On the Limits of American(a)

Peo­ple are sur­prised to find out that I’m not actu­al­ly from here. The stan­dard con­ver­sa­tion after the hol­i­days goes: “You went all the way back to Bangladesh? So, your entire fam­i­ly is there? Oh, you lived there till you were 19?” And then of course: “But you speak Eng­lish so well!” My brown skin and third world cit­i­zen­ship hide the inter­na­tion­al school edu­ca­tion that I was priv­i­leged to receive. A child­hood of Scoo­by Doo and Friends makes my accent famil­iar enough to go unno­ticed. Alas, pass­ing priv­i­lege does not an Amer­i­can make. Right?

I was thrilled to learn that a group called South Asian Amer­i­cans Lead­ing Togeth­er DSC_0035(SAALT) was host­ing a LGBTQ-themed sum­mer lead­er­ship insti­tute. It bog­gled my mind that I might actu­al­ly meet oth­er queer and gen­der vari­ant deshi stu­dents inter­est­ed in cre­at­ing change. But sure­ly I would­n’t be eligible—many semes­ters as a stu­dent work­er in the career ser­vices office had taught me to expect a “U.S. cit­i­zens and per­ma­nent res­i­dents” clause hid­den in the eli­gi­bil­i­ty sec­tion. Imag­ine my sur­prise when the Young Lead­ers Insti­tute (YLI) explic­it­ly wel­comed “diver­si­ty in regard to [among oth­er things] immi­gra­tion sta­tus.” As I hur­ried­ly pulled togeth­er the appli­ca­tion, I asked myself for the first time: Did this put me under the umbrel­la of South Asian Amer­i­can?

Was it enough to self-iden­ti­fy as Amer­i­can?

Legal papers are a poor mea­sure of iden­ti­ty, but I had only ever con­sid­ered this line of rea­son­ing in the con­text of undoc­u­ment­ed Amer­i­cans who have lived here for years. My accep­tance into a col­lege (and the finan­cial aid that came with it) gave me the priv­i­lege of a legal avenue of entry to the Land of Oppor­tu­ni­ty not afford­ed to them. I was not com­pelled by cir­cum­stances at home to risk arrest by ICE, or worse, incur the wrath of my punc­til­ious father. Yet, after five very for­ma­tive years in the Unit­ed States, the process of my inte­gra­tion was well under way. I could no longer dri­ve on the left side of the road, I grew an invis­i­ble lay­er of per­son­al space, and I could even sing most of the words to Jour­ney’s Don’t Stop Believin’. Yet, I knew that I could “hold on to that feel­in’” only for so long.

There will come a time when my Dura­tion of Sta­tus will come to an end, and I will need to go back. When I share my appre­hen­sion about this legal dead­line on my stay with friends who have grown up here, they are right­ly con­fused about the log­ic behind it. As a stu­dent of eco­nom­ics, I know that the poten­tial gain to world GDP is much high­er from elim­i­nat­ing bar­ri­ers to immi­gra­tion than bar­ri­ers to trade, yet it is my body that is stopped at the bor­der for fur­ther screen­ing while iPods and Big Macs hop across with ease. There’s some­thing a lit­tle hyp­o­crit­i­cal about insist­ing on an imper­me­able bor­der while cul­ti­vat­ing a glob­al con­sumer IMG_0059base for all things Amer­i­cana. I know, how­ev­er, that the way to move for­ward is not through a bat­tle of wits but by lis­ten­ing to each other’s sto­ries.

Sto­ries are a pow­er­ful thing. They allow us to see our shared human­i­ty with those dif­fer­ent from us, and to see beau­ty in diver­si­ty. Sto­ries are also a way for those of us liv­ing at the mar­gins to claim space for our­selves. It is no sur­prise to me that many of my fel­low YLI par­tic­i­pants have cho­sen to take on projects that cel­e­brate sto­ries of peo­ple like us.

My YLI project per­for­mance is an effort to share my sto­ry. I draw upon my own lived expe­ri­ences to trace the cracked lines between being a Bangladeshi cit­i­zen, a queer deshi, and an Amer­i­can. I have strug­gled to find a way to tell my sto­ry with any degree of hon­esty, when I know that the lived real­i­ty of LGBQ and T* South Asians are invis­i­ble, or worse, erased. Yet, that is exact­ly why it needs to be told. As I toe the line between that beau­ti­ful spec­ta­cle of exhi­bi­tion­ism that is Amer­i­can per­for­mance art, and my deshi impulse to keep skele­tons hid­den deep inside my clos­et (pun intend­ed), I remind myself of the com­fort I have found in the voic­es of queer and trans peo­ple of colour. In turn, I hope that my sto­ry may offer some solace to my younger broth­ers and sis­ters and sib­lings (and cousin-broth­ers and cousin-sis­ters and cousin-sib­lings).

Wher­ev­er they are from, I hope that they feel that they belong.

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Shabab Mirza
Young Lead­ers Insti­tute Fel­low, 2014

Father Gunned Down After Dropping Daughter off at School

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE | March 4, 2015

Con­tact: Lak­sh­mi Sri­daran
lakshmi@saalt.org
301–270-1855

SAALT and the Nation­al Coun­cil of Asian Pacif­ic Amer­i­cans (NCAPA) note with sad­ness and alarm yet anoth­er inci­dent of vio­lence against Mus­lim, Arab, Sikh, Hin­du, and South Asian com­mu­ni­ties.

Last Fri­day, Feb­ru­ary 28, Mukhtar Ahmed, a Pak­istani Mus­lim man in Louisville, KY, was gunned down and killed after drop­ping his daugh­ter off at school. Local police have made an arrest, but have not yet released infor­ma­tion on a pos­si­ble motive. We must place this inci­dent in the con­text of the trou­bling num­ber of recent attacks against Mus­lim, South Asian, Sikh, Hin­du, and Arab com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers and insti­tu­tions in the last few months alone.

These include:

  • The hit and run killing of a Soma­li Mus­lim boy in front of a mosque in Kansas City last Decem­ber 4, 2014;
  • An attack on a Flori­da Iraqi busi­ness own­er on Feb­ru­ary 6, 2015;
  • The police beat­ing of an Indi­an grand­fa­ther in Madi­son, AL also on Feb­ru­ary 6, 2015;
  • The exe­cu­tion-style mur­der of three Arab-Mus­lim stu­dents in North Car­oli­na on Feb­ru­ary 10, 2015;
  • A like­ly arson attack on the Hous­ton Islam­ic Insti­tute on Feb­ru­ary 13, 2015;
  • Van­dal attacks on two Hin­du tem­ples in Wash­ing­ton State on Feb­ru­ary 14, 2015 and Feb­ru­ary 28, 2015

This steady stream of vio­lent inci­dents reminds us that our com­mu­ni­ties remain under attack—as SAALT detailed in our Sep­tem­ber 2014 report, Under Sus­pi­cion, Under Attack.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, these attacks occur as the dom­i­nant rhetoric that posits Mus­lim Amer­i­cans as sus­pect and under sus­pi­cion continues—through pro­grams such as the FBI’s efforts to map Mus­lim Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties and the recent White House Coun­ter­ing Vio­lent Extrem­ism (CVE) Sum­mit, which focused exclu­sive­ly on Mus­lims as per­pe­tra­tors of “vio­lent extrem­ism.”

Fed­er­al, state, and local law enforce­ment must all address domes­tic hate vio­lence inci­dents tar­get­ing Mus­lim, Arab, Sikh, Hin­du, and South Asian com­mu­ni­ties. We all deserve to feel safe.

So what did you tell your family?

IMG_0015With­in min­utes of enter­ing the hotel, the ques­tion came up: “So what did you tell your fam­i­ly?” We had only just met, but we didn’t need to know each oth­er to know that fam­i­ly was a ten­der top­ic. We had come togeth­er for SAALT’s Young Lead­ers Insti­tute (YLI), but our con­nec­tions ran deep­er than a pas­sion for engag­ing South Asian com­mu­ni­ties in jus­tice and activism. This was a con­nec­tion that many LGBQ and trans­gen­der South Asians expe­ri­ence when we come together—a shared ache to rec­on­cile what we knew about our­selves and what those around us have been taught. Espe­cial­ly achy is rec­on­cil­ing what our  fam­i­lies have been taught about who they think we are. My room­mate and I, exhaust­ed from our trav­els but exhil­a­rat­ed by this rare oppor­tu­ni­ty to swap sto­ries of fam­i­ly expe­ri­ences with anoth­er queer desi, stayed up late the night before the first day of YLI shar­ing sto­ries about what brought us here.

LGBQ and trans­gen­der South Asians are taught that our fam­i­lies will nev­er accept or acknowl­edge us in our entire­ty. While some of our expe­ri­ences affirm this, these scare tac­tics leave us stuck and unable to hope for or envi­sion a dif­fer­ent fam­i­ly expe­ri­ence. The idea that we have no future as our whole selves is not only harm­ful to us, but also to our fam­i­lies. These fears fuel their anx­i­eties and, in turn, widen the gap we feel between us and our fam­i­lies. How do we move toward a future where fam­i­lies have room to grow, learn, and accept us? How do we move toward a real­i­ty where being an LGBQ and/or trans­gen­der South Asian is not syn­ony­mous with a famil­ial dis­con­nect? How do we move toward a truth where we give our fam­i­lies the care we hope they can give us?

One exer­cise we did dur­ing our YLI train­ing real­ly hit home for me. We were asked to make a “queer fam­i­ly tree” trac­ing the peo­ple in our lives who have made room for us to be who we are more freely. At first, this felt impossible—the stereo­type of South Asians being homo­pho­bic and trans­pho­bic runs deep enough to cloud what I know to be true. I remem­bered con­fid­ing in a cousin of mine about my queer­ness and the light­ness I felt when she respond­ed with such kind words. Were there more expe­ri­ences with fam­i­ly that made me feel free? Maybe if I looked at this anoth­er way, I would find more. I thought about all the peo­ple in my fam­i­ly who might share my feel­ings about family—stress, sad­ness, frus­tra­tion dis­ap­point­ment, shame, a sense of stuck­ness. Though they may not be queer, there were oth­ers in my fam­i­ly who are nego­ti­at­ing the idea of “fam­i­ly,” fam­i­ly IMG_0042expec­ta­tions, and fam­i­ly real­i­ties in a com­plex way. And there were those few who sup­port­ed them. Just by being who they are, these folks are mak­ing space for me to be me. They endure gos­sip, shame, fear, just because they don’t meet an expec­ta­tion. Our seem­ing imper­fec­tions give hope to oth­ers who are also told they are imper­fect. Think­ing about fam­i­ly in this way real­ly affirmed my shift­ing approach to fam­i­ly; it reminds me to be gen­tler and more com­pas­sion­ate. It also remind­ed me that these sto­ries don’t come to mind eas­i­ly, that these folks are often writ­ten out of fam­i­ly his­to­ries. In turn, I won­dered where I stood in the future of my fam­i­ly his­to­ry.

We are all sto­ry­tellers, from the fic­tions we devise that allow us to access queer and trans­gen­der com­mu­ni­ty, to the way we share the fine bal­ance of our lives—storytelling is inher­ent to how we live and sur­vive. My YLI project, an anthol­o­gy enti­tled “Mov­ing Truth(s): Queer and Trans­gen­der Desi Writ­ings on Fam­i­ly,” cap­tures a snap­shot of how LGBQ and trans­gen­der South Asians relate to fam­i­ly through sto­ry­telling and explores how we get to a point where we can move for­ward. In hon­or of the vision for build­ing ally­ship among each oth­er and our fam­i­lies, my team and I devel­oped a com­mu­ni­ty-based pub­lish­ing plan. Instead of expect­ing our con­trib­u­tors to write in iso­la­tion, we accept­ed appli­ca­tions of inter­est rather than sub­mis­sions. Know­ing how com­plex the top­ic of fam­i­ly would be, we cre­at­ed a guid­ed writ­ing process, a 10-week online writ­ing work­shop that would sup­port writ­ers in focus­ing which sto­ry to write about, to help in pro­vid­ing con­text, to work on edit­ing and gram­mar, and, most impor­tant­ly, to pro­vide emo­tion­al sup­port as we processed our expe­ri­ences with fam­i­ly. Our goal dur­ing the writ­ing and draft­ing process was to cre­ate some­thing that felt true to us and our expe­ri­ences, and to cre­ate some­thing we are proud of. Some of our includ­ed sto­ries deal with con­flicts of belief and action, rec­on­cil­ing iden­ti­ties, and learn­ing more grace­ful, gen­er­ous, and gen­tle ways to relate to our­selves, our fam­i­lies, and our com­mu­ni­ties.

Our labor of love will be pub­lished Spring 2015. To learn more about and sup­port this project, please: http://igg.me/at/movingtruths.

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Sasha Duttchoud­hury
Young Lead­ers Insti­tute Fel­low, 2014