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American Karma: Race, Culture, and Identity in the Indian Diaspora

Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 270
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  • Book Info
    American Karma
    Book Description:

    The Indian American community is one of the fastest growing immigrant communities in the U.S. Unlike previous generations, they are marked by a high degree of training as medical doctors, engineers, scientists, and university professors.American Karma draws on participant observation and in-depth interviews to explore how these highly skilled professionals have been inserted into the racial dynamics of American society and transformed into people of color. Focusing on first-generation, middle-class Indians in American suburbia, it also sheds light on how these transnational immigrants themselves come to understand and negotiate their identities.Bhatia forcefully contends that to fully understand migrant identity and cultural formation it is essential that psychologists and others think of selfhood as firmly intertwined with sociocultural factors such as colonialism, gender, language, immigration, and race-based immigration laws.American Karma offers a new framework for thinking about the construction of selfhood and identity in the context of immigration. This innovative approach advances the field of psychology by incorporating critical issues related to the concept of culture, including race, power, and conflict, and will also provide key insights to those in anthropology, sociology, human development, and migrant studies.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-2311-1
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-11)

    The displacement of millions of migrant laborers, refugees, and professionals from the postcolonial Third World to the First World and the formation of numerous migrant “ethnic enclaves” were among the most important defining features of the twentieth century. Given that currently one-fifth, or 20 percent, of all children in the United States are immigrants (Hernandez 1999), questions related to acculturation and identity are central to the field of psychology. Furthermore, today, questions about migration and the construction of identity are paramount, as the number of immigrants in the United States rapidly increased in the 1990s to “nearly a million new...

  5. 1 American Karma: Race, Place, and Identity in the Indian Diaspora
    (pp. 12-41)

    I remember one significant moment in my ethnographic research when I asked Rani,¹ a first-generation Indian who has lived in America for the last three decades, to define “American culture.” Acknowledging that it was difficult, Rani quickly rattled off two points as though she had thought about them for a long time.

    American culture, as I understand, stands for individuality, but it doesn’t really know what individuality is. It says we are nonconformist, but it is the most conformist. It says that we are very free, but I think you can have freer opinions in a “Third World” country such...

  6. 2 Qualitative Inquiry and Psychology: Doing Ethnography in Transnational Cultures
    (pp. 42-73)

    This research project uses a set of methodological tools that can be best described as ethnographic. The professional Indian migrants in this study construct meanings for their identities as they move between different cultural spaces. How do they make meanings of their postcolonial migrant selves? What categories of description do they use to frame their sense of self as privileged and marginalized middle-class minorities? How do they negotiate their status as “people of color”? How do they reconstruct the meanings of race and ethnicity assigned to them by their white middle-class neighbors in the suburbs? I use participation observation and...

  7. 3 Des-Pardes in the American Suburbia: Narratives from the Suburban Indian Diaspora
    (pp. 74-111)

    In the last decade, there has been a growing interest in researching and studying the concept of diaspora.¹ This outpouring of scholarship has led to a proliferation of terms—such asborderlands, travel, hybrid,andhyphenated identities—to explain the rapid back-and-forth movement of people across nations. The ever expanding literature on transnationalism and diaspora has created an “unruly crowd of descriptive/interpretive terms” that attempt to describe the processes of travel, displacement, and migration (Clifford 1994, p. 302). Indeed, terms related to diaspora have become a new “mantra” in many disciplines and are being used to address issues of transnational...

  8. 4 Saris, Chutney Sandwiches, and “Thick Accents”: Constructing Difference
    (pp. 112-154)

    While conducting my ethnographic fieldwork in the Indian diaspora, I asked Rani, who lived in a suburb of Connecticut, to recall an episode that made her feel “unwelcome” or “unwanted” as an Indian immigrant in the United States. Rani mentioned one question that her friends and neighbors often ask her: “So, when are you planning to go back home?” This question usually follows “‘Where are you from, and blah, blah?’ ‘What is thisbindifor?’ and all that, but then they will say, ‘When are you going back?’ … and then they will say, ‘But when are you going back?’...

  9. 5 Racism and Glass Ceilings: Repositioning Difference
    (pp. 155-183)

    When examining the construction of South Asian American identity, we must focus on the “tension between assignation and assertion that sociologists suggest shape racial identity, the negotiation that identity categories bring with them and those to which they are assigned” (Koshy 1998, p. 285). Waters showed (1999) how the Caribbean transnational migrants in New York must constantly negotiate their multiple identities as West Indian, black, and American. Most of the respondents in Mary Waters’s study came to terms with being black and West Indian while still looking for ways to distance themselves from black Americans. Using Koshy’s and Visweswaran’s studies...

  10. 6 Analyzing Assignations and Assertions: The Enigma of Brown Privilege
    (pp. 184-219)

    Bharati Mukherjee, a well-known Indian American novelist, published an article in which she wrote,

    I am less shocked, less outraged and shaken to my core, by a purse snatching in New York City in which I lost all of my dowry gold—everything I’d been given by my mother in marriage—than I was by a simple question asked of me in the summer of 1978 by three high-school boys on the Rosedale subway station platform in Toronto. Their question was, “Why don’t you go back to Africa?” (Mukherjee 1981, p. 38)

    Why is Mukherjee disturbed by being mistaken for...

  11. 7 Imagining Homes: Identity in Transnational Diasporas
    (pp. 220-234)

    During my fieldwork in suburban Connecticut, Vishal and I discussed the concept of “America return” in the 1960s and 1970s. I told him that it was quite common for the entire family to go to the Mumbai airport when someone was returning from America or England. The families would hire a Matador van, and some fifteen to seventeen people would wait for the family member to come out of the arrival gate at the airport. Vishal interjected, “Vilayat jaa raha hain, vilayat aagarland lekhe khade huin ay hain” (laughs). That is, every time somebody was either going to,...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 235-242)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 243-256)
  14. Index
    (pp. 257-270)
  15. About the Author
    (pp. 271-271)