I’ve gotten this comment in multiple forms from various people, but especially from people within the South Asian community. I’m a high school teacher in Texas, at a Title I school where the population is 93 percent Hispanic/Latinx and 88 percent low socioeconomic status. In contrast, I went to a high school in Northern Virginia, which was one of the top 100 high schools in the nation, and in one of the most affluent counties in the country. I was surrounded by high-achieving students, South Asian or otherwise, and never had to think twice about access to a good public school. So when I would explain to people I grew up with — especially my South Asian peers — that the school I taught at was different than the schools we had attended, I was often met with thinly masked racist comments.
“Your job must be so hard — I bet they never listen to you.”
“What do you mean they haven’t learned English yet? Are they even trying?”
“Do they even value an education?”
Many of the comments that I’ve gotten have fallen into this trap — the trap of blaming my largely Mexican-immigrant students for their socioeconomic status due to their perceived lack of hard work or apathy towards education. I’ve seen this attitude throughout the South Asian community, and the broader Asian American community as well. So many of us have fallen into this trap, believing that because we somehow made it in America that all other minorities must be able to make it too, if they just worked hard enough. This is because too many of us have come to believe that as Asian immigrants, we are superior to other immigrants, or other racial minorities. We’ve fallen into the trap of the “model minority.”
The Model Minority Myth
“Asian American”, or Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) is often used as a vague descriptor for one of the most diverse racial groups in the world — a word used to describe people across multiple ethnicities, cultures, and languages, from Pakistani-Americans to Polynesian-Americans. And all too often, this vague and diverse racial group is reduced to the stereotype of the “model minority” — the idea that AAPIs have immigrated to this country and achieved the ever-elusive American Dream by working hard, and have the amassed the education and wealth to prove it. In a column for the New York Times, Nicholas Kristoff cites the “Asian Advantage”, saying that members of the AAPI community are more highly educated than the average American (yes, including those who are white). Other statistics show that members of the AAPI community have median household incomes comparable to their white peers. However, these statistics are incomplete and misleading and only serve to bolster the myth of the model minority.
1. It buoys a racist system that hurts “non-model” people of color in this country.
2. The stereotype of the “model minority”, like all stereotypes, is an incomplete narrative of the stories and struggles of the AAPI community.
To label one minority, and one group of color as the “model” is to imply that all other groups of color are “non-model”. It implicitly casts blame on other racial minorities in the U.S. for their socioeconomic obstacles. It says to African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans “Hey, if Asians can come to this country and ‘make it’, why can’t you?” It says to these groups “We see your struggles, but clearly you’re not trying hard enough.” It says to these groups “Why can’t you be more like them?” It invalidates the struggles of other groups of color and equates the oppression and racism felt by those groups with those of the AAPI community. This is not to say that the AAPI community doesn’t face oppression — however, the oppression of one group of color is not the same, nor equal, to the oppression of other groups of color.
Additionally, to label all persons within an enormously diverse and heterogeneous racial group as the “model” inevitably masks large pockets of poverty, struggle, and oppression. Yes, when you look at the AAPI community as one pervasive umbrella, it can be easy to assume that all Asian-Americans are economically successful and highly educated. However, this largely only applies to Indian-Americans and Chinese-Americans, many of whom came to the U.S. through a visa program that favors highly educated Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) professionals. In particular, according to an analysis of census data done by the Center for American Progress, Bangladeshi, Hmong, Cambodian, Thai, and Vietnamese Americans have some of the lowest rates of college and higher degree attainment in the U.S. A study by the Brookings Institute shows that there are also vast differences in access to good schools within the AAPI community, with Hmong and Bangladeshi Americans having much lower access to good schools than Indian and Chinese Americans.
Because of the pervasiveness of the model minority myth, studies such as the ones by the Center for American Progress and the Brookings Institute are few and far between. There is little research on the AAPI community in general, much less the subgroups that fall under that umbrella. This means that Congress, policy groups, and school systems are unable to recognize and respond to the diverse circumstances of AAPI students. Instead, members of the AAPI community are lumped under an incomplete stereotype, and their needs are neglected.
In our school system, this also means teachers may carry implicit biases towards AAPI students and view them as inherently smarter than other minority students. This can lead to preferential treatment towards AAPI students and even greater harm to other racial minorities in the classroom as teachers begin to believe that there is such as thing as “model” and “non-model” minority. Additionally, this often leads to teachers and schools ignoring the needs of AAPI students by assuming that they don’t have any educational needs. In particular, AAPI students who are English Language Learners (ELL) are left at the margins. As a report by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) notes, most schools don’t provide services to ELL students, especially when those students’ first language is a language other than Spanish. Nearly 1 in 4 AAPI students are ELL. Between the ages 5 and 17, 52 percent of Hmong Americans, 39 percent of Vietnamese Americans, 34 percent of Bangladeshi Americans, and 33 percent of Cambodian Americans are ELL.
Because of these statistics, advocates in the AAPI community are pushing for data disaggregation — a push to split data by ethnic groups within the AAPI community so that information can be gathered to meet the needs of at-risk groups, including Hmong, Cambodian, Bangladeshi, and Vietnamese Americans. However, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the most recent iteration of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the most comprehensive piece of legislation in U.S. education policy, did not include any measures to disaggregate data for the AAPI community. The power and pervasiveness of the model minority myth has allowed our education system to ignore the issues facing marginalized groups within the AAPI umbrella.
However, the power and pervasiveness of the “model minority” myth does not just come from the dominant white culture — it comes from members of our own AAPI community buying into the myth. Many members of the AAPI community — including South Asians — look down on other racial minorities for their seeming inability to break the cycle of poverty the way immigrants in our community seem to have done so. I’ve seen this through anti-blackness within the AAPI community. I’ve seen it in the faces of my family members once they learn that many of my students are undocumented (despite the fact that Indians are the fastest growing group of undocumented immigrants). We continue to put down other immigrant groups and hold ourselves up to the pedestal as the “model” for others to follow. We puff our chests and inflate our egos believing that we are the true proof of the American Dream, that we do better because we value an education more and work harder than any other minority in this country. The model minority myth persists not just because white people believe it — it persists because we believe it.
A Call To Action
While the model minority myth has persisted for decades, the AAPI community is beginning to speak out. However, there are several additional steps that we, as a South Asian community, can take to push back against this stereotype.
1. Support politicians and campaigns that support data disaggregation for AAPI students.
Look up your representatives, and see whether or not they have ever released a statement regarding data disaggregation or services for AAPI students. Find out what your representative has done for the AAPI and South Asian community. Donate to and support organizations that are campaigning against the model minority myth. Some non-profits, like OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates, actively advocated for data disaggregation during the time of the passage of the ESSA. Do your research, and see how you can get involved.
2. Celebrate and elevate diverse narratives in the South Asian and AAPI community (and call out the narratives that are one-dimensional).
Over the past few years, we’ve started to see greater representations of AAPIs and South Asians in television — and more nuanced representations of these groups. From Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to the Mindy Project, AAPIs are taking over television, and in ways that go beyond the typical tropes assigned to us. Even collections of poetry such as “Milk and Honey“ by Rupi Kaur and the novels of Jhumpa Lahiri have brought to light aspects of the South Asian immigrant experience that would have not otherwise been seen. We need to elevate the stories of South Asians and AAPIs who break the mold and celebrate when people show nuanced AAPI characters in literature and television.
However, even with increasing diversity in literature and television, we cannot allow one-dimensional representations of our community to persist. One way to break one-dimensional representations is by joining in on campaigns against stereotypes surrounding AAPIs and South Asians. Some college campus organizations have launched campaigns to tackle the model minority myth, and Brown Girl Magazine recently worked alongside the Washington Leadership Program to launch our own campaign to fight against stereotypes in the South Asian community.
3. Be an ally within the AAPI community and across other communities of color.
Part of the reason the model minority persists is because of the racist systems that use it as a weapon against other communities of color. By allying with other racial minorities, and by confronting the anti-blackness within our own community, we can work against the model minority myth and prove that there isn’t just one minority that is a “model” for others. Go to meetings for the Black Student Alliance or Latino Student Alliance at your college campus. Start conversations with your friends and family about the anti-blackness and racism you see around you. Challenge the notion that your socioeconomic status is only determined by “hard work.” Check your privilege, and encourage others to do the same. Show up for the causes that matter to other communities of color. Our struggles may be different, but they are not separate.
With fears of a weakened public school system and anti-immigrant rhetoric on the rise, it is crucial that we work to remedy the harmful consequences of the model minority myth, both on the AAPI community and on other racial minorities — particularly within our school systems. Not all AAPIs are highly educated; not all AAPIs have access to good schools; not all AAPIs have access to the services they need within their schools, and it harms both ourselves and other marginalized groups to buy into the racist myth that we are superior to other minorities. Without a complete and multi-dimensional narrative of AAPIs within the school system, it will be impossible for AAPIs to have equal educational opportunity, and thus impossible to have equal economic opportunity. Most importantly, as long as we continue to believe the model minority myth, as long as we remain in the trap of putting down other minorities and holding ourselves up as a paragon of the American Dream, the model minority myth will continue to exist. Breaking the model minority myth doesn’t just benefit the AAPI or South Asian community — it benefits everyone.
Mayura Iyer is a graduate of the University of Virginia and is presently pursuing a Master of Public Policy. She hopes to use her policy knowledge and love of writing to change the world. She is particularly interested in the dynamics of race in the Asian-American community, domestic violence, mental wellness, and education policy. Her caffeine-fueled pieces have also appeared in Literally, Darling, BlogHer, and Mic.com.
July 7, 2023September 10, 2023 11min readBy Ushma Shah
BGM literary editor Nimarta Narang is honored to work with author Ushma Shah in this utterly creative and novel, pun not intended, story about a young woman who has just moved to the United States with her husband, and her trusted diary. Ushma is a short story writer and an aspiring novelist. She has her short stories published in a few anthologies and online literary magazines like Kitaab and The Chakkar. She was born in Mumbai and raised in Mumbai and Cochin. She has an MBA and works in the corporate world. Work and life have given her the opportunity to live in multiple cities in India. She currently resides in Seattle and goes by the handle @penthythoughts on Instagram.
She is the kind of person who doesn’t like to go into stores without a purpose. But she sometimes does. And that’s how she becomes a hoarder. She also prefers only tried and tested places. The kind where she doesn’t have to go out empty-handed. The urge to not disappoint people is strong. So she ends up buying useless things. Like a snow globe with a turnkey. Or 12. She loves the tiny magical people and animals in it. Rotating. Glowing. Musical. But I am deviating from the point. Who am I, you ask? I am her. A piece of her. She takes me everywhere. Writes down her thoughts in me. Writes how her day was. That’s why I know her so well. Why am I telling you all this? Because she hasn’t written for a week now. Longest she has gone in half a decade. I don’t understand it. She won’t tell me anything anymore and I am just so curious. No, curious is the wrong word. The intensity is just not right. I am impatient. Restless. Maybe even hurt, too? I see what she does. How she looks. But that’s just not enough. Not for me. Her confidante for five years and suddenly it’s all poof.
Human addiction is a true addiction. I was superior for those glorious thoughts that nobody knew about her. She doesn’t look happy. She opens and shuts me, picks me up and then back down. In her new Michael Kors bag she bought recently at a premium outlet mall. She always wanted to see a new country. 32-years-old and she had never visited any country other than the one she was born in — India. She should be happy she is finally here. She couldn’t stop chirping about it when they got their visas approved. She and her husband. She has been here for three months now. Initially, she was happy. But then the euphoria died down and anxiety kicked in. The last thing she wrote was: “I haven’t had a bath for a week now.” Her husband is too busy with work to notice. The new project takes up most of his time. Plus navigating life in a new country is a project in itself. I hear him not understanding why an appointment is required for a self-guided tour of the apartments. And that they have appointments only till 5 p.m. which means they have to go house hunting during his office hours. Downtown Bellevue mostly has apartments for rent that are managed by corporations rather than individuals. But at least he is okay with the cold, having survived Delhi weather all throughout his life. It also doesn’t help that she is not used to the cold, having lived in Mumbai all her life. It only needed to turn 22 degrees Celsius in Mumbai when she used to set off; removing her sweaters and jackets from the untouched-for-a-year cupboard. So house hunting is a major bummer, painstaking process even for her. In a place where it always drizzles but doesn’t bring the smell of wet mud. Everything around her is concrete. Asphalt. Sterile.
One day on their way back, they visited the Meydenbauer Beach Park along Lake Washington. I saw a hint of a smile. The first one in a week. The pine trees are a solace. They stand strong, holding their ground at maybe a 100 feet. She cranes her neck back and tries to catch a look at the tip. Making her feel dizzy. She feels like she is falling back. Tilting her five feet frame. She removes her feet from the shoes. She looks at the rounded stones. Big stones. The size of an ottoman big enough to comfortably sit on but hard enough to not sit for long.
But by the end of the visit, she looked worse. That night she wrote and I was thankful for the visit. The first sentence read: I feel claustrophobic. She has lived in Mumbai all her life and never knew that subconsciously the sea made such a big impact on her psyche. The sea, unending in its view. Its waves crashing and rebelling against the rocks gave her a sense of space even though she lived in a one-room kitchen apartment. The warmth. She missed the warmth, although sometimes too stifling. The sweat, and the saltwater smell. There was much to be thankful for here in Bellevue, even though there were no crashing waves and it was 45 degrees Fahrenheit today. The sand, too cold. But there was peace, there was calm. But what about the sounds that she craved, the feeling that stimulated her senses? That accompanied her every morning: the ‘tring tring’ of the cycles, the ‘tip tip’ of the water overflowing from the tank after it was filled. The daily TV news her Ma watched. The smell of her morning chai with grated ginger. The ting ting of her small bell during pooja. These are the things that she does not write but I know her. I know how to read between the lines.
But somewhere I have failed her. I must have. If she did not find comfort in writing. For how could she have gone on without it for a week? How could she? She is as used to me as I am to her. Or at least I thought that.
But now is not the time to feel irritated. She has started writing again. I was overjoyed; I thought everything would be back to normal now. How naive was I? A few lines in, and I am worried. I am also worried that my annoyance will seep through the pages and into her hands. She writes: I miss my place where the duration of the days and nights are almost the same throughout the year. A place where I don’t have to see a 4:30 pm sunset. Or a sunrise after 7:30 am. Nobody prepared me for less than 10 hours of daytime. I feel like I took the sun for granted. When I first came here in October, the sun set at around 7 p.m. Every day, the sun set a little early from then on. 6:50, 6:43, 6:22, 6 p.m., 5:54 p.m. And then on November 6 came the thing I was least prepared for. The Daylight Savings. I would gain an hour, they said! What I gained was a sense of doom. Because the clocks were set back by an hour, the sun set before 5 p.m. every day from then on.
The seasons are what make me. Why then, am I afraid of the seasons? No matter what the weather, the weather is constant. It is constantly too hot, or too cold or just not warm enough or just not cool enough. Every day in itself brings a new season.
“Oh, there is a heavy rain forecast for the whole day today.”
“Do you know it’s going to snow today?”
“Amazing weather! Isn’t it a perfect day to travel?”
Seasons are a universal language, everyone understands it. It transcends manmade boundaries. Just as I am feeling the cold under the layers of clothes I wear. A breeze rippling through the surface of the lake water makes me shiver. If the seasons are what make me, why do I feel cold and sad. Maybe because I long for a different weather. Having grown up in a tropical city, my body is not used to the cold. But is that all? The great reason for the hollow? It can’t be. And I am restless because I can’t figure it out. If not this, then what else? What else could it possibly be?
When she writes this I figure it out. I am always able to figure her out. Her mind does not want to go there. Because after all, this is the life she chose. Of course, how could I have been so blind?
Around two weeks ago I observed her. Observed and observed for a few hours. A few days. Even then I knew something was amiss. She was writing but her heart wasn’t in it. It was dwindling. She doodled and dawdled. A sentence here. A sentence there. Then I was discarded on the coffee table in front of her. My observations, you ask? She scrolls through LinkedIn, going through a series of posts about the looming recession. She searches and applies obsessively to 50 job openings every day. And day after day, her laptop or phone chimes in with a rejection email. She refreshes. Refreshes. Refreshes. Every 10 minutes. Whatever she is doing. No matter if she is in the kitchen or the washroom or the living room. She is glued to her phone checking for a new email. A new job opening. She set her filters to relevant job openings… And then goes on to the painstaking process of filling her details out on different company portals. When she reached the USA, she was hopeful. Of finding a new job. Was very optimistic. She had worked with global companies in India after all. Surely that had to account for something. But with each passing day, the light within her dimmed just a little. Bit by bit. I hate to admit it but I didn’t come to this conclusion when I observed her. It struck me when I stopped and she wrote again. Sometimes I need a macro perspective after micro is too much. She is so inside her head and not on paper that she cannot understand. But I also don’t think it is as easy to pinpoint. It’s a combination of things in her life, culminating in a single point of paralysis. Even now, who knows? It’s just my opinion of a subject I don’t understand completely. She is talented enough to fool everyone around her. Her friends and family also do not know this about her. They think she is enjoying her break from work. They think she is immensely enjoying the exploration of a new country without a worry in the world. She hates admitting that she is miserable. She wants them to feel that she has got it all together. That her life is perfect. When they go through her social media profile, they find her happy pictures. Ecstatic even.
A couple of months ago when she was leaving for the USA, her office colleagues had warned her: “One of my sisters lives in the States. She is miserable there. Wants to come back but her husband doesn’t.”
“He has a high-paying tech job and all so he is okay. But he is on an H1-B visa without an I-140.”
“So? What does that mean?”
“Which means the spouse can’t work. So she can’t work.”
“I am surprised you didn’t know this.”
“I haven’t started my research yet on the visa types and job search. But I intend to.”
“It is very important to understand your options. It is not always as picture-perfect as it seems. My sister is busy doing all the household chores. And she is not happy. Her social life was here. She has no friends there. Only his work friends they mingle with.”
“I know about my visa type though. I can still work there.”
“Oh, honey,” she gives a sympathetic smile, “but everyone wants to convert into an H1-B once they go there. So there could be a brief period where you might have to be unemployed.”
“But that doesn’t matter. Because we intend to come back in a few years. We just want to experience a different work environment and culture and to have that thrill of living in a new country. But only for a few years.”
“Honey, they all say that. As I said, consider your options once you are there before you decide anything. Okay?”
“I will, thanks. I am sure my husband would also check about these things. It is a major decision after all.”
“Oh, I am sure he would.”
She was very emotional on the last day of her job. She had worked there straight out of B-school. She had met some people who would become close friends and some who were toxic. But on the last day, she knew she would miss them all. She didn’t think that saying goodbye would be this difficult. Her name on the desk and chair in bright white letters with a black background came alive with memories. Memories of birthdays celebrated, lunches ordered, huddles and meetings, apprehension of deadlines, the adrenaline rush of getting it done just in time, the accolades. It felt empty by itself if not for the people she surrounded herself with. Her friends.
Her colleagues. They motivated her and pushed her to give her best. Her manager was always an inspiration. Solving problems and giving solutions in a way she herself didn’t think was possible. She learned a lot from each of them. But she was excited to begin a new chapter. But the isolation in a new country was what she hadn’t counted on.
Her husband noticed when she hadn’t had a bath for a couple of days. He thought it could be laziness. When he asked her about it, she said she would. Her reply was curt, and tone grumpy, so he left it at that. After a week of the whole no-bath scenario, her husband thought it was time to have a talk. This wasn’t one of those phases she would overcome on her own. A little push. A little nudge would maybe do her some good. When he saw her refreshing her Gmail inbox for the umpteenth time that day, he said,
“You know, we came to this country to experience a new place, a new city.”
“Hmm.” Eyes glued to the screen.
“Don’t you think it’s time to do that?”
He places his hand in front of her phone.
“What are you so worried about?”
She looked at him for a moment before answering. “That I won’t find another job. Every day on LinkedIn, there is a new company that’s laying off or announcing a hiring freeze and I am worried that my career break will just go on longer.”
“But weren’t you always saying that you needed some time off to pursue your passion of writing?”
“All that’s good to talk about. But I need to focus on my career too.”
“I understand that, but the recession is not your fault. You are doing everything you can.”
“I need to do more.”
“You need to get the bigger picture. Zoom out. You have a glorious opportunity to work on your writings. You have notebooks filled with stories. Don’t you think it is time you polished the pieces and submitted them somewhere?”
“What I need to do is get a job.”
“You will get it but the time that you have right now, in between jobs, is hard to come by. Think about it. You can try to do what you always talked about doing. Or was all that just big talk?” I could see, she took the bait.
She considered. “Hmm,” was all she said.
“I also found something for you.”
He had searched for a public library nearby. A magnificent three-storied red brick building standing beside a park. Just a mile away from their home. She could get herself a membership there. I thought this was an amazing idea. She had always wanted a house near a library. I could tell that this piqued her interest even if she feigned indifference to her husband. She wanted to see it first. I could see it in her eyes. And here I thought that the husband was too busy to notice her worries. I guess he was letting her be. Well, I couldn’t have guessed it. I can’t read his thoughts.
The next morning, she woke up to her alarm at 7:30 a.m. and had a shower. She was ready by 8:30 a.m., in time for the library to be open by 9 a.m. She was armed with her warmest winter jacket and a beanie. Wandered around the streets on her way to the Bellevue library. Taking in the strollers with their prams and pets. Warm coffees in their hands. In 10 minutes, she was standing in front of the library and was not disappointed. Covered with floor-to-ceiling glass panes, she could peer inside as she walked to the front door. She was also pleasantly surprised at a life-sized bronze statue of Mahatma Gandhi just outside the library; in the midst of now barren trees. There was ample seating space inside. Aisles and aisles of books: classics, romance, historical fiction, new interesting fiction and non-fiction sections, choice reads, monthly picks, and a dedicated holds section for reserved books.
Her husband was right. Isn’t this what she always wanted to explore? Read and write. Write and read. Surround herself with books and pages. She had found her place. She touched her fingers in reverence to the cracked paperbacks, reminding her of the piles of books she left behind at her place in India. She borrowed a few novels and set off with them and me in her backpack. Couldn’t resist a warm cup of coffee from a cafe she spotted. Picked a window-facing table overlooking a park. She read as she finished her coffee. A good girl’s guide to murder was a page-turner. It was the first time in months that she had ventured out on her own. She felt at ease. At peace. Her breath, a little lighter. A little deeper. She saw two dogs playing outside. Free and wild. She picked up her phone and googled bookstores and art galleries around. She found that a couple of independent bookstores nearby also host monthly book clubs and writing clubs. She signed up for them and started off in the direction of the art gallery.
I was happy. She was bouncing back. One step at a time.
The feedback from the microphone gratingly penetrated the vacant bubble I had fallen into after watching yet another performance by the youth, educating us on the benefits of Jainism. I had been daydreaming of the skits I had put on as a child, remembering the diligence with which I memorized my lines. “Why did I?” I wondered. I never truly knew what these skits were about. I knew the plot, but they all felt a little too neat to me.
Every problem had an answer; every story ended triumphantly. Victory over evil. Good deeds are rewarded. Back on stage, I saw an auntie wrapped in a sparkly red sari walking to the center of the stage, her hands folded together graciously. “Let’s put another hand together for these children!” she said, gesturing behind her. Some children sheepishly peeked out from behind the curtain. “And let’s thank their parents. Parents, it is your responsibility to bring your children to the temple. Without your involvement, our children will not know the correct way to live. It is your duty, your dharam.”
Glancing over at my mom, I could see her eyes clouding as she clapped. The weight of that word was not lost on me, and it certainly wasn’t lost on my mother. Dharam felt like a heavy word. To me, it felt like it somehow encompassed morality, duty, and culture all into one. Many religions have a version of dharam, they all define it differently, but it always seems to boil down to the same idea: a guide on how to live one’s life. I felt like it was interpreted in a much more rigid and arbitrary manner. The skit highlighted waking up early, not spending too long on your phone, and doing your homework as dharam. Growing up, some of the whims of my parents: not staying out after dark, spending too much time with our friends versus our work, and being obedient, also fell under the umbrella of dharam. Dharam was being diluted.
Dharam, when broken down into its roots, means ‘to support’. But often it would feel like the opposite of this, suffocating with heavy expectations that seemed to grow with each year. What did it mean to be a good daughter, good sister, or good person? How had a guide on how to live life turned into the only correct way to live at all?
I remember telling my mother I wasn’t sure I believed in religion anymore. My mom was driving me back from the temple, and it no longer felt peaceful to me; no longer felt right. Walking around after the pooja, speaking to all of the aunties and uncles…I felt out of place. All of them told me how lucky I was that my parents were such pillars of our faith. They forced me to promise that I would come to the temple every time I was in town when I knew deep down that I wouldn’t. It felt wrong lying; it felt wrong to pretend that I was religious when I wasn’t anymore.
My mother’s nostrils flared, but she kept her eyes on the road. She increased the speed of the windshield wipers even though it was only drizzling slightly.
“How can you say that? How can you reject a god that has given you so much?” she fumed. “You know nothing about Jainism. You know nothing about what you are just throwing away. You don’t know how lucky you are to be born into this religion.” I let her fume. My change of heart hadn’t come out of thin air. I hadn’t prayed in years. I only went to the temple for my mother’s sake. Deep down, I think my mom knew I didn’t have a strong attachment to my religion anymore, but she didn’t want to admit it. Maybe she thought dragging me to the temple would somehow make it habitual for me; a part of my routine. But religion cannot be forced, and no matter how hard I tried, it didn’t work for me.
Maybe part of the shock of my disbelief was the fact that secularism feels non-existent in India. Indian soap operas emphasized the proper actions of a good daughter-in-law, wife, and mother, and villainized those who deviated from traditional roles and values. Even progressive shows such as “Anupamaa,“ which shows a housewife divorcing her husband, entering the workforce, and creating her own dance studio, showed that divorce is only acceptable in extreme circumstances. Failing to impart these values to your children is viewed as a failure in your role of a good parent.
But my mother is an amazing mother. She raised me to learn to question the world around me. She fostered the importance of working hard and being humble. She taught me to be a good person and care for others, not because I was obligated to by my faith or karma, but because it was what I should do. She supported me and taught me to support others, which I believe is the meaning of dharam. She did not fail her dharam as a mother, but because of how dharam was presented to her, she will never know that.
Featured Photo Credit Kevita Junior | Left to Right: Tu hiya ka kare he, Tu kaha bate, Tu hamar ke bate
Thundering waves clawed on the body of the vessel as the sea swallowed the voices of terrified passengers. They clung to the shreds of the Eagle Speed as each hour submerged the ship deeper within the kala pani (dark waters). Steamer ships were sent for rescue, finding two children alone, clenching to the remains of the mast. The unscathed captain and crew fled in boats, leaving the lives of coolies (indentured laborers) to the fate of the dark waters. TheEagle Speed set sail on August 19th, 1865 from Calcutta to Demerara. This tragedy took the lives of over 300 hundred indentured laborers. The coolies onboard were not just casualties of the kala pani, but a larger system of British colonialism.
The crossing of these tumultuous seas wasforbidden for Hindus, as it meant the severance of reincarnation and the unraveling of caste. Yet more than 2 million Indians were taken across the kala pani. The forbidden water carried stories along its transatlantic waves, bearing witness to history lost against its tides. The restraints of caste drowned along the voyages as surnames and relations were cast across the seas. They became Singhs (lions) and Maharaj’s (great kings), Brahmins by boatinstead of birth.
These indentured workers were mainly taken from regions of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to different corners of the globe, with some of the largest to the Caribbean. Guyana experienced around238,909 workers, Trinidad 143,939 and Suriname 34,304. With 399 Indians, the Lalla Rookh docked on June 5, 1873, at Nieuw Amsterdam in Suriname, later becoming known as the coolie depot. As workers poured out of ships and onto plantations, they experienced violence and oppression at alarming rates, especially against women.
They were nameless and barefooted with gold jhumkas and bangles adorning their bodies. As tourism increased in the Caribbean’s, photographing indentured women on postcards became part of its selling point. These women became subjects to appease the white colonizer gaze and fetishized exotic ‘Coolie belles.’ A bulk of these postcards were shot in Trinidad and sold in local shops to visiting tourists. Yet these postcards failed to translate the hierarchy of power between the photographed and those behind the camera. The white European men who carried out these photoshoots chose backdrops that masked the real conditions of sugar cane fields and living quarters. Who were these women? What were their names? The women were juxtaposed with the term ‘Coolie,’ a slur for laborer and ‘Belle,’ the French word for beautiful. They were coined as laborers of beauty, yet their eyes tell a story of fear of pain.
Tu hamár ke bate? (Who are you to me?) Tu hiyá ká kare he? (What are you doing here?) Tu kahá báte? (Where are you?) Artist Nazrina Rodjan posits these questions that rummage through the minds of many Indo Caribbean descendants. Who were my ancestors? What did they experience? Rodjan aims to explore the experiences of indentured women through her oil painting series “Kala Pani.” In this series, she reimagines the postcards of indentured women alike the depictions of European nobility. In conversation with Rodjan she mentions,
I’ve thought long and hard about whether it would be ethical to reproduce these staged images of women who might have felt scared and uncomfortable being brought into these studios to be photographed by men. I will never know their true experiences and how they might have felt knowing a stranger in the future will decide to paint them in the same positions they were put in for the original photograph.
Rodjan’s art series started as a way to commemorate 150 years since the first indentured workers arrived in Suriname and expanded to include regions like Guyana, Trinidad and Jamaica.
Wanting to reclaim these images comes from feelings of injustice whenever I see these postcards. They were made from a dehumanizing perspective. Reclaiming these images becomes necessary knowing how the violence Indo-Caribbean women still face today is just a continuation of the violence brought onto indentured Indian women then. To me, creating this piece, symbolized the acceptance of questions remaining unanswered, stories being lost forever, and realizing that after a history full of trauma, there’s a treasure in the women that are still here to tell their stories.
The ratio of men to women arriving on these ships left little to no autonomy for women. Experiences of violence on ships and plantations were common throughout the Caribbean. Despite this, indentured women became trailblazers and pioneers in uprisings against poor working conditions.
Everything about these women seems to be a question we can never answer, but I decided to give them titles in Hindustani that are questions they might have for me as the painter who looks at them and sees both a stranger and a loved one. Tu hamár ke báte? Who are you to me?
Living in the Netherlands, Rodjan talks about her experiences tracing her ancestry and honoring this history:
Unfortunately, in the Netherlands learning about the history of Dutch colonization only meant memorizing all the different spices they brought in and listening to teachers talking proudly about the Dutch East India Company in elementary school. Tracing back my ancestors has so far only led to a picture of my parnani and a few more names in the family tree.
OnMay 5, 1838, Anat Ram stepped foot on the rich grounds of Berbice, becoming the first Indian laborer in Guyana. The Whitby and Hesperus departed from Calcutta on January 13 and arrived in Berbice first then West Demerara. Over the course of 79 years, approximately259 ships voyaged from India to Guyana. While the experiences of these ancestors may remain unknown, artists like Suchitra Mattai aims to revitalize the voices of our indentured ancestors.
Suchitra Mattai is an Indo Guyanese multi-disciplinary artist. Through her work, she uses the experience of her family’s migration and the history of indentureship to rewrite and expand our notions of history. In her piece, Life-line, a rope of saris pours out of a tilted boat, mirroring the experiences of her ancestor’s journey across the transatlantic. The saris serve as both water and a connection to two lands, India and Guyana. Mattai further explores indentureship in the piece “Coolie Woman,” depicting a woman seated with a sari, embellished with jewelry and flowers.
I wanted to reimagine the photo to give her agency. I also wanted to address the desire for people of the diaspora to connect to their homelands and ancestral pasts. The painted wallpaper drips and fades to parallel the way my memory of Guyana ebbs and flows, Mattai says.
Anchoring at the Port of Spain on April 22, 1917, the last ship to ever carry indentured Indians made its final stop. A system that bound Indians to an unknown land finally ended after 79 years.
To invoke conversation and pay homage to their memory, artist Gabrielle Francis creatively analyzes indentureship. Gabrielle Francis is an Indo Trinidadian queer interdisciplinary artist, writer and organizer from Queens, New York. In her piece “206:21 Queer Altar Mixed Media Performance,” Francis pays homage to her indentured ancestors with a focus on queer identities. The title 206:21 reflects the ratio of men to women that journeyed on the Fatel Razack, the first ship from India to Trinidad. A mirror is decorated with the colors of Trinidad’s flag along with six candles embodying the pride flag and vibrant red carnations. Written across the mirror is, “I wonder how many of you were queer?” A question that allows for openness and conversation around potential queer ancestors. Written records around indentureship were translated and produced by European men, leaving little to no room for women or queer folks. Francis’s work aims to transform and challenge Eurocentric narratives surrounding indentured history.
As descendants of indentureship, it becomes difficult to sit with questions that may never have answers. Visiting National Archives or exploringdigital databases can help connect descendants to learn about their own history. As we unravel difficult experiences of the past it’s important to ask, how do we carry the legacies of our ancestors? How do we honor their sacrifices?
As they were stripped of their identities and reduced to passenger numbers, they fostered new relations—jahaji bhai and jahaji bhain (ship brother and sister). From shipmates to family, to present-day melodies of chutney music to the stew of pepper pot on Christmas morning, these bonds of community have evolved and are seen across the diaspora today.