The Book Project
Oral histories and documentary portraiture are the media for this project.
My goal is to travel to every region of the United States and conduct intimate interviews with 60 to 80 first-generation South Asian Americans, between the ages of 20 and 40. I would also like to photograph each of the participants, and feature their portraits alongside their stories in the finished book. I want to cover as wide a swath as possible in order to represent variables such as socio-economic background, heritage countries, religion, values, and regional demographics.
My intention is to provide a cultural snapshot, documenting a segment of the population that has been both mis- and underrepresented. Through frank interviews and candid discussion, my objective is not to either prove or disprove stereotypes, but to give a voice to a generation which has thus far only been caricatured (mostly as either “ABCDs”- American Born Confused Desis, or model minorities). My goal is to explore what, if any, are the unifying elements of the first-generation experience here in the U.S., and where things diverge on an individual level. I myself am part of this group, and so the project is that much closer to my heart. I’m really driven by intense curiosity about the perspective of my peers on being raised with two cultures; I want to know what has shaped their cultural identities, and how they see themselves in the context of America.
I’ve done a series of initial interviews in New York and DC, with subjects falling across a range of economic backgrounds, professions, religions, and perspectives. What was particularly interesting to me was that while some people had strong opinions and ideas that were a result of years of introspection and analysis, others hadn’t analyzed or reflected on many of the issues in depth until the time of the interview. For the majority, it was their first time telling “their stories” at length.
Among the topics discussed:
- childhood and adolescent experiences related to discovery and negotiation of identity
- the role of language (parents’ mother tongue)
- the role of religion
- inherited cultural values (conscious and subconscious)
- experiences with discrimination
- the presence, or lack thereof, of a greater South Asian community while growing up
- the level of importance placed on cultural and religious traditions (past, present, and future)
- issues surrounding dating and marriage (criteria, or lack thereof, for potential partners)
- ideas about raising children with relationship to culture and heritage
The Story Behind All This…
For the longest time, as silly as it may sound, I thought all brown kids were like me (and by “brown” I mean “of South Asian descent”). I thought everyone spoke their language; had been “back home” on at least several occasions (and loved it); and had parents who were moderately religious, and while adamant about imparting their culture and values on their children, were also just modern enough to be flexible in their parenting stye. I also thought that no one was ever ashamed or embarrassed by their heritage, and brown-ness. I thought basically everyone was expected to be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer, and that various other less illustrious-sounding professional choices were met with dismay by their families. And lastly, I saw only two types of FGSAAs in the world: the ones who only hung out with each other in insular groups, who dated and married only their brown peers, who went to US News & World Report Top Ten colleges, and had respectable (if not somewhat boring) jobs, and the ones who didn’t, didn’t, didn’t, and didn’t. I never thought about the possibility of an in-between. And to be perfectly honest, I, being of the latter group, snobbishly fancied myself cooler than those in the former group. Give me a break- I was 19!
Then I met Bob. Bob was a brown friend of a friend, and I met him at a barbecue thrown by said mutual friend. Our brief conversation made an indelible impression on me. I learned that though he went by Bob, his name was actually Swaroop, and that he only spoke English. When I asked him why he didn’t speak his parents’ language, he told me that they had always spoken to him only in English on purpose because they felt that as they were living in America, it was important for him to assimilate as much as possible. This blew my mind. This was something completely beyond what I had come to expect of brown people. I felt judgmental at first- why would his parents keep their language from him? I thought about what my life would have been like had I not been raised bilingual. The more I thought about it the more curious I became about what kind of experiences other first-geners were having, what their circumstances were, and their personal reflections on identity and inherited culture. I was left reeling in a sea of my own shattered assumptions. It really was that dramatic.
It made me realize something important: I had been carrying around a bunch of stereotypes and prejudices without even knowing it. We always think of people outside a group as being the ones who are guilty of making gross generalizations, or harboring stereotypes, but there I was doing it to my own peers. And that is when I decided I wanted to start asking questions, digging deeper, exploring people’s stories, and challenging not only the preconceived notions of society at large, but also my own.
The idea for this project has been evolving for a long time, and I feel that now is the right time for it to become a reality.