The Philadelphia Inquirer Covers Indian Americans: Gets it 100% Right

Photo Credit: The Philadelphia Inquirer

Dear Editor Wischnowski,

I am writing today to thank you and the rest of The Philadelphia Inquirer team for your wonderful front-page coverage on the South Asian American community in the Sunday, July 3rd edition. The article titled “Indian population booming in Philadelphia area” certainly constitutes one of the finest pieces of research-driven feature-writing I have seen in quite some time. As one of the 477,586 Sunday readers of The Philadelphia Inquirer, I am thrilled to see that the third-oldest, eleventh-largest daily newspaper the United States continues to maintain its reputation as the Pulitzer Prize winning publication of its yore. With the advent of joke publications, such as The Onion, arriving in this town, it’s heartening to see some hard-hitting news in the Inquirer.

First and foremost, I would like to tip my hat to journalists Michael Matza and Joelle Farrell for their wonderful reporting. To echo the first quote in the article, “Stereotypes be damned.” Such breadth of interviewees! What segues! The software-developer. The dentist groom and the physician bride. The retired chemist. The civil engineer turned motel-owner. The managing partner. The real estate agent. And lest we grow too comfortable in our community’s affluence, the additional video on your website featuring the taxi driver. A moment of silence for this lone unskilled Indian American man who aspires to achieve the American dream. And a hat tip to you guys for featuring him! I bow to your benevolent reporting. Nick Kristof could learn something from you people. Continue reading



The years after 9/11, I could have sworn there was a clicking noise whenever I used the landline at my parent’s place. It could have been a bad phone, or it could have been due to the, as Saheli said, “crappy connectivity that year.” I would half-jokingly have side bar conversations with the so-called secret eavesdroppers, letting them know “I know you are listening!” or my thoughts on Dick Cheney.

I was reminded of this as I was reading Aasif Mandvi’s Op-Ed over at Bloomberg just now (h/t Ludovic):

When U.S. troops marched into Iraq in 2003, I, like many Americans, was outraged at what I considered a senseless and unjustified military action. As I spoke to my mother about it on the phone, I noticed that the angrier I got, the more uncomfortable she became.


At first I thought perhaps she disagreed with me, that her awkward silences on the other end of the line resulted from her biting her tongue. Had she, like many of her fellow Americans, bought into the claim that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were simply opposite sides of the same al-Qaeda nickel?


When I pressed her on this, she quietly replied, “Perhaps we should not discuss this over the phone.”


What do you mean? I said. Why on earth not?


Because, she answered, “You never know who is listening to us.” [bloomberg]


Read the rest here. Were we out of the realms of normal to think that our phone lines could be wiretapped? I don’t think so. It was THE Muslim Witch Hunt of 2001 – the antiquated version of our modern day Islamophobia. With Homeland Security agents knocking at our door and unmarked white vans parked in front of our house, it was very realistic to think that our line could be wiretapped. Ten years later, it still seems very realistic and in fact it feels that progress has not been made but rather undone. As Mandvi states, “That moment when the world came together and shared a grief that transcended faith, nationality and politics is undone….What I hope for in the next 10 years is a War against Fear.”

Questions on Our Foreheads

questions.on.our.foreheads.jpgComedian Aziz Ansari has been popping up even more than usual on TV (The Tonight Show, Jimmy Kimmel) and elsewhere to help promote his new movie with Jesse Eisenberg and Dilshad Vadsaria, 30 Minutes or Less. Entertainment Weekly reported that at one recent club performance, Ansari had some harsh words for an audience member who asked him, “Why don’t you have a red dot on your forehead?”

While the audience gasped, a shocked Ansari replied by asking why she didn’t have the word “c– on her forehead.” Then he remarked about how there are still “racist” people in the world. (EW)

Like Ansari, you may have been asked, “Why don’t you have a red dot on your forehead?” Or maybe you’ve been asked other questions–”Is it made of blood? Is it a tattoo? What does it mean?” and perhaps even “Can I touch it?” You might have called it a bottu, bindi, tikka, tilaka or something else at home and felt weird about people calling it a “dot.” Continue reading

On Being Othered in an Enlightened Elevator

3089136578_c9dfc6e152_b.jpgI trudged into the elevator, miserable with stomach cramps and a half-assed fever which made my body the same temperature as this 100 degree day. In my hands, an austere haul from Whole Paycheck: a four-pack of Reed’s “Extra Ginger” Brew and a wheat baguette. I have food poisoning, the worst case I’ve had in years.

My body was still in revolt as of 3 am; I slept for four restless hours and then forced myself to get up for work. In exchange for not calling in sick on my third day back after two months of medical leave (which allowed me to walk again), I allowed myself to wear my “Are they or aren’t they”-yoga pants. No, they are not from NuNu Nimbu. I don’t know where they are from, but they are clutch as hell. From five or six feet away, they look like pants. I have them in charcoal, too.

I calculated that no one would be scrutinizing my lower half based on my hideous reflection in the bathroom mirror. Black under-eye circles, dazed red eyes, green skin. Merry goth Christmas! If anyone made it past my face, the black Alternative Apparel v-neck which makes my boyfriend look like a euro-trash hipster would distract my coworkers. On me it looked like the raiment of a round woman who had given up on life. At least I’d be comfortable as my innards putrefied.

As I reached for an elevator button with a shaking hand, manicured fingers swept past my sallow skin.

“Oh! You got it before I could.” The innocuous comment was punctuated by a curious smile.

I slowly turned my head, reflexes dulled by…well, you know.

It’s why my spider sense didn’t tingle in time, either.

“You have…very interesting…skin.”

The way she paused before uttering “skin”. It was almost as if she hadn’t decided exactly what she would choose to “compliment”. It was an awkward moment to hesitate. Does she mean “color” because I’m greenish toda-

“Where is the origin of skin like that?”

Uh? Continue reading

Who are Surinder Singh and Gurmej Atwal?

Last night, prompted by a tweet from Angry Asian Man, I found myself finally watching the full-length Vincent Who? documentary that Taz blogged about (and appeared in) two years ago. I happened to be home and caught my little brother in an amenable mood, so we spent the next few hours watching first that and then the 1987 Academy Award-nominated documentary, Who Killed Vincent Chin? It just so happened that we saw both documentaries on the very same date, 29 years ago, that Vincent Chin died. June 23.

Twenty-nine years ago, on June 19, the night before his wedding, Vincent Chin went with a few close friends to a strip-club in his town of Detroit, Michigan. There, an altercation occurred between Chin and two men. According to witnesses, Ronald Ebens, a Chrysler plant superintendent, told Chin, “It’s because of you little motherf*ckers that we’re out of work,” a reference to increasing pressure on the American automobile industry from Japanese manufacturers. Later that night, Ebens and his stepson, Michael Nitz, hunted down Chin and beat him viciously with a baseball bat. Nitz held Chin down, while Ebens administered the fatal blows on Chin’s skull. Before slipping into a coma that he never recovered from, friends say Chin whispered, “It’s not fair.” Continue reading

Advice for Huma Abedin, i.e. Stay Home and Have Babies

Dear Ms. Keller,

To be honest, I really have had no desire to write a single word about Weinergate. Our guest blogger, Razib has been keeping tabs on the story for us here at Sepia Mutiny. Other than my girlcrush on the fashionable lady married to the man in question and my well-wishes for the future success of the individuals involved, I didn’t really care to comment on the matter. After all, who knows/cares what goes on in the boudoirs of a married couple.

Those are exactly the sentiments you express in your post for Vanity Fair. In “Advice for Huma Abedin, Wife of Representative Anthony Weiner,” you write, “We’ve never been able to fathom the laws of attraction, and we haven’t a clue what goes on in other people’s relationships. She says she’s staying. So we’ll take it from there, and give her some tips to help make it work.” Then you go on to comment on their relationship. Well, what’s a little gossip between us ladies? Right? Right. Let me start by saying how much I admire your five tips for Ms. Abedin Mrs. Weiner. Stay home. Focus on the family. Lose lame-o mentors like Hillary (with her goshdarnawful contagious marital problems). Make awesome babies. All fabulous tips that my grandmother has been telling me for years. Continue reading

With So Much Drama in the DMV

DMV Masala.jpg

I walked outside and felt abnormally grateful for the traffic clogging my street at lunch time. I needed a cab and there were several, stranded in front of me.

The middle one had a female driver, so I chose her. Once I slammed the door, I was surprised; the interior smelled like auto parts, dust and WD-40– a combination which transported me into the past, to my father’s garage, a place where I learned the difference between a flat and Phillips screwdriver before I figured out the alphabet. I checked my sexism immediately and felt bad for the dissonance I was experiencing at the shock of such a scent combined with a female driver. I knew better than that.

“Thanks for picking me.” She smiled wryly. She was middle-aged and African American, with thick, bouncy curls. Some of her facial expressions reminded me of Loretta Devine, which secretly delighted me. Devine was the best part of one of my favorite seasonal guilty pleasures: “This Christmas“. Stop judging me. I liked it before Chris Brown did that. Oh, you’re judging me because it’s a mediocre film which over-relies on holiday cliches to make its point…sure, I deserve that. Carry on!

“I’m not going to lie,” I began. “I thought it was cool that you were a female cab driver. I don’t usually get those.” I smiled at her.

“Yeah, we’re rare.” She studied me in her rear view mirror.

“Are you Indian?”, she asked.

“My parents are–”

“And so are you!”, she declared, emphatically.

I laughed. My pat answer had been challenged; that usually doesn’t happen. Continue reading

A Meandering Welcome to Lawrence Singh, Teen Boxer Extraordinaire

On Sunday night, my right knee gave out. Twice. This was only mildly surprising, since I was born with a bad right knee and I spent a year of college with it in a full leg immobilizer. The problem is, the Sunday before that, my left kneecap moved in a way that it shouldn’t, as I was ascending the stairs to my beloved cathedral while wearing the most glorious suede four-inch platforms.

That might be the single worst circumstance during which to injure your knee. Stairs? Heels? Hell. The pain was excruciating. I never made it past the narthex, which is where I collapsed on the first bench I could find. When the liturgy was over, I limped out of the handicapped exit and proceeded to drive a stick shift to the nearest CVS in Georgetown, where I procured a knee brace to hold my kneecap together.

Oh, the looks I got in that store, people scornfully glaring at me as if I were an idiot, stumbling around in heels when injured. Silly make-an-ass-out-of-you-and-me strangers. I am stubborn and unwise, but not THAT stubborn and unwise. Sheesh. So let’s recap: two Sundays ago, I hurt my left knee, and by the time I made it to urgent care, favoring my feeble right, it was too late– both were busted. And when they gave out this weekend, I knew that my Orthopedist might have underestimated how serious my injuries were. I swear, I have a point, and that point is, I am not very mobile right now.

Forget driving, I can’t walk without a cane. And that means that I am at home. All the time. Often with a boxing writer. And so I marinate in the sweet science, because, well, I have no choice. I guess there are worse sports to be subjected to, visually. Golf. Bowling. Drawn out games which involve bats and balls– of course, I am talking about vampires and testicles there, I promise. But I’m not that into boxing, despite said boxing writer’s endearing attempts to draw me in. He started (somewhat logically, given my mutinous proclivities) with Amir Khan.

Amir Khan is a British pugilist of Pakistani descent who is referred to as “King Khan”, or the “Pride of Bolton”. Khan is an Olympic medalist, and he’s a big enough deal that he trains with Freddy Roach; in other words, when he runs around, toning that lovely body of his, he might be trotting next to Manny Pacquiao. Perhaps you have heard of him? Anyway, I’ve seen King Khan throw stiff jabs and it barely inspired me to look up from the interwebz. Yay team brown and all, but it’s hard to cheer for someone who is prettier than and weighs less than me. I keed, I keed. It’s hard to cheer because I don’t give a tatti. Continue reading

We Have Come a Long Way

Today South Asian Americans Leading Together is launching a year long narrative campaign ‘America4All.’ The campaign will be collecting and sharing stories from the South Asian community on reflections of the past ten years since September 11th. Cross posted below is my piece launching the campaign on the SAALT Spot blog. Please follow the blog to get the latest from the ‘America4All’ series.


I used to tell this story. It was 2001 and I was living in D.C., 22 yrs old and miles away from my family in Los Angeles. It was just months after September 11th and as a Muslim South Asian woman, though I knew there would be repercussion for looking like the enemy, I was most worried about my family.

Sure enough, on a phone call with my mother she shared a story of how Homeland Security came to our house looking for my male cousin. My family had stopped going to the mosque, wore patriotic flag pins and got followed in unmarked vehicles. My mother said “it doesn’t matter that I’ve lived here for 30 years or that I have my citizenship. I will always be a second class citizen.”

Thus marked my oft told founding story of why I became a South Asian American activist.

Ten years since September 11th, 2001, I wonder, how much has really changed?

SAAVY Sticker.jpg

This is the story I tell when people ask me about South Asian American Voting Youth, an organization I founded in 2003 to organize young South Asian people around the country. I was young, naïve and invincible. I truly believed in the power of electoral politics and civic engagement and, most importantly, I believed we could swing political power in our favor when we vote. If we did that – the racial profiling, hate crimes and marginalization of our community would all just stop.

The organization has since dissolved and the state of the South Asian American community has evolved. For me, it has now gone beyond simply registering South Asian Americans to vote into a world of identity politics and includes documenting our narratives and building community at both the pop and politics level. Continue reading

The age at when you learn what’s what

Late last week I received a tip (on our Sepia Mutiny tipline) about an upcoming play in Seattle,Washington. The play, MOTHER IN ANOTHER LANGUAGE, by Taniya Hossain, is being performed by the Repertory Actors Theater and starts this weekend. The tipster Nitya is one of the actors and sent me the full press release with a detailed description: Mother in Another Language – Press Release.pdf (24 KB). Seattle area Mutineers, go check it out, and let us know how it is:

Tickets: Available online at

Adults: $15 Students: $12 Children 17 & Under: $12 Seniors 65+: $12

Groups (10 or more): $12 per person (available through the Ticket Office only, (206) 292-7676)

But merely informing you about this play is not what this post is actually about at all. Sorry Nitya! You see, on the first pass through her email tip I stopped reading as soon as I saw her name. The name was familiar to me. Nitya and I went to elementary school together in San Jose, CA in the 80s. I didn’t know her too well back then. In fact, I can’t remember a single interaction or conversation I had with her, although surely there were several. But I did remember her name and the fact that she had long braids and an even longer last name. When I mentioned the tip to them, my parents remembered her too! As memory serves, myself, Nitya, and another kid Sanjay (who is now someone I regularly meet up with in Los Angeles) were the only three brown kids in our school year. In the 80s all brown kids knew each other, even when they didn’t know each other. You know? When I replied to her tip and asked her which elementary school she went to, Nitya was as surprised as I was. What a small world! She says she can somewhat remember my 10-year-old face but not well enough to recognize me today. Even though Nitya and I did not really know each other well in elementary school, she indirectly played a part in a defining moment of my life (about which she has no idea…until now). It is a memory so strong I can replay it perfectly in my head 25 years later.

Fifth grade, late one afternoon (I recall that it was late spring and very sunny outside). Our teacher, a grumbly bear of a man, who was a Korean War veteran and had definitely killed enemy, declared that he was pleased with the great progress our class had made that week and decided we could have the 40 minutes until afternoon recess off. This was a surprise because he had a reputation of being the toughest teacher at the school. I once memorized the Gettysburg address in three hours on a Tuesday night because he said it was due Wednesday. He meant the following Wednesday. On this afternoon Mr. P decided we could do whatever we wanted for fun as long as it was inside the class. Some of the girls in the class, the pretty ones who could get away with anything, had an idea. Boys that age are too slow to come up with anything good when put on the spot. The idea these clever girls came up with was to play the Newlywed Game: Elementary School Edition. Amazingly, surprisingly, I was picked to be one of the 3 “husbands.” My wife was a girl named Juliet.

Keep in mind that I was not a popular kid. I was small and nerdy but well liked. You know that sound and feeling you experience when you get a rental car and turn on the radio and it is on full blast on some rap station that the previous renter was listening to and you awkwardly fumble to turn it down before the bass blows out the windows? That’s what my heart sounded like when I was picked to play this game.

Continue reading