A display case of bejeweled slippers and loafers, signifiers of South Asian domestic propriety, sits at the entrance to the Smithsonian’s exhibit, “Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation.” Despite the exhibit title, the gulping tabla and trill of Bollywood oldies insinuates itself into every corner of the entrance hall as I browse photos that Indians have sent in—jocund families spread out on beige living room carpets, equally comfortable in jeans and salwar.
What follows is a fairly thorough tour of the Indian-American experience: the earliest arrivals from the subcontinent to the West Coast, vocational niches, xenophobia, yoga. There is a life-sized cutout of 2013 Miss America winner Nina Davuluri clutching her victory bouquet, an audio loop of Scripps spelling bee winners, kids with names as difficult as “cymotrichous” and “logorrhea.” A video installation screens a short documentary about the labor conditions of taxi drivers. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance was, in fact, formed by Gujarat-born Bhairavi Desai. There is a listening station with selections by Norah Jones and Vijay Iyer, and an experimental photography project that plays on red-dot/feather confusions. Ingratiating placards show statistics with an inevitable admixture of information and boasting: isn’t it amazing that one in a hundred Americans is of Indian ancestry? That 95 percent of farmers in California’s Yuba Valley are Sikh? That one in ten medical professionals is Indian-American, or that 50 percent of motels are owned by Indian-Americans? We’re also invited to a fixture in the desi home—the dining table—which occupies the center of one of the rooms. Wooden flip-top pictures of curries serve as lids for their corresponding recipes, and a landmark 1979 memo from Weight Watchers announces the company’s decision to add Indian fare to its menu.
On my first visit, during the opening weekend in February, I observed a steady trickle of Indian-Americans and their families and friends, as well as a few ethnic outliers, into the exhibition space. A few weeks later, on my second visit, though, the rooms were fairly empty, serving foremost as respite from the throngs of tourists in the rest of the museum. So far, I have visited twice, not just because DC is boring, but because I monitor the presence of South Asians in the public sphere like it’s in my contract. If Mindy Kaling puts on a show, I watch it. If Kiran Desai writes a novel about chai-moms and their cardamoms, I read it. But my compulsions are also tinged with a kind of Malthusian anxiety. If there are this many of us, am I simply normal now?
This is something like Stockholm syndrome: exoticization, the very thing that I try to combat intellectually, becomes my way of moving through the world. And yet seeing another brown female’s face at, say, an artisanal pickle stand triggers a mild discomfort that no matter how many of us there are, we are still indistinguishable from each other—a fear that my high school driver’s ed instructor will pop out of the bushes, telling me I wear glasses because “that’s all you people do, right? Study?” There are both too many and too few of us for me to feel properly individuated.
Several pieces have recently been written about the increased presence of South Asians in the media and in the halls of political power. Some have taken an encouraging stance, interpreting the growing number of Indians on television to be a sign of authentic concern for diversity. Others contend that the privileged status of “model minority” has come to Indian-Americans as a result of complicity in anti-black racism. As Vijay Prashad notes in The Karma of Brown Folk:
When we [Indians] tell ourselves and others that we are great, do we mean to imply that there are some who are not so great? White supremacy judges certain people greater than others, and some are frequently denied the capacity to be great at all.
As it happens, a placard at the Smithsonian exhibit quotes Prashad on the subject of assimilation: “Belonging does not come without a fight.” It is odd (if ultimately unsurprising) that his words, meant to deconstruct the idea of the “model minority,” should be displayed in a context that, in fact, reanimates the myth by holding Prashad himself up as an example of Indian intellectual prowess.But in some ways, these two conceptions of what it is to be Indian-American—the triumphant and the defensive—often sit together, albeit uncomfortably. And neither of these views fully explain how we can be so influential and so indistinct at the same time. Why is the exhibit so bent on teaching about a community that has, by its own reckoning, successfully joined the cultural mainstream?
Perhaps the motivation behind the Smithsonian exhibit, funded and backed predominantly by Indian-Americans, isn’t misguided; a parade of myth-busting displays at one of the most visited museums in the country benefits the community at large, rectifying misconceptions and inserting Indians into America’s official telling of its history. But the galleries of shoes and Corningware, family portraits and spelling bee trophies express a more conflicted logic: a pat on the back for assimilation done right that hides an underlying anxiety over preserving unassimilability. The endpoint of the successful assimilation narrative the exhibit celebrates is also, after all, the loss of the “model minority” status that underpins this story in the first place.
Look around you, the exhibit seems to say, and you’ll find an Indian-American. Look for them, and you’ll spot one being American at the mall, being American out on the football field. This is the kind of visibility—individual recognition as ordinary Americans in ordinary life—that has always evaded us and that the exhibit aims to supply. To go “Beyond Bollywood” is to look closer to home. But to look closer to home is also to be taught why Indian-American stereotypes exist in the first place. Your Indian neighbor is not necessarily, or not only, a doctor but a normal, acculturated American who maybe plays football; but your Indian neighbor is very likely to be a doctor because one in ten medical professionals in the United States is Indian. The numbers just don’t lie.
Because the idea of model minority skews toward recent immigrants from India—for the most part, highly skilled professionals—many may not be familiar with the earlier waves of Sikh laborers who settled along the West Coast, or the sizeable Bengali community in Harlem at the turn of the 20th century, both groups that, in fact, intermarried and integrated into other communities of color. (The exhibit briefly mentions intermarriage between turn-of-the-century Sikh migrants and Mexican women to charming effect; the two communities shared a love of family and flatbreads.) In Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, Vivek Bald notes:
These Indian migrants provide us with a different picture of “assimilation.” The peddlers and seamen did not form ethnic enclaves as did Italians, Greeks, Germans, or, for that matter, South Asian immigrants of later generations. Nor did they follow the iconic path of immigrant upward mobility that would lead so many members of these other groups out of their ethnic enclaves into predominantly white suburbs. The networks that Indian Muslims formed—networks that were embedded in working-class Creole, African American and Puerto Rican neighborhoods and entwined with the lives of their residents—represent a different pathway into the United States.
As Bald’s account suggests, assimilation is usually discussed as a particular set of steps, a move further and further out of ethnocentricity. The Bengalis of Harlem overturned this process, becoming “entwined” with other communities that were themselves thought of as unassimilated and even unassimilable.
Perhaps the equivocal status of Indians in America comes through best in the story of a historical figure who is not mentioned in the exhibit: the “godfather of exotica,” Korla “Kumar” Pandit, a man who made a career out of exhibiting Indianness. Pandit captivated radio and television audiences in the 1940s and ’50s as an organist and composer, though one with an entirely fabricated identity. He had claimed to be born in Delhi, to a French mother and an Indian father, before emigrating to England and the United States. In reality, he was John Roland Redd, an African-American with Creole ancestry, born in St. Louis in 1921. As a purveyor of “exotica” music, Pandit always appeared onstage in a jeweled turban and crisp suit—pastiche signifiers of his mixed identity—and softened by androgynous makeup. He never spoke a word, but often gazed into the camera, his eyes heavy with restrained seduction. He would often smile coyly, as though he had a secret.
Here was an African-American of mixed ancestry passing as an Indian émigré of mixed ancestry for a public that craved the “exotic” as an extension of postwar prosperity. It was important for Pandit’s persona to have mixed parentage because he was light-skinned and perhaps could not have passed as an average Indian. His audiences believed they were getting an authentic experience of “eastern sound,” although they were in fact consuming something that was neither squarely American nor Indian, but rather the familiar ballpark organ made strange by arabesque notes.
In Pandit’s case, strangeness sold well, though it came at the death of “John Redd,” who only received posthumous credit. In trading a deeply oppressed identity for a far stranger one, the American-born musician was able to capitalize on the appeal of mystery, of unknowability itself. No one ever questioned the organist about his upbringing, asked him to say a few words in Hindi. He was required to stay a benign stranger. Indians in contemporary America are tasked with whittling away this legacy of strangeness, recompensing for exoticizations past. Following waves of skilled Indian immigrants after 1965, the exotic was traded in for the exceptional. The very cornerstone of the Indian-American story is this exchange of differences—the mystery for the model. Pandit’s true identity was only revealed after his death in 1998.
Assimilation has always been a nostalgic process. When the new world is reached, the old one somehow grows even older and begins to ossify. I often meet Indians from India who remark on the phenomenon of diasporic traditionalism—colonies of orthodoxy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and racism set up in the enclaves of central New Jersey and Queens, desperate attempts to reconstruct a home more pure than the one they left. The Americans mistakenly believe that only the new world changes, while the old one stays the same.
Of course, the Smithsonian isn’t the only public cultural institution interested in the relationship between immigration and nostalgia. One can reliably turn to PBS for an airing of The Greek Americans; The Polish Americans; The Armenian Americans; A Laugh, a Tear, a Mitzvah; and other programs dedicated to a specific community’s course in America. It’s as though we’ve come to the end of the dinner party, when we can lean back in our chairs and reminisce about those distant ancestors who crossed oceans and laid down railroad tracks. These stories, in many ways, rehearse the same basic tropes. Family is all-important, the bracioles and the matzo ball soups ignite reverie, and the belonging requires a fight.
These are no doubt complex experiences, each carrying their own wounds, but they are ultimately variations on a theme that has hit something of a crossroads. How will we talk about the slow process of assimilation in a far-off “post-racial” America? After all, it already seems an archaic problem when viral memes can teach American culture long before young Ali or Mi-Yun arrives at Newark International, much less at their new school. The candor with which television and movies address the commensurate issue of ethnic stereotyping suggests a consensus that we’ve started to laugh at ourselves about it. When White Castle–going John Cho made a cameo on 30 Rock, he played a Canadian with a mobile meth lab. To Jack and Avery (Alec Baldwin and Elizabeth Banks), whom he’s picked up on his way to the US border, he quips about his one and only day enrolled in law school: “I was just so tightly wound that I got kicked out for karate chopping my roommate. I know, I’m a stereotype: All guys from Quebec are good at karate.”
Perhaps John Cho’s Quebecois karate-chopper captures precisely what the Smithsonian’s exhibit wants more of: an eclectic unfamiliarity, an alternative—or alternatives—to the story long told by Indian-Americans. In this story, the one in the exhibit, Indian-Americans call out for recognition, as many communities do; but the story also protects the minority myth, leaving the community’s members in a state of exception that is also a form of invisibility. Perhaps this in itself isn’t wrong, but it’s certainly incomplete. In other stories, we might be entwined, as Bald would put it, with the lives of other minority communities. In other stories, we might be able to appreciate the vast grid of persons, groups, positions, and labors that enable the success of a few in the first place. We would need to shape new paths toward belonging that offer more than strength in numbers and instead fully explore the diversity of minority experiences. If belonging only comes with a fight, it may also come only when the exhibit is broken down.