Communication Currents

Stories of Indian-American Identity

October 1, 2009
Intercultural Communication

One of the ways we make sense of who we are is by telling stories that reveal how we fit in or identify with specific groups and communities. Identity is in many ways a communicative act, meaning that we create our identities through the stories we tell, the ways in which we tell those stories, and to whom we tell those stories. Indian-Americans have been a part of American society since the late 1800s. Currently, there are over one million Indians living in the U.S. To better understand this immigrant group, I studied the ways in which members of the Indian community in the U.S. told their stories of the ways in which they communicate what it means to be Indian, what it means to be American, and what it means to be Indian-American. Several themes emerged from the stories that emerged during field observations and interviews with participants. These stories focused on the ways in which Indian-Americans navigate their identity outside their native homeland, their memories of India, and their ways of negotiating race in America.

For many immigrant communities in the U.S., identity is often a matter of continually holding onto a homeland while figuring out strategic ways to navigate their host world. For many immigrants, despite having migrated 10, 20 or 30 years ago, the land of their birth will always be their home. This experience makes sense for older immigrants who lived their most formative years in their homelands, but it is vastly different for children of these immigrants who either immigrated early in their lives or were born in the host country.

The stories we tell about our identities are sometimes strategic in the telling to help us navigate both the home culture and the host culture. For immigrant Indian-Americans, the stories they tell about what it means to be Indian are often based in a frozen-in-time memory. Their recollections of India are based on an India of the 1940s and 1950s--culturally, socially, and economically. Furthermore, as with any form of nostalgia, the recollections are highly selective: the positive aspects of certain practices are illuminated and the negative aspects are virtually non-existent, while other practices are marked as completely negative, with positive aspects erased. These memories then get used to define what it means to be Indian and how one then performs authentic Indianness. The question of what is authentic and what is not is something all ethnic groups navigate and it changes over time.

For the children of these immigrant families, identity is about both their Indianness and their Americanness as they attempt to navigate being non-white in the U.S. In the U.S., we tend to think of race as binaries: black/white, model minority/problem community, immigrant/native. These types of dualities leave immigrant groups such as Indian-Americans without a place. Furthermore, unlike their parents who have economic and social status in American society, many second generation Indian-American youth are desperately seeking ethnic identity. As participants in a nation where race is a dominant cultural identity, many Indian-American youth utilize their Indian heritage as a way to claim a space in the race matrix of the U.S.

For immigrant communities, identity is a process of navigating multiplicity such that they can communicate their whole selves in a world that often tends to compartmentalize and quantify, especially in terms of race and ethnicity. Utilizing the hyphen in naming themselves is one way to address this multiplicity. One way to think about the hyphen is to consider it a story of cultural fusion that lets Indian-Americans fight against the cultural bias they often face in the U.S.

Through the constant negotiation of Indiana and American worlds, a clear and separate world emerges that presents a story of the many identities in a form of cultural fusion. Instead of positioning one culture over another, cultural fusion allows for a blending of cultures. Immigrants absorb the ways of being in various cultures and utilize them as necessary for survival. Cultural fusion is a total connecting of several worlds in a way that is seamless. Through cultural fusion, behaviors are not identified as Indian or American; they just are. Cultural fusion is the connecting of various cultures in a manner that, once incorporated, the original culture becomes a defining part of the other cultures. There can be no Indian culture without the reference of American culture. One must embody both cultures in order to interact in either world. It is, therefore, possible to be 100 % Indian and 100 % American at the same time.

A hyphen creates both a connection and a space between being Indian and American. It represents the in-betweenness and the nothingness that shapes the experiences of those who navigate multiple identities. Several participants talked about this space as “dhobi ka kuta.” This phrase, translated as the washer man's dog, refers to a well-known Indian parable about a washer man and his family who are caught in a conundrum. They have a dog that has become attached to the family. Although they have affection for the animal, they are lost as to what to do with it. Because they understand that the dog is a family pet, they want to bring it into the house, but at the same they see that it is a dog, dirty and unclean. Repulsed by this, they cannot bring themselves to allow it in their home. The dog represents the hyphen; it is this in-betweenness that Indian immigrants feel. They are Indian, yet somehow they also are not, and this taints them. For many second generation Indians, identity is a crucial point at which they attempt to find a place where they can achieve a sense of belonging. Though they are comfortable with the actions and behaviors of people in the United States because it is the culture that is most inscribed on their bodies, they are clearly aware of their difference, both in regard to Americans and Indians.

The stories immigrants tell about themselves become a way of making sense of who one is, how one can be of many worlds at once and most importantly, making sense of those experiences in light of both the homeland and the host culture. For Indian-Americans, the stories they tell help them find a way to continue belonging to the land of their heritage, while carving out a space for themselves in the U.S. These stories and the stories of other immigrant communities help us then make sense of how to broaden our own ways of talking about what it means to be American.