The new Smithsonian exhibit on Indian-Americans is great—if only it were 1985

February 26, 2014
February 26, 2014

When I was a kid and happened upon an Indian person on TV, I would scream for my parents or brothers—“Come quick, before they’re gone!”

These days, I’ve stopped screaming. For one, there are more of us showing up. But I also know where to turn to get my fix: Goodness Gracious Me sketches on YouTube, Bollywood movies on Netflix, premium cable at my mother-in-law’s for dance contests and soap operas. The moment is no longer lost, our presence no longer fleeting.

This reality, unfortunately, was lost on the creators of a new, much-hyped exhibit opening at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History this week. “Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation” is billed as the first major attempt by a museum to delve into the history and contributions of Indians in the US.

Divided into seven sections, from migration to work to culture, the exhibit is initially stunning: panels of bright mango and magenta; doses of kitsch like durable Corelle plates and Bollywood records; the sobering display of a turban worn by a Sikh man killed after 9/11—all set against soundtracks from popular films. And yet after an initial walk-through, it became clear that so much is missing.

Despite a promise to go “beyond Bollywood,” the exhibit offers a fairly self-congratulatory North Indian, Hindu-centric view of what it means to be Indian. The unique relationship that expatriate Indians have forged with Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, and their descendants via the Caribbean—collectively called desis, or the more clinical “South Asian”—is hardly explored. You won’t learn that India remains one of the largest sources of illegal migration into the United States, or that more than half of desi kids growing up in New York City live in poverty. The role of Indians in the economy is among the weakest links. They are lauded as doctors, engineers, taxi drivers, and moteliers, but there’s no mention of Wall Street, neither the good (sheriff Preet Bharara) nor bad (the insider traders Bharara has pursued).

What I am really left with after browsing 5,000 square feet of Indian-Americans 101 (including the helpful reminder: “Indian Americans are not American Indians”) is the question of whether the exhibit was really necessary. Do hyphenated identities even exist in an era of globalization? Is there danger in claiming an individual’s achievement as an entire community’s? Does that somehow imply that some communities can make it and others just never will?

I don’t envy the curator’s task. Trying to explain India, with all its dichotomies and contradictions, is a tall order. But trying to define Indian-Americans is an absolute setup for failure.

Why? Because we don’t really exist in that form anymore. No group better symbolizes the fluidity of identity that technology and the global economy makes possible today.

The exhibit perpetuates the tendency for the Indian diaspora—known as NRIs for Non-Resident Indians or, more derisively, Not Really Indian—to somehow hold themselves up as better than the brethren they left behind. The Smithsonian show asserts that Indians in America are having their Moment. Come quick, before they’re gone.

There’s a platform and microphone for wannabe spelling bee champions to step up and try their luck with words like “logorrhea” and “knaidel.” There’s a box-like structure to practice yoga. There are framed thalis throughout, as shiny as their statistics:

spell stat

and…

silicon valley

Coming on the heels of the new book The Triple Package by Amy “Tiger Mom” Chua and her husband, the exhibit and its emphasis on celebration of a community bolsters a controversial thesis: Indians (and a few other ethnic groups) are a special lot because they have cultural traits that drive their success, including superiority, impulse control and feelings of inadequacy. As Quartz contributor Euny Hong wrote last month though, the authors do warn, “any advantages that certain cultures endow on their children, the traits that seemingly give some children an early leg-up in worldly success, will eventually cancel themselves out.”

In The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Salman Rushdie (curiously absent from a wall of homages to notable Indian Americans) eloquently writes about the dangerous desire to box and define entire swaths of people:

… those who value stability, who fear transience, uncertainly, change, have erected a powerful system of stigmas and taboos against rootlessness, that disruptive, anti-social force, so that we mostly conform, we pretend to be motivated by loyalties and solidarities we do not really feel, we hide our secret identities beneath the false skins of those identities which bear the belongers’ seal of approval.

Of all the gifts the global economy has brought, this rootlessness and its ultimate acceptance has been a thing of beauty. People like me no longer have to move about the world compartmentalizing ourselves. On Facebook, I cannot hide from my cousins the fact that I drink wine. Nor can I hide from my non-Indian friends the pictures of me in saris and salwar kameezes and the funny comments my mom leaves in a language only I understand.

This more fluid identity feels absent and unexplored by the Smithsonian. There is hope, however, that the exhibit will develop more nuance. It will be up for a year and a half, and invites attendees to send in photos and suggestions. It will then travel around the US until 2020.

Perhaps organizers should seek inspiration from the very stereotype they tried to escape: Bollywood.

A few years ago, I wrote an essay in Foreign Policy magazine about a term coined by the globalization guru Parag Khanna:

Finally, there is a word for where I live: Bollystan. For years, those of us with roots in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other subcontinental lands pondered what to call ourselves. The age of ethnic hyphenation produced “Indian-American.” Then came the all-inclusive “South Asian” — inclusive, that is, of all but our adopted homelands. Today, we have desi, a Hindi and Urdu term meaning “people of my country.”

Khanna (also a Quartz contributor) defines Bollystan as: “A state without borders defined by a shared culture and common values.” What he knew a full decade ago is that Bollywood—in all its grandeur and globalness, aspiration and transnationalism—is the ultimate symbol for the vast Indian diaspora. I can think of no better and more palpable metaphor to Americans, no better way to show that it’s possible to belong and be a product of many places, or none at all, all at once.

Cognizant of the number of families lured by dinosaur bones and caveman dioramas in its permanent collection, the Smithsonian exhibit tried to be kid-friendly with interactive features like a wall of mirrors to practice classical dance forms. But identity is a messy business. And by rendering such a one-dimensional, celebratory treatment of Indians in America, “Beyond Bollywood” does children—the global economy’s next generation—the biggest disservice of all.

Follow Mitra on twitter @mitrakalita. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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