These multiple and layered identities are the result of cultural and population exchanges between regions, of arrivals of people from outside South Asia who became part of its cultural fabric, and of displacement caused by European colonization. The legacies of the colonial period continue to manifest themselves in South Asia and in diasporic communities; hence, it is not unusual to find South Asians whose migrant journeys span generations and continents, as is the case with Parsis, an Indian ethnic group of Persian origin who found employment in East Africa under the British colonial administration that also ruled India. In 1972, expelled along with other Asians by post-independence dictator Idi Amin, they may have attempted to find refuge in Canada because it is part of the British Commonwealth and, itself, a former colony. Other multiple diaspora South Asian origin groups include Indian Fijian and Siddhi (African descended) Pakistani Americans, for example. As immigrants, South Asians share many similarities with other Asian American groups, but they have not generally been part of the larger ethnic umbrella group.
“Desi” is a term often used to encompass pan-South Asian identity in the United States. Originally meaning “of the land,” the word desi connotes the idea of origin and connection while also recognizing the transnational, shifting, strategic, and pieced-together identity of an otherwise diverse and often disparate group. The appearance and adoption of the term desi, even if not uniformly, implies a process of self-definition and a means by which to construct a multifaceted immigrant identity.
AFFILIATION AS IDENTITY
The region of South Asia has long been synonymous with India, and more specifically north India, whose historical, religious, and cultural sway have greatly influenced the area and the global imagination at large. The mistaken interchangeability of India with the wider and very diverse location of South Asia adds even more confusion to questions of naming of ethnic American identities, when it comes to South Asians in the United States. Consider that the term “Indian,” as used in North America, does not necessarily differentiate between those of Asian origin or Native Americans (perhaps explaining why the U.S. Census has employed the classification “Asian Indian” for clarity). Also, the term “South Asian,” which has gained currency only lately and not necessarily within all ranks and generations of the community it seeks to aggregate, correctly identifies geographic and historic origin but seems phenotypically at odds with the commonly held notion that Asian Americans are only those of East and Southeast Asian origin.
In the civil rights era of the 1960s, Asian American identity centered on ethnic movements that attempted to address the lack of recognition of communities, some which traced their immigration histories back to the nineteenth century such as Chinese and Japanese Americans. In comparison, while indentured and other laborers of South Asian descent had been in the United States during this period, their numbers were far smaller and generally understudied. Increased visibility came with the arrival of greater numbers after the 1965
immigration laws changed to attract educated and skilled immigrant labor from South Asia and elsewhere.
Immigrants who arrived during the post-1965 period were thus differently skilled than those South Asians, primarily Punjabis, who settled in the Pacific Northwest and California in the early nineteenth century and onward and who took to farming, which was in keeping with their agricultural background. What both sets of immigrants—nineteenth century and post-1965—had in common is that shared religious and cultural practices allowed for community formation. The Punjab region crosses the borders of what are today northern India and Pakistan and is also a multifaith area, with Sikhism being one of thereligions followed. Though secular and multifaith, India’s population is predominantly Hindu, as are most U.S. immigrants from that country; similarly, Pakistan, a theocracy, is largely Muslim, as are most of its emigrés. These differences may suggest that South Asian immigrants of various ethnic and national origins limit their associations with each other in their adoptive countries, and while that possibility exists, shared histories, customs, and, in some cases, religious backgrounds, have fostered panethnic community formation for South Asians in the United States.
Professional and class-based affiliations should also be credited for the roles they play in this process. At universities, South Asian student-founded organizations, though often ethnic-specific, may also offer opportunities for multiethnic desi programs, focusing on culture or community service. These youth-based
affiliations also extend into off-campus venues, such as the club scene. These trends, though largely more visible among second-generation South Asians, have also aided gender-based community projects, such as South Asian women’s organizations that counsel and shelter female victims of domestic abuse, including
women who are first-generation immigrants. Just as pan-South Asian identity may be fostered through community design, factors external to the community can also play their part. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in which the World Trade Center’s “Twin Towers” were demolished by hijacked planes, many South Asians found themselves detained by authorities for interrogation or fell victim to vigilante violence by those seeking revenge against anyone thought to resemble the perpetrators of the attacks. The conflation of Muslim/Islamic, Middle Eastern/Semitic, and South Asian identities, be they in targeting individuals based on phenotypic appearance or erroneous assumptions about religious and ethnic garb, caused both the ironic possibility of pan-South Asian solidarity in protest against the violence and detentions, but also equally widespread disidentifications based on ethnic and religious differences within the larger South Asian community and against other national-origin communities, usually Muslim-identified ones. This desire for safety was thus predicated upon an appeal to American solidarity, but it also ostracized specific groups within and without the South Asian community. Some took great pains in explaining the significance of religious garb unique to their faiths to mainstream audiences in hopes of gaining acceptance and tolerance. However, these same efforts also resulted in disidentifications between various marginalized communities.
The high visibility of U.S. South Asians in lucrative professions related to medicine, finance, engineering, and computers, among others, is often in contrast to those, equally visible, employed as taxi drivers and convenience store clerks. While the former, described as immigrants of opportunity, made their way to the United States post-1965, their sometimes less-privileged kin followed suit under family reunification provisions made in the 1980s, and they had to take on professions that did not match those of their more affluent sponsors. In some cases, it is the enterprising, earlier-arriving family members whose investment in the form of a motel or franchised convenience store has provided the possibility of employment for a newly arrived family member of lesser means. South Asian–owned franchises of popular businesses, such as fast-food restaurants and gas stations, rely on kinship networks to staff their venues, but they also attract nonfamily employees of similar ethnic origins. These kinship and ethnic-solidarity networks, while supportive, can also be fraught with the possibility of abuse, where new or undocumented immigrants may be taken advantage of because of their lack of knowledge or because of their precarious position in the eyes of the law. To protect against these and other kinds of labor abuses, including those by corporations, organizing efforts have given rise to desi organizations such as New York City’s Workers’Awaaz, a nonprofit dedicated to educating South Asian women employed in domestic service about their rights, and Taxi Workers Alliance, which protects the rights of taxi drivers of South Asian origin.
In addition to class and professionally based distinctions between South Asians in the United States, there is also the added dimension of ethnic and national origin. Not all South Asians immigrate to the United States directly from South Asia. Those that come from other diasporic locations, such as the Caribbean, Guyana, Suriname, parts of Africa, or Fiji, may be differently skilled than their counterparts from South Asian countries. Even within South Asian countries, not all have the same opportunities available to future immigrants, often necessitating their departure in search of opportunities abroad. This also indicates that South Asians, of various class and ethnic backgrounds, often have transnational families and maintain ties that cross continents. Thus, while South Asians in America may regularly be identified as a model minority, this is not a uniformly panethnic trait and is a supposition that belies the class diversity and some of the issues facing these communities.