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Monday, August 9, 2010

Who is Indian? Who is American?

I came across a blog with an essay on a very relevant subject.

It is called "Why there are no Indians in India." It is about labels and how we see ourselves, in particular about the way India is divided according to location and family and many other identifiers. More division and less unity:

So, who is an Indian? Ask me. I really don’t belong anywhere – including the place where my ancestors lived. At any place in India, wherever I go, my identity and acceptance –and therefore my ability to function as a normal human – seem to hinge on my speaking a particular language, or my belonging to a certain caste, a certain religion, a certain ethnicity. The boundaries of identity that we have been drawing around ourselves seem to be getting tighter and tighter, as we discover reason after reason for some new fissure, a fresh fracture.

It goes on to talk about the way the identity in India is defined by creating an "other." I wonder if that is something that we all do to create a sense of our place in the world. In America it seems more like each person thinks being an American is being whatever he is.

In other words, in India people identify more by their state and their ancestry, for example they will consider themselves Punjabi before considering themselves Indian. It is rare for Americans to identify by their state, even though there is tremendous variety in the American experience in different parts of the country. Instead, someone in Georgia will believe that his experience of America is what being an American is. Likewise, someone in Maine will think that his experience of America is what being an American is. We get into enormous arguments over what being an American is and what showing patriotism is because it is so different in different parts of the country. It's natural for us to think that our way of doing something is the right way, and I work hard to fight against that instinct, to try to see and understand (and respect) the way other people approach things. It's tough.

So really, America is having the opposite issue, that everyone identifies as American and finding a definition of that identity is impossible. Yet it still rests on the "other." For me to believe that my experience of America is the "real America," then I have to believe that people with a different experience are not real Americans and that they are wrong to call themselves that. Pretty silly, really, since all the people I'm speaking of have American citizenship. There really shouldn't be a way to be more or less American than the person next to me who also has American citizenship!

The conclusion of the above article is that it is up to us, not our leaders, to make small changes toward a better future. If we start trying to be kinder, more accepting, and courteous of those around us, we can teach those qualities to the next generation and they might be better than we are and create a happier, more peaceful world. It's a good thought and certainly better than any alternative! I agree with the author that small changes make a difference.

(Edited to Add: I'm not making an argument or a thesis statement here, I was just musing about what the essay made me think of, following my thoughts one to the next...)


  1. Who is a Hindu ?
    While browsing, I got a very good definition for being a Hindu. I though it is relevant to this blog readers.
    Look for definition of "Karma Hindu" and "Janma Hindu" on the same page.

  2. I don't agree with the blogger and here's why.

    The comparison between the states within the US of A and between the ones in India is just not the same. Despite the cultural differences between an American who is from Georgia and one who is from New York, there is a lot more in common between the two when compared to someone from Kerala in India differing from one who's from Manipur. The differences are way more in terms of language, culture, food, arts, music, literature etc. More like someone from Portugal differing from someone native to Finland.

    The bottom line is that there has to be an implicit, unsaid element of Indian-ness binding everyone despite that kind of apparently divisive diversity in India. Had it not been so, India would have long disintegrated as a unified entity. The former Yugoslavia comes into mind when one thinks about a country bound together with fragile values.

  3. I'm sorry if I made it sound like I thought the two cases were the same! That wasn't my intention.

    There are more language differences in India, for example.

    And the question of what binds Indians together and creates Indian-ness is a fascinating one. I would love to hear more about it, since I am not knowledgeable on that subject.

  4. Pravin, I look forward to reading what you found! Perhaps another blog post will be born :)

  5. The different identities of my being an Indian, a Bengali, a Hindu, a woman do not have to be in conflict with each other. I'm not sure if this makes sense to everyone, but it will to a lot of people who feel/think like me.

  6. I concur with SM. My being Indian, Telugu and a Hindu has never conflicted with each other. Infact they are very much complimentary. It's nationalism, culture and religion all intertwined. To be practiced in a healthy dose of course ;)

  7. "in India people identify more by their state and their ancestry, for example they will consider themselves Punjabi before considering themselves Indian"
    its coz of 1000s of years of culure evolved under da influence of hinduism .every region in india has thousands of years of continued history which people r proud of. but it not conflicting in nature as dhurga said above its complementary
    even during krishna or ramas time india as a whole was not one state but was still called bharatavarsh. but all states r togather form india coz of common hindu culture

  8. I'm happy to hear that people don't think the different identities conflict! That is wonderful. I suppose it is, as SM said, we all have many identities that are part of who we are. As women, we are all daughters, many of us are also sisters, wives, mothers, etc. And of course the men are the male equivalent.

  9. Unlike its comparable ancient sister civilization china, India had excelled in its research for both religion and spirituality. The Vedic scholars thus introduced a mathematical value of infinite by calling the cosmos ‘ ananth’. Which can never be disproved ever, as we can all see. Vedas have cleverly hidden the fact that the creator’s whereabouts are unknown, by stating that the former has no form (physical) or gender (excluding completely the probability of HIM being a living, breathing creature). That’s a very bold statement considering the then prevailing belief in Roman and Greek mythology at that time. For the europeans the gods are rulers like kings. The ongoing research further earned the hearts and souls of the people of wisdom by introducing the idea of ADVAITA (non dualism).

    Much latter faiths like abrahamic ones though physically spread well by the might of sword, failed to offer a logical explanation of the creation vis a vis humans. Presently they are teetering with the superstition of a ‘heaven for us and a hell for them ‘doctrine. The muslim and Christian faiths are unable to extricate themselves from the impasse, they so willingly created for themselves. The latter faiths have seriously compromised the attitudes of the very god they wanted to promote….I think India is surviving as a nation by this subconscious bonding of spiritual maturity, that clearly survived a thousand year brutal onslaught. Once they weaken their common bonding and move away from religion then they will fall apart…missionaries, evangelists and mullahs are working hard to accomplish that goal…surya, chicago

  10. Indians don't have to conform to a cookie-cutter stereotype. The very idea of India since ancient times is that individuality in culture, language, food, religion etc. is cherished. I think there's an issue of pride as well, the Indian civilization is the longest continuous surviving one (more than Mesopotamian or Chinese). So I don't really feel any inadequacy in not being able to "define" us as a nation.