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Thursday, December 6, 2012

No explanation is necessary; here is mine

I woke up to a barrage of concerned emails today after I'd made the decision to shut my Facebook fan page and YouTube page down. Some of my friends were worried about me; others thought it was their fault.

The fact is, there's nothing to worry about. I just made a decision I'd been thinking about for months, even years now.  

I have sung Hindi songs for over eight years. I've performed all over the US, and some in India. I even got audiences with three music directors, but I never pursued those avenues further. I have sung for crowds as large as 10,000. I ended up being able to move to India because of it. I'm very appreciative of all those things.

But I have come to a realization over the past few years, and that is that I can never really succeed at it. And by "succeed," I mean "meet the standards I have set for myself."

My first show was October 30, 2004. That night, I had said to myself I did not want to be known as "that white girl who sings Hindi songs." I wanted to be known as someone who sang Hindi songs well. The first is easy to achieve. The second is much more difficult. I don't want to be a parrot who sings unknown words without understanding their meaning, good at imitating but no originality. It's been done. I don't want to be a pretty face, a gori who sings Hindi songs, Carefree White Girl jaunting off to India for "adventure" and singing for the novelty factor. It's also been done. 

I have, over many years, come to the understanding that I did not grow up with these sounds in my ears, do not have extensive Indian classical training or exposure, and so the beautiful songs of yesteryear are inaccessible to me; I cannot do them justice. I can only give a mere shadow of their subtle beauty.

And to tell the truth, the more Hindi I know, the less I like the modern songs. Turns of phrase that seemed romantic at one time (tere saath jiyoon, tere saath maroon) are so incredibly cliche, and some songs are just so stupid and immature (Mere jaise laakhon mile honge tujhko piya, mujhe to mila tu hi - seriously?). Not to mention Hinglish lyrics like "Zara zara touch me touch me touch me" which have absolutely no literary merit and don't do anything for the gori stereotype I constantly have to challenge. 

I've become quite disillusioned, to say the least. By the songs themselves, by the vocal brick walls I run into, by the fact that people are so okay with my doing this just because I'm white that I don't get any sort of constructive feedback but lots of empty praise, by the fact I have sung for eight years and I still cannot solve the vocal issues I started out with. 

I had been feeling this way for a long time, but finally realized I needed to make an actual decision about what to do with these feelings when a friend Liked one of my old videos on Facebook, which made it pop up in others' feeds, and suddenly I had 39 Likes and 38 comments in the span of a few hours. My reaction was not to be happy at all, but to cry all evening and wish it would just go away. I didn't want to be associated with that three-year-old video. It was Andrea -- nay, Adriana, the one-trick pony, the party novelty, the girl dragged, protesting, over to Vishal Dadlani at a club in Delhi and being commanded to sing on cue. The person who doesn't need to improve even over three years or eight years because HOW DIFFERENT, SHE SINGS HINDI SONGS.

Those are not the standards I set for myself. I didn't want to be appreciated for being different, or for 'just trying.' I wanted to be good at it, to sing what was really in my heart. But it's a far-off goal, unreachable as long as I cling to my quotidian life, which I have never been able to let go of, nor do I think I should. I can think of many more ways to spend my waking hours than to beat my tiny wings on this particular pane of glass. I know there's another direction I can go in. Spend more time at the gym. Cook good dinners. Translate some Bengali songs. Pick up the phone and call my friends. 

You want to hear a white girl singing Indian songs who is actually good? Listen to Nicki Wells. And then close your eyes and just listen and forget she's not Indian. Because you can. 

Now, I'm not quitting singing forever. I still take Rabindrasangeet lessons - that place I fled to when the Bollywood illusion proved itself to be so. But I do that for me, on my own terms. I'm not spreading myself too thin, trying to be everything to everyone; I am concentrating on one thing and doing it for my own love of it, not for others' admiration of me. 

I am thankful to all of those who supported me along the way and am glad for all the good things in my life that have come from singing. I know those friendships and those good things don't need the excuse of my singing to exist, and those are things I hope to keep forever.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Why I do not identify with the word "gori"

"Yeh gori kahaan se mila yaar?"

With a wink and a nudge, this was the first time I'd heard the word 'gori' actually spoken out loud. I'd heard it in songs referring to the color of a pretty Indian girl's cheeks, movie dialogues talking about the village belle, but this time it referred to me, and it wasn't complimentary.

From the tone of voice and the body language, the speaker saw me as his friend's latest fling. I was not his fling at all; simply a platonic friend. But the implication was evident, and I shot him a dirty look while my friend explained that I actually knew Hindi. He didn't say another word to me the entire evening.

So what does gori mean, anyway? Shabdkosh.com says it is an adjective meaning "fair." Even Urban Dictionary describes it as "a word used by Indians to describe white girls...not particularly offensive." And we've all heard it in songs like "Yeh kali kali ankhen, yeh gori gori gaal" to describe a woman's beauty. The male equivalent, gora, I've mostly only heard in relation to white men, not to a fair-skinned South Asian man.

So the denotation isn't too bad. But the connotation can vary. When it's used in a purely South Asian context, to describe a South Asian, it is generally a very positive term, albeit because of the shadeism present in South Asian culture, which is a separate issue. However, from my experiences in India, when the subject of discussion was a white woman, I never heard it used with a positive connotation. Sometimes it would be neutral, albeit objectifying - "Yeah, the gori's coming with us." Sometimes patronizing - "It's so adorable to hear a gori speak Hindi." And certainly negative - "This club is full of goris, you'll definitely get laid tonight." Gora also carries a similar neutral to negative connotation, but without the sexual promiscuity connotation of gori (which merits its own post, but I won't be the one to write it!).

And then there's the reaction of the dadi (grandmother) in this video:


Having experienced all these not-so-glowing connotations of the word when it refers to people who look like me, it is just not a term that I use to refer to myself. It's not something I think I personally can "reclaim" from the onslaught of stereotypes that come along with the term as it refers to a non-South Asian woman. And it also follows that it makes me uncomfortable when I'm referred to as gori as well, by people of South Asian descent or not. It gives me a feeling that I am not being taken seriously by the person referring to me as such, that because of my inherent 'gori-ness,' there is no way I can or should be respected as a person separate from my skin tone and all the baggage that goes along with it. Gori is a term that trivializes me as a woman with ties to an Indian family and community. It gives off wrong impressions to people about who I am. If I was Indian, it would be a different story, but I'm not, and it isn't.

Plus, defining myself via my ethnicity, particularly through the lens of someone else's ethnicity, is not very appealing to me at all. I don't believe in colorblindness and a post-racial society does not exist, but at the same time I don't need to perpetuate divides by labeling myself in ethnic terms. It Otherizes me with white people, assuming to remove privilege that is not actually removed. For South Asians, it serves to underscore my privilege as well as imply everything else about 'gori-ness' - sexual availability, lack of culture, lack of respect for elders, egalitarian to the point of embarrassment, etc. And for everyone else, it signifies nothing anyway. What am I trying to prove, and to whom?

So what should I be referred to as, then? I don't mind referring to myself as a white woman in contexts where race is important. American - sure, why not? It's the term de mode for a United States citizen, which I am. I've used the terms non-Indian and non-Bengali in particular contexts as well. I have certainly taken on some aspects of Bengali culture but I don't consider myself Bengali or Bengali-American; my future kids will be, but I'm not. Does a Punjabi who marries a Bengali take on an entirely new ethnic identity? If not, why should I?

I guess if you want to refer to me as anything, 'that big nerd who writes about culture' is pretty apropos. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The eternal quest for the perfectly poofy roti

This post is for Ria of Me and India, as reassurance that you don't have to have the absolutely perfect cooking implements in order to make rotis! Here, I am using a plastic cutting board in place of a marble chakla and a nonstick pan instead of a tawa. Basically you just need a small rolling pin, a flat surface, a nonstick pan of some sort, and a wire rack. You can do wonders with that. 

I'll skip the dough-making part in pictures. You need to make a springy dough that doesn't stick (too much) to your hands when it's all mixed in. Some people add salt to their rotis. I usually forget. I don't make them with oil either - for me, it's just flour (here I am using regular whole wheat flour from any grocery) and water. 

Take a ball of dough about the size of a small lime and roll it in your hands until it becomes round. Then squish it in a little bit of flour. The rounder the squished ball, the rounder the roti will be. Dip the other side in flour too, then place on your rolling surface. 

Don't kill the dough. Roll it gently. You may find it 'spins' underneath your rolling pin; that's good. Try to get it an even thickness. Evenness is more important than thinness. My mother-in-law's rotis are thicker than mine and much tastier. 

Now it's flat.

Pick up and immediately place onto your preheated tawa or nonstick pan. If you have an electric stove, set it at about 7 or 8. You'll know if it's too high. Make sure you also have a second burner turned on and preheated to about 8 or 9. Put your roti rack over it so you remember it's on and don't burn yourself.

Let this sit until a bubble or two starts forming. This will be maybe 10-15 seconds. Then flip it over and let the other side cook for about 15-20 seconds. Not too long. You can use a spatula to flip the roti or use your hands. I always use my hands. Don't burn your wrists on the side of the pan though, like I often do.

 The bubble means it's ready to flip over. 

Once both sides are cooked, take the roti off the pan and place onto the wire rack. Mine has a handle on it, so I'm holding the rack in one hand here. DO NOT set the rack directly onto the burner with the roti on it. I find about 1 cm off the burner is the best place for me to hold it in order to get the heat to puff it.
 A handheld rack also allows you to move the roti to the 'hotspots' on the burner so that it puffs evenly.

Your roti should puff within a second.
 FWOOM

Once it puffs, carefully take it with your hand and flip it to the other side, and puff the other side.
Again, the rack is NOT TOUCHING the burner. You can do that if you like eating burnt rotis. 

Take the roti off the rack, put into your casserole dish, and start on the next one.

If it doesn't puff, don't despair. Just put it in the casserole and start on the next one. It's still edible. Practice makes perfect though, so obviously the only way to get good at this is to make and eat a lot of rotis. Tasty practice. :)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Hand-Pulled Rickshaws of Kolkata


"You can find every kind of transportation in Kolkata," he said to me proudly, as if I had the Richard Scarry book Cars and Trucks and Things that Go in front of me and was checking off each vehicle inside. If I had, I would have had to make notes in the margins of the ones that Richard Scarry did not include.

Rickety trams. Trains departing Howrah Station. The metro slinking underground; the autorickshaws plying their routes. Ambassador taxis and Maruti 800s and the extremely occasional Mercedes. Three-wheeled cycle rickshaws, bullock carts, and men carrying dozens of chickens suspended upside down on either side of the seat of their bicycles.

And the one you will not find in any other metro area in India, the hand-pulled rickshaw, saved from extinction in this city that clings to its past just as the rickshaw pullers clung to their age-old profession in the face of their possible ban. Whether a ban has actually been put in place I do not know, nor does it matter, since they still fill the Kolkata roads regardless.

I saw many jarring things on my first trip to Kolkata. Having lived in Delhi for nearly a year, the poverty no longer moved me, but the hammer and sickle painted on the side of buildings did. The urgent monsoon sky did. And these men, thin, gaunt, darkened by the sun, often barefoot, certainly did.

Anirban Saha has done a series of photographic sessions of these rickshaw-pullers. He portrays them in black and white, in sharp focus against the blurry sped-up background of modern Kolkata. The images are poignant, but viewing them brings back the same feelings of uneasiness at class distinction that I had when I first encountered them. Intellectually, I understand their importance to the day-to-day life in the city. I understand that they remain in Kolkata by choice and not entirely by compulsion. But for someone who grew up in an egalitarian society, watching one man be beast of burden for another is uncomfortable. Children riding to school does not affect me in the same way as the fat man in a business suit, riding in broad daylight when he could easily walk. And I know I could never sit in one.

Perhaps this is what makes the most uneasy about the entire situation. It is a world I encountered, but not my world. As a foreigner, I cannot enter into that sphere. Availing myself of a ride is an image that smacks of colonialism and flies in the face of my generally-egalitarian nature. And if it were I who were taking the photos, instead of the talented Mr. Saha, it would be nothing more than poverty porn. This has little to do with skin color. He, as a lifelong resident of Kolkata, has interacted with this world from his childhood, perhaps even rode to school with a classmate or two in such a rickshaw. His eyes and his camera lens see as perfect sense what I see as cognitive dissonance. And his photos focus on the task at hand, on how the past and present coexist, not objectifying the bare feet or the wiry bodies. He is able to photograph these men and their occupation in a way a disturbed or impartial foreign eye cannot.

I encourage you to go take a look at his photos and give your own impressions.


Saturday, November 17, 2012

Asymmetrical online relationships as a deterrent to trust

I got a friend request from someone today who is a friend of four other people on my Facebook friends list. This person has a fake name and a profile picture of a flower.

I had never interacted with this person, not even on a friend's wall, nor did they send a message to me saying why they wanted to add me as a friend. So they received the following reply:

I don't accept unsolicited friend requests without some sort of engagement on a friend's wall or at least some way my being able to know more and find out about you. 
I respect your need for privacy and understand that you may need to keep a false name and non-identifying profile picture. But these things also do not allow for communication between people who do not know each other.  
If your need for privacy is so important, it is probably better that you not send friend requests to unknown persons. For all you know, I could be a nosy auntie who would share information about you to your parents. Likewise, you could be the same for me. I have no way of knowing that. So I am afraid I cannot accept your request. 

I am certainly not against meeting new people online. In fact, I have accepted no fewer than three friend requests this month from people who I have had replied to in friends' comment threads and seemed like intelligent people. I have met people who have given me fresh perspectives to think about and who I have helped out in some way. 

But in order to have this, some sort of transparency is necessary. I do not want to communicate with people who live behind a shadow. You already have lost 90% of communication simply by virtue of the majority of Internet communication's being text-based. There's no body language, no microexpressions, no tone of voice, and emoticons and /s tags barely make up for what gets lost. So hiding behind false names and photos, and responding to queries of "Tell me about yourself" with "What do you want to know?" keeps the obscurity at almost 100%. 

As I mentioned, I understand the need for privacy. I myself have resorted to 'security through obscurity' from time to time, and no, I don't want my entire life published on the Internet. It's not all or nothing. But at the same time, when I post my own name, face, and opinions with a particular level of openness, it seems one-sided to me when others do not offer a similar level in return. A certain amount of honesty and yes, even vulnerability, leads to trust - as long as it is offered and received mutually. There are plenty of people I have met online who I would happily meet up with in real life with because we have built up trust between us. This is the good thing about the Internet - the world is so much smaller and friends can be found anywhere! 

But at the same time, we have a responsibility to keep ourselves safe and to be wary of lopsided communication. We all know to sidestep the nosy lady at parties who keeps asking us question after question about our personal life (ostensibly to gossip about it to others later) but answers questions about her children with "oh, they are fine" or her job with a simple "good" before asking you the next personal question. There are people who do this online too.  Conversely, the work friend at the water cooler who tells you all about her drunken escapades and who she went home with and exactly what she did doesn't remain a "friend" for long. Both of these people exist in the internet as well, often (but not always) under the guise of anonymity. This way, they can gather their information or overshare all their details with no consequence to themselves or their 'offline' reputation. And if their 'online' reputation is tarnished, they can just close down that email or Facebook account, open a new one, and continue where they left off. It's a win-win situation for them, regardless of any difficulty it causes those they encounter. It's parasitic, not symbiotic.

What you give, you should be receiving. If the relationship is unbalanced, it is not a healthy online relationship, just as it would not be a healthy relationship in real life. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

New York Times India Ink on Bengal, and my insignificant thoughts

The New York Times India Ink blog highlighted Bengal from both sides of the border this week in a duet of well-written articles.

Arnab Ray, otherwise known as Greatbong, gave us a look back at cross-border unity and how the two Bengals have drifted further apart, in his characteristic nostalgic style.

Naeem Mohaiemen paints a picture of the struggle to cross the divide, which despite best intentions, is rewarded with isolation as cultural collaboration seems to threaten the political powers that be.

I had written my impressions here in brief, until I had a few discussions and realized how little I actually know about the situation.

Here's what I do know.

I have been learning Bengali for five years. I have teachers and mentors from both India and Bangladesh. Without their unique perspective, I would not know anything close to what I know now. You cannot learn a language if you separate it from its culture. I had previously only learned from Indian Bengali sources but I was missing something very significant. Only in the last year did I really learn anything about Bangladesh, and since then, my skill level has gone from novice to intermediate. I just feel like I have a fuller picture and I understand much more now that I am getting multiple perspectives.

I know people who have worked cross-border in film, radio, and new media, and yet they remain more influential in their country of origin. I suppose this is natural, but I still admire them for reaching out, particularly when governments don't make this easy.

If you are a student of Bengali, read the articles posted by these talented authors and gain a deeper understanding.

If you are a Bengali, read them and take away what you will; new perspectives or reinforcement of what you have always been saying.

If you are neither, still read and learn a little bit more about a part of the world you may not be familiar with.

I am once again inspired to read, to listen, and to understand. May you find something that inspires you in the same way.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Happy Diwali!

Happy Diwali! It snowed today for the first time this year. At least three inches of snow on the car this morning and the snow fell all day. It's not what you'd expect from Diwali but it is beautiful all the same.
 Here are the lights I put up today, against a backdrop of snow.

These are our 14 diyas. I have more clay ones, but they didn't fit on the plate, so I used tea lights. The two colorful ones were shaped like flowers; I got them from the Asian market. I want to find more of those! They are so pretty.

For dinner today, I made Palong Shaaker Ghonto, courtesy of Bong Mom's blog, without which I would be completely lost in life. I also made masoor dal the way A's old roommate taught me, and gajar ka halwa because, well, it's Diwali!

Tomorrow I will go to Lakshmi Puja at our local temple. Not sure what I'll cook tomorrow. Any ideas?

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Translation: Obak Bhalobasha by Warfaze

I am going to start posting some of my translations of Bengali songs here. First, because if they were already online, I wouldn't be translating them, and second, so that if you are able, you can correct my translation and make it even better.

I'll post transliterated Bengali here in the way I understand it best, and my translation.

And of course, because the songs are so beautiful, I will post them here too.


 (Sorry Bangladeshi readers, I can't find this song/video anywhere but YouTube. :\)

Lyrics and Translation:

অবাক ভালবাসা - ওয়ারফেজ
Obak Bhalobasha - Warfaze
Astonishing Love

shob aalo nibhe jak andhare
let all the light fade to darkness

sudhu jege thak oi durer tarara
so that the only ones awake are those faraway stars

shob shobdo theme jak nistobdhotay
let all the words trail off into utter silence

sudhu jege thak ei shagor amar pashe
so that the only thing I hear is this ocean by my side


shob bedona muche jak sthirotay
let all the pain be erased into stillness

hridoy bhore jak ostitter anonde
let the heart be filled with the bliss of existence

hridoy gobhire obak drishtite, thomke danriyecche mohakaal ekhane
the deepest part of the heart is surprised by a sudden vision of eternity


shubhro balir shoikote
on the white sand beach

elomelo batashe, guitar haate
in a random breeze, guitar in hand

nistobdhota chouchir
the silence is shattered

unmaad jhonkaare kaandi obak shukher kanna
in the mad ringing of a sudden flood of tears of happiness

jeno chuni heera panna
like precious jewels

shagorer buke, alpona enke diye jay
with which a sacred design had been drawn in the heart of the ocean

obak bhalobashay
by an astonishing love




shob aalo nibhe jak andhare
let all the light fade to darkness

sudhu jege thak oi durer tarara
so that the only ones awake are those faraway stars

shob shobdo theme jak nistobdhotay
let all the words trail off into utter silence

sudhu jege thak ei shagor amar pashe
so that the only thing I hear is this ocean by my side




shob koshto boye jak sukher jhor
may all troubles be carried off in a storm of bliss

hridoy bhore jak sahoj neel shopne
and the heart be filled with a simple azure dream

hridoy gobhire obak drishtite, thomke danriyecche mohakaal ekhane
the deepest part of the heart is surprised by a sudden vision of eternity


shubhro balir shoikote
on the white sand beach

elomelo batashe, guitar haate
in a random breeze, guitar in hand

nistobdhota chouchir
the silence is shattered

unmaad jhonkaare kaandi obak shukher kanna
in the mad ringing of a sudden flood of tears of happiness

jeno chuni heera panna
like precious jewels

shagorer buke, alpona enke diye jay
with which a sacred design had been drawn in the heart of the ocean

obak bhalobashay
by an astonishing love


Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Racism still exists; it's just invisible, like air

Today a controversy rippled its way through the twittersphere. I'd rather call it by its other name - a "teachable moment."

It concerns the show Radiolab, on National Public Radio. A few weeks ago, they published a podcast on "Yellow Rain" - a substance that fell from the sky on Laos during Vietnam.

And this podcast was very poorly received. The production team and host made grave errors throughout the entire process, from the way the interview was conducted to the editing to the way they responded to criticism in post-production. The host, Robert Krulwich, issued the linked apology, then the podcast was re-edited so as to remove some of the more offensive elements, such as muffled laughter toward the end of the broadcast.

So deeply hurt and offended was one of the interviewees, author Kao Kalia Yang, that she penned an article for Hyphen magazine to tell the story in her own voice, entitled "The Science of Racism: Radiolab's Treatment of Hmong Experience."

Wait, wait, that's a heavy word! Racism? They couldn't be racist. They were only trying to report both sides of the story! No slurs or tired old caricatures of Asian people were used in the reporting of this story. The words "model minority" were never uttered, not once. On top of that, the show is hosted on NPR; how can racism exist in that bastion of liberal media?

But then how could this podcast have been received so poorly by the listenership? If there's one thing we should know in 2012, it's that if a person of color tells you that something is racist, you listen to them. You don't just dismiss their experience of the situation and move on.

The racism in this incident was not the overt kind most people think of when they hear the word. No, there were no racial slurs. No hate crime was committed. No one said Asians were an inferior race. But throughout, racism was present as a white/Western-normative narrative. It contrasted two accounts of the same event -- the white experience in the laboratory versus the Hmong experience in Laos -- and unconsciously placed the white experience as the superior, or correct, experience. The fact it was unconscious on the part of the host and production team (as implied by Mr. Krulwich) simply serves to underscore how ingrained this sort of racism is in our culture.

Let's take a few examples.

First, the hosts - Mr. Krulwich and Jad Abumrad - appear to subscribe to the Western liberal notion that the science of today holds all the answers. This is often in direct contrast to "the religion of yesterday holds all the answers," which is an extremely debatable topic that will not be discussed here. It is definitely a good idea to use published scientific studies to back up your claims, but we have to remember that those studies may at times be incomplete or even wrong. Five hundred years from now, our modern science will look absolutely primitive to those who come after us. The hosts made the choice to prioritize the results of the study by Meselson and Seeley over the experience of the person sitting in the room with them, taking a black and white view that if the science was right, Mr. Yang must be mistaken. The interview, which purportedly was a chance to hear the story from the Hmong point of view, turned into an interrogation and attempt to convince Mr. Yang (and Ms. Yang) that their experiences were invalid in the face of evidence. It is an inhuman way to treat another person who has suffered so much; why were the Yangs not given respect in this regard?

And Maitri rightly points out that it is not actually scientists who use this argument, but people who wish to get some political gain out of it. What kind of political or social gain could Radiolab have gotten from telling this man to his face that he must be wrong?

Another thing to consider is the culturally-bound fear of the alternative narrative and of the unknown. As an American in Kolkata for the first time during the last days of the 33-year CPI(M) government, I found myself face to face with a hammer and sickle painted on the wall. Although I was very aware of the various political parties in India, including the Communist party's influence in West Bengal, I still found my heart beating a bit faster and a fleeting thought "Where have I landed this time?" ran through my head. I was still young when the Cold War ended, but I remember it well, and I remember the fear that people had. The hosts, who are almost certainly around my age or possibly older, would remember this fear as well. So if it turns out that chemical warfare was going on, as Mr. Yang's retelling of the events that transpired points to, then Reagan and the United States were wrong in standing down. If the "bee poop" conclusion had not been reached, chemical weapons might have proliferated. Bad things might have happened. And now, after all this time that we thought the yellow rain was harmless material, what if we were wrong? It seems a thought that, subconsciously, our hosts are terrified to entertain.

As Ms. Yang points out, everyone who participated in this story was highly credentialed, but somehow, Mr. Yang was only referred to as "Hmong guy" and she as "his niece," despite the fact that they were the key interviewees for the segment and were both extremely qualified as well. Listening to the podcast, I bristled when I heard Mr. Yang referred to "Hmong guy." It was such a disrespectful term for someone of his age, not to mention his credentials as an official documenter of the events which took place in Laos. We do not refer to Amartya Sen as "that Indian dude" or Stephen Hawking as "the disabled guy." How can "the Hmong guy" be okay in this context, and how could it have been invisible as to make it into the final edit of the podcast? The constant use of the term "bee poop" to describe a substance that Mr. Yang says killed crops, animals, and even people also falls into the category of thoughtless use of language. Whether it is a benign substance, a chemical weapon, or something else entirely, a more clinical and less flippant term could have been used.

Finally, the ridiculous statement that Ms. Yang "monopolized the discussion" drives the point home better than anything else. As Ms. Yang herself points out, it's really hard to monopolize a discussion when someone else is in charge of the topic, the questions, the tone of the interview, and the final editing. And I do not think it inconsequential that a white man was the one in charge of that, either. Do I think that the production team for Radiolab are all a bunch of raging racists whose business attire is KKK robes? Certainly not. However, this incident shows us very clearly how easily people of color can be treated disrespectfully, seen in terms of their race instead of their accomplishments, and then blamed for the whole thing.

So many things discussed here at length, yet no one even saw it as improper until it was too late. That should not be surprising, though, if you look at it through the lens of institutional racism. It is a blind spot that exists, whether we like it or not. We unconsciously privilege the stories of white scientists over Hmong refugee historians because it has become habit. We don't even realize it when we edit a two-hour interview into a thirty-minute podcast that vilifies those who experienced terror for refusing to believe an explanation that negates their whole experience.

Realizing it when it happens is the first step. We can't undo centuries of acculturation into ways of thinking that perpetuate racism overnight, but we can know it when we see it (and kudos to all of the listeners who saw it for what it was and pointed it out.) Then, the next steps are to recognize the patterns, figure out what we can do to break them, then do those things.

Simply respecting others for who they are, and respecting the stories and experiences they bring to the table, goes a long way to breaking those patterns. If it's overwhelming to look at the entire world in terms of historical and current ethno-cultural balances of power and privilege, then respect and willingness to learn from others is a good place to start.


Friday, October 12, 2012

Oppan Lungi Style!

Bengalis in lungis dancing to a Korean song in New York City. America is great, isn't it?

Here's the video:


And here's the article:

While watching this video, it occurred to me that I probably am too out of shape to dance in a flash mob even if on the off chance I were asked to. Maybe it's time to change that?

Monday, October 1, 2012

Spiritual but not religious?

This article from the CNN.com religion column has got Facebook buzzing. Saw discussions about it today on two others' profiles, besides mine.

Alan Miller, the author of the article, states,

Those in the spiritual-but-not-religious camp are peddling the notion that by being independent [...] they are in a deeper, more profound relationship than one that is coerced via a large institution like a church.
That attitude fits with the message we are receiving more and more that "feeling" something somehow is more pure and perhaps, more "true” than having to fit in with the doctrine, practices, rules and observations of a formal institution that are handed down to us.

Despite his patronizing tone, Miller has a point here, and that point is the one of coercion. Does he not realize that all around us, people are questioning authority at all levels moreso than they did fifty years ago? Teachers are certainly not respected anymore, and neither are the police as upholders of the law and social order. We publicize our elected officials' sex scandals on prime-time TV and we have even impeached two presidents. And this distrust of authority is certainly not unwarranted; scandal, corruption, and hypocrisy are rampant in those we consider "authorities" and with the internet, it's a lot harder for a publicist or PR team to keep these things under wraps. We have already lost faith in our leaders; no wonder we are also losing faith in the institutions that are also seen as "supreme authority."

If people feel coerced, they will get up and walk out. This is America and we can do that sort of thing. Respecting authority for authority's sake is no longer a value here.

It's not all about coercion, though. It's not all "Christians are all hypocrites so why should I count myself among them?" -- although that does play a part. The devout would say these people are throwing the baby out with the bathwater, that the hypocrites will end up in hell, and by not believing, you would join them there for eternity. But the reasonable person has already thought through that argument; if the only reason people are leaving the church is because of the hypocrites, then they'll be sorely disappointed to find that the whole world is full of such people, be they Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Atheist.

So there has to be another reason, and it seems to me to be that the old patterns do not fit. One of my friends put it very succinctly on Facebook:
People that i know are "spiritual not religious" have extensively studied and looked at many religions only to find a common thread among them all.
This can be a very traumatic moment for someone who sincerely followed a spiritual path, believing it was the only one.  At this point in a crisis of faith, I think it is very natural for people to go "religion shopping," to put it crudely. We have access to so much information today; people can even go to Beliefnet and take a quiz to figure out what belief they should follow. So I can definitely see how people may try, as Miller put it, "A bit of Yoga here, a Zen idea there." Our lives -spiritual and otherwise- are a process and people who have felt alienated or marginalized by one faith may indeed go searching for another one; they have left the confines of one belief system but don't want to give up on God just yet. I think even those people - especially those people?? - should be treated with dignity and respect as seekers, not dismissed as shallow or dabblers.

[...] the spiritual-but-not-religious outlook sees the human as one that simply wants to experience "nice things" and "feel better." There is little of transformation here and nothing that points to any kind of project that can inspire or transform us.

How arrogant. How is leaving the safety of a path that offered a person no more inspiration or transformation an outlook that offers "little of transformation"? And what is wrong with "feeling better"? Indeed, two of the main purposes of religion throughout time have been to establish social order and to find peace of mind. In this statement, Miller seems to be dismissing this latter purpose (which is why people cling even to mainstream religions) and to reduce religion down to obeying the social order, almost as if he were ridiculing people who do not "fall in line." It's okay to "feel better," it seems, as long as it's in a church where you dress up nice and smell the fragrant incense and go to the yummy church potluck, but if someone's spiritual practices are outside the norm, suddenly their need to "feel better" is something to thumb your nose at.

But I really don't think Miller believes that, because at this point, his article takes a bizarre turn.

At the heart of the spiritual but not religious attitude is an unwillingness to take a real position. Influenced by the contribution of modern science, there is a reluctance to advocate a literalist translation of the world.

Take a position? What position needs to be taken? And what does a literalist translation of the world mean? Literalist as in the Biblical view of creation? Maybe the editors left something out; let's ignore that and just continue reading.

But these people will not abandon their affiliation to the sense that there is "something out there," so they do not go along with a rationalist and materialistic explanation of the world, in which humans are responsible to themselves and one another for their actions - and for the future.
If redemption of humankind can be found in both traditional religion, as he seemed to be saying in the first half of the article, and also in materialistic humanism, why can it not be found also by those who do not fall into either bucket? Also in these two paragraphs, Miller is treading dangerously close to now reducing spiritual belief to the absurd question of how the world came into being, simply to contrast it with a scientific, rationalist viewpoint, which does have answers to those questions - at least in part - and should be favored over foolish religious belief.

Theirs is a world of fence-sitting, not-knowingess, but not-trying-ness either. Take a stand, I say. Which one is it? A belief in God and Scripture or a commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action? Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide.

A wild false dichotomy appears! And therein, the crux of Miller's argument (if you can indeed call it that.) He says you can either choose religious literalism or secular humanism, and at this point, it is obvious which he prefers. However, there are certainly people out there of every faith who think religion and science are not mutually exclusive, and who apply the Enlightenment ideals he speaks of to the daily practice of their faith. We are not people who are either led by blind faith or pure reason. Our lives as human beings cannot be unadulterated by emotion or experiences that we do not yet have the science to describe.

Give us a few more thousand years of science, a few million more years of evolution, and perhaps this dichotomy will more resemble reality. But at this point in time, the fact that people do still search for something beyond themselves does not make them inferior; it makes them humans struggling on the search for meaning in a short life on a brutal planet, and it makes people who place themselves as superior to them look awfully silly.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The acculturation spectrum

Thanks to both the inter-nets and meatspace, I have been lucky to become acquainted with many non-South Asians navigating a South Asian cultural milieu, either in the Indian subcontinent nations or in diaspora communities in Western countries. They are partners of South Asians, religious converts, Bollywood fanatics, conscientious and talented dancers and musicians. Not a single one that I have met is a silly dilettante, to be written off as having invalid motivations and experience. They -- or shall I say, we -- have all undergone some extent of acculturation with South Asian cultures.

I also have many dear friends who are approaching acculturation from opposite perspectives; second-generation Americans of South Asian descent who are enculturating themselves to either South Asian culture or American culture due to parents who rejected one or the other, and South Asians (including second- and third-generation Americans) who have married Caucasian or African-Americans and are acculturating themselves to a home culture different from the one they grew up in.

(Important Note: Are there issues of postcolonial power structures inherent in this topic? Absolutely. They cannot be ignored. But for the purposes of keeping this on topic, I will only mention it tangentially here and work under the assumption of individual authenticity and goodwill - that individuals are not actively trying to subjugate those of a nonwhite culture by their participation in that culture.  We can discuss this more in comments, if you would like.)

In the last 24 hours, I have read two articles by women married to Indians whose viewpoints on acculturation are diametrically opposed to each other.

Chardi Kala Wife writes about her identity as an Indian Australian.

And American Punjaban PI contends that Pardesis can never be Desi.

I found myself agreeing with both of them.

Acculturation isn't a race. It's not a game you're trying to win. It's trying to find the best mix of cultures for you, your partner, and your family. What works for one person could be disastrous for you.

According to J.W. Berry in Applied Psychology: An International Review (1997), the type of acculturation an individual goes through can be plotted on a two-dimensional grid. The answers to two questions determine placement on said grid:
  1. Do I want to maintain the cultural identity that has formed me prior to encountering the new culture? (Cultural maintenance)
  2. Do I want to participate in other cultural settings or remain mostly among my cultural group? (Contact and participation)
Answering no to the first question and yes to the second is considered assimilation or the "melting pot" approach. (However, if loss of your previous cultural identity and participation in the new setting is forced upon you by goverment/society/in-laws, it's considered the "pressure cooker" approach!)

Answering yes to the first question and no to the second is the separation approach. This approach is taken by those who might say, "I will stay in America to work, but I will not allow my children to have any American influence. They will be brought up as pure <insert your ethnic group here.>"  But if people are forced by government/society/in-laws to stay separately from the surrounding culture, but they are still allowed to keep their home culture, this is considered segregation.

Answering yes to both questions leads to the integration approach, where both cultures are respected and practiced; this can only happen if both the individual and their surrounding society are open and inclusive. According to Berry, the individual must adopt the basic values of the dominant culture, and the dominant group must also realize they need to accommodate people who are not exactly like them for the greater good.

Answering no to both questions leads to marginalization: an individual no longer feels at home or welcome in either culture. This can be either self-determined or forced upon individuals by society when they are not allowed to participate in the cultural practices they held pre-acculturation, but they are also rejected by the dominant society.

Think about your answers to each of these questions. Your answers don't have to be absolute; I would say "sort of" or "some" count as "yes" and "not really" or "only a little bit" count as "no." Determine whether you have a positive or negative reaction to each statement.  Which quadrant do you fall into? Are there external factors that turn separation into segregation or assimilation into a pressure cooker for you?  Keep in mind that there is not a 'right' way to acculturate, although assimilation and integration probably have more positive effects on mental health than the others.

Acculturation strategies may differ when dealing with different spheres; a typical example is a college professor of Indian descent who is successful in his work and well-liked and respected by all his colleagues, but speaks his native language at home and his personal friend circle consists only of Indians from his particular linguistic group. He's integrated into the community but takes a separation strategy in his personal life. Do you find yourself choosing or being guided to different strategies in the public and private spheres?

It is very interesting to me to see others who are acculturated into South Asian communities and realize that they are literally all over the grid. No one way to acculturate  is any better than another, as long as your health is staying intact. There are numerous variables that determine the way someone will acculturate, and they're not variables that invite moral judgment. So someone who converts to vegetarianism or chooses to dress in salwar suits instead of jeans or learns to speak their partner's language is doing so because of a myriad of different variables, both personal and social. They're not necessarily being pretentious or showing off; they are assimilating and it's working for them and their societal context.

But they are not "better" or "desier than thou" as compared to those who prefer food from their own culture or track pants or speaking in their own native language while at the same time appreciating their partner's culture. Such people are integrating both cultures, which may be very difficult to do given societal pressures. Likewise, integrators are not better than assimilators; their individual and social situation naturally leads them to taking the best from both worlds and may look nothing like the person who finds it easier to assimilate; it's comparing apples to oranges. And those who are in places where their acculturation is adversely affecting their mental and physical health should be supported, not judged.

What is your acculturation strategy?

What elements of your personal situation do you think contribute to that?

Do you feel your strategy has been more in your control, out of your control, or a mixture of both?

Do you employ different strategies in different spheres (home, work, school, when abroad, when home)?

Want to take a guess at the strategies I use? :)

If you would like to share, please do share in the comments below.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Cultural Ambassadors, or How To Actually Learn Something

While having another lovely and lively conversation with Ambaa the other day, a very interesting question was brought up, and that was the question of "cultural ambassadors."

It's a bit racist to expect that any given person of another culture can and should be a window to that culture for your knowledge and edification. At best, it's simply the intellectual fallacy of "one person represents the entire group." At worst, it's another exercise of white privilege and entitlement - that you believe you deserve to be, ought to be, educated in the ways of this strange culture by this representative of said culture.

At this point, the frustrated do-gooder throws up her hands and says, "You want me to learn. How am I supposed to learn, if you don't teach me?"

Well, you can always start learning on your own. Books are always good, and there's this thing called the Internet.

But even there, don't you need a starting place?

If you want to learn more about another culture, and you read only an introductory textbook, or worse, writings by colonial-era authors about the people they colonized, complete with the racist structures of the times, you will get a very incomplete picture.

This is partially why it's so easy for people to mistake Muslims and Sikhs, why they only things the everyday American knows about Hinduism are caste and cows. Sure, there's a lot of information out there, but where do you start?

Maybe you don't have to do anything. Maybe you just need to stop doing something instead. Stop talking. Stop overthinking. Stop stereotyping. Watch. Listen. Experience. Build relationships with people that are not based on the fact they're from another culture, but because they're interesting people. We all have differences in how we approach things; you learn from your disagreements and arguments. You learn when you ask questions with a sincere desire to know in a situation where it's ok and comfortable to ask.

But, much like relationship-based selling, this doesn't work if the emphasis is on the secondary part. You won't sell a product if you are building a relationship with an ulterior motive of selling. You have to build the relationship for its own sake. Likewise, you can't learn anything about another culture if you're only building relationships because you are curious about the culture. Every second of your interaction, then, is viewed through your lens of what they probably view through their cultural lens. Meta, isn't it? Build relationships with people, not with expectations. Expectations that they will give you something you are looking for. Relationships are for connecting, not for getting. And it's through connecting with other people that you learn about life in general and how to be a better human. That's the goal, not finding out about some strange and exotic culture.

Because nothing is strange and exotic, really. It's all normal to somebody; if it wasn't, it wouldn't exist.

The goal in becoming proficient in cross-cultural communication is not to know everything about a culture. It's about how to shift into a different sort of normal. And you can't learn that from reading books or interrogating people. You learn it by watching, listening, living in relationship with others. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

One of those girls

I've gotten used to that feeling now. It's the Inward Cringe. The eye rolling, slightly sinking feeling when a politician doesn't know the difference between Muslims and Sikhs, a celebrity thinks it's okay to use brownface, a movie star shoots a film about India and converts to Hinduism as a result, and most recently, when a magazine prints a feature full of embarrassing cultural appropriation.

And it's weird that this makes me uncomfortable, because I'm not even Indian. Or maybe it is because I'm not Indian. I'm married to an Indian citizen, have lived in India, and have been acquainted with Indian communities in the US for over a decade. And every time one of these stories pops up, I'm a little embarrassed and frustrated - how come people don't have even basic intercultural knowledge when it comes to South Asia? - and at the same time, I wonder if I am perceived in the same way as Julia Roberts or Anja Ploetz -- as "one of those girls." A cultural dabbler; a dilettante; the girl who, wearing a sparkly salwar suit in the convenience store, tries to strike up a conversation in Hindi with the Sri Lankan working behind the counter; someone who flippantly talks about how Americans don't really have a culture so is it so wrong if I like yours? It's so spiritual. So colorful.

I feel I have to justify myself in some ways, so here's my story, in short form: I'm married to an Indian, who I met because I was learning Hindi and he thought it was weird. I was learning Hindi because I had recently started singing in it. Singing in Hindi happened because a few of my friends from India would listen to their CDs in my car and I learned some of the words so I could sing along, then one of them entered me in a talent showcase and it spiraled a little out of control to the point where I had 1-2 singing engagements a month. Plus, I wanted to learn Hindi so that I understood when these same friends were talking about me. :) They taught me to cook, we'd hang out together, we'd go to cultural events together; making Indian food and wearing bangles to appropriate events quickly seemed normal to me, not weird or special or exotic. We'd make vada pav and then go watch an independent movie at the Angelika in jeans and halter tops, or we'd go for a Diwali celebration dressed up in sarees and then have dinner at an Italian restaurant. I was brought up in multicultural cities and understood that "different" from one point of view was "normal" from another one, and that nothing was really "different" once you got used to it. Cultural mix was just a part of life.

And when I was singing, I tried to be especially careful. I knew I didn't understand everything, and I wanted to make sure I was appropriate, not appropriating. Even when in Indian dress, I refused to wear bindis for the longest time, mostly because of the impression Madonna and Gwen Stefani gave of white women wearing bindis. It was not until I was at an engagement and a woman huffily stuck a bindi on my forehead in the bathroom that I actually wore one on stage. Eventually, my rule of thumb became "do appropriate things when appropriate." And to do this requires a lot of listening and not very much talking, a lot of observing and as little "look at me" as possible. It requires humility, gratitude, and the constant need to 'check your privilege' and realize that you can be both a guest and a part of the group all at the same time. It requires building relationships, building trust, and - this is the tough one - being okay with however others choose to view you.

But I still bristle when someone asks me "why I am into Indian culture" because even though Indian culture is a fairly major influence on my life, culture isn't something you're "into" like knitting or river rafting or the complete works of Justin Bieber. I know this, but I don't know that other people know that I know this. And although I certainly accept that I can't change anyone's first impression of me, I still do not want to be viewed as that silly dilettante, as one of those girls. I've spent ten years deconstructing stereotypes, trying to not become a stereotype, and every time something like this hits the news, it seems it's back to square one. It's almost like I have to say something about Julia Roberts, Gwen Stefani, Anja Ploetz, in order to distance myself from them, to prove that I am somehow different from them.

But at the same time, am I?

What do I know about Anja Ploetz other than what the editors of New York Magazine decided to include in their 100-word article? What do I know about the blonde girl in the magenta sari at the farmers market?

Does being married to an Indian or living in India or having a basic understanding of intercultural communication make us superior to those who do not have that kind of connection?

Does it give us the right to judge?

Is it appropriate to try to distance ourselves from those we perceive as dilettantes?

Does it give us the responsibility to educate or deconstruct stereotypes?

Let me know your thoughts.


(This post is in part inspired by Jessica Kumar's article "Conversion vs. Covenant: White Hinduism - a Religion of its Own?")