Two years ago my parents came to visit me in my then-new home in Washington, DC. My father excused himself to go find a restroom on our visit to the National Museum of Natural History. We moved along, assuming he would call us to find us when he returned. Over an hour went by and we got concerned- he wasn’t picking up his phone and wasn’t in any restroom. We found him almost thirty minutes later, panicked, shaken and angry. He had left his phone at home by accident and had spent the last thirty minutes begging people if he could use their cell phone to call me. Every single person walked by and ignored him until finally one other Indian man stopped and let him call us. “Thirty five years I’ve lived here, paid taxes, built a life, earned two degrees and today I was treated like dirt by my fellow Americans.” he said.
Almost exactly two years later, in the same site of this traumatic moment, I had the privilege of seeing the Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation exhibit. The exhibit, which opened last week, has been the site of much buzz- people are excited about it around the world. The idea of seeing a story that is rarely taught in schools, that represents the narrative of so many people in this country, in the heart of the Nation’s capital is both exciting and terrifying. Months ago, I signed up to be a volunteer docent over the course of the next year for the exhibit. I was nervous when I did it- would the exhibit portray the “traditionally conservative” view of the Indian American community? (in quotes because I don’t think it’s as “traditional” as some people want to believe- there are so many progressive Desi people you wouldn’t even believe it!) Would it address the complex, layered, and vibrant history going back over 200 years of Indians in the United States? Would it feed the model minority stereotype view or provide a space to challenge and engage further?
I was disheartened to see an article go viral late last week, barely 24 hours after the exhibit opened, accusing the exhibit of exactly what I’d feared- a flat heteronormative perspective of the community ignoring the multifaceted and rich depth of narratives, feeding the model minority view of Indian Americans fueled by internalized racism creating pressure to only be seen as high-achieving spelling bee winners, and representing only one view of Indian immigration and history. Still, I remained excited to see and form my own opinions for myself. (Note: I am choosing not to link to this piece- even before seeing the exhibit I found the article disrespectful and sensationalist. You are welcome to google it or ask someone else.)
What I experienced was nothing like the article described. I saw a rich tapestry that evoked nostalgia, humility, anger, hurt, and pride. The exhibit is a true community effort- funded by the community, artifacts, including many breathtaking family pictures, treasured heirlooms that are being generously shared with the country, and works of art created specially for the exhibit, are just a taste of the many people who have given time, energy, and countless other investments into making this historic moment a possibility. I saw families coming to learn together in a facility funded by their government in a space that has not historically acknowledged our citizenship. I saw the stories of people whose stories haven’t been heard intertwined with those who are familiar. I saw space for critical thought and consideration, celebration, and discovery. I saw a reflection of the diversity and complexity of the Indian American community, communicated through sharing and celebrating accomplishments, sharing stories we haven’t heard, and highlighting some critical community concerns. The stories behind every single piece, including all of the artwork (fun fact: most of the artwork was created by the artists especially for the exhibit and it is POWERFUL. Take time with it) is moving and evocative.
Do I feel like it captures every part of my experience? Of course not. That’s why I have this blog. I would love to see a community dialogue on other Indian American community issues such as domestic violence, immigration challenges, religious segregation, public health concerns, socioeconomic disparities, drug use and abuse, and more. I’d love to see some celebration of Indian American contributions to the fields of Liberal Arts education and the rich national network dedicated to the support and survival of South Asian arts.
But it’s not the job of only this exhibit to do that- it is the role of this exhibit to spark thought, encourage continued dialogue, and be an inviting space to ask the question of who Indian Americans are, where Indian Americans come from and what issues impact them, and where they are headed. It is up to the people who go to the exhibit to use the space to continue the work of thousands of others, who have been working for decades, to continue their public service and commitment to serving the Indian American and South Asian American community .
My final thoughts? Go check it out. Suspend your expectations. Allow yourself to feel, engage, and truly observe the exhibit. Let it sink in and bring someone with you to turn it into a conversation. Consider doing a formal tour of the exhibit on weekends or putting together a group of your own and contacting me to set up a time. I’d love to share it with you.
PS- I’m submitting the pictures below as a part of the continued growing collection! Look for them on the digital screen.