Monday, March 30, 2015

Indians in America

With the ascent of first Kal Penn, and now Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling, I suppose Americans of Indian descent have finally arrived into the mainstream of American culture. A little late, but fine. I'm happy. I hope it enriches the general culture just as children of Jewish and Italian Immigrants who came before did - but I'm not so sure. I don't believe Indian contributions will be as deep. I have my doubts only because the other cultures before it were not as bourgeois and middle class as Indians in America.

Indians, as you may know, have the highest per capita income of any ethnic group in the US. Their American experience, in general, have not been defined by the same strife of the Jewish and Italians origin stories in America.

Both those groups faced fierce resistance. And both those groups worked hard to not just assimilate but change - for the better - who we are as Americans.

Having something to fight against, and something to prove, is always a recipe for greatness. This is why Indians in England have consistently been far more impressive than anyone in America. They dealt with a colonial struggle, and race riots specifically targeting them. This lead to Rushdie and others who defined themselves against the status quo and made England better, more multicultural, and more interesting as a result.

Indians in America ARE the status quo. I see nothing that fundamentally challenges how we are as a country and what we can become if we were to take guidance from
Indian Americans.

Jewish culture challenged anti- intellectual tendencies in American life as well as standards of beauty. Italians challenged Anglo Saxon frigidity. Indians - what can they offer?

I don't think their bourgeois status automatically disqualifies them making worthy contributions to the culture. The Russians of the 19th century captivated us with their aristocratic problems. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara were as bourgeois as bourgeois can be and mixed Marxism with the tropics.

Indians in America just need to pick a trait they possess within their complex identity that gives them a competitive advantage over others and something that fundamentally challenges the dominant culture.

There is hope. Indian culture, though there are many layers to it, has an one aspect of it that is unique and possibly enriching: It is ancient and it is categorically non- Judeo Christian.

Practically this means Indians are not a people of the "book". They are flexible in their belief system and thus naturally more tolerant to others as a result and not as easily swayed by dogmatism and absolutisms - a tendency that plagues American culture. Straight / Gay. Rich / Poor, white/ black, Red / Blue. This allows for co-existence but easily can also be used to be subversive, especially in a predominantly binary, rationalist and materialist and number/ data driven culture. A culture obsessed with "winning".

Maybe we need to learn how to lose. Keep a long game perspective. Perhaps we need to develop a certainty that comes not from rationality but from wisdom, patience, and tolerance. Not just a tolerance to others but a tolerance to other beliefs and ways of seeing the world.

This is where Indians in America can make us all better. Perhaps even save us from ourselves.

~ G

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