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Lecture Explores South Asian Americans and Their Cultures

By Laura McGrath Moulton

Madhulika Khandelwal, of the University of Massachusetts-Boston Career Center, spoke Tuesday on the evolving nature of South AsianAmerican communities.

In her lecture, entitled "Exploring Gender and Leadership: Community Organizing Among South Asian Americans," Khandelwal traced the demographic trends of the community, which began around 1965 with the large influx of well-educated, middle-class South Asian professionals India's so-called "Brain Drain."

The early community leaders, largely male, focussed on the maintenance of South Asian "culture" through religion and tradition. In their view, according to Khandelwal, "if you maintain your culture you will live beyond your life."

The early immigrants saw the South Asian community as a tight unit living in America for professional and technical opportunities. They were happy, Khandelwal said, to be "the model of the model minority."

Diversity changed women's roles

This community diversified after the mid-1970s. A second generation was born. Families were "reunified" as immigrant families sponsored the migration of their extended families, In addition, the US economy suffered losses, sending many new immigrants into blue-collar rather than white-collar jobs, according to Khandelwal.

With the diversification of the community came change. Poorer immigrants, with limited English, placed greater economic and social demands on the community. Khandelwal discussed the evolution of South Asian women's groups, recounting conflicts throughout the 1990s with the established leadership at New York City's yearly India Day Parades when progressive South Asian American groups tried to include banners and skits on domestic violence and homosexuality.

A professional women's group began receiving calls in the late 1980s from South Asian women with limited English who were experiencing domestic violence. In response, women began forming more progressive coalitions to address community issues such as domestic violence, AIDS, and sexuality, Khandelwal said.

The leaders of these coalitions (many of them female) together with the younger generation saw America as their rightful home, not simply a source of good jobs. The organizers of the India Day parade, on the other hand, had been loath to "wash our dirty linen" in the public view of the wider American society, insisting that the parade should focus on traditional culture, she said.

In Khandelwal's view, the role of a scholar is also the role of an activist. She is surprised, she said, when she hears South Asians scholars say they "went into the community," as if it were located "out there somewhere." She asked, "And you are not in it?"

Talk stresses need for role models

Since the South Asian community is in such a "formative stage," Khandelwal said the the opportunity for influence now is great. She cited the need of the younger generation to identify with an ethnicity and culture. Because they have internalized American ideas on race and religion, Khandelwal said, the younger generation tends to identify themselves as South Asian American Hindus, where their parents would have seen themselves as Indian or Bangladeshi.

Khandelwal expressed concern that this need for identification, coupled with a lack of progressive immigrant role models, had made the younger generation vulnerable to Hindu fundamentalist groups based in India.

Khandelwal, who recently began working for UMass-Boston, has studied the South Asian immigrant communities of New York City extensively.

The Tuesday evening event in Wong auditorium was sponsored by the MIT Women's Studies Program.