindu”

by Aditya Desai

Shiva Vishnu temple in Lanham, Maryland, photo by Docku, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

My weekly temple trip usually takes place around the time the youth group finishes its classes and prayers. I never cared to participate while growing up, partially not being too religious and partially considering it somehow “against” a typical American childhood.

One week, a mishmash circle of teens, aunties, uncles, and young adults were discussing the future of the temple’s youth group. A Mustachioed Uncle, leading the discussion, rolled out various ideas to get kids involved. One mother piped in and commented with some disappointment that the temple should try harder to instill Indian values in the kids to counter their American ones.

That’s when Mustachioed Uncle spoke up and said:

“We are not trying to raise our children to be Indians in America, but rather American Hindus.”

This brought a smile to my face. What a perfect term. Hinduism becomes a tricky minefield in terms of culture because it is so intertwined with what it means to be Indian (food products have images of Gods on the packaging, for crying out loud).

Every week, the kids at the temple are always decked out in Hollister and discussing the new Lil Wayne single. This is their life as youth in America. Can we consider it Indian? Hardly.

Can it still be part of Hinduism? Hmm…

Imagine the Indian-American children who absorb American culture and art through school and TV. Then, at temple, they are bombarded with imagery and mythology of the Hindu deities, half-human, half-beast, with multiple arms and wearing shiny gold. Well, it certainly has a startling effect on a kid.

I remember the awkwardness I had celebrating Christmas and Easter with the other kids in school, not having any idea who Jesus was at the time. How to compromise this rift?

“American Hindu” is a great way to put it. Hinduism is, as some believe, a way of life rather than a system of faith and theology. Values and teachings; dharma, karma, and ahimsa; even ayurvedic medicine—all are meant as life practices. One can still fully enjoy pizza, Beemers, and the latest episode of Jersey Shore and still be Hindu, just as others are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and so on, while still being American as well.

At the simplest level, concretely stating the two cultures in the phrase “American Hindu” can empower Indian-American kids to appreciate those plastic eggs and gingerbread houses while knowing they have something similar from their own background and heritage. Perhaps if I had understood that as a child, or the temple teachers could have grasped a similar concept, I might have joined the youth group.

It’s a way of thinking that, hopefully, many Indian Hindu families (and that disappointed mother) can adopt.


Posted by on June 29, 2010 in Culture, Identity, Social Life