Diaspora experience as a function of modernity, imperialism, and nationalism.

From my online course on Asia-US migration, an upcoming discussion:

The second half of [Vinay] Lal’s book [The Other Indians: A Political And Cultural History of South Asians In America] is our first detailed look at the post-1965 Immigration Act situation, and particularly interesting look through the lens of Diaspora. South Asian immigrants to the US are just as connected to their homelands as pre-war Japanese or Chinese immigrants were, and though the technologies of interaction are dramatically more effective, a lot of the dynamics are familiar. Reinvestment of income in family communities, development of local cultural institutions, 2nd generation cultural gaps, aspirational tensions, redefinition of ‘culture’ to be a narrow subset of hobbies and traditions, returnee issues, ethnic nationalism and overseas influence issues, etc. You could even argue that the influence of Indian religions in non-Indian Americans (ISKCON, Vivekananda, etc.) parallels the influence of Zen Buddhism as an attempt to find new and alternative non-Western spiritual traditions.

A few months ago I came across Wajahat Ali’s play “Domestic Crusaders” (http://www.domesticcrusaders.com/, where you can download the script for free) which is a family drama based on 1st and 2nd generation Pakistani immigrants in the US. It is funny, touching, tense, and lively, and nothing in it was the least bit surprising to someone like me who grew up with family dramas based on 1st and 2nd generation Eastern European Jews.

This is why, honestly, “Diaspora” is such a useful scholarly term: there really are patterns, comparisons, predictable developments. Historians often shy away from that sort of talk, because we’re more interested in particularity and complexity, but sometimes we have to admit that the sociologists are on to something. This leaves us with two questions: Why? and Within the pattern, how is each one distinctive and unique?

I think the “Why?” question is pretty easy, actually, especially in the US where persistent racism makes it hard for even third-generation Americans to be considered fully mainstream and acceptable. That tendency to exclusion enhances what might be considered the ‘natural solidarity’ of immigrants who share linguistic and cultural characteristics. The modern infrastructure of transportation and communication means that immigrants can and will remain in contact with home countries, and contribute economically, but also have resources with which to implant and expand their home cultures locally. This is enhanced on both sides by the discourses of modern nationalism and the nation-state which, even in the America, define citizenship culturally as much as legally. The combination of modernity – in which anxiety about ‘kids these days’ is a constant feature (though it does go back a long, long way in human societies) – and the sensation of being on a cultural frontier enhances tensions between assimilation and preservation of culture in the 2nd generation. Even in the 1st generation, the impossibility of fully replicating the home environment (both due to distance, and the fact that things change, even in the homeland) means that their attachment to home becomes more focused on particular aspects of home culture (religion, or certain cultural activities) and allows for a great deal more assimilation than they will admit (until they try to go back…). These patterns are structural, building on the most fundamental aspects of modernity: nationalism, infrastructure.

That last paragraph is kind of ambitious, but I might work up a presentation expanding on it…

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.