Looking into South Asian culture from an outsider’s perspective, one might expect to encounter a monolith. Perhaps one expects to find similar or identical cultures across all of the many countries that fit into the South Asian identity. These assumptions are wrong. The South Asian identity encompasses the many cultures of several different countries, from India to Pakistan to Afghanistan. Each has its own vibrant set of traditions, customs and languages. Those who identify with these cultures take pride in their distinctiveness, finding meaning in the rich diversity within the South Asian identity.
Sayem Hossain, the educational and cultural chair of the Bangali Student Association (BSA) and a junior majoring in Judaic studies, wrote in an email about his Bangali identity.
“The South Asian identity is a rich tapestry of brown shades, with different cultures and languages,” Hossain wrote. “The relationship between my Bangali identity to the macrocosm of South Asia is that of the organs to the body: essential and collective. My Bangali identity is valuable and rich in its own respect, not unlike the countless identities in South Asia.”
Being a member of this larger South Asian identity is fulfilling, even at Binghamton University and within America’s larger culture of Eurocentrism. While some students hold on to their South Asian culture, some have mentioned their appreciation for the familiarity of returning to it after interacting with the Western world. Whether through speaking a South Asian language, eating food or participating in cultural activities, South Asian Americans immerse themselves in their culture despite the white majority of the United States and the BU campus. Asheena Siddiqui, president of the Pakistani Students Association (PSA) and a junior majoring in integrative neuroscience, wrote in an email that on-campus support systems help them do just that.
“Being a part of PSA and participating [in] and planning events like Mock Shaadi, our annual fake Pakistani wedding on campus has taught me how to dance to Pakistani and Indian songs, something that most South Asians other than myself are somehow born knowing,” Siddiqui wrote. “I often catch myself watching Bollywood movies and listening to South Asian music more often than I had before.”
For students like Siddiqui, appreciation of South Asian culture has only grown upon arrival to the BU campus. Student groups like the PSA, BSA, Hindu Student Council and the Indian International Student Union (IISU) all provide opportunities for South Asian students to come together and celebrate their heritage. Through participating in South Asian celebrations, advocating for the visibility of their cultures and simply providing community, these organizations help South Asian students retain a certain proximity to their culture.
However, in the United States, racism against South Asian Americans runs rampant. While Hossain said he has never experienced discrimination on the BU campus, he has experienced forms of microagressions throughout his life. These experiences can include everything from setbacks in education due to being raised by immigrants, to having to adopt an American accent to seem appropriate, to being assumed not to speak English by strangers. This racism causes South Asian Americans to distance themselves from their identities. Their culture is colonized by the Eurocentric American culture —while South Asians must distance themselves from it and become assimilated into American culture, Americans, and Westerners in general, appropriate it, such as in the cases of henna and the practice of yoga, to name two.
“This discrimination may be unintentional on the part of the perpetrators, but it is the duty of whites and privileged individuals to check their privilege, become educated and be sensitive to the identities that surround them,” Hossain wrote.
Siddiqui said that by knowing the intricacies of South Asian culture, one can come to recognize the inherent beauty of the tapestry it weaves.
“I wish more people could realize that the South Asian diaspora is full of diverse people who speak different languages, come from different countries and follow different religions,” Siddiqui wrote.
Through increased visibility and an end to appropriation and discrimination, South Asian cultures can take the spotlight as the beautiful and diverse entities they are.