Being cooped up in my activist and voter-friendly bubble of Berkeley has disengaged me from the large part of the world where people are not in your face every day trying to register you, where there are not countless political forums and discussions, where there is not a history of political interest and activism. Yet, while it remains a difficult concept for me to grasp, I have been teaching myself recently that not everyone is a hardcore political scientist from Berkeley who ponders and discusses these issues regularly, who sees government on every level having a direct effect on her life.
In my recent investigations (arguing with friends and family who don’t vote) I have found that “voter apathy” is oftentimes a poor diagnosis of the ailment. Though there are some who choose not to vote because they truly couldn’t care less, I have found that there is usually some reasoning behind the decision, whether it be a cynical view of politicians or a disenchantment with the two-party system.
Many desis, especially those of the first generation, have their own reasons for not participating in U.S. elections. Perhaps the primary and overriding reason is a lesser sense of patriotism towards America. This lack of attachment to a country where immigrant desis have not been born, have not cultivated their values, have not even experienced their childhood, is quite understandable. Whatever one’s experience might have been in the home country, whatever the reason for coming to this one, there is naturally going to be some nostalgia for the place where life was more familiar, people looked the same as you, spoke the same as you, celebrated your holidays, wore clothes like yours. On the rare occasion that a South Asian is presented in American media—one of the primary ways to gauge societal acceptance and understanding of a foreign culture—we are frustrated with caricatures such as Apu from the Simpsons and Babu from Seinfeld. The inevitable outcome is that both new and old immigrants oftentimes continue to feel like foreigners.
Moreover, it does not help that there are rarely South Asian names on the ballot. The fact is that no matter how open-minded we hope to be, our natural inclination is to want a leader who looks like us. This desire is driven by the belief, partially justified, that our own interests, needs, and problems will be more fully served by people with the same background and cultural values as us.
Even I, a desi born and raised in America, have difficulty mustering up the level of patriotism and pride in this nation that many of my peers are able to due to these frustrations. Yet, despite these dynamics, I know in my heart and mind how crucial it is that I cast my ballot whenever I have the opportunity to do so. Given that this country and its governing powers are flawed and that we are a long ways away from seeing any sort of colored face as a presidential candidate, it is imperative to carefully consider the options that are available and decide which one will best represent and care for the needs of our community. Who will more effectively spend his time and efforts to counter the rising discrimination and hate crimes against South Asians? Who will choose to consult and consider our communities when making decisions? Each individual must find answers to these and other questions by both looking into his or her heart and doing meaningful research when surfing the web or watching the news.
Beyond these matters of minimal-to-nonexistent affinity towards America, and in fact largely a product of this fact, are the effects of various South Asians’ financial status in this country. On one end of the spectrum there are poor immigrants who are working hard to provide their families with basic needs while simultaneously adjusting to a foreign land. The White House is a distant abstraction that seems to have no relevance to putting food on the table or being accepted by one’s neighbors. This mindset, however, could not possibly be further from the truth. Policies at the top are crucial to either lifting obstacles or planting barriers for those in this position. Perhaps terms like economic growth and civil liberties sound like useless political jargon, but they represent decisions affecting every one of our lives in meaningful ways.
On the other side of the income spectrum are the wealthy desis, part of the so-called model minority in this country. Many such individuals believe that being monetarily and occupationally successful constitutes a sufficient existence. America was meant to be the land of opportunity and nothing more. But as citizens of this country we should expect and demand more; it is simply not possible to live within ourselves and ignore matters of respect, treatment, and policies that affect us on a daily basis. As much as our upbringing emphasizes careers like engineering and science, true integration and acceptance requires that we branch out into all sectors of society. Respect will not be possible here without the Jhumpa Lahiris and the M. Night Shyamalans, and yes, even the Kal Penns.
The beauty of a democracy is that everyone can get involved regardless of his or her profession. Every single person, whether a doctor, artist, or engineer, can contribute to making America feel like a home and not a second-rate hotel by voting for candidates whose platforms most powerfully move towards integrating South Asian communities and concerns into the greater whole.
Besides casting your vote this November, devote some time and energy to galvanize others, whether by registering people to vote or simply through discussion. If you have a friend in a battleground state, talk to her about the importance of voting. Even a casual conversation at a dinner party contributes towards helping our communities represent themselves.
There are a lot of problems in the way minority communities such as our own are frequently perceived and treated in America. Use that as a reason to vote in what probably is the most important election of our lives instead of an excuse not to.
Vandana Kapur is a junior at UC Berkeley majoring in political science.