It’s Hard Out There For An Indian Idol

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been keeping up with Indian Idol fairly religiously. (You can catch up on all the episodes here, if you’re so inclined.) I don’t even understand Hindi all that well, but I love the music, the contestants are entertaining to watch, and the show doesn’t take itself nearly as seriously as American Idol does. Needless to say, I’m hooked.

I’m already placing my bets on one contestant in particular — Meiyang Chang. Unlike the other contestants I’ve seen (even those on American Idol), I actually feel moved by his voice. He’s that impressive. Not to mention that he’s also articulate, he writes well, and he looks good in fitted t-shirts. He’s quickly attracted a steady following.

Yet despite his appeal, the show is fairly obsessed with reminding us brown people that Chang is (gasp!) not quite one of “us.” Although Chang was born and raised in India, the Indian Idol website promotes him as the “contestant from China.” The show’s co-host first introduced him by stating, “His surname is Chinese, but his heart is Indian.” Even more embarrassing is this condescending exchange between the judges and Chang during the duet round, in which Anu Malik tells him, “You’ve just proven that music knows no language.” Thanks, Indian Idol, I had no idea that Chinese people could actually sing.

I can only imagine the sort of outrage that would follow in our community had the producers of American Idol promoted Sanjaya as “The Indian,” “The Contestant from India,” or “The Brown Guy Who’s Really an American at Heart.” But I have to give credit to Chang, though — in spite of the ignorant comments, he only smiles and nods, never protesting or showing frustration. Poor guy. And I thought I had it rough growing up in southern California.

Here’s a clip from the theater rounds:

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Posted in TV

Marriage And Food Are So 2002, Indian Artists Say

Convene to Discuss Problem

NEW YORK — Indian filmmakers, authors, dancers and other artists gathered Monday at the Asian American Writer’s Workshop to discuss the community’s ongoing obsession with arranged marriage and food.

The idea for the meeting, which attracted the who’s who of artists in the Indian diaspora, was borne out of the anger and frustration author Lara Mookhey-Schmid felt after thumbing through Sonia Prasad’s newly released The Exotic Arranged Marriage Spices Club at Barnes and Noble.

“Arranged, Re-Arranged, Aloo Gobi and Me, My Vegan Arranged Marriage, Mistress of Spices, I could go on,” Mookhey-Schmid said. “I noticed that desi artists are using food and marriage as culture symbols over and over again. It’s a cop out, and it’s getting old.”

Mookhey-Schmid’s recent book, This Book is Not About Indian Food and Does Not Involve Arranged Marriages, was shortlisted for the American Book Award. The award instead went to Farha Mirza’s book, My Chicken Tikka Masala Marriage: It Was Arranged!

Meeting attendees were not shy about expressing their views on the food and marriage issue.

The Exotic Arranged Marriage Spices Club is an intertextual study of how arranged marriage is enacted in non-Indian, non-Hindu spaces,” said NYU English professor Manorama Chugh. “Unfortunately, that’s all it is.”

Others are not so diplomatic.

“I’ve read this crap twenty times before,” said UCLA history professor Vinay Pal. “Enough!”

Participants acknowledged the growing problem, and decided to place a moratorium on weddings and certain foods.

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Is Kal Good Enough For Penn?

As many of you already know, Kalpen Modi will be teaching two undergraduate courses at the University of Pennsylvania in spring of 2008, one on Asian Americans in the Media and the other on American Teen Films. But unlike Hetal and Kapila, it looks as though some Penn students aren’t too crazy about the idea. The Daily Pennsylvanian even ran a staff editorial recently, arguing that Mr. Modi lacks the qualifications to teach there:

The University brings in guest professors who are qualified to teach students because of extensive experience in a field. Pennsylvania governor, former mayor of Philadelphia and career politician Ed Rendell teaches a course on elections, for instance. Kal Penn simply does not have those kind of credentials when it comes to film and the field of Asian American studies…Bringing in a popular actor as a means of promoting Asian American Studies undermines the academic value that should attract students to the field in the first place.

And most importantly,

Standards should be set high for anyone who teaches at Penn. To set a lower bar for guest professors sends the wrong message to graduate students and professors, as well as to students, about what the University values as academically credible.

Asian American Studies Program Director Grace Kao, who arranged for Mr. Modi to teach at Penn, wrote a lengthy response:

Mr. Modi will offer a first-hand account of how the current internal structure of Hollywood works to limit roles available to women and ethnic minorities. I don’t think anyone else at Penn is more qualified to teach such a course…As a tenured member of the Sociology faculty and director of the Asian American Studies Program, I am not someone who takes his appointment lightly. We are fortunate to have someone like Mr. Modi on campus for an entire semester. He will not get rich by doing this, and I think that says a lot about his dedication to actively engage with the academy.

To get more perspective on the issue, I ran both articles by a friend of mine, a desi woman who recently finished her PhD in Cinema Studies, to see what she thought. She put it to me this way: “There’s a big difference between teaching a class on media criticism and teaching a class on what it’s like to work in Hollywood. Grace Kao seems to think they’re the same, but they’re not. It’s kind of like asking Tom Clancy to teach American lit as opposed to creative writing, or asking Arnold to teach public policy analysis as opposed to a course on how not to run a special election. I don’t think either of those things would ever happen at a top twenty-five school.”

I get her point, and I’m sympathetic to people like her who have given their lives to the academy and have difficulty finding teaching positions, only to hear of people with lesser qualifications like Mr. Modi secure these jobs fairly easily. On the other hand, he’s only teaching two classes as an adjunct. It seems kind of harsh to argue that Mr. Modi undermines Penn and Asian American Studies, considering that he’s only going to be there for one semester. It’s not as though they’ve given him a tenured-track position. If that did happen, then I probably would agree with these concerns. But until then, I’m curious to see what comes out of Mr. Modi’s teaching assignment. Continue reading

A Story of Adoption, Religion, and Deportation (Revised)

Every now and then I come across an article that seems to pack in as many social issues as possible. This particular story on the impending deportation of a 25-year-old Indian man in Utah has several interesting angles on the subject’s predicament. International adoptee? Check. Religious minority? Check. Juvenile delinquent? Check. Confused young person who made some really bad decisions and tried to play the victim card? Errr, check, check, and uh, check.

Samuel Jonathan Schultz was born in India and adopted at age 3 by a Utah woman. His adopted mother apparently failed to complete his application for US citizenship upon his arrival to the US.

As a teenager, Schultz got in trouble with the law on numerous occasions. At the age of 18, he was arrested for driving a stolen vehicle (he claims that his friend stole the car and that he was simply on his way to return it). A year later, he was convicted again for car theft. Then there are the offenses that he committed as a juvenile:

Samuel Schultz has a juvenile record of theft offenses and engaged in altercations as a teen with his stepfather that occasionally required police intervention.

Because of his two adult convictions and his citizenship status, immigration authorities at Utah State Prison ordered that Schultz be deported.

But wait, there’s more. Schultz sought to appeal the deportation order because:

As a Christian in general, and a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in particular, he believes he will be targeted for persecution [in India].

More importantly,

The 25-year-old knows little about the nation of his birth, speaks only English and believes he would have to live on the streets there, according to court documents.

The appeals judge, however, refused to reverse the deportation order and had this to say:

“He has not shown that people of the Mormon faith are routinely persecuted by the government or people operating outside the government,” Vandello stated in his ruling. “There are random acts of persecution of Christians and also of other religions, as far as that goes, even the majority religions on occasion.”

Ok. There’s a lot of baggage here to be unpacked. Is Schultz a victim of circumstance? No, I think he does deserve to serve time in prison. Is he rightfully terrified of having to relocate to India? After some consideration, yes. Does he deserve to be deported over his two felony convictions? I don’t know. But I’ll ask my fellow mutineers to weigh in. Continue reading

Animals, Mendicants, and Mumbai

Earlier this week I went on a very long rant about this Dana Parsons article in the LA Times on the sex trafficking of Nepali girls. Today Dana Parsons’ column takes sensationalist trash to a whole other level. Normally I wouldn’t subject anyone to yet another lecture on primitivism, but I think this particular piece is too precious to keep to myself.

Parsons’ article concerns his attempt at something called “perspective.” He received an email recently from his cousin who is on business in Mumbai, filled with details on the horrible living conditions there. Because of this said email, Parsons now feels a sense of enlightenment and gratitude at the fact that he doesn’t have to live in the squalor that his cousin describes.

You can already guess where this is going. The column outlines the horrors of Mumbai, as narrated by Parsons’ cousin:

There are animals everywhere. Common to see dogs lying in areas by the road. I don’t know how they survive, but I’m told animals are sacred and you watch out for them. There are cows wandering through the streets.
We saw several naked people. Not always children. Several relieving themselves.
Our driver pulled over near some marshy area that I took to be rice fields. I got the camera out and was ready to shoot when we saw that the driver was relieving himself at the side of the car.

Ok, we get it — animals, nudity, and public urination, oh my! How is this substantive news by any standard, and more importantly, how can anyone find these details enlightening, as Mr. Parsons claims?

Truth be told, I’m really not surprised that there are people who view the world the way that Dana Parsons does. What I do find upsetting is that the LA Times is carrying this trash and passing it off as journalism. Then again, what else should I expect — time and time again I have been appalled at their international coverage. I will concede, however, that the LA Times is good for covering a few things, namely: state and local politics, the Hollywood industry, and most importantly, a certain college basketball team that’s going to rout Florida on Saturday. But even if the LAT has no intention of upgrading their international coverage, it’s time for them to cut Dana Parsons off from covering anything related to South Asia. He really needs to be stopped. Continue reading

On Saving Versus Primitivizing, Or Both

The LA Times ran this story a few weeks ago on a local college professor’s work in Nepal to fight human trafficking. I’ve been mulling over the story for a while, so I didn’t blog about it right away. I wasn’t even sure why I was bothered, but then I read about After the Wedding last week, and I felt as though I had a moment of clarity. It’s funny how a fictitious story can sometimes help you better understand your own reality.

Anyway, back to the article. Six years ago, California State University professor Jeffrey Kottler visited a village in rural Nepal to study maternal mortality. During his visit, he discovered that sex traffickers were taking young girls from the village — sometimes through kidnapping, sometimes with their parents’ consent — and forcing them into prostitution in India. Kottler, who was very disturbed by the scenario, decided to buy a Nepali girl’s freedom. He paid the village school principal fifty dollars to ensure that the girl stayed in school and out of prostitution for at least one year. Within six years, through fundraising and having two Nepalis monitor the uses of the funds, Kottler bought the freedom of 42 girls, preventing them from ever being sold into sexual slavery.

So why exactly would this article bother me, you might ask? Let me be very clear: I applaud Jeffrey Kottler. I fully support what he is doing, and I wish there were more people in this world like him. He’s done more with his life than anyone I know. And believe you me, most of my friends work or have worked tirelessly in the public sector, organizing immigrant workers or opening a health clinic for the homeless or helping abused mothers find employment. Yet despite our collective efforts, I don’t think any of us can honestly say that we’ve been able to prevent anyone from entering a lifetime of servitude and forced prostitution.

So it’s not Kottler who bothers me, or the idea of non-browns helping browns. It’s the undertones of this article and others like it that I do have a problem with. Those of you who follow my posts and my personal blog know that I generally cringe when it comes to stories of westerners “saving” the primitives from themselves. I cringe largely because these stories tend to reek of condescension, and they overlook the work that the “natives” have also done in the same field.

Likewise, the writer of this article uses interesting anecdotes to highlight just how “backward” the Nepalis are. The villagers are so poor that the typical house has “an animal to be tethered to the back wall.” “It’s a place where a father can be killed by a tiger.” There are blatant strokes of sensationalism here, much of which has nothing to do with anything. What exactly is the writer trying to do by evoking so much animal imagery? Then he states that the natives are so devoid of education that they “didn’t know where America was.” Oooh, shocking. Never mind that most Americans I know wouldn’t even be able to point out Nepal, much less India, on a map either. Continue reading

Not Another West Meets East Movie

Turns out there was not just one, but two desi-related films up for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars this year. I’m talking about Denmark’s After the Wedding, which will be released here in the US next week on March 30 in select cities. Don’t know how I overlooked this one back when the nominees were announced, but the late release date probably explains it.

While many films concerning Westerners in India involve characters going to the motherland to find themselves after going through some sort of a crisis (Shantaram and Darjeeling Limited come to mind), After the Wedding is different. This film deals with the emotional turmoil a Westerner goes through after he leaves India. In After the Wedding, a Danish expat, Jacob, lives in India and runs an orphanage. He also has an adopted son, Pramod, whom he’s raised since infancy. When the orphanage is threatened by closure, Jacob begrudgingly leaves India for Denmark to meet with a businessman, Jørgen, who offers to help keep the orphanage open. Jacob also discovers that a) Jørgen’s wife happens to Jacob’s ex and b) Jørgen’s daughter (gasp!) might actually be his. And so Jacob must now ask himself a difficult question: return to India and his adopted Pramod or stay in Denmark with the biological daughter he’s never known?

You can view the trailer after the jump. Is it just me or does Jacob look like he’s in excellent shape for someone who’s about to face a mid-life crisis? Continue reading

Tricked into a Guest Worker Program

My friend Ansour forwarded me this story from the LA Times on a group of Indian guest workers in the Gulf Coast. Signal International, a marine and fabrication company with shipyards in Texas and Mississippi, hired approximately 300 laborers from India as welders and pipe fitters in Mississippi under a guest worker program. In addition to decent wages, Signal allegedly promised good accommodations and steps to permanent US residency to its guest workers. But some of these workers have protested that Signal did not live up to any of its promises, and that they’ve been subjected to “slave” conditions.

Sabulal Vijayan of Kerala, for example, said that upon arriving to Mississippi, he discovered that the “good” accommodations promised by Signal were actually quite horrible:

“We were like pigs in a cage,” he said. His living quarters were cramped bunk houses where two dozen laborers shared two bathrooms.

In an interview on Democracy Now, Vijayan further elaborated:

It is too hard to live there, because somebody is sneezing, somebody is snoring, and somebody is making sound, and we cannot even go to bathroom without spending hours. There is only two bathrooms and four toilets. And we are struggling very well. And in the mess hall we are not getting good food even. And they are saying that this is Indian good. And when we make complain, the camp manager said to us that, “You are living in slums in India. It is better than that slums.”

Even worse, the company retaliated against employees who complained:

The company cut the workers’ wages from $1,850 a week to $1,350 or $950, depending on the position, Vijayan said. When he and other workers complained, they were fired without notice.

And now Vijayan finds himself in an awful predicament. He spent his entire life savings and went into debt in order to pay $15,000 to Signal’s recruiters. He was told this was “the price of coming to the U.S.”:

“I cannot go back to India because I cannot pay my debt,” Vijayan said of the money he borrowed to pay recruiters. He was so distraught that he recently slashed his wrist in a suicide attempt. His left arm is still bandaged.

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Mending the Rift in a Post-9/11 World

There’s a really interesting article in the New York Times on the “uneasy” coalition that’s building between African American and immigrant Muslims in post-9/11 New York. Although I’m generally cynical of articles that tout people of color solidarity, I found this one to be fairly realistic and yet uplifting at the same time.

One interesting fact that I learned from the article is that of the estimated six million Muslims who live in the United States, more than a third are desis. About 25 percent of American Muslims are African-American, and 26 percent are Arab. Unsurprisingly, there’s been little cohesion between the African American and immigrant Muslim communities. The article explains that some of the decades-long tension is based on class:

Many Muslim immigrants came to the United States with advanced degrees and quickly prospered, settling in the suburbs. For decades, African-Americans watched with frustration as immigrants sent donations to causes overseas, largely ignoring the problems of poor Muslims in the United States.

Then there’s that skin color thing:

Aqilah Mu’Min [an African American], lives in the Parkchester section of the Bronx, a heavily Bangladeshi neighborhood. Whenever she passes women in head scarves, she offers the requisite Muslim greeting. Rarely is it returned. “We have a theory that says Islam is perfect, human beings are not,” said Ms. Mu’Min.

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I’ll Be Rooting For You, Kunal

Via the newstab (thanks, KXB!) there’s an article on thirteen-year-old Kunal Sah of Green River, Utah, who will be representing the state in the upcoming Scripps National Spelling Bee at the end of May. Kunal’s story is unlike those of other brown spellers we usually hear about. His parents were deported last year after living in this country legally for sixteen years.

According to the article:

Ken and Sarita Sah were deported back to India last July after 16 years residing legally in this country. Ken Sah came to the country as a student, and later applied for asylum because the region of India from which he came was experiencing religious violence. Then Sah waited for an asylum hearing for nearly 10 years. Had 10 years passed without a hearing, Sah would have been granted automatic asylum. But three weeks shy of that 10-year window, he got a hearing, and was denied asylum. He appealed until he ran out of appeals last year. Tougher immigration laws after 9/11 made his request for asylum more difficult. He and his wife ultimately lost their battle to remain in the country.

Kunal, however, was born in the US, so he’s a citizen. His family owns and operates two motels in Utah. Kunal is currently staying with his uncle, who’s also overseeing the family business in the Sahs’ absence. The irony of this story, however, was not missed on a local journalist:

Patsy Stoddard, the editor of the Emery County Progress newspaper, describes Ken and Sarita as model citizens. “Our governor went to India to bring back a baby,” she says. “And yet here is a family torn apart, and nobody is doing anything about it.”

Regardless of anyone’s views on the immigration process, my heart goes out to Kunal.

In a telephone interview, Ken Sah is matter-of-fact. “It’s very tough. He calls every day, and he cries,” he says of his son. “He needs to live with his parents. But he doesn’t have that. We try to make him feel better and stronger.”

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