Over the years, America has seen a nationally growing community of minority populations. The 2016 elections caused a huge wave of anger and frustration within these communities and led to protests and action against injustices caused by lack of voter turnout and disparity in elections. People protested and voiced out their anger and fear of not having a space to grow on an equal footing as those that were privileged. These events led up to the 2020 election, a time where Kamala Harris, the first Asian-Black woman elected Vice President in the history of this nation.
South Asian Americans are one of the fastest-growing populations in the U.S with a 45% growth in the last decade. These numbers show the growing influence of Asian Americans in the electoral processes of the States. Meera Kymal reported for India Currents that though Indian Americans represent just over 1% of the US population, they have donated more than $3 milliontowards the 2020 presidential campaigns. Minority voices have demanded equality and representation in their communities. At the Ethnic Media Services briefing on April 30th, John C. Yang, President and Executive Director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), stated that the 2020 election saw an increase of 40% in voter turnout when compared to the 2016 elections.
The For the People Act and the John L.Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act will only give more equality and accessibility to minority communities to break language barriers and make their vote count. Both these bills seek to make the electoral process secure and prevent foreign interventions or money from influencing the electoral process and vote. They also provide better access to voting by mail and overall enhance the voting process and security.
“Language barriers are one of the biggest impediments to the Asian American vote, with 1/3rd of Asian Americans being what is called limited English proficiency” John C. Yang, President and Executive Director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC).
Mr. Yang further states that previous elections have witnessed a lack of translators or sign indicators for those that are not proficient in English, limiting their access to ballots. While this was taken care of in the 1965 voting rights act, a lot more can be done for those that aren’t proficient in English. “In every election poll, monitors have observed missing Asian language signage and interpreters, which limits our access to the ballot. Ensuring effective language assistance is paramount to closing that consistent barrier in national and local elections,” he stated.
The For The People Act and John L.Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act will improve and expense the voting opportunities for Asian communities making it more accessible to them. The previous election also saw an increase in turnout due to voting by mail. Such steps can be enhanced and practiced more efficiently if the two bills were to pass in Congress.
What better month to discuss this topic than AAPI heritage month! It is important to remember that the influence of Asian American communities strongly impacted the 2020 elections, and the passing of these two bills in Congress will only enhance the opportunity for better representation and understanding of the Asian American community in the States.
Swati Ramaswamy is a recent graduate from UC Davis and is an aspiring creative writer who loathes speaking in the third person.
When Kalai Bagai first arrived in San Francisco on September 6th, 1915 with her husband Vaishno and three sons, local newspapers flocked to cover the story of the first Indian-American woman to enter the Bay Area. Fleeing British imperialism in her homeland, Bagai was exposed to the very casual racism and persecution she thought she had escaped. When her family purchased their first home, she remembered her neighbors attempting to stop them from moving in.
“All of our luggage and everything was loaded on the trucks,’ she said. “‘I told Mr. Bagai I don’t want to live in this neighborhood. I don’t want to live in this house, because they might hurt my children, and I don’t want it. We paid for the house and they locked the doors? No!'”
Although one in the hundreds of immigrants searching for new lives in the United States, Kala Bagai was singled out for her Indian heritage by the masses — ridiculed for her nose ring and skin color. Bagai, like so many other activists of color, was stenciled into America’s history for her “otherness”, and for her struggle to take ownership of her cultural identity.
The story of Kala Bagai is defined by risk — the risk to emigrate to the nascent United States with precarious citizenship laws, the risk to leave India without knowing a word of English, the risk to challenge this sense of “otherness” that permeated the public consciousness.
Though one of the first South Asians to find a home in the San Francisco Bay Area, Kala Bagai was aware that she would not be the last. As new Indian American families emigrated to her area, they were welcomed with a smile and a warm meal prepared by Bagai. She was endearingly named “Mother India” by Indian locals. By blurring the boundaries between California Americanisms and Desi customs, Bagai redefined this sense of “otherness” — she created a community out of the ambiguous and alienating identity that was given to her.
Then the United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind case defined Indians as citizens of color, ineligible for U.S. citizenship. Still, in shock over his sudden denaturalization, Vaishno Bagai took his own life. The Bagais were left without citizenship, livelihood, or home. And it was at their lowest that Kala Bagai began to fight back. Despite the loss of her husband, she advocated fiercely for Indian American rights and found ways to support anti-colonialism movements in India. Kala Bagai put all three of her sons through college, taking great pride in supporting their higher education. Before passing away at 90 years in 1983, Bagai had hosted a number of Indian festivals, community halls, and theatres — events continued in her honor to this day.
Kala Bagai was ostracized for her “otherness”. Today, the Berkeley community is ready to celebrate her for it. With a thriving South Asian American community, Berkeley has spent the past couple of months trying to find a name for a 2-block stretch of Shattuck Avenue East. In the heart of Berkeley downtown, this street has the potential to recognize and uplift America’s rich South Asian American cultural community. Because in an unexpected, yet beautiful turn of events, the Bay Area community is ready to name this street Kala Bagai Way. Anirvan Chatterjee, a San Francisco Bay Area activist who helped organize community support for the name, discusses the implications of this historic naming process in an exclusive interview with India Currents.
“Berkeley is a roughly 20% Asian American city, but you wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at the street names”, Chatterjee said. “I think Kala Bagai was a good fit because she was Asian American, a woman, an immigrant, a member of a minority faith, a survivor of local and federal racism. But she was more than her identity, or what was done to her family. She persisted through heartbreak, emerging as a critical California immigrant community-builder well into her forties. She demonstrated a model of quiet activism that sometimes doesn’t get recognized, but is so critical in our movements and communities.
In terms of her connection to Berkeley, her story shed light on the city’s difficult history around race and housing. It’s easier to honor someone who is a long-term resident, but more challenging—and interesting—to name a street after somebody who wanted to be a neighbor, but was kept out by community racism.”
Turning a downtown Berkeley street into Kala Bagai Way was certainly an uphill battle. Chatterjee and other local activists worked with descendants of Kala Bagai to tell her story to the media and represent her legacy. They even created a Wikipedia page dedicated to her, so that Berkeley locals could educate themselves on her role in Indian American activism. Chatterjee attended the final meeting of the Berkeley naming advisory committee and noted a discrepancy in Berkeley’s representation and the area itself. Only 2 of the 9 members of the committee were people of color. And while this committee wanted to honor the city’s rich history, they realized that naming the street after Kala Bagai was defined, much like Bagai herself, by risk.
“She wasn’t the safest possible choice, because her most relevant connection to Berkeley was the way she and her family were kept out,” Chatterjee said. “Naming a street after her also means naming an uncomfortable past, and also serves as a reminder to defend all of today’s Kala Bagais, by resisting displacement and welcoming newcomers.”
While Kala Bagai Way is a victory for the Asian American community, it’s hard to celebrate this achievement without recognizing the current backdrop of hate crimes against Asian Americans. Just three weeks ago, a man opened fire at three different massage parlors in Atlanta, Georgia, killing six Asian American women. This is not an isolated atrocity, but rather one in the many crimes which suggest that America’s terrifying history of prejudice and xenophobia is far from over. Chatterjee thinks that in the wake of these hate crimes, naming this street after a South Asian American activist only grows more necessary.
“Anti-Asian racism is often rooted in the stereotype of Asian Americans as eternal foreigners, generation after generation,” Chatterjee said. “Naming a street isn’t just about community pride, but also about shifting that culture. Naming a downtown street after an Asian American activist who tried to move to Berkeley over a century ago is making a claim to belonging, and is a tiny part of much larger anti-racist movements.”
While no one knows what the future holds in store for America’s immigrant communities, we hope that symbolic progress leads to constructive change. Indian Americans have played a major role in shaping today’s America, but they often don’t see themselves represented by the local or national leadership. Chatterjee believes that Kala Bagai Way is a foot in the door, and serves as a homage to the footsteps of Asian American activists before him.
“Our histories are important, both because they’re ours, and also because they connect to larger stories,” Chatterjee says. “We’re walking a path paved by the activism of other communities, like Black activists taking on the honoring of the Confederacy, or Native American activists taking on racist sports teams. The point isn’t just to change the names, but to address what the names represent.”
This Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we honor Kala Bagai for all her contributions to our Indian American communities in California.
Kanchan Naik is a senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. She is the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton, as well as the Director of Media Outreach for youth nonprofit Break the Outbreak. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of her school newspaper, The Roar, as well as the Global Student Editor for the 2020 summer edition of Stanford’s Newsroom by the Bay publication.
From April till September 1976, I worked at Newcastle General Hospital in Newcastle Upon Tyne, England.
I was a Senior House Officer, the lowest on the totem pole, after having been the Chief Resident of Neurology at the Bowman Gray School of Medicine/North Carolina Baptist Hospital (now known as Wake Forest University School of Medicine), in Winston Salem, N.C.
I had taken up this 6-month stint in England, unsure of my status as a resident in the US which was dependent on the approval of my visa. Thus, I applied for a job at Newcastle General Hospital, having been connected to the head of the Neurology Department, Professor John Walton, by one of my professors in India. His colleague, Dr. Jack Foster, who was in charge of the Neurology ward, wrote back offering a position of Senior House Officer for 6 months to “the young Indian woman of whom you speak of so highly.”
There I was, flying over the Atlantic to the land that so many I admired had come from – William Shakespeare, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Hardy to name a few. In those days, the baggage allowance for international travel was one suitcase weighing no more than 44 pounds. So I filled my suitcase with clothes and basic toiletries. I planned to purchase more when I got to Newcastle. I had come a day earlier and was housed in a pleasant, many-bedroomed building which was shared by several non-white residents who had come from the far-flung corners of the former empire. There was a large common living-dining area and kitchen. The hospital was across the street on Westgate Road. It was a set of old stone buildings connected by a seemingly endless corridor. After having unpacked, I asked a housekeeper where I could purchase necessities. She suggested a tobacconist’s shop a short walk away.
I got to the store, made my purchases, and went to the cashier’s area to pay for them. I remember the cashier very well, dressed in a plain light brown frock. She totaled up my purchases and, as she accepted the money I gave her, said clearly and loud enough for me to hear, “Damn black bastards! They’re everywhere!”
I was taken aback. I don’t think I said anything and walked back to the cottage. I had heard from friends and relatives, including my siblings, of the overtly racist comments and behavior that they had experienced in England but I had not expected such a ‘warm welcome’ on my first day in it! Something told me that this was not an isolated incident and I should be prepared for more of them. I sat down at my desk and numbered the days I was to be in England from 180 to 1 and scratched off each day as it passed.
I wrote to my friend, an Irish woman who lived in the US and had trained as a nurse in Dublin and London in the 50s. She wrote back: “Well ‘black bastard’ now you know how the ‘dirty Irish’ feel!”. I ate at the Junior Doctors Dining Hall and for the 6 months that I was there, not once did a white British doctor sit at our table. The only white people who sat with us were medical students from the US who were doing an elective in Newcastle. It had been the norm for all non-medical staff at the hospital to call us “colored doctors”.
Whenever I took a public bus, a double-decker similar to one I was used to in Bombay, I noticed incoming passengers look to the right and left and go to the upper deck if no other seat except the one next to me was available. I took to walking 3 to 4 miles rather than take the bus.
I found it easier to eat at an expensive restaurant than at a fast-food one, as the rudeness or ‘microaggressions’ were more likely in the latter.
I began to notice that anytime change was handed to me, the store clerk held the coins carefully so that he or she did not touch the palm of my hand. I wondered if I was becoming paranoid. However, when I returned to the US and the store clerk put coins touching my palm, I knew that the aim of the store clerks in the two countries were different! One wanted to avoid touching me, while the other wanted to ensure the coins were securely placed.
Once a colleague said to me, ”You speak English very well.” Reflexively I replied, “That is my misfortune!” – Which, in my 6-month stint in England, it certainly seemed to be!
Bindu Desai is a retired neurologist who in non-Covid times spends 4 months a year in Mumbai.
In an apt marking of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and in a year when Asian Americans have been targeted for widespread violence, The Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) brings us a film festival celebrating the richness and diversity of the Asian and Asian American experience. “Now, more than ever, the power of storytelling is vital to the health and happiness of our diverse communities,” says Stephen Gong, executive director of CAAM.
Slated for May 13-23, the 11-day festival brings us a robust array of live, virtual and on-demand film screenings, continuing its trajectory of storytelling and conversation with a schedule of over 50 events, including screenings, panels, and live performances.
“The world may have paused due to the pandemic, but our filmmakers didn’t,” says Masashi Niwano, festival and exhibitions director at CAAM. “The vibrancy and energy of this year’s programming are unmatched with our filmmakers bravely telling their unique and vital stories.”
This year, South Asian directors take center stage at the festival with provocative, bold new works.
Welcome to America: Where dreams come true…ish. In Jackson Heights, Queens, New York, two career-driven sisters (Maryam and Sam) and their newly-immigrated cousin (Ameera) must navigate the consistent — and sometimes conflicting — demands of romance, culture, work, and family. Serving both as a lighthearted reimagination of and critical divergence from the classic romantic comedy, Americanish tackles and celebrates the complex intersectionality of womanhood by welcoming us into the world — with all its joys and tribulations — of these three marriage-aged women. Americanish meditates on the sometimes inevitable tension that arises between competing societal and cultural norms, or between personal obligations and ambitions, with a fresh perspective, weaving from it a story that is unconventional, funny, and heartwarming.
Pooja is an Indian Canadian teenager trapped between two worlds and doesn’t have anyone she can rely on. She’s from a minority neighborhood and struggles to fit in her high school where everybody’s idea of fun is limited to one eatery. Pooja finds escape through movies, and fantasizes about love and along comes Trevor, a White heartthrob she instantly falls for. Her infatuation doesn’t last when conflicts arise from a clash of cultures. Undeterred from her pitfalls, Pooja manages to find renewed confidence through adversity.
This coming-of-age story deals with the angst and frustrations of high school and blends it with the immigrant experience with a 90’s flair.
A heartbreaking secret emerges for an Indo-Candian family: a relative sexually abused three of the sisters for years.
After nearly two decades of silence, we meet sisters Jeeti, Kira, and Salakshana Pooni, now adults, at the end of their court case against their abuser. Director Baljit Sangra deftly captures the emotional journey the women face not just navigating the justice system but confronting their family for standing by while the abuse happened.
The film explores the impact of the sexual abuse of three sisters in a traditional Punjabi family and shines a light on the nuances of gendered violence and the cultural systems that reinforce and perpetuate the trauma of abuse.
This emotionally compelling short shines a light on North American’s oldest running Sikh Temple and the struggle it represents.
With offerings for everyone from media makers to film lovers to those interested in Asian and Asian American representation, the festival brings us unique voices highlighting the intersections of community.
General admission tickets for virtual screenings and panels range from complimentary to $15. Drive-In Experience ranges from $45-$50.
Mona Shah is a multi-platform storyteller with expertise in digital communications, social media strategy, and content curation for Twitter and LinkedIn for C-suite executives. A journalist and editor, her experience spans television, cable news, and magazines. An avid traveler and foodie, she loves artisan food and finding hidden gems: restaurants, recipes, destinations. She can be reached at: [email protected]