Why I’ll be wearing a salwar this Friday: On diaspora, identity, and visibility

My father, like most fathers, has his stories. This particular story takes place when I was three or so. As my father tells it, I came home from preschool one day and informed him with the utmost solemnity that, while Gopal (his name) was an Indian name, my name was American.

I’ve heard this story a thousand times—muffled by my comforter when my father would talk me to sleep, over the roar of the car engine as he taught me to drive—but over the years, I’ve come to unpack it a little more, to fill in the pauses in his speech. Of all the things I must have thought and said when I was small, my father remembers this one instance so vividly, every retelling the same. I wonder whether it’s because this is the moment that he started to realize that the life in this country he and my mother were working so hard to give me was shaping me in new and unpredictable ways. I wonder whether he even had an answer for me that day – whether he told me the true origins of my lofty Sanskrit name and the aspirations he had given voice to when he affixed it to me. Worst of all, I wonder exactly when in my mind this idea first took root, that I couldn’t be Indian and “American,” that the Indian parts of me were un-”American,” that the best way to survive was to pick “American” over my own father.

When I know what to look for, I notice moments like this one dotted throughout my life like drops of payasam that drip off the ladle in my unpracticed, too-American hand when I serve myself. There was the day I stopped letting my parents and grandparents speak to me in Tamil. The day I’d dread every fall, when my mother would come talk to my classmates about Diwali and I’d have to sing one of the classical Sanskrit devotional songs I studied on weekends. The fans I’d furtively turn on when I had friends over, hoping they wouldn’t say my house smelled “exotic” or “like spices” or “different to my house.”

There weren’t many South Asian kids at my school, and over time the invisibility (or perhaps the hypervisibility?) of it all started to wear me down. I remember being elated the day we learned about Jim Crow laws and segregated bathrooms: My first grade teacher knelt down and told me gently that if I’d been around back then, I would have been waiting in line for the “Colored” bathroom with her. I forgot to be sad, so glad was I that there was a space outside of “White” where I belonged with other people who looked like me, but didn’t really look like me. Over time, I grew up, I started reading more, and I came to realize what’s wrong with the term “person of color,” but in that moment, suddenly less alone, I was flying.

Things have gotten a bit better since then. I’ve met South Asians of all sorts and non-South Asians who let me drop words like “diaspora” and “second-generation” and “post-9/11″ into casual conversation. I’m learning how to find the music and poetry in the negative space around this country’s dominant picture and coming to understand that my choice to identify as “Indian American” is real and politicized and an act of resistance that challenges the dichotomies I internalized so long ago. But despite  these supposed indicators of “progress,” when Gautam and I took a long-awaited trip to the Smithsonian over spring break, I could hardly believe my eyes when I read that one in every one hundred people in this country is Indian-American.

Visibility isn’t everything, and there’s so much else that I wish were different about South Asian-America (a lot of it starts with and comes back to histories of colonialism and anti-Blackness). But I really do believe that there is power in asserting the right to self-identity, and there is so much to be learned from examining how the identities of those around you intersect with and diverge from your own. This year in SAPAC, we’ve talked about elections and women’s rights in the world’s largest democracy, about partition and trauma in Kashmir and statelessness and governance in Tibet. But as the year draws to a close, we feel that it’s time to turn our attention back to this campus, where South Asian strength, kinship and identity exist in a multitude of ways. This Friday, we invite all of you who link some part of your identity to South Asia—whether you were raised there or are the product of any of its multitudinous diasporas, or if it has shaped your life in other ways—to join our “South Asians of the Hill” photo campaign. We hope that you’ll take this opportunity to reflect on what South Asia has or hasn’t meant to you, and that this event will begin the process of charting new pathways of support, understanding, and solidarity. If you are comfortable, we also encourage you to consider wearing South Asian clothes for the day—I know I will be, as part of my un-learning how to separate my worlds and compartmentalize myself.