Center for Asian American Studies
Center for Asian American Studies

A Journey into South Asian America

Mon, May 21, 2012
A Journey into South Asian America
Prof. Amber Abbas with Ali Khataw at the Austin History Center reception. Photo copyright Yvonne Lim Wilson,

I did warn them. I warned my students on the first day of class that it would be a lot of work. But they stayed. They stayed to discover who South Asian Americans are, what their migration was like, how they have sought out a unique place in American society, what they love, fear, and expect. They stayed perhaps because they recognized the importance of studying the cultures and histories of others, perhaps because they were intrigued by the final oral history project, or (honestly) perhaps because they just needed another class. The group of 23 students who stayed for the course I taught called “South Asian Migration to the U.S.” embarked on a journey that began with reading about migration and ended with the creation of primary sources of historical investigation that will have a second life in two Asian American archives.

The idea for a class on South Asian America had been germinating in my mind for several years before I got the opportunity to teach it in Fall 2011. The Center for Asian American Studies gave me a place to explore my growing interest in South Asian America, a field that continues to develop as a part of Asian American Studies more broadly. South Asians are a rapidly growing community in the United States; the last census recorded a population of 2.8 million. And yet, they remain hidden under labels and stereotypes that mask the diversity of the many communities they represent.

To explore these complexities more deeply, I designed a course called “South Asian Migration to the U.S.” and embarked on a semester of study with twenty-three UT students. I was amazed to discover what a diverse group of students were attracted to the topic—even if several of them admitted they didn’t really know who South Asian Americans were!—and found the same high levels of engagement from students of South Asian descent as well as those from other backgrounds, East Asian, Mexican, African and European.  The melting pot of our classroom shed light on the value of exploring other cultures and histories, and as we worked to build a strong sense of community in the classroom, the students were preparing to take this energy outside its walls.

The final assignment for the course, which counted for 40% of the final grade, was to conduct and record oral history interview with a South Asian migrant to the United States, to transcribe the interview, and finally to write an analytical essay about the experience that engaged with the themes and literature we had studied in the course.  Though the transcription took the longest, the hardest part was finding some one to interview. For many students, this meant moving beyond the comfort zone of UT’s boundaries, beyond their own communities of friends and students, going out into Austin and other places in Texas to speak with some one about their personal experience. One student went to the Austin Hindu Temple to find a narrator, and said he felt like he was asking some one out on a date! Then, after finally finding a willing narrator, the students devised a questionnaire and set off to do their investigating.

What they found was an incredible diversity of experience. Their narrators encompassed much of the diversity of South Asia and South Asian America, representing various countries: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka; as well as language groups: Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Malayalam, Sinhalses, Kannada, Bengali and Punjabi; and religions: Hindu, Muslim, Parsi and Christian. The narrators told stories that emphasized their business experience, their education, the importance of their children, the loss of home, the search for belonging, the conundrum of returning to a “home” where they now feel like strangers and the challenges of raising families in a new “home.” These stories expose the limitations of the stereotypes of South Asian Americans as doctors or convenience store owners, as a “model minority” characterized by easy assimilation. Rather, they show the texture of lived experience and remind us of the importance of good research.

As the field of Asian American Studies continues to grow, and South Asian American Studies grows with it, the work that the students did for my class is becoming part of a body of documentation that allows us to explore the changing faces of America in the twenty-first century. On April 17, 2012, the Austin History Center welcomed the deposit of seven student-conducted interviews into their Asian American collection. These interviews represent some of the stories collected in Austin and are the foundation of the South Asian American Oral History collection. During the reception that the AHC hosted to launch the collection, several students and narrators commented on what the project meant to them. It allowed students to engage in a new way in their communities, to deepen relationships with relatives, to understand their own history and the history of Austin through the eyes of people whose lives are both ordinary and extraordinary.

Another twelve interviews will soon be posted in the South Asian American Digital Archive where they will be available, open access, to both researchers and the public who may be interested in deepening their understanding of the experience of South Asian Americans. This archive is designed to capture the stories of South Asians in America, to understand the past and its importance in shaping the future. The student-conducted oral histories will form a significant addition to SAADA’s collection as the site becomes a central location for those researching South Asian America.

It is not often that work for a class can become the source for writing new histories, but those students who stayed, who completed the journey into the heart of South Asian America and back again, have now discovered the importance of historical work, and what it can mean to their community. 

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