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Asian Americans: South Asians

Abstract and Keywords

This entry briefly profiles the dynamic fusion, fluidity, and future of South Asians in America. While Diaspora India is emblematic of immigrant culture as a whole, South Asian duality still remains uniquely enigmatic. People from South Asia represent a confluence of diversity and complexity that calls for understanding and acceptance as a model to deconstruct a tolerant and successful pluralist society.

Keywords: South Asia, Diaspora India, postcoloniality, globalization, inanity of practice research, and cultural fusion and alienation

South Asians in America, like characters from a Mira Nair film, are products of the “push and pull” theory, which makes pluralist fusion and fluidity a multicultural, global phenomenon. Cultural fluidity is America's new thrust for integrative pluralism. They add to America's diversity with their rich heritage, culture, and educational background. South Asian ideals of Karma and dharma have helped them morph into living karam-yogis in pursuit of prosperity and happiness. Indian Americans are postmodern yogis in pursuit of material happiness earned by a classic Hindu work ethic that puts premium on dedicated action.

As creators of a transplanted culture, their Indo-American ethos and enthusiasm bubbles with Diaspora nostalgia and unabashed attraction amid pervasive alienation. Indian Americans live a schizophrenic duality of life in America: they love and loathe what they have acquired and what they have lost in a foreign land. As a group they enjoy the benefits of a free and open society; as members of a caste-ridden culture, however, they seem perplexed with suffocating foreign exclusions. As an overwhelming majority of South Asians come from middle class (and higher castes), they find pervasive exclusionary practices both puzzling and discriminatory. Between the Black and White paradigms of American society, the Browns' destiny still remains at odds with their cherished American Dream. Pankaj Mishra (2006, p. 112) writes

A decade of proglobalization policies has created a new aggressive middle class, whose concerns dominate public life in India. This class is growing; the current members are between 150 and 200 millions. There are also millions of rich Indians living outside India. In America, they constitute the richest minority. It is these affluent, upper-caste Indians in India and abroad who largely bankrolled the rise of power of Hindu nationalists. In the global context, middle class Hindus are no less ambitious than those who in the Roman Empire embraced Christianity and made it an effective mechanism with which to secure worldly power.

The South Asians in America constitute a reality that represents what is good in a world that is once again “flat” (Friedman, 2005). The new earthers, however, are not wedded to a single-minded orthodoxy. They are expertly bright, amazingly self-reliant, and pragmatically resilient. It is, however, a myth that all South Asians are rich and affluent, though as a group, they constitute one of the most prosperous segments of our pluralist society.

South Asians in the United States

Diaspora India dates back to early 19th century. “Between 1820 and 1976 a total of over 130,000 East Indian immigrants entered the United States; fewer than 17,000 of these came before 1965” (Balgopal, 1995a, 1995b; Jensen, 1980, pp. 296–301). The passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 marked a watershed event in the patterns and policies that dramatically increased South Asian emigration (for details see Joan M. Jensen in Thernstrom (1980, pp. 296–301) and Pallasana R. Balgopal (1995a; 1995b). According to the 2000 U.S. Census, the South Asian population is in excess of 2 million people. Of this approximately 90% are Asian Indian, 7% Pakistani, 2% Bangladeshi, and 1% Sri Lankan. If undocumented immigrants and historical undercounting are considered, the number of South Asian households is estimated to be 750,000 (http://www.namastetv.com/aboutus.html, retrieved March 15, 2007).

South Asians, also called Asian Indians, Indian Americans, and Indo-Americans, represent the heterogeneity of the Indian subcontinent although most of them (at least 85%) are Caucasian (Jensen, 1980, p. 296). India is a land of unity in diversity. Despite many a sociocultural difference, their ethnic evolution on the subcontinent marks a mutifaceted trajectory. Although most immigrants tend to settle in coastal areas, their varied occupational and professional callings bring them to almost every part of the country in business, education, health care, information technology, engineering, journalism, social work, industry, politics, and other fields.

Three recent developments distinguish South Asians from other immigrants:

  1. 1. globalization and India's technological advancements;

  2. 2. transformation of postcoloniality into postideological free market economy; and

  3. 3. the post-9/11 impact on Indo-American collaboration with strategic implications for future interactions.

On the micro level, most South Asians tend to be industrious, motivated, English-speaking, god-fearing, and law-abiding citizens, permanent residents, or visitors. The India that they left continues to be a source of inner tension even after computers, I-Chat, media networks, cell phones, affordable air travel; Bollywood entertainment is “dished” out in their fabulous media rooms. Culture seems to override spatiotemporal barriers, which in turn may be a source of the India Syndrome—a benign, hitherto nonexistent behavioral category. India Syndrome, however, is a kind of neurosis with undefined parameters with well-acknowledged behavioral patterns chiefly characterized by a pervasive ambivalence toward their past, present, and future.

Policy, Practice, and Research Issues

Social work education, practice, policy, and research have a symbiotic relationship with South Asians. This creative interface has enriched social work as a profession, and South Asians have benefited both professionally and materially. For example, certain fields in social work owe a special debt to these South Asian pioneers: Shankar Yaleja (policy practice), Ramesh Mishra (social welfare and policy), Sumanti Dubey (social administration), Shanti Khinduka (social development), Saiyid Zafar Hasan (social security and administration), Daniel Sanders (international social work), Frank Paiva and Rama Pandey (social development), and Brij Mohan (comparative social welfare and social work theory).

Models of ethnically sensitive and culturally competent practice have largely focused on target populations with emerging needs for personal and social services. As the immigrants begin to grow roots, family and child welfare services, health and mental health, aging, immigration, refugees, and disabilities demand better and adequate research and intervention. Our newest models of practice—based on strength, resilience, and ecological perspectives—correspond closely with South Asian cultural values that help cope with and adjust to life's cycles in a myriad of ways.

Counseling, especially adolescent and marital, is an area for practice that has not yet received the attention it demands. There is no other sphere of concerns that is more worrisome and at times even traumatic than raising young girls in a permissive society. Many parents consider attendance at Hindu temple to be a way of encouraging a proper sense of values in their daughters, thereby discouraging them from dating. There is ample evidence that the children of the first-generation immigrants are doing exceedingly well in personal, intellectual, and professional lives. While most South Asians tend to be adaptive and resilient, many of them choose to live in denial about their children's dreams and perceptions. Needless to say, the existing practice models will yield no satisfying outcomes. They were originally designed for different counseling-prone target populations. The South Asian genius, temperament, and perspective on life are remarkably immune to the Western model of practice research in crisis and precrisis situations (Mohan, 1992b; 1989a).

As regards social and public policy, social work practitioners must understand that even the most successful and affluent people are often subjected to humiliation, harassment, and discrimination in their working environments and beyond. As newly added colors of the American diversity rainbow, South Asians confront many American practices and behaviors that thwart their aspirations. Where business and industry largely look for their “bottom lines,” educational and professional settings, ironically, tend to be restrictive and discriminatory, unmindful of the fact that American multicultural society has morphed beyond the old “Black and White” paradigm; change of a passport does not change identity (Mohan, 1989b). Notwithstanding a stunning success, the South Indian remains a marginalized person in search of a new identity lurched inside the world's two most important democracies (Mohan, 1992a).

The new generation of South Asians is contributing to American diversity and ingenuity in fields that were traditionally confined to the privileged class of White Americans. Literature (Salman Rushdie, Jumpa Lahiri, and Kiran Desai); medicine (Sanjay Gupta); music (Nora Jones) politics (“Bobby” Jindal was elected governor of Louisiana, the first Indian American to be elected governor); diplomacy (Bhishma K. Agnihotri); economics (Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati); films (Deepa Mehta, Mira Nair (see James, C. 2007); corporate business (Indira Nooyi, CEO Pepsi Cola); and wellness and spirituality (Deepak Chopra). Infosys Technologies founded by an Indian recently sent 2,500 Americans to seek IT training in India. India's medical tourism further validates the turning point in the Indo-American dyad. Medical tourism is outsourcing of medical treatment and care outside the U.S. borders. India, Singapore, and Thailand are main centers of providing cheaper and better medical services. More than 6,000 Americans went to India for such treatment last year. The world events have, however, widened a sense of cultural identity. After 9/11, says Mira Nair, “the experience of those who were like us became so different. Suddenly we were the others. It has abated to some extent, but at times continues to rear its jingoistic head. You realize it's not so simple to blend in” (http://www.namastetv.com/aboutus.html, retrieved March 15, 2007). The new culture of social work itself remains an alienating field for some of its South Asian pioneers (Mohan, 2002, 2005).


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