Woot, American History! The thing I got my undergraduate degree in! Let’s see if I can dust off those skills.
The starting point for understanding desi immigration to America is that, in American racism, White people are on top, Black people are on bottom, and everyone else who is non-white is juggling for position depending on historical forces just above Black people. And I use “White” and “Black” on purpose, because American racists do not care what your ethnic heritage is, or what the ethnographers say about your background, they care about how American culture has decided to label you. America has made up our own nonsense meaningless categories of “race” that are best described with “Black” and “White”.
Until less than 100 years ago, those nonsense labels of “Black” and “White” were part of law. There were routine court cases determining and refining who they were applied to, and Asians (along with American Indians and Latinx) were a big part of those cases. Are Asians in America, legally, “free white persons” or not? The answer was a resounding “NOPE!”
Until the 1960s, a variety of immigration laws made it impossible for Asian immigrants to become American citizens, and the social pressures made it hard for them to survive and thrive in America at all. There was a trickle of immigration from all over Asia (Japan, China, South Asia) before the 1850s. When California suddenly economically expanded in the 1850s, the need for cheap labor was enormous and the new California business kings encouraged immigration from China as the easiest way to fill that demand. One particular province in China, which was experiencing upheaval and economic difficulties, began sending in thousands of young male laborers. At the same time, the plantations in Hawaii had similar need for cheap labor and began to bring in Japanese and Chinese and Korean (although at the time they were legally Japanese and were considered as such) laborers. Once the population exploded, so did the prejudice against the population. The “yellow threat” became a political rallying cry, politicians pushed for laws to “protect” America from these different folks.
What was different from the start about the Asian immigration was that it was so strongly male. In 1875, the “Page Act” cut off female immigration from China because it was believed all female Chinese immigrants were prostitutes. I am sure that was the case for some of them, we are talking about women arriving alone in a rapidly expanding economic zone and sex work is a common entry level field. But this act in one move tarred all Central Asian women with the same brush so far as American society was concerned, to this day the central Asian facial characteristics on woman are seen as “sexy” above all. It also doomed the Chinese male immigrants to loneliness, which lead to their own stereotype, the dangerous single sexual predator.
Of course, people did start families. Love finds a way. Every time there was a gap in the immigration laws, there would be a rush to take advantage of it. For instance, in 1907 America made an agreement with Japan that they would limit emigration on their side, but on our side we would allow for “family reunification” (that is, if one of the few immigrants legally allowed from Japan came to America, they could send for their family later). This lead to “picture brides”, a single man in America would “marry” a woman in Japan without ever meeting her, just seeing her picture, and then file papers to provide for her legal immigration to the US to be reunited with her husband. After the San Francisco earthquake, there was another burst of immigration with “paper sons”. The San Francisco immigration records were lost in the quake and following fires, which allowed the very few legally naturalized Chinese citizens of America to suddenly claim dozens upon dozens of “children” back in China who could legally immigrate and join them. And then of course one of the more common realities, which is not necessarily discussed because it makes people uncomfortable today, is that the members of the non-white communities formed new connections and married each other, across ethnic groups.
In America, on a state by state level, there were what were called “anti-miscegenation” laws. “Miscegenation” is a made up word that means “marriages between races”. Various complicated court cases determined that, according to these laws, Asians were not “white” and therefore could not marry “white” people. But they could marry any non-white folks they cared to. In the regions of America where the Asian population was enormous, this lead to a delightful mixing and matching as heart met heart without concern to background. Filipinos, Japanese, Chinese, Latinx, American Indian, all met in the middle for a while there. And yes, this includes South Asian.
The earliest South Asian communities in America were Punjabi Sikh farm laborers. They first arrived in 1907, and by 1909 there was a nice tidy set of laws in place to define how they were “not white”. There was an even larger Punjabi Sikh community in Canada, and most of the Punjabi Sikhs in America tended to be near the Canadian border, in Washington State or California. The nice fresh laws we had created just for them meant they could not bring family to join them in America, they could not become citizens, and no one else could join them, but at least they didn’t have to leave. So you have a group of young men who were kind of on an island. They could stay in this new country (and remember, this was during the height of the Quit India movement unrest in the Punjab area, there were a lot of reasons they might not want to return to India), but they would be forever alone. Only, not alone. Maybe there were only a few thousand Punjabi Sikh young men, but they were surrounded by other people, other Americans. And so a small stable community sprung up of Punjabi Sikhs who married Latinx women (not against the law to marry other non-whites) and settled in America, raising their children half-Latinx and half-Sikh.
After WWII, finally, America began to consider that folks who were not-White might still deserve American citizenship. But just to make things fun, we began to draw new lines to divide those not-Whites into separate better and worse categories. The legal measure that interests me is that in 1943, Chinese-Americans were finally given a legal route towards citizenship BUT were still not allowed to own property. In 1946, South Asian Americans were also given a legal route towards citizenship and WERE allowed to own property. The law defined it, South Asians were ever so slightly better than Chinese so far as America is concerned. Ever so slightly more “White”.
The post-war era also brought in some more loopholes for people to leap through as fast as they could. Family reunification was still on the books, and now that all these Asian Americans who were already here had a route to citizenship, they could become citizens, and send for as many family members as they wanted. On top of that, there were the war brides. Again, love finds a way. All those nice young male soldiers met these nice young local women in Asia, and suddenly the fiddle-faddle of racial divisions back home seemed very far away when you were young and in love.
And then, FINALLY, we have the Immigration Act of 1965. This was the first non-racial immigration act in American history. Quotas were placed without regard to race. And the path to citizenship was the same whether you were White, Black, or “Non-White”.
The 1965 act brought in two major methods of immigration, one being needed skills, and the other being (still and always) family reunification. If you are a doctor, or an engineer, you can immigrate to America and we will (kind of sort of) welcome you. If you are the parent or child or sibling or spouse of a doctor or an engineer, we will grudgingly make space for you. This was the law that lead to the explosion of South Asian immigration to America, in a very clear 1-2-3 pattern.
- The doctor or engineer. Often not just a professional, but a highly skilled professional. A university professor level desirable worker.
- Their relatives. The brother who they help set up as an accountant, the other brother who they help to purchase a business, the cousin who they get into the country and then leave it up to him to figure out how to earn a living.
- Their children. American born and raised, struggling to assimilate in a place where they have a tight strong family based large community, that is just a tiny dot in the larger culture.
Hopefully, at this point, this starts to sound familiar to some of my readers. It should be familiar, to any American not just Indian Americans. In the 1970s, we started to get the occasional figure of a person in a sari in our little “where are people from” children’s books. And one of my father’s childhood friends married a woman from India, the only Indian person my parents knew well, but at least there was one versus 0. In the 1980s, suddenly a random Indian-American might pop up as part of the group of friends in a children’s TV program. I was growing up in a mid-sized midwestern city in the 1980s, and we had one South Asian kid in my pre-school class, and one South Asian kid in my elementary school. By the 1990s/early 2000s, there was a mass number of South Asians in America, especially second generation, to the point that they started creating communities for themselves. College clubs, independent movies, jokes about “ABCD (American Born Confused Desi)”, and the word “Desi” itself, added to the vocabulary to describe people of South Asian origin without bothering with what country they were from. All were “desis” together.
This was also the era when Hindi films hit the mainstream. There were a lot of reasons for that, technology and economy and artistry and so on, but part of it was that “Desis” in America wanted movies that spoke to their unique community. Kal Ho Na Ho, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, Dil Chahta Hai, all the way to Love Aaj Kal, they showed life overseas as simply “life”. You went to malls, you went to college, you had career plans, you weren’t spending every moment thinking “am I Indian or am I American?” Heck, in some of these movies, that question wasn’t even a concern, Kal Ho Na Ho for instance firmly identified it’s central characters as American with no thought of returning to a “homeland” where they had never been.
And then that era peaked, and passed. By 2000, the Indian American community in America had exploded, by 2010 it was even larger. Back when the first Punjabi farmers arrived, they couldn’t even have wives from their own community, they were forced into the most intimate possible connection with other American communities. In the 1960s, some of those first wave immigrants, the doctors and professors and so on, married outside of their community (it was legal by then). In the 1980s, the children of those immigrants were forced to assimilate with their friends, to date and party and aspire to the life of mainstream America. In the 1990s, that group began to move out and grow up and come to urban areas and learned to enjoy having a collective identity, not one defined by individual languages or religions or their parents’ national heritage, but as “ABCD”s, young Americans raised by South Asian parents, excluded by their appearance from mainstream white culture while still living largely within it. But in the 2000s, suddenly there were so many young professional South Asians, both raised in America and immigrating as adults, that you didn’t have to have those collectivist identities any more.
Now there are Telugu associations and Tamil associations and Bengali associations and on and on, there are separate temples depending on your separate background. And of course original national boundaries, which used to be so porous just 15 years back, are suddenly set in stone. People aren’t “desi” any more or “South Asian”, they are proudly “Indian”.
India is very eager for people who are Indian heritage and no longer live in India to continue to feel like Indian citizens. Before, our few Punjabi Sikh farmers were on an island, cut off from home, and forced to build a new life where they were. The 1960s and 70s and 80s immigrants to America took a less extreme but similar leap, they moved towards American citizenship and were aware that much of their connection with their homeland would be gone. But now, now you can legally vote in Indian elections even if you have not been to India in years, you can live in America and build a life in America and still tell yourself you are Indian. And on top of that of course there are the technological changes, the ability to email, to call, to communicate constantly. Satellite TV, you can watch all your Indian shows. Food, there is a whole massive industry to make sure you can eat your Indian food in America.
We can see this in our movies, again. The Indian-American community is increasingly uninterested in films showing Indian-Americans. They want to see a patriotic film re-affirming their identity as “Indians”. Or they want to see a small family comedy film set in the heartland, transporting them back to what their life would have been/should have been if they were back “home”.
Of course there is no one monolithic “Indian-American community”. There are desis who still primarily identify as “desi”, who are concerned with the issues of the larger South Asian community within America. There are rebellious young Indian-Americans who actively fight against the patriotism and Indian identity of their parents. There are young Indian-Americans who grew up almost entirely assimilated and are enjoying the new opportunities to explore their heritage thanks to these new cultural groups. But the most present and vocal community today has become the ones who trumpet the “Indian” over the “American”.