Indian-American Idol

In the we-watch-so-you-don’t have-to category, I thought it would be nice to provide an update or two on our non-Bollywood desi brethren continuing to make it in the world of reality television. We blogged previously about the Singing Malakars, and unlike Abhi, I have been known to watch American Idol and other reality fare, especially when they feature South Asians. (For the record, I think it is way better than toilet water.) In this weeks installment of American Idol, we saw saw the splitting of the Malakar siblings, as Simon, Paula, and Randy decided to send Shyamali home, but advance Sanjaya all the way through to the final 24 (link). I thought Sanjaya’s rendition of “Some Kind Of Wonderful,” was pretty good, and it was great to see a desi make it through to the actual competition. Even if he doesn’t win, as long as Sanjaya doesn’t give a performance like like this one from the U.K.’s Pop Idol (definitely click on the link–it is hilarious), he will be a winner in my book. You can follow Sanjaya’s progress, here and on American Idol which airs Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s on Fox.

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I make no secret of the fact that I am extremely annoyed by what I feel is the waayyyyyy too early ’08 Presidential campaigning going on and the hype surrounding many of the candidates. Instead of acting to implement the will of the people (which seems clear) it feels like there are a bunch of Presidential hopefuls out there using “non-binding resolutions” as a means to define their candidacy in relation to their opponents. Isn’t the point of lawmakers to enact binding resolutions? I make non-binding resolutions at SM all the time but most people just ignore them.

Part of the reason I wanted to help launch a blog like SM was to cover the ’08 elections from a South Asian perspective. I’d like to make sure that we aren’t simply following politics like it’s a sport but rather keeping an eye on the issues that matter. I’m hoping also that those of you that may get involved with campaigns will feed us information about your experience. That experience is a large part of the South Asian perspective I want to capture here.

As always, SM does not endorse any candidates but will sniff out the desi angle on a story. And so, in February of 2006, a full 22 months before the next Presidential election, I bring you news of South Asians for Obama (SAFO). Their first fundraising event will be held Thursday, March 1 in D.C. (details will soon be on our EVENTS PAGE):

South Asians for Obama (SAFO) is a grassroots movement to unite the South Asian American community around Barack Obama’s vision for our country’s future. CLICK HERE to contribute to Senator Obama on behalf of the South Asian American community. [Link]

My political operatives (what? I could have operatives. You don’t know) also tell me that some of the former leadership of South Asian’s For Kerry in 2004 will soon be starting something like a “South Asians for Hillary.”

In order to be fair and balanced I thought I’d link to South Asians for Rudy, or McCain, or Mitt but I wasn’t able to find such fundraising sites. I would be forever grateful to anyone that could alert me to such a development though. I also love posting pictures of candidates hugging South Asians (or making dosas with them).

I kind of just miss the good old days when people threw their hat into the ring only 11 months before the election. I mean, there are plenty of other things to do until election day. Now it seems that if you don’t lock up donors and have money in the bank almost two years out, it’s all over. I’m sure everyone sees where this is headed. In the future we will have people announce on Nov. 3rd.

Now where can I get me that button as a keepsake?

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Back in 2005, bloggers at Sepia Mutiny (and me, on my own small blog) announced with some excitement the advent of MTV Desi, a channel geared to NRIs and Second Gen South Asian youth. Now there are news reports that MTV Desi is getting axed, along with its sister diasporic channels MTV Chi and MTV K, as Viacom is undergoing a restructuring. Hollywood Reporter has an MTV executive making the following statement:

“Unfortunately, the premium distribution model for MTV World proved more challenging than we anticipated in this competitive environment,” the company said. “As a result, MTV has decided to shut down its linear MTV World operation. However, we remain steadfast in superserving multicultural youth, and we are continuing to investigate ways to integrate the MTV Desi, Chi and K brands online and on our other screens.” (link)

Well, duh, if it’s only available via Satellite TV, you can bet that “Cheap Ass Desis” (to rip off a former SM commenter’s moniker) aren’t about to shell out a hefty monthly fee for it. I believe I’m the only blogger here who actually subscribes to MTV Desi — and it’s only because my in-laws came to stay with us for a few months, and the channel came packaged with the channels they really wanted — Star One, Star Plus, Star News, and NDTV. Still, I’ve actually spent some hours watching the channel, so maybe I’m the best person to do a little mini-elegy. (By the way, it’s worth noting that the channel is still on the air as of today.)

First, the positive. The best thing I ever saw on MTV Desi was the following inspired rant by Parag Khanna.

There are some statements he makes that miss the mark (India isn’t the poorest country in the world by the indices I’ve seen), but I appreciate the energy. Instead of being the embarrassed, cautious ABCD — do we really know enough about India to comment on corruption? shouldn’t we stay “positive”? — he’s taking a strong stance. (Parag Khanna might make a good blogger.) If MTV Desi is really dead, it’s too bad we’ll get less stuff like this. Continue reading

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Bloody Valentine

Since I’m a bleeding heart, listening to my friends complain about how much last night cost them made me think about the costs that are born by smaller folk than me. In response to my post about how India has become a major flower exporter and how an Indian multinational is poised to become the largest rose exporter in the world, Anantha pointed out the dark side of this business, namely accusations of the use of child labour:

Malur, the little-known rose capital on the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border, which caters to a large domestic and export market, engages more than 1,000 female children in this chain of rose production, right from rose plucking to packaging, according to John Devaraj, a film maker and a child rights activist… [Link]

While I question some of the claims made (“These girls are swift in their work and can pluck upto even 10,000 roses per day…” [Link]), the accusation is quite plausible on its face.

If present, the use of child labor is even more troubling when you consider the fact that flower growing involves large quantities of fertilizer and pesticides, thus exposing children to noxious chemicals. Even without that, though, roses have thorns, something that’s easy to forget when you only have to deal with the cellophane wrapped versions, so this is hardly light labor.

Horticulture, however, comes out smelling like roses in comparison to the high end of the romance market, namely diamonds. As you all know, India is a dominant force in the bulk diamond market:

India’s diamond industry is the fastest growing in the world, employing more than a million people and turning over some $8bn a year. [Link]

It’s not surprising that some diamond merchants are willing to cut corners when it comes to the source of the gems:

‘These stones are from Africa,’ he said, holding up two knuckle-sized murky brown diamonds. ‘We can’t always tell where they are from, but they aren’t legitimate. But here business is done with cash and no questions.’…

‘Look at this diamond,’ Shah said. ‘It’s not small, but is easy to smuggle. What can be done to stop that being smuggled to India? I will get a buyer, an agent for a polisher, who will give me a good price, and then sell it out of a reputable firm for export. There is no way it can ever be traced…’

The stones brought in by dhows and fishing boats through the shallow waters of Gujarat’s ungovernable west coast make a laughing stock of attempts to stem the global flow of blood diamonds. [Link] Continue reading

White Parents, Indian Baby

Bizarre and strange were the words that came to mind when I first started reading this article…

Wendy Duncan and her husband Brian are white. Nineteen months ago, the Lincolnshire housewife gave birth to a beautiful, healthy, Indian daughter. Freya, brown-skinned and dark-eyed, is not a medical miracle after a long and fruitless quest through IVF and adoption, but the product of a booming industry in India that is offering embryos for adoption.

Am I missing something? Why would you want to adopt an Indian embryo when there’s plenty of Indian children to adopt?

Embryo adoption was the culmination of an 18-year journey for the Duncans during which their attempts to become parents were frustrated by nature and bureaucracy. Being white and already having a mixed-race child (from Mrs DuncanÂ’s previous relationship) meant that they failed the criteria for a normal adoption.

Seriously? Having a mixed-race child limits your chances of adopting in the UK? That’s racist!

IVF was unsuccessful and expensive for a family relying on Mr DuncanÂ’s income as a lorry driver. The older Mrs Duncan got, the less the chance there was of any fertility treatment working. Their options were running out until they stumbled upon a website for the Bombay clinic. It was an easy choice.

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Untouchability: Not Going Away

Straight from the title, “Hidden Apartheid: Caste Discrimination against India’s Untouchables,” you know that the new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) out today is pulling no punches when it comes to qualifying the extent and seriousness of anti-Dalit discrimination in India today. The comparison with apartheid gained significant political cover two months ago when the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, drew the link in public remarks at a conference in Delhi. Here’s the prime minister:

Singh said: “Dalits have faced a unique discrimination in our society that is fundamentally different from the problems of minority groups in general. The only parallel to the practice of untouchability is apartheid,” he said. “Untouchability is not just social discrimination, it is a blot on humanity,” Singh said.

Calling for a “political, social, cultural and intellectual battle,” against such discrimination, the PM noted that constitutional and administrative measures alone are not sufficient. “Our government is deeply and sincerely committed to the equality of all sections of our society and will take all necessary steps to help in the social, educational and economic empowerment of Dalits. This is our solemn commitment,” Singh said.

Of course the gap between legal remediation and actual practice has been precisely the problem for 57 years, since the Constitution in 1950 outlawed untouchability in all its forms, with further legislation added over the years. The continuing discrimination against Dalits also violates the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, to which India is a signatory, as the convention covers not just what its title narrowly suggests but in fact “race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin.” At any rate, this gap between theory in practice is well known, and the problem has always been to end the actual practices of discrimination, violence, and humiliation that Dalits encounter across India to degrees that perhaps (probably) vary by region and locality but are never, ever trivial.

Consider a few choice quotes from the report’s summary (you can download it or read the whole report online here): Continue reading

Love (don’t shoot) thy neighbor (updated)

Meet Joseph Cho, all Asian-American boy. Cho went to Yale undergrad, enlisted in the Army after 9/11, served 3 years and was given a honorable discharge [Link]. Now 31, Joe Cho is a law student at Penn. Thus far he sounds like the kind of good Asian kid that even the most xenophobic auntie and uncle would love to have over for tea. “He’s a good influence,” they might say.

However, earlier this month something went … wonky. Cho had a beef with some neighbors. That’s normal — I don’t like my next door neighbor either, he plays his shoot ‘em up video games late at night and disturbs my sleep. Usual apartment building stuff.

Cho’s beef, however, was a bit different from mine. He believed his neighbors, two desi men, were actually terrorists and decided to do something about it.

Police said Cho,… suspected the neighbors – two Indian men studying biomedical engineering at Drexel University – of being spies. On Wednesday afternoon, he sought to confront them. When no one answered his knock on their door, he shot the lock off with his Glock pistol, walked inside, and eventually left. [Link]

Gulp! His lawyer says his client was off his rocker:

His lawyer, Peter Bowers, said the attack on the men he believed were terrorists … “appears to have been a mental health or emotional issue…” Cho, meanwhile, was described as an “outstanding young man,” Bowers said. “It’s really an unfortunate incident…” [Link]

You know, the words tourism and terrorism sound so much alike, it’s an easy mistake to make. It could happen to anybody, really.

The university provost said:

“the student has been temporarily suspended from the law school. The matter will be reported to the Law School’s Committee on Student Conduct and Responsibility for its consideration…” [Link]

I suppose that’s a good first step. I wonder what you have to do to get kicked out of law school.

Me? I wonder if he’s been watching too much 24.

Update 1: See comment #20 by somebody who knows him

Update 2: It was racial, at least in part:

Walker said the Penn student, a Korean American, accosted the Drexel students yesterday morning as all were leaving the building, … When the Drexel students told the Penn student that they planned to return to India after their studies, the Penn student accused them of being spies, Walker said. [Link]

One of the students was actually in the apartment at the time:

… around noon, the Penn student “decided to engage in more conversation” and banged on the Drexel students’ door, Walker said. When he got no answer, he got his 9mm Glock handgun and emptied it into the lock, police said. Then he stepped inside, looked around, and left the building. Unbeknownst to the assailant, one of the Drexel students was cringing in his bedroom about 25 feet from the door. [Link]

Another neighbor called 911, and officers found the 22-year-old Drexel student still cowering inside the apartment, said police. [Link]

Somebody on a bulletin board who claims to be a fellow law student said:

I think this guy has been involved in at least one other racially charged incident at the law school recently. [Link]

And the final indignity — the mere mention of terrorism has meant that police anti-terrorism officers have been notified:

Police said … that investigators will notify police terrorism officials about the reason behind the shooting. [Link]

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Art or incitement?

Falak is the name of a Pakistani-Canadian rock band out of Toronto. You can check out their Myspace page to listen to some of their tunes and read their blog entries. Searching the name “Falak” on Youtube will turn up a bunch of clips of their music videos and live performances. At face they sound like a typical hard rock band destined to obscurity. However, MTV Pakistan recently banned them…but not before they had already been airing their video over there for a while (since December).

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

So….just wanted to let you all know…that FALAK’s first video is officially airing in Pakistan. It’s a bit scandalous for North American television though….so don’t really know when you can expect to see it here….maybe when these fascist pigs try exercising real freedom of speech …

In the meanwhile, remember, CNN is bullshit…. [Link]

The ban of course will generate some attention for them. Why the ban? Watch this video, titled Yadein part II:

So I ask the question to SM’s readers because I am still trying to decide. Is this art/expression, or does it lend a rock-and-roll mystique to something else…

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Trying to save the corn tortilla

I’m not sure what the hell is going on with the world these days. First there was a daal shortage. More recently, word has gotten out that the corn tortilla population is in decline and at serious risk:

MANY DEMOCRATS and some Republicans applauded President Bush’s State-of-the-Union proposal for a 20 percent reduction in gasoline use over the next 10 years, largely through greater reliance on ethanol.

Bush’s idea, however, is adding corn-based fuel to protests in Mexico City. Existing federal laws that mandate ethanol in U.S. gasoline have diverted trainloads of corn from America’s food supply-chain to ethanol factories. This boosted U.S. corn prices nearly 80 percent in 2006.

That’s bad enough if you buy corn on the cob for a weekend barbecue. But it’s much worse if you are a poor Mexican surviving on corn tortillas. A kilo (2.2 pounds) of tortillas recently has shot up 55 percent, from 5.5 to 8.5 pesos. Poor Mexicans are not taking this sitting down. [Link]

Look, I know that wheat tortillas are “healthier” for you and that flour tortillas are less soggy. But come on. Nothing but a hot corn tortilla smothered in enchilada sauce should be wrapped around spinach and cheese filling. Via BoingBoing we now learn that “famed” investor Vinod Khosla is going to build an ethanol plant in Georgia that will use waste wood instead of corn to produce the fuel:

We knew it was coming. Vinod Khosla has finally made a bold move to back up industry-wide speculation that cellulosic ethanol would soon emerge as the next phase in ethanol production. The surprise is that wood would be the feedstock of choice given the vast headstart of corn-based biorefineries in the country and the obvious synergy of basing corn stover conversion technologies near sugar fermentation plants.

However, the high energy potential of wood cellulose, the ready availability of cheap waste, and the search for a renaissance of forestry-based industries makes the announcement a welcome one to the “nation’s woodpile” in the southeastern states. [Link]

To put it more simply, why kill tortillas to make fuel for your car when instead you could use the scrap wood from all the post consumer waste you produce? I for one am glad that investors like Khosla have the foresight to pump money into alternative sources of fuel while big oil keeps reaping record profits from our pockets.

And before anyone accuses me of being a bad Indian, I like rotis too.

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World of Apu

Bipin_02.jpgLavina Melwani, who seems to write three-quarters of the articles in the monthly Little India, has an informative piece on desis in the convenience store industry in the current issue. It’s the first focused treatment I’ve seen of the South Asian presence in that business that provides numbers, even if some are estimates, along with anecdotal information and personal stories. A few of the facts:

  • According to trade associations, 50,000 to 70,000 of the 140,000 convenience stores in the United States are owned by South Asians. South Asian owned stores do an estimated $100bn annual business.

  • Over 50 percent of US 7-Elevens are owned by South Asians.

  • 60 percent of South Asian owned stores are independent properties, as opposed to chain franchises – a similar pattern to the motel business, where desis began with independent properties before gradually acquiring brand-name franchises.

In addition to the National Association of Convenience Stores, several desi trade groups have sprung up: the Asian American Convenience Store Association, the Asian American Retailers Association, and the National Alliance of Trade Associations, which is based in the Ismaili community. The AACSA held its second convention in December and a third is scheduled for late May in Florida.

The article profiles a number of desi convenience store owners. It is pretty much the basic immigrant hard-work-make-good story. The risks of the profession are alluded to in passing. One point that stands out is that the convenience store business isn’t just an intermediate stop on the way up to more lucrative or prestigious activities:

[A profiled c-store owner] says the strength of the industry is in its ability to withstand economic downturns. He recalls, “When my son graduated from the University of Texas in 2000 the computer industry was booming. The first job was very good, but then in 2003 he was laid off. So he joined me in the business. The convenience store business is recession proof, because everyone needs bread and beer and lottery tickets. I always felt safe in the convenience store industry.”

Apu from The Simpsons earns a mention, and it’s a positive one:

For long, the only South Asian on TV was Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the owner of the Quik-E-Mart in the TV show The Simpsons. He is known for having worked for 96 hours straight, taken so many bullets that bullets ricochet off the bullets already lodged in his body! He is savvy, brainy and a one-man dynamo of energy. And a Ph.D to boot.

The stereotype has a sliver of truth, as hard work, family solidarity and resourcefulness are at the root of South Asian success in the C-store business. Many owners have professional degrees and include some physicians.

As a side note, the convenience store industry has at least once tried to embrace Apu. Here’s a straight-faced press release from the NACS in 2003. It’s entertaining to see how they twist and turn to explain why Apu may be good for industry image (“Apu encapsulates a number of positive traits found in the convenience store industry”) while never referring to Apu’s ethnicity. Continue reading