Women pioneers describe their experiences as members of the diaspora
On January 9, Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (or Non-Resident Indian Day, NRI Day) celebrates the contributions of the Indian community outside India. On NRI Day, we asked some SEEMA pioneers to offer their perspectives on being women of Indian origin in the diaspora and what it means to them, and to reflect on their experiences and the challenges they have faced.
Computational statistician as well as the co-founder of IndiaWrites Publishers Inc., a non-profit that supports translation and dissemination of contemporary fiction in Indian languages.
I was quite young when I landed in the U.S. as a graduate student in 1984, and was terribly homesick and lonely. It was an alien world.Though people were kind and well-intentioned at the university, I always felt like an outsider. I remember a fellow graduate student, an American, once ask me, “Why do you wear pajamas to school,” referring to my churidaar kameez suit. When my husband and I graduated and moved to Jersey City to start our careers, it wasn’t such a gentle world. We faced several overtly racist remarks at grocery stores and malls. How things have changed since then! Over the last 50 years, the Indian diaspora has built a reputation of being smart, successful and wealthy, with women claiming a fair share.
Writer, editor, mental health advocate, and CISCRP/Biogen Community advisory board member
I’ve always been incredibly proud of my heritage, so much to the point that even my South Asian friends questioned why I wasn’t more modern. I was never really offended by “Westerners” questioning why I was so immersed in my culture, but I definitely felt more pain when people from my own culture did it. I’ve come to the conclusion that I was never wrong for being so attached to certain aspects of my culture. There is no shame in being proud of your identity, in the ways you want to be.
New York City is in many ways like the world’s city. Most of the time it is possible to feel like a native here. The Indian woman thing used to come up in more subtle ways. Like, not being included in an “all India show” that mysteriously features all young men, or having to produce my own shows.
Now that I’ve proven I can sell out shows back to back, it’s a beautiful brand. It attracts people who want to be reminded of home and of mom, whether that’s India or somewhere else.
Indra Persad Milowe
The biggest challenges I’ve faced are Americans’ ignorance and occasional racism. Many people in the United States are ignorant of many cultures and religions. [My husband and I] had a medical practice in adult psychiatry for 33 years. There were photographs on the walls of our oOffice of educational scenes from our trip to Morocco. After 9/11, people frequently asked me: “Are you a Muslim?”. My impression is that many Americans think if you have brown skin you must be a Muslim. Furthermore, many Americans associate all Muslims with terrorism, which is outlandish and the supreme height of ignorance.
Executive VP & COO of Credit Union of New Jersey
I am very proud of my Indian origin and my heritage. My principles and my identity have not changed being after living in the United States for four decades now. What has changed is my work ethic and my lifestyle, both professionally and personally. The various opportunities in this country helped me to strive for the best. My upbringing has played a huge role in my life. My family has always put emphasis on studies and being upfront and forthcoming. These traits helped me succeed in the United States as a professional, a mother, wife, and a confidant to many.
Elisheba Haqq Stevens
Author and writing professor
As an Indian American, I have always lived with the feeling of belonging to the globe or at least to both India and America. When I am in America I am viewed as an “Indian,” because I have dark hair and brown skin. In India, I am perceived as an “American” because my accent, dress, and even the way I walk, identify me as American.
In essence, I am of both places and at the same time, don’t entirely fit into either one. I imagine it’s the same for most Indians who are living outside their country of origin. Upon their return to India they are suspended in time – longing for the India they left so long ago, which exists only in their minds. India moves forward and leaves those of us who no longer live there in the past.
This push and pull has forced me to delve deeper when thinking about questions of where I am from, what I call myself or what is my purpose. I have learned to shy away from obvious definitions of identity. Instead, I concentrate on those that I hold most dear – mother, sister, aunt, friend, healer, educator, writer. These are the identities that are most important and the ones on which I choose to focus.