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« Another minor collateral damage in the great war on terror | Main | What happens after the crowds go home? »

May 25, 2012


Culture or Curry? I'm taking the challenge literally, going the way of CULTURE. I lived and worked in Hong Kong for a short time, 1988-1989. I spent a number of my weekends taking self-made bus and walking tours, and taking lots of photos. I told a friend, when I returned to the States, that I would usually gesture with my camera toward a shop keeper or merchant as a way of asking permission to shoot his goods or displays, etc. More often than not they would wave me off. No pictures taken here. My friend said that Asians don't like to have their picture taken because they believe you are capturing their spirit in your camera. I told him that was nonsense. The real reason was that they had a near obsession to avoid coming to anyone's attention.

The Italian immigrants, Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Fernando Nicola Sacco, were tried and executed in 1927 for a robbery-murder in 1920. They were political anarchists.The trial and executions were highly publicized and controversial. It had a great impact on the Italian families and immigrants in the U.S. After Sacco and Vanzetti, Italian Americans were stunned. The effect was to focus their striving for success in this country on education and individual achievement. (This is a broad but legitimate generalization.) Like the Hong Kong butchers, fish mongers, and shop keepers, Italians in this country did not want to draw attention to themselves or their community as Italians.

The Italian mode of gaining success by education and personal achievement mirrored the same thrust and emphasis as in the Jewish communities.

The Irish took a different approach to gaining success by a public display of their ethnic, religious, and national heritage. All Irish would gain by political power and the domination of uniformed services in Fire and Police. For African-Americans, the thrust of the early second half of the 20th century, was very much like the Irish. Social, educational, and economic success would come as a result of a focus on political power.

In my personal opinion, what I have seen of the South Asia Indian culture in the States is the eschewing of the idea of not wanting to come to anyone's attention. In fact, it's a very bold and concrete way to demonstrate an embrace of American values, and a show of how well they can do what everyone else is expected to do in this country. In this regard they are doing the opposite of Hong Kong shop keepers and Italian-Americans. They want to come to the attention of their majority community. However, I don't see the same penchant for and use of political power as for Irish and African-Americans.

Such are my personal views.

Razib's comment at his Discover Magazine blog.

I took a look at Razib's comment on his Discover Magazine blog. Scanning the names reminded me of a comedy routine of the old time comedian, Louie Nye. In this skit, he was a Regular Army platoon sergeant, with a platoon of National Guard soldiers (weekend warriors) doing their obligatory two-week summer training. He's reading the roll-call names of his platoon assembled in front of him. He reads off the last names of easily identified ethnic groups: Polish, Russian, Italian, French, German, Native American, Hispanic, Chinese, Asian Indian, Jewish, Greek, Arab, West African, etc. He calls out the last names, and the soldier shouts, "Here Sergeant." In the middle of this list, he calls out "Chang," with the reply "Here Sergeant." The Sergeant says, "You're assigned to the kitchen, Chang." Then he calls, "Rabinowitz." "Here Sergeant." "Get in the kitchen with Chang." At the end of the roll-call, you could see that the Sergeant was irritated and terribly disappointed. He says to himself, out loud, "...and not an American among them."

Well Norman, at least your sergeant is a character in a joke. My ex-congressman, the notorious Tom DeLay who was no joke (yes, I live in that district of TX) once lamented that there was "not an American name" among all the high school valedictorians and prestigious scholarship winners in Fort Bend County. East and south Asians with funny sounding names populated the list, to DeLay's utter dismay. The young man who won the National Geo-Bee attends a middle school in the same district. I bet DeLay and his patriotic ilk have grudgingly taken note.

@ Ruchira,

I didn't expect that someone would have witnessed the real life demonstration of what was being parodied. I suppose it wouldn't have been funny if it didn't play off of actual experience. The mental disorder that Tom Delay has, is reflected in lots of people. The entire country is 1st person witness to near nonstop immigration of peoples from all over the globe. Most people can grasp the idea that immigrants who have attained citizenship, and children born here, are Americans. Also, there are no American names as may be generally understood. In spite of basic common sense, Delay and others see and hear the same things as everybody else, and yet only process what is already in their own minds.

I witnessed a great example of this at IBM. In 1985 to 1988, I conducted the series of Work and Family Life research within the company. It was a great success in that policy changes, and accommodations of all kinds were put into place in relatively short order. One of the BIG IDEAS that was learned was that higher absenteeism of women was not a female problem. It was a family problem. Men had a higher attendance, because their wives took off from work when the kids were sick.

Well, I was giving a presentation to a number of HR execs, and everyone understood this, and nodded in agreement, and were looking for appropriate policy or corporate actions to deal with the apparent disparity. EXCEPT Arthur C. He didn't get the notion that this was not a female problem. He spoke up as if he were in agreement with the 'female problem.' He started complaining about his own 'secretary' and how he couldn't rely on her when schools were shut down for snow, or to take care of sick children during flu season.

The studies were already going on for almost two years, and everybody was endorsing the findings and policy recommendations. Arthur C. was still locked inside his head, and was typical of his handling of reality. There's another way to describe this kind of mind: Every idea that the Delays and Arthurs have during their adult life, they had by the time they were 21.

Out of the 7 Geographic bee finalists = 5 brahmins, 1 Jain, who are no more than 25% of the US Indian diaspora

@Shan Barani: What is the point of that observation?

I agree with Sujatha's last comment about grit. I remember watching this last year as well, and thought I recognized some of the kids from last year's bee.

My mom was shocked that one of the contestants could not recognize the Golden Temple and therefore could not name Amritsar as the city. I told her she should cut the kid some slack. She's American. Oddly enough that did not wash with my mom, who thinks all Indians should know about the Golden Temple, Indian-born or American-born!!! And we're not Indian (okay so it was still India when my parents were born!)!

@Naveeda: Yes, Neelam Sandhu missing that answer was a shocker, since I would have inferred from her name that her family was very likely from Punjab, originally, and therefore more acquainted with the Golden Temple's location than most.
But then, maybe she grew up in a household where such things were of little importance, which might explain why she flubbed this particular question. I think that even Alex Trebek was shocked by her wrong answer.

Regarding Shan Barani's comment:

I don't know what Barani had in mind, but it did evoke some thoughts of my own. Research from the 1930s through the 1980s on predicting vocational choices in technical and professional jobs showed a moderate correlation between stated activities/preferences and eventual job area. That is, the correlations were significant for lower and middle socioeconomic status populations. However, stated preferences/activities for high socioeconomic status populations showed a zero correlation.

The explanation was that people from higher SES populations made their educational and job choices in conformance with expectations of their family.

I was thinking that the placement of students from Brahmin families might reflect a conformance with family expectations, more so than other populations. This is speculative on my part. Others who know Brahmins would have to comment on this.

In this country we used to observe the achievements of Jews that was out of proportion to their representation in the population. I think that probably still holds. Pre-WW2 immigration of Jews from Europe and Russia brought with them a scholarly tradition of Rabbinic Judaism. Conformity to expectations was more a cultural/religious identification than SES.

Okay, now the National Spelling Bee too is a sweep - all three top places went to Indian Americans. Here the girls dominated. The grandparents of the winning contestant traveled from India to America to see her participate.

Some are describing the national bees as the Desi Hunger Games.

Well, Desi Hunger for something it might be- Fame? Fortune? No culture is immune to this kind of hunger. For kids moulded by endless competitions at mind athletics (shloka recital competitions, anyone?), this is just another entertaining thing to do.
It was interesting to watch the varieties of approaches followed by the spellers to recall the spellings. Snigdha used a typing motion, Stuti wrote in her palm, Arvind spent a lot of time trying to mimic the pronounciation of the word correctly.Some (Nicholas, Lena, Gifton) used none of these and just pulled it out of their brains, with a hint of showmanship, bravado, anxiety, whatever you will.
The top two were so poised and solid on words of Graeco-Roman origin, that I knew the problem word for the finalist would be of Germanic origin. And it was : schwarmerei, with an umlaut over the a. Stuti spelled it as 'schwermerei', The rule for umlauts gives it a pronounciation closer to 'a' as in 'bad'.
As for the winning word 'guetapens', Snigdha aced it and obviously knew it, no guesses there.

@Norm: You may find some of the answers to your speculation in this report that Sujatha e-mailed me.


Thanks for the link. The following three ideas caught my attention:

1. "...the way a tightknit family can team up to train together."

2. "Indian immigrants...who put great emphasis on learning."

3. "The immigrants want to prove that they belong to the mainstream," he says. They are very eager to show that they have "mastered the cornerstone of the culture here — the language."

Some may think of these as obvious, but they are not, and have not, been so with every immigrant group.

1. Many Vietnamese families who escaped to the US near the end of the Vietnam War and for a decade or more later, survived and thrived in this country as a family effort. For example, five members of a family would work at the same McDonalds at minimum wage. Pooling their family resources, they would buy, eventually, the franchise and grow from there. Other families worked together in shrimp processing plants on the Gulf coast, at minimum wage. Later they would own a fleet of Shrimp vessels.

2. I spoke, above, about immigrant Jews who came to this country with a love for learning and the scholarly tradition of Rabbinic Judaism. Irish were very different in being binary on the subject. There were Irish who were predisposed to education and scholarly minded pursuit. They made their way through great colleges and universities to become Lawyers, Judges, School faculty, administrators, teachers, writers, philosophers, accountants, and executive in insurance, finance, banking, and investment. Others took a political path to achievement and some even denigrated advanced education. An example is one that I was witness to. An Irish truck driver was counseling me to pursue honest manual labor. People who go to college and become layers, for example, became alcoholics, mentally sick people, and get divorces.

3. For me, I think the desire to show that Indians FIT very well into mainstream culture, especially language, is probably the single most significant factor. From the end of the 19th century to well after WW2, Many immigrants from Europe, the Mediterranean, Adriatic, and Aegean countries, and the Caribbean came to this country for the purpose of making their fortunes and then returning to their home countries. Most stayed, but many did return. This is why they established their own schools and churches so their lives could continue in Italian, Sicilian, German, French, Greek, Armenian, Polish, Ukrainian, etc. Except for the past few years, this has been the modus operandi (at least the intent) for many Mexican immigrants, Salvadorans, and Hondurans.

Norm, more from Professor Amardeep Singh whose comments appear briefly at the end of the NPR report. Amardeep is an old friend of our blog (see our blog roll) and he is one of the more thoughtful bloggers writing on literature and desi as well as non-desi cultural issues. His point of view (unlike Sujatha's and mine who grew up in India) is interesting in that Amardeep was born in the US of Indian immigrant parents and grew up within the US educational system.

Ruchira, thanks for the link!

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