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Diaspora and Identity

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Diaspora and Identity: Perspectives on South Asian Diaspora is a collection of ten articles originally published in the journal South Asian Diaspora. Ajaya Kumar Sahoo and Gabriel Sheffer are editors of the book and are also editorial board members of the journal. True to their claim of engaging readers to the theoretical and methodological issues concerning culture and identity in contemporary context, the selection of articles provide readers glimpses from everyday lived socio-cultural experience to theoretical debates. The first two chapters of the book mainly focused on theoretical issues that may be a little overwhelming for non-researchers, while chapters three to ten provide a wide spectrum of diasporic experiences from South Asia, America, Britain, Finland to Kenya. In short, the compilation of research articles attempts to appeal to both laymen and scholars interested in understanding the phenomenon of diaspora through theoretical, methodological and political discussions. In short, the editors’ selection of articles is intended to show readers that South Asians living in foreign countries have not only maintained their homeland culture and identities, but have also “created, recreated and negotiated” their identities in multiracial and multicultural societies of their adopted countries.

Whose perspectives?
One question that may arise in the minds of readers after reading the book is why researchers have neglected to provide insights of the respective hosts that received the newcomers. As migrants settled down in foreign lands, there are bound to be tensions in what Sahoo and Sheffer (2014) conceptualise as “quadrangular relationship” (p. 1) that develop between diaspora and diasporans, and homelands and hostlands, etc. While the book provides readers valuable insights into the migrant lives minimal is said about their respective hosts and their experiences in dealing with the newcomers despite both their lives becoming intertwined in everyday contexts. For example, Jaspal and Coyle (2010) provide snippets of emit perceptions of second generation Asians and their use of heritage language at home, schools, communities and workplaces. What we do not get is a picture of their interactions with the original communities or what precisely they had to negotiate in such interactions in a specific domain. Would this change either of their identities? The time at which newcomers enter the hostland is irrelevant as they could have done so decades ago or in recent times. For instance in multi-ethnic Malaysian context, migrant Indians and Chinese who settled in the country centuries ago are still called pendatang today (a derogatory term loosely translated as “newcomers”) especially when tension arises between the former and native Malays. Malays on the other hand are known as bumiputeras, loosely translated as “prince of the soil”) and have special privileges under the country’s constitution. The stories of hosts deserve equal attention as they too negotiate not only their space but their identities.

Insights at macro-micro levels
The themes in the book could be categorised as ranging from macro to micro levels of the diaspora sociocultural phenomenon. At the broad macro level, we are led on to discussions of the nexus of ideology, institution and interactions that catalyses diasporic transnational experience contexts (Purkayastha, 2009); evolving concepts of caste from the traditional sense to arbitrary groups (Kumar); negotiation of public spheres that are beyond ethnicity and religion (Werbner, 2009); social networking that include intra-ethnic relationships (Herzig, 2010); and changing trajectories of social mobility (Saran, 2011). At a more micro level, there are closer glimpses into specific cases like the Sikh Gurdwara in Finland that is instrumental in retaining Sikh identity (Hirvi, 2010); the use of heritage language among second generation British-born South Asians; and the use of technology to foster cross-gender relationships among second generation South Asians (Zaidi, Couture & Maticka-Tyndale, 2012).
A key concern at both levels is the negotiation of identity – how the pioneering migrants tried to retain their traditional identities. Some groups like the Sikhs and Muslims tried to retain their ethnic and religious identities through religious institutions and artifacts while others formed social communities through which cultural practices like marriages are regulated and maintained. In the case of Sikhism, there were attempts in the 20th century to regulate practices in Gurdwara through institutions of Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee and Shiromani Akali Dal that focused on initiations into the religious, which directly helped to maintain the Sikh identity. Even today, followers of the faith would be able to be identified with specific insignia like the men’s turban or nomenclature, e.g., “Singh” and “Kaur”.
How do contemporary Sikhs retain their Sikh identity? Are they ready to shed some of their religious artefacts, e.g., daggers or turbans, or prefer to maintain their relationships with the traditionalists? Post 9/11 when some Sikhs were mistaken for terrorists and were assaulted or killed, there were cases reported in the media that they had to shed their traditional looks for safety reasons. In such cases, how have they coped facing the tensions of negotiating between their identity and contemporary issues like national security? The book stops short of providing answers to complex social issues like discrimination, prejudice, stereotyping that diaspora face in contemporary context. Again, voices of both diaspora and natives need to be heard in order to understand the complex issue of maintaining heritage insignia and local practices.
Another perspective at the micro level is the emerging crossroads between the older and younger generations. There are tensions created when both generations interact, whether there is maintenance or losses of sociocultural practices, and these negotiations have implications on the identities of the individuals. A case in point is the use of technology between the male and female participants in Zaidi, Couture and Maticka-Tyndale’s (2012) study. The article sheds some light on how technology and social media is used by both genders to bypass strict sociocultural practices where it is still a taboo for singletons to socialise openly. The researchers failed to mention the repercussions of being found out, i.e., honour killings that have been committed by the female victims’ family members, or other practices that are condoned by western societies like child marriages that are carried out to maintain the family’s dignity and honour. Do second or third generation migrant families in the Canadian context still adhere to the age-old practices, or are the new generations who have become parents themselves willing to forego them, and form arbitrary groups as Kumar has observed in the case of castes? Obviously more research is needed to further understand diaspora beyond the second or third generations worldwide, and to focus on how people reinvent themselves within societies at both macro and micro levels.

Kaarthiyainy Supramaniam, Faculty of Education, University Technology of MARA, Shah Alam, Malaysia.

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