Thursday, February 7, 2008

And what of the Oriental in America?

My deep apologies for my absence for so long, especially given the youthful state of this blog, but matters prompt me to here and there and everywhere.

So I'm not going to be able to make this session as deep as I'd like, so maybe I'll revisit later, but since I mentioned Orientalism in my last session, I thought I might discuss it a little more. To be exact I wanted to discuss Orientalism in light of the fact that I am of Indian heritage and thus, if Orientalism is as prevalent as Said claims, I am looked up by the West as an Oriental.

I am certainly not an Oriental in the same sense Said is. The Arab world, in particular the Palestinian world, is very different than the Indian world, in particular the Malayali world (although there are some claims that Malayalis, including myself have a little Syrian blood in them). But Orientalism, as a perspective, doesn't make such distinctions. So therefore, a country like America, steeped deeply in the European academic traditions, should view me primarily as an Oriental, correct?

I can't say I've ever experienced that. Well, no, I have experienced moments where I've seen Indians and myself treated as generic Orientals. One particular example I like to harp on is the McDonald's Asian Chicken Salad commercial. It basically talked about how the "Asian-ness" of the salad gave you some culinary Nirvana. Obviously the commecial was joking around and I don't pretend otherwise. And while I could see how Buddhists could be offended by the causal throwing around of a sacred concept like Nirvana, Christian concepts like heaven and hell are tossed around in American media with little respect too. What annoyed me though, which might be a little over-reacting, was that it perpetuated the same myth of Asians being inherently mystical, especially in a special "Eastern" way. I find that ridiculous. I know plenty of Asians without a lick of mysticism too them, and while I admit that India has a great spiritual heritage, it is a country and Indians are a people not just some materialization of that spiritual heritage.

Yet such slights always seemed to me minor. Annoying perhaps, offensive perhaps, but not an essentially harmful part of my life. Overall, while my brown-ness was recognized I was not treated any what specially and the label of Oriental did not haunt me.

I am and was, through most of my life, treated as an American.

Perhaps Professor Said had something to do with this, do to the impact of his book. Maybe.

But then there's the other side of the coin, my internal impression of myself. That's a little bit more complicated. One factor that has to enter the mix at some point is that I was raised in a middle-class suburban environment which was largely white. Those who weren't white tended to be lower down on the income ladder. So there was a sort of internal tension between my identity as part of this middle-class American group that was mostly white, and my familial and ethnic identity as an Indian. For example, sometimes I would forget that I was brown and start thinking of myself as white because I associated with the American majority and the American majority was always depicted as white.

If this sounds like a deep psychological issue, I suppose it could be. But its not really. I have over time come to think of myself more and more certainly as Indian and Malayali in an ethnic sense, but more and more I have fixed an identity as American. The internal tension has been lessened by clarifying in my mind what my heritage and my nationality really means to me. My heritage is a shaping force through my history and a network of bonds that links me back in time and across space to others of my historic background. My nationality is a matter of affection, it is not exactly rational but it comes down to a feeling of attachment, identity and love. Clarifying these concepts the internal tension between me as brown and me as a middle-class American has lessened. Has it gone away? Not entirely. Since I remember it and occasionally worry about it, it can never fully remove itself from my mind, but it doesn't concern me much. To be truthful it never concerned me a lot, but in the past it would send spikes of confusion into my mind every now and then, and that is less so the case now.

So I know myself as Indian ethnically but American in nationality. No where there is Oriental. Occasionally I have seen sparks of Orientalism in American culture, but my overall treatment has been as an American and I have accepted that place. Perhaps my view point on these matters is shaded by the fact that I am not a racial essentialist, but race, while an important concept, is just one of many concepts that can add to a person's identity to him/herself and to that person's identity to the outside world. And those two identities need not match.

But the question must come up, fine I feel both like an Indian and an American, but am I right to feel that way? Well, that essentially is a moral question. I can say I'm happy generally, and I find satisfaction in my life, but I'll admit I find my life less invested in my ethnicity than some (notably my parents) might like, and I find my mind filled with paradigms foreign to my ancestors. I am less attached to my heritage than I would be say if I identified myself nationally as Indian, or if I felt that the flashes of Orientalism I find occasionally define the way I have been treated growing up. Yet while I'd like to preserve as much of my heritage as I can, I'm not obsessed with it, and I feel in terms of values, customs, etc., my preferences and internal philosophical debate must come first before adhering to my heritage. Has that view been shaped by culture? Yes. Does that make it less true? Well according to that view, no. There's a moral question of whether putting my own personal ideas before my cultures views is right, but that can't be simply a matter of history, science, or cultural analysis. So are my views on national/ethnic identity correct? I'd say yes, but others might legitimately disagree.

This whole matter may seem like a digression from history. It is. More than a matter of history, what I have written here is a matter of personal introspection. But even that is shaped by history, and my personal perspective undoubtedly shapes my historical perspective. So excuse this indulgence. I simply thought given the fame of Said's story, I'd present the life of another who might be called Oriental in America.

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