Being America

Being America


In a Gujarati cultural center near Danbury, Connecticut, a few days after an earthquake crushed much of the northwestern Indian district of Kutch, women in saris mix with men in dark slacks and light shirts. Then someone steps to the front of the room, moving lightly on thin, strong legs, a hint of an urban sway in his step. He wears the stylish sports gear typical of young black men. His head is shaven, and he sports twin goldhoop earrings. Stopped with a question, he will respond, "Yeh, that's phat," "Mm-mm, I sweat her," or "No man, I can't flow with that." It is not an affectation, but dates from years before the suburbs adopted inner-city speech.

When he reaches the front of the room, Vivek Maru begins to speak—in precise English or in Gujarati, as the moment requires—about conditions in Kutch, where his parents were born. Vivek has fresher memories of the region than anyone else in the room. He recently spent a year there, teaching girls in a women's craft collective and helping in a quixotic attempt to shift a planned industrial port away from a mangrove forest that sustains thousands of fishers and farmers. His hosts asked him to stay, and he almost did. But now he is back in New Haven where, among other activities, he teaches middleschool students about what he calls "the legacy of Gandhi and Dr. King." He habitually uses the term "black people" to include himself.

Asked where he comes from, Vivek has to say that it depends on what you mean. Although his family comes from Kutch, he was born in Chicago and grew up in Danbury. There he made the choice—unusual but not unique among first-generation Indian-Americans—to identify with the black side of the American color line. He is at home in formal and vernacular English, Gujarati, and Kutchi. He has lost sleep over decrepit schools in southern Connecticut and droughts in western India. A gifted dancer, he knows steps from North America, India, and Africa.

About a year before the earthquake in Kutch, the Brooklyn division of the Kosovo Liberation Army set out for battle. The several hundred volunteers who left the New York area to fight the Serb-dominated Yugoslav Army included a seventeen year- old high-school girl and men of seventy. KLA commanders in the homeland reported that most of their Americans weren't much help—many had never handled a gun before beginning a month's training in Albania—but they made their neighborhoods proud. Returning veterans were said to have more requests for dates than they could accept. One young soldier accommodated the overload of romantic interest by making back-to-back appointments with prospective girlfriends. KLA fund-raising was openly advertised in the Albanian-language newspaper Illyria until Western troops moved in and the KLA ostensibly disbanded. After that, the Kosovar gatherings officially became fund-raisers for humanitarian relief. One of the more popular events was a kickboxing tournament held in Brooklyn.

Fifteen years earlier, when a military insurrection tore apart the Indian state of Punjab, where many people follow the Sikh religion, the rebels who called themselves Khalistanis got much of their financial support from Sikhs living in London and California. Car dealers, real-estate brokers, and shopkeepers sponsored secessionist militias. Most Sikhs in the Punjab wanted an end to the fighting, so that they could return to the farming and manufacturing that have made the state one of India's richest. Long distance loyalties, though, can override local prudence. For decades, the Boston Irish sustained the Irish Republican Army, whose extremist politics and terrorist methods had alienated almost everyone in Ireland. Early in the 1990s, when war broke out between the former Soviet states of Armenia and Azerbaijan, there were widespread reports that wealthy Armenian-Americans were sending not just humanitarian aid, but millions of dollars for weapons in a destructive and senseless war. Very few of these migrant patriots would have welcomed ethnic warfare in their suburban American neighborhoods, but contributing at a distance felt righteous.

Diaspora Lives

Migration is today's great demographic fact. In the United States, more than twenty-eight million people were born elsewhere, the highest number ever and the greatest percentage since the 1920s. Fifty-six million Americans are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. In Europe, countries that have not absorbed substantial immigration since the Germanic peoples displaced the Celts in the later Roman Empire are receiving .oods of families from different continents, races, and cultural worlds: Indonesians in Holland and Denmark, Indians in England, Turks in Germany, North Africans in Spain, France, and Italy.

Often migration begins in hope, following globalized desire. To come from India to the United States is to see the homeland of some of your own acquired fantasies, from malls and minivans to Broadway and Mickey Mouse. Global desire calls people to its centers, and they come as people have always come to richer lands and promised lives. There are also migrations of terror and despair. With refugees numbering an estimated fourteen million, the world is more than ever a home to the homeless, who run from civil war, ecological catastrophe, and ethnic cleansing. Bosnia, Kosovo, Ethiopia, and Eritrea are dispersed around the world, as Armenia was nearly a century ago after the Turkish genocide, and as Jews have been since they fled ancient Israel. Peoples with fewer resources are concentrated in the least desirable tracts of their home regions: Afghans in Pakistan, Tibetans in Indian slums, Somalis and Congolese wherever someone will feed them and try to keep them safe. The world is folded in on itself many times over by every motive strong enough to move people from settled lives.

Migration has never meant the absolute surrender of one life for another. Many would-be immigrants to America in the early twentieth century changed their minds in New York and returned to Italy or Ireland or Greece. Others, like American- Armenians and Irish, have kept the memory of the homeland alive in the new country. Today migration is more partial than ever. Online newspapers, chat rooms, and other technologies provide information about the old country and help to sustain a transplanted community in the new place. In the West, particularly the United States, a new cultural openness welcomes traditional languages, food, dress, and religion among people who also learn English and participate in American life. Many migrants maintain several centers of attention, imagination, and loyalty.

People who have never left home also discover loyalty to remote places. Students and other activists working for a new AIDS policy in South Africa, democracy in Burma, or improved labor conditions in El Salvador are motivated by a blend of experience and myth about countries many of them have never visited. Evangelical American Christians who call on the United States to arm Christian rebels in southern Sudan against their Islamic government have decided that the global community of Christ—what Augustine called the City of God—has direct implications for the political communities that form the City of Man. These global, half-imagined communities bespeak a change in how we become who we are. Inherited religious and social attitudes are constantly interrupted. Children move far from their parents' and grandparents' beliefs, sometimes in circles rather than straight lines: many of today's most intense Christian, Islamic, and Jewish believers have revived traditions that their parents neglected or rejected.

For much of history, such changes were hardly imaginable. In traditional Hindu caste society or feudal Europe, for instance, social, economic, and religious life formed a single fabric of identity. One's social position and daily work were the same—serf or untouchable, Brahmin or Catholic priest, ksatriya warrior or martial noble, merchant or banian trader— and changing profession either was impossible or implied a change in status. A merchant in France might buy a title, but he would then cease to be a merchant. A noble who took up selling trinkets became a commoner, at least in theory. Hindu caste distinctions were often even less flexible.

Today emigration, movement from villages to cities, wars and revolutions, and commerce and entertainment have pried apart old connections, setting individuals loose to assemble identities from inherited ideas, new images, intuition, and ingenuity. Although this is less profoundly true, say, in village India than in urban China, let alone Manhattan, the shift is on a tectonic scale. Asked to identify themselves, most people throughout history would have given an answer set for them at birth, as unalterable as a blood type. Now our answers are more akin to ensembles of clothing: restricted by the items in the closet, shaped by the neighborhood and the workplace, but still something we assemble ourselves, from among more alternatives than we could wear all at once.

All of this gives new meaning to an old idea: "diaspora," the name attached to the wandering Jewish nation bound together by the memory of a lost homeland. The word has come to refer to all populations set adrift. One hears of the Indian diaspora, the Persian diaspora, and the Chinese diaspora. Diaspora has never been about a literal home country, because after the founding departure any diaspora is made up of the memories that a people cultivates. That is why Israel, Babylon, and the river Jordan could become the imagined geography of African slaves in the American South, the language of their prayers for deliverance. A diaspora is a community of imagination lifted out of any particular place and connected by phrases, rituals, memories, and hopes. In this sense, diaspora is increasingly an ordinary form of political community, because we are all partly migrants.

Choices of Inheritance

Vivek and the KLA's Brooklyn volunteers exemplify two directions that diaspora communities can take. When an identity, such as "Hindu," spans lives as different as those of a Gujarati peasant and a Los Angeles neurosurgeon, they become less de.nite but, often and paradoxically, more adamant. A villager whose identity is con.rmed by everything in her daily life may be .xed in her caste position, for instance, but at the same time her Hinduism can be .exible precisely because she can do little to change anyone's idea of who she is. This is one reason that, in villages and cities across India, Hindus for centuries have dropped by the shrines of Catholic Christian and Su. Muslim saints to pay their respects, or have included the Virgin Mary in the corners of their homes devoted to iconography and prayer. Reciprocally, Christian Indians have often continued to offer devotions to the lesser or more local Hindu deities, or have sent friends to propitiate even the great gods Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu in times of crisis. According to people who have lived in such communities, being Hindu is so natural a fact, so entwined with everyday existence, that a visit to a saint does not threaten it, and even nominal conversion to Christianity does not root it out entirely.

In contrast, a person who asserts her identity against constant uncertainty has something to prove. Because daily life challenges rather than con.rms her sense of who she is, identity can take on some of the hardness of armor, or even the edge of a weapon. Hindu nationalism in today's India has no place for Christian or Muslim imagery. Armies of young thugs drawn from the slums of the new Indian cities burn churches and start fights in Muslim neighborhoods, while their ideological guides patiently explain that the country must unite around its common Hindu heritage. To the east, in Indonesia, a strict and sometimes militant form of Islamic practice among the urban middle and lower classes of Java is stripping away the elements of Hindu and animist religion that have been part of the country's village Islam for centuries. Its adherents look west, to Mecca, and think of the Middle East as their spiritual homeland and Arabs as their brothers. In Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the young men who became the terrorists of September 11 or volunteers with Afghanistan's ultrafundamentalist Taliban came mostly from middle-class homes, with enough education and exposure to the larger world to make them wonder, then decide, what they would believe and be. The impulse expresses itself in new forms of nationalism and passionate but sometimes ignorant diaspora ties. These new identities always carry the possibility of violence, the struggle to purify an imagined homeland half a world away or in the Muslim quarter of a slum in Bombay or Ahmedabad.

These adamant doctrines of identity are one response to the vertigo of freedom, the uncertainty that comes when traditions that have been unquestioned become optional, then impossible, in the course of a few generations. The competing impulse is the one Vivek accepting more than one identity, having more than one kind of experience running through an ordinary day. This attitude has a bit in common with the stance of traditional villagers to Hinduism: it requires having enough comfort in one's divided individuality to visit more than one shrine or speak more than one intimate language. The difference is that one attitude comes before modernity's great disruption of tradition, and the other comes afterward and assembles something partly new. Identity is a back-and-forth between wholeness—which no one achieves, since we are mixed creatures from the beginning —and openness, which can never be complete, because we would dissolve into it. Out of balance, the need to know who we are can become destructive. Today the movement of people and images across the globe has made new imbalances.

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Excerpted from Being America by Jedediah Purdy. Copyright © 2003 by Jedediah Purdy. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.