Thursday, August 11, 2011

Asian-Americans enjoy a long history here

First published in the Centre Daily Times, June 2, 2011

A few days ago, I was flying back from India after visiting family and commemorating the first anniversary of my father’s death.

As the flight from London neared Philadelphia, the flight attendant handed out arrival-departure records for nonimmigrant visitors and customs forms for everyone, including permanent residents and U.S. citizens. I picked up a customs form.

Next, she asked my neighbor, a turban-wearing man of Asian-Indian origin, if he would like the arrival-departure record.

When he replied in the negative, she clarified, “All visitors need a landing card, sir.”

“I am a U.S. citizen,” he replied, and calmly took a customs card.

The flight attendant had thought I was a U.S. citizen or resident, but seemed hesitant to accept that about my turban-wearing fellow passenger.

I am a first-generation immigrant and have lived here for only a little more than two decades.

My fellow passenger, however, was Sikh by religion and could have been a descendant of the earliest Asian-Indian immigrants, Punjabi Sikhs, who came to California in 1899.

He could also be related to Californian Dilip Singh Saund, the first Asian-American and first Sikh elected in 1957 to the U.S. Congress.

Interestingly, Saund emigrated from India via Ellis Island to study at Berkeley. He graduated with a master’s degree in mathematics in 1922 and a doctorate in 1924, and became a farmer because of limited opportunities.

Saund campaigned to allow “Hindus,” as South Asians were then called, to become naturalized citizens. He became an American citizen in 1949 after passage of the 1946 Luce-Celler Act allowing naturalization to Asian Indians and Filipinos.

Pondering how Asian-Americans fit into ideas of American identity is a worthwhile exercise considering the recent observance of Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month in May.

President George H.W. Bush started this monthlong celebration in 1990 to honor the history and contributions of Americans with origins in Asia and the Pacific islands.

Contrary to common perceptions, the first Asian immigrants came to the U.S. centuries ago.

Filipino immigrants settled in New Orleans in 1763, followed by Chinese immigrants who came to California to mine gold in 1849. Significant Japanese immigration occurred between 1886 and 1911. Asian-Indian immigrants from Punjab arrived in California in 1899, and Korean workers came to Hawaii in 1903.

These immigrants faced hardships and discrimination while building railroads and working in farms, mines and factories. They were limited in their ability to own property, bring their families or become citizens.

Eventually, the 1924 U.S. Immigration Act shut down almost all immigration from Asia.

Four decades later, the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act abolished immigration quotas based on national origin and allowed far more skilled workers and family members to enter the country than ever before.

Twenty five years later, the Immigration Act of 1990, signed by President George H.W. Bush, allowed higher quotas from all countries with preference for certain skilled positions.

These skilled Asian-Pacific immigrants and their descendants have made immense contributions.

Some notable Asian-Americans include Jerry Yang, co-founder of Yahoo!; Sabeer Bhatia, founder of Hotmail; Vinod Khosla, founder of Sun Microsystems; and Vinod Dham, inventor of the Pentium chip.

Subra Suresh, of Indian origin, heads the National Science Foundation, and Nobel Laureate Steven Chu, of Chinese origin, who was born in St. Louis, is our Secretary of Energy.

According to the Census Bureau, 4.4 percent of Centre County residents are Asian-Americans, which is close to the national average of 4.8 percent.

The next time any of us encounters Asian-or Pacific-Americans, with or without a turban, it would be wise to assume nothing about their history.

Like others in the United States, they may be a descendant of an immigrant who arrived centuries ago, or they may be a pioneering immigrant who arrived just yesterday. And like all of us, they can be expected to contribute to and benefit from this new country they now call their home.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Respect Begins With Awareness

Published in the Centre Daily Times, Feb 4, 2011

In the United States, we are very sensitive in accommodating different abilities and individual styles of learning and functioning in our schools, workplaces and public spaces.

Differentiated teaching, accessible buildings and parking spaces and laws that protect against discrimination are examples of accepting the equality of and the differences among people.

Yet our current national focus on preventing bullying points to the existence of subtler hurdles that prevent the complete inclusion of everyone.

“No Name Calling Week,” celebrated annually in January, is an anti-bullying awareness-raising program aimed at schools.

This year, Barnes and Noble, which is one of the corporate sponsors, put together a compilation of short videos on its website of children’s book authors taking a stand against bullying.

The authors use their books and lives to share anecdotes and strategies, reminding us that we can all be bullies or be bullied, depending on the situation.

Name calling and bullying are not limited to children. Adults sometimes resort to name calling instead of offering specific criticism of a particular action.

It is much easier to ask someone, “Why are you acting so American, Indian, Chinese or like some other nationality or Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jew or other religion or so conservative or liberal, or like a girl, boy or any other random group?” than to offer specifics of a disagreement.

Such statements stereotype people and assume that some groups and ways of thinking are superior to others.

Bullying is an international phenomenon, and people use many excuses for bullying: They are bigger, older, traditional or modern or know better. They are richer, more or less educated, very skilled or unskilled, closer to God, or pray to the right God or belong to the correct political party. They have the “right” kinds of names, and those they are bullying don’t.

I grew up in India, and bullying there had its own cultural specificity. Because age and seniority are respected, birth order and superior hierarchy can give people the ability to bully. Because education and money are respected, professionals and

the rich can appear all knowing, and bully by withholding information and access.

This by no means implies that everyone who can misuse their power does so.

However, when awareness of these actions as “bullying” does not exist, such behavior can be deemed normal, and those who stand up against it labeled deviants. Now that I have spent more years abroad than in India, I may take offense at things many Indians take in stride, and they may take offense at things I take in stride.

Some people hide their bullying behind humor to make it acceptable. And when there is no awareness that this is still bullying, anyone who reacts to this could be portrayed as being too sensitive and can be further bullied.

At Park Forest Middle School, where my daughter attends school, programs like P.R.I.D.E., or Park Forest Respects Individual Differences Every Day, are helping students get a better handle on the multiple facets of bullying. They are lucky to get an early start at learning lessons on respect that some adults are yet to comprehend.

These awareness campaigns are laudable steps toward a common language of respect.

Of course, the more sensitive we are, the more work we have to do to stand up against bullying and to make sure that we, ourselves, do not bully others.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Birthright Challenge: Can a Woman be President?

Published in Centre Daily Times, State College, PA (May 22, 2004)

This past February, my daughter came to me with an urgent question, “Amma, can a girl be President?” I wondered what had precipitated this doubt.

It turned out that one of the boys in her kindergarten class had declared that “girls cannot be presidents.” The girls in the class had disagreed and asked the teacher, who told them that a girl could indeed be president. Now my daughter wanted my verdict.

I told her that a girl could be anything she chose to be, and that included being president. My daughter was happy with my answer, declared she did not want to be president anyway, and moved on to something else.

But I could not move on. I did not want five year old girls or boys to believe that there were limits to the possibilities of girls’ lives.

I thought about my kindergarten years in India. I never had to hear such statements because India had a female Prime Minister during that time, Indira Gandhi. She was the democratically elected Prime Minister of India from 1966-1977 and then again from 1980-1984. During my kindergarten years, there was another female leader in the Asian subcontinent: Srimavo Bandaranaike, the elected Prime Minister of India’s neighbor, Sri Lanka, who held the post from 1960-65, 1970-77 and 1994-2000.

Considering my childhood experiences, I found it ironic that in 2004, in the USA, little children were still not sure about whether “girls could be presidents.”

Since there were no female US presidents that I could summon up, I went to the Internet in my quest for answers. I did a search on Google for female Heads of State and chose to visit developed by Martin Christensen, a Danish journalist. The categories beckoned to me tantalizingly: women leaders currently in office, heads of government, ministers, chairs of parliament, party and local leaders by country, and by time period.

The accompanying photographs were inspiring by their very existence. My daughter and I savored the variety of faces, the colors, the biographies, and we enjoyed pronouncing the names of female leaders from all continents. When I was finally ready to move on, my daughter was not. She visited every subheading, as if the next biography or photograph would give her convincing proof that women indeed could be elected presidents and prime ministers.

Thanks to her excitement, I learned and shared some interesting facts with her. That there have been female rulers since antiquity.

That Prime Minister Srimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka was the first democratically elected female Head of State in the modern world (1960) and Vigdis Finnbogadottir of Iceland was the modern world’s first democratically elected female President (1980).

That, in 1997, when Mary McAleese was elected President of Ireland, five of the six presidential candidates in that race were female.

That, Victoria Chaflin Woodhull, the first female candidate for US president, ran not once, but twice, in 1872 and 1892 and that Belva Ann Bennet McNall Lockwood ran in 1884 and 1881.

That several women have run since then, mostly as outsiders on minor party tickets, and a few as candidates in primary races for the two major party tickets.

A few days after my Internet search for female leaders, I read a letter from a 13-year-old American girl to “Dear Abby.” Her ambitions to be president were laughed at by her male teacher, and one of her male classmates declared that “girls aren’t allowed to be president.”

These situations in our classrooms suggest that the many female presidential candidates since 1874, and the numerous female heads of state from all over the world are not part of our education or our consciousness.

Our schools need to teach our kids that competency has nothing to do with gender or race or ethnicity, that girls can be presidents, that many other countries have elected female leaders, that we did have women leaders of Native American tribes, and that we have several female state governors. And perhaps our kids will then ask us why we have not had a female president yet.

These days, my daughter asks to visit the “female leaders website” almost as often as she asks to visit the PBS Kids website. She recently declared that if she or any other girl becomes president, somebody would write their biographies.

This leads me to imagine an election year where women would run for president, their gender being considered nothing more than an accident of birth. I

imagine a president’s biography, which states her story, notes her successes and failures, and attributes none of them to the fact that she is female. I picture children reading the story, and I imagine a time, when it would be an ordinary day, not an extraordinary one, when several boys and girls decide that they would someday run for president.

Multicultural “Trip” Offers Opportunities for Dialogue with Child

Published in Centre Daily Times, State College, PA (March 6, 2004)
I embarked on an eye-opening journey two Decembers ago, when my daughter’s preschool celebrated cultures from all around the world. It was a wonderful month for the kids as they “traveled” around the world. It was a great opportunity for parents to build positive attitudes towards the diverse cultures in the USA – I loved to imagine that these would one day get us closer to true liberty and justice for all.
My family dutifully signed up for India, and began our preparations. On the big day, my daughter dressed up in Indian clothes, I packed up my presentation material and hands on activity, my snacks, and was just about ready, when my daughter burst out with questions, “Amma, who is an Indian? Are you an Indian? Am I an Indian? Are people who live in India Indian?”
It was a watershed event in our family. My husband and I had been conducting an experiment, where we had talked about different countries, but not used any adjectives to describe the people who lived in them.
We had talked about India, China, Korea and USA (four countries that we have been to with our daughter) and the “people” who live there without using any adjectives. We used “people” to describe all of humanity, and had been waiting to see if our child would classify people, and if so, at what age, and based on what? Would it be based on differences in physical features like skin color/ eye shape/ hair texture or language /customs/ religion/ geography/ something/ nothing else?
Our daughter’s classification started in response to the external stimulus of the “India day” celebration. We talked that day about who an Indian was and who an American was. The dialogue continued till I dropped her off at school, and continued when I picked her up.
By the end of that “Holiday Season,” she declared that she had “understood. All the children in my school are Americans and all the parents are from different countries. Is that right, Amma?”
“Well, you are almost right…,” and we talked about exceptions to that rule, about grandparents, great grandparents, cultural origins, Columbus and Native Americans.
Our dialogue continued. After a trip to an Asian grocery store around the same time, our daughter announced that there were only four Americans in the store, referring to the three of us, and another person of European origin in the store. All the others were of Chinese origin, and I explained to her that they may be Americans too. And the person of European origin may not be an American.
Then she declared “Some people think that only white people are Americans. They are wrong.” Another step taken in a long journey, and I felt glad that she had the opportunity to understand this truth so young, for I have met so many adults that have not figured this one out yet.
Over the past two years, her journey has continued, as she ties to understand people and things. Her questions have increased over time and last year, when we celebrated Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, she asked me “if it was an Indian festival.”
“Yes.” “… because Indian people celebrate It?”
“Yes.” “Is it an American festival?”
“Because many Americans celebrate it. Did you know that Christmas is an Indian festival too?”
“Because lots of Indians celebrate it?”
I then told her how I had 10 days of holidays from school in India, for both Diwali and Christmas.
The dialogue then continued with “Is Hannukah an American Festival?” and “Do Native Americans live in State College?”
Our family has had many discussions over the last two years, and my daughter has a better understanding of the complexity of our origins and our world.
Our dialogue on who an American is, was put to test recently.
A new friend walked up to my daughter in a park and said, “Where are you from?” I wondered what she would say. I heard her reply, “I am from here. I am an American.”
Then the other girl talked to her about a visit to England. And they both ran off to play.
So, a big thank you to all our schools that have the “Holiday Month,” or provide opportunities to discuss cultures from around the world. I am sure they have enriched discussions in many of our homes and taken us on some wonderful journeys, while building ethnic and cultural pride in all our children, and humanizing all of us.