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Plant based food

I Am A Born-Again Vegetarian!

Desi Roots, Global Wings – a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience.
About a decade ago, I chose vegetarianism again, because vegetarianism as a spiritual practice is an important part of how I live by my values every day.

I grew up vegetarian. That was the default lifestyle and diet in my family and community when I was growing up in Mumbai. I started eating meat in my twenties, partly because it was difficult to find meat-free options in 1980s America. Equally, I was motivated by a desire to be cosmopolitan and open to new ideas and experiences. 

But then, about a decade ago, I chose vegetarianism again. Whereas originally, it was an inherited practice, this time it is something I have mindfully chosen. And while the choice makes sense for a multitude of reasons, at its very core, it is an important part of how I live by my values every day.

I am a born-again vegetarian. 

Most faiths have spiritual practices. Across religions, these range from prayer, meditation and fasting to lighting of lamps and candles, to giving alms to the poor. Regardless of the religion, it seems that each spiritual practice is a way to promote stillness, reflection, introspection. It is a way to slow down, to withdraw from the busyness of life, to focus on something outside oneself. It promotes selflessness and intentionality, humility as well as gratitude. 

For me, all of these benefits are realized by the simple act of giving up meat and most other animal-based products such as dairy and leather.

There are many reasons for giving up meat. According to many studies, it is good for health, as it eliminates harmful substances from the diet. It is good for the environment, as the amount of water and land needed to create a meat-based calorie is many times more than what is needed to create the same calorie from plant-based foods. For me, these two are the “icing on the cake” of my chosen vegetarian lifestyle.

The “cake” is the knowledge that by giving up meat, I am no longer a participant in the industrial “manufacture” of meat—a system that, at its core, is based on cruelty to animals. I want to say, “inhumane” treatment of animals, but the word is quite unequal to the task of describing the routine horror that is being perpetrated on creatures that are sentient and can feel pain every day.

This point came home to me when I was in the middle of reading a book called “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer. It has a section that describes how cows and pigs are treated as they are led to slaughter. About a third of the way into this section, I could not go on reading. It was just too horrific. 

This crystallized the issue for me—if I cannot bear to read the words—forget about viewing pictures or video—of what the animals are made to undergo so we might have abundant meat, how can I , in good faith, continue to consume the products manufactured by such a system?

A guru is a teacher or master, particularly someone who has attained a level of scholarship through lived experience. My gurus in my chosen spiritual practice were my son and his friend Peter who came from a self-described “meat-and-potatoes” family. 

When he was in high school, as he became aware of the animal cruelty that is part of a meat-based diet, Peter chose to become a vegetarian. I can only imagine how hard it must have been for him to adhere to this lifestyle. To be surrounded by smells and flavors that he grew up with and enjoyed, and that could be his for the asking; and yet to reject them for a principle, was both admirable and humbling.

Inspired by Peter’s example, my son too gave up meat. Being away at college during these years, there were times when there were too few choices, or he was left out of campus events like “Asian Street Food.” But, convinced about the rightness of his choice, he did not budge. He even went on a road trip to New Orleans and managed to find vegetarian food—not always healthy, but vegetarian nonetheless—during the entire trip.

As a mother who worried about his health and his ability to enjoy life, I often urged him to not make perfect the enemy of the good. What I meant is that it was okay if he occasionally allowed himself to eat meat, especially when there were no good alternatives, or simply as an occasional treat. For, while renunciation too is a kind of spiritual practice, when carried to the extreme of denial, it can do more harm than good, and might even lead to a renunciation of the spiritual practice itself.

In that spirit, many people observe new traditions, such as meatless Mondays or eating only locally grown organic meat, or eating meat only after 6 pm. The good news is that it keeps getting easier to eschew an animal-based lifestyle. Not only are there meat substitutes like Impossible Burgers and Beyond Meat, there are also new vegan options for butter, cheese, eggs, and ice cream. 

Evolution is a process of continual incremental improvement—in nature as well as within us. A quote of Thomas Edison brings together the concepts of evolution and vegetarianism: “Non-violence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages.”


Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and cofounder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu. Her book, “Radical Spirits,” tells the deeply-researched story of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, India’s first woman doctor. 

Photo by Alexandra Andersson on Unsplash


 

Neanderthal DNA Present in South Asians is a Risk Factor For COVID-19

People of South Asian descent possess a set of genes inherited from Neanderthals that makes them more susceptible to hospitalization from COVID-19, according to a study published in Nature

While certain risk factors affect the severity of COVID-19 – such as age and presence of underlying health conditions – the study noted that many still contract a severe case of COVID-19 without these risk factors, implying the existence of other risk factors in our genetics. Hugo Zeberg and Svante Paabo, the study’s authors, found a core haplotype (a group of genes inherited from a single parent) that increases the risk of hospitalization for COVID-19 to occur at a 50 percent frequency in South Asian people. 

The same haplotype is almost absent in those of East Asian descent, occurs at only a 16 percent frequency in people from Europe, but occurs at a 63 percent frequency among Bangladeshi people in the United Kingdom, Zeberg and Paabo wrote. They said Bangladeshi people in the UK also have double the risk of dying from COVID-19 compared to the general population, indicating further disparities in healthcare that are compounded by the genetic predisposition identified in the study.  

Pie charts show the minor allele frequency at rs35044562. Frequency data were obtained from the 1000 Genomes Project. Map source data were obtained from OpenStreetMap. (Image from Nature Magazine)

The study comes as COVID-19 cases in India are on the rise and hospitals struggle to maintain the resources to deal with the onset of new cases. Despite being one of the world’s biggest producers of compressed oxygen, the country has dealt with a shortage of supplies due to delays in oxygen storage and production, which in turn exacerbated the COVID-19 crisis.

“With respect to the current pandemic, it is clear that gene flow from Neanderthals has tragic consequences,” Zeberg and Paabo wrote. 

The study states that the fact these genes have endured over the course of history to the present day indicates they must have been beneficial to human survival at some point in time.

“Thus, although this haplotype is detrimental for its carriers during the current pandemic, it may have been beneficial in earlier times in South Asia, perhaps by conferring protection against other pathogens, whereas it may have been eliminated in East Asia by negative selection,” the study states

However, Zeberg and Paabo found that the haplotype is notably absent in those of African descent because gene flow from Neanderthals into African populations at the time was “limited and probably indirect.”

“It is currently not known what feature in the Neanderthal-derived region confers risk for severe COVID-19 and whether the effects of any such feature are specific to SARS-CoV-2, to other coronaviruses, or to other pathogens,” they wrote. “Once the functional feature is elucidated, it may be possible to speculate about the susceptibility of Neanderthals to relevant pathogens.”

Cutting-edge research, like the one Zebery and Paabo conducted, is an important reminder that diversity in research and medicine provides a more comprehensive understanding of diverse populations and how to address their needs.


Isha Trivedi is a journalism student at George Washington University. She enjoys reading and listening to podcasts in her (limited) spare time. 


 

Top: Photograph of indentured Indian labourers at Spring Garden Buildings. Jamaica, 1880 (Image from the National Archive); Bottom: Contrabands at headquarters of Gen. Lafayette, 1862. Contrabands was an expression coined by Gen. Benjamin F. Butler to describe escaped slaves (Photo by Mathew B. Brady courtesy Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library/Yale University via Wikimedia Commons)

Juneteenth Isn’t Enough: How Indian-Americans Can Use Their Pasts to Help Another Present

Though empires abolished slavery in the Caribbean islands during the 1830s, their move to the model of indentured servitude wasn’t much better. From 1838 to 1917, western European governments transported over 500,000 Indian indentured servants to work on their plantations in the Caribbean. Some were brought unwillingly and others consented to their servitude, however, most servants were not made aware of the horrific conditions and treatment that they would face. Really, the “indentured servitude” model that colonizers granted Indian laborers was a fancy word for slavery.

During the same time period, on January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation – enslaved individuals in the Confederate States had been freed. Unfortunately, even a document as official as the Emancipation Proclamation was flawed and freedom for all enslaved people would come only after the ratification of the 13th Amendment on December 6, 1865.

In a Confederate state like Texas, the power balance between the state and federal governments meant that Texas’ leaders could decide if they wanted to put the document into effect. Finally, on June 19, 1865 – hence the term “Juneteenth” – 2,000 Union troops invaded Galveston Bay, Texas, officially declaring freedom for all enslaved Texans.  “Juneteenth” marks the day that Black Texans gained freedom – the last state to adopt the Emancipation Proclamation in America.

Two centuries later, Juneteenth just became recognized as a federal holiday in the United States. July 4th may stand as the country’s day of independence from Great Britain, but Juneteenth stands as the country’s second independence day in recognition of freedom for all citizens. 

Similarly, India may be politically independent, but colonization still manifests itself in subtle ways. In fact, Raja Masood, an associate professor of postcolonial literature and theory, notes that “children are still taught to write an application using words and phrases that endorse a colonial mentality such as “Yours obediently” or “Your obedient servant.” Think of the word “boss” commonly used in the Caribbean and Asian communities. How about the titles Maiam (Madam) and Saab (Sir)? My English professor said, “Don’t call me sir, call me Mike.” Students in India and Pakistan are taught primarily in English and almost every school teaches the language as if it’s their native tongue.

Indian huts on a sugar plantation near Port Louis in Mauritius. (Image by Frederick Fiebig from the British Library)
Indian huts on a sugar plantation near Port Louis in Mauritius. (Image by Frederick Fiebig from the British Library)

Classism and casteism were amplified outcomes of colonization in India. In fact, the stratification and division that colonization brought to India pre-Partition, remains part of Indian ideology and society. Colonization has, also, pushed Indians to disassociate from Black people. The British, having created stratified structures, pit minorities against one another, “us” versus “them,” and unlearning this behavior has been harder than learning it.

June 19th, recognized as the day that slaves gained their freedom, also recognizes that Black people are still fighting for equality and justice. The murders of Black Americans such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are clear signs that anti-Blackness is ever prevalent and detrimental in society today. As Indian Americans, how can we use our riddled history to empathize with the plight of minorities in America?

Inter-minority division feels illogical. We often talk about the atrocities that slavery and colonization individually brought, but what we recognize less are the parallels between them. These parallels are proof that hegemonic institutions have inflicted trauma on a range of minorities. The treatment, which both the Indian slaves and African American slaves endured, was horrendous and, unfortunately, very similar. The governing bodies of both India and the United States exploited people for their own benefit.

Bibee Zuhoorun was one of the many laborers who was made to work in the Caribbean. She shares her testimony in an ongoing investigation on the India indenture trade. Zuhoorun says, “the injustice meted out to fellow labourers – a story of overworked men subjected to ill-treatment and corporal punishment. Labourers were often confined within plantations and denied wages if they refused to work. She felt stuck in a foreign land.” Zuhoorun was one of many.

Women were kidnapped off of the streets in India and brought to the Caribbean islands for the Indian male laborers. Kalyani Srinivas, a resident of the Bay Area and a person of Indian-Trinidadian descent, emphatically states, “Isn’t it a travesty that history misrepresents the blatant slave trade of Indians to the Caribbeans. My great-great grandmother was 16 and holding her child in India when she was taken forcibly by the British to Trinidad. She was brought as incentive for indentured male workers.” 

Sexual harassment was a common occurrence and Zuhoorun didn’t receive wages for 2.5 years of her labor. Britain profited largely off of the East India Company and did more harm than good; the British ran the company logistics and financials, and Indians did not get authority nor benefits from the company.  

Contrastingly, I note the words of Fountain Hughes, a slave who was interviewed in 1949 and whose words have been archived by the United States Congress. His story is long, but he emphasizes the idea that the slaves were alone, and the conditions they existed in were not worth living for. He says: “we, no more money, but course they bought more stuff and more property and all like that. We didn’t have no property. We didn’t have no home. We had nowhere or nothing. We didn’t have nothing only just, uh, like your cattle, we were just turned out. And uh, get along the best you could. Nobody to look after us. Well, we been slaves all our lives.” 

Worse of all is the similarity in the devastating number of casualties that both races faced. An estimated 35 million in casualties is said to have come from the irresponsible rule of the British in India and at least 17 million people died as a result of slavery and slave trade. Both times, abuse of power took the lives of millions of innocent citizens. Both times, these casualties were avoidable. 

Our shared narratives have been erased, omitted, and forgotten in written history. Let us remember that Indian-Americans are not far removed from their history of slavery and colonialism.

This year has brought about obstacles for the AAPI community. In fact, AAPI hate is running rampant our society, and in standing up for the AAPI and Black community, we create a united front – one that is stronger than any individual alone. 

Juneteenth is a day to celebrate the freedom of African American slaves, and for Indian-Americans, it is a day to reflect on our ancestry and shared trauma to empower others in our community.


Ayanna Gandhi is an 11th grader at Castilleja School in Palo Alto, California. She has a deep interest in writing and reading but also enjoys politics, singing, and sports of all kinds. 

Srishti Prabha is the Managing Editor at India Currents and has worked in low-income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.


 

Nidhi Kirpal Jayadevan practicing Yoga.

My Yoga Toolkit To Ease Anxiety

Yoga has always afforded me a sort of mental vacation that helps recenter my focus and energy. It probably sounds a bit esoteric. But let me explain. I find the routine of a few sun salutations, twists, an inversion, the quiet heaviness of shavasana, and some full belly “Oms” revitalizing. After which I breathe deeply with renewed energy, ready to take on and make the most of the at times, challenge-filled fluidity of working from home and remote school, for instance.  

More recently during this anxiety-inducing pandemic, as I worry about our family’s safety in India or read about the ever-spiking cases and crumbling health care system there, my intermittent and improvised yoga practice allows me to calm my nerves and think more positively. I hope for a happy day when we are able to travel to India with our two boys, so they may be able to see their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, in-person, and I, my folks.

I am by no means a certified yoga instructor – merely a yoga enthusiast who has turned to this ancient Indian practice every now and then at various stages of my life for over two decades now, reaping its wonderful benefits. Every time I surrender to my mat, I rise in a strange mind-body-soul harmony, gently yet firmly, reminding me ‘to just be’. To accept, be grateful, make the most of ‘now’, mindfully and intentionally going about my day.

While I am cognizant that everyone has their go-to activity or means to de-stress and relax, like listening to music, running, taking a short nap, or reading, yoga is mine. The reason I was drawn to it is because it made me pause and slow down my pace of life and mind. I also very quickly realized that yoga doesn’t have to be complicated or enigmatic. It doesn’t need much equipment, space, or time. It’s easy and beneficial. I can do it whenever I want and for as long as I want (or can). 

So, over the years, I have devised my own ‘yoga toolkit’. It has helped me mindfully navigate the curveballs at work and as a full-time parent. And it continues to assist me today, as I, like millions of others navigate this global pandemic, making sense of it, praying for a better tomorrow.

To stay calm, centered, rational, and in control, I often resort to the following yoga tools. I don’t necessarily follow these sequentially or attempt to go through each of them. I simply do what I can.

Breathe deeply for that much-needed clarity.

We breathe all the time. Why not make it conscious and intentional? It’s cathartic and effortless. The two things we all value, especially these days. Focusing on my breath for a few minutes magically helps me hit that reset button. And we all know, taking a pause can help us rationally re-evaluate a variety of situations – personal and/or professional.

When under stress, do the downward dog.

You may end up doing it a LOT. It’s no secret that our current reality possibly fills the most formerly self-assured people with doubts: small, big, and huge. Often! But when has a bit of stretching, sculpting, toning, and blood flowing to the brain been a bad thing? It not only helps us all take that much-needed pause but forces us to see the world from an upside-down (different?) perspective.

Create space between the ears and shoulders.

This is something we don’t even think about but can do all the time – while sitting, standing, and lying down. Just pull your shoulders down and straighten your neck to create some space between the tips of your ears and the tops of your shoulders. Not only check your posture but also feel that stress release. You’ll likely feel taller, more in control, and will look graceful too. Tip – you can add to it by tucking in your tummy, working those abs. But don’t forget to breathe!

Relax in child’s pose.

Again, a little bit of flexibility and stress/ blood pressure reduction can’t be all bad! A time to rest, and reset, and secretly build flexibility and work those abs.

Massage the top of your head and the nape of your neck.

Isn’t that what they did when physically going for a massage was a possibility? Granted, it’s not the same as getting that divine massage, but it’s certainly something. Creating some scalp blood circulation apparently helps with hair growth too.  

Lie in Shavasana for that divine sleep and mental reset.

A few minutes of Shavasana prior to a nap or hitting the sack for the night helps me breathe deeply and relax, setting me up for some quality rest time. Tip – a scalp massage with some meditation music prior only makes the sleep deeper and more restful.  

In summary

Feel free to harness the power of this ‘Yoga toolkit’ alone or with kid(s), your spouse/ partner. It’s relatively simple and doesn’t entail much. Best of all, it’s iterative. Pick what you feel like. Add to it if you want to. If a backbend or headstand is part of your practice, go for it. If you want to just lay down, massage your head, and tune out breathing deeply in Shavasana, do it! It’s also indulgent. Remember to work with your energy levels and time commitments. Don’t endeavor for that perfect pose. These tools can be hugely gratifying, relaxing, and mentally and physically centering. Something we all crave and can benefit from.  

Here’s wishing us all the very best, as we surge forward with positivity, gratitude, and mindful intention.

Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti, Om…….


Nidhi Kirpal Jayadevan is an avid reader and a yoga enthusiast. Her pre-kids life was dedicated to the complex field of Communication Sciences. After choosing to be a full-time mother, reading and playing with her high-energy boys has been a fascinating journey. It has (re)kindled in her a sense of wonder in all things small. She constantly sees the world through little eyes, applying simple learnings to deepen life’s meaning for herself and her family.


 

Will They? Won’t They? What Parents Think About Giving Kids A Covid Shot

By September this year, children as young as two may be eligible for a Covid vaccine. While many parents welcome the prospect of protection against a deadly virus, some parents aren’t so sure.

What do parents think about vaccinating their children?

“In my circle”, says Anjana Nagarajan, a Los Altos parent with two high school age children, “parents are gung-ho.” Her 16-year-old daughter is fully vaccinated while her 14-year-old son just received his first shot.  Her view is largely shared by parents in her area where, according to CA data, almost 87% of the population have received one or more doses of the vaccine.

But for Priya Nair Flores, a management consultant in San Antonio, TX, the vaccine is still out of reach for her son who just graduated fifth grade. “My son is 11 years old,” says Flores, “so he’s one year from the age at which CDC recommends children start getting the COVID vaccine, which is 12 years old. I and other parents of his friends talk about how much we wish they could get the vaccine. I believe in science.”

The science says that the vaccine is safe. Clinical trials have demonstrated even higher efficacy rate among adolescents than young adults (16-25 years old). The FDA just approved the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for emergency use in adolescents 12 to 15 years old. Moderna just announced that its TeenCove study was highly effective at preventing COVID-19 in adolescents ages 12 to less than 18 and will request FDA emergency authorization in early June. By this fall, children ages 2-11 could potentially be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. It will be the next major milestone in containing the coronavirus pandemic.

Even so, though vaccine availability across the US is going up, some parents are refusing to vaccinate their children, citing concerns about the newness of the vaccine and its potential side effects in the future. Public health experts fear that vaccine hesitancy will prolong the fight against Covid19.

In a White House briefing on May 19, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy urged parents to protect their children from Covid 19 and help turn the pandemic around.

Why Parents are Hesitant

Scientists and doctors emphasize that vaccinations are safe and offer protection from COVID-19. The CDC reports that some people may experience short-term side effects which subside after a few days but are normal signs that the body is building protection.

However, at an Ethnic Media briefing on May 21, Dr. Jose Perez, Chief Medical Officer at the South-Central Medical Center in LA, identified misinformation spreading on the Internet as a troubling cause of vaccine hesitancy in his patients.

Dr. Perez’ view was supported by surveys which found that fear and uncertainty about the Covid 19 vaccine ranged from its safety and efficacy to myths about infertility, and fetal cells in vaccines that could change DNA. Among 48% of people ages 18-49 , fear of future infertility was a top concern.

There was uneasiness that the vaccine was created too quickly, even though the technology for mRNA vaccines has been in development for decades and processed through the same FDA clinical trials for all other vaccines.

The Institute for Policy Research reported that young mothers aged 18 – 35 were largely driving the resistance among parents who indicated they were ‘extremely unlikely’ to get their children vaccinated. In contrast, said Matthew Simonson, a researcher with the COVID States project, fathers have become less resistant to the idea of vaccinating their kids.

A KFF survey found that while 30% of parents with children aged 12 to 15 will get them vaccinated right away, nearly 23% definitely will not.

 

When it comes to vaccinating their children, households which have an annual income of under $25,000 or people who have only high school diplomas are the most vaccine resistant, added Simonsen, compared to most pro-vaccine people who tend to live in households making $150,000+ a year or hold a graduate degree.

But, for many parents explained Dr. Perez, whose clinic serves primarily Latino and African American working families, vaccination hesitancy is not a choice. Rather, socio-economic barriers keep many from getting the vaccine.

“One of the major reasons for lack of vaccination, is access to time off from work,” he explained. Parents who have just returned to work low-income jobs as day laborers or in restaurants, have to juggle taking an extra half day off to get their children to a clinic. Most of Dr. Perez’ patients use the bus, so it’s difficult to access public vaccine centers without a car.

“It’s a tremendous barrier,” he stated when “our patients are being asked to choose between earning a day’s living and or vaccinating their children.”

The KFF survey also confirms that underlying socio-economic factors cause vaccine hesitancy. People worry they may have to pay out-of-pocket costs for the vaccine. Fears about immigration status and vaccine eligibility have created vaccine hesitancy because of requirements for a social security number or government-issued identification to get vaccinated (34%), a lack of trust in the provider (32%), or travel difficulties reaching vaccination sites (15%).

Allison Winnike of Texas-based Immunization Partnership told KERA news that their data showed increased vaccination rates in communities of color who were initially skeptical, but that there were higher hesitancy rates among some people that self-identify as more conservative or evangelical.

As a parent himself, with children aged 3 and 4, Vivek Murthy empathized with the challenges of parenting kids in a pandemic which has percolated into kids’ lives in an extraordinary way. “Parents have had to have difficult conversations with their kids about why they can’t see friends and family or have to go to virtual classes.” But parents also worry about the risks of taking their children to the playground or back to school, he said, which is why vaccinating them should be the highest priority.

Why Parents Should Worry

A joint report from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association found that Covid is now one of ten leading causes of death among young people who make up 22% of all new Covid cases, compared to only 3% a year ago.

“It’s a significant disease. Kids are also at risk,” said Dr. Grace Lee, Professor of Pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine. She has personally seen children hospitalized and dying from the virus. Lee pointed out that less attention had been paid to the ‘burden of infection’ on children, though AAP data has confirmed that 4 million children have tested positive for Covid 19 since the onset of the pandemic. She warned that the CDC noted that when adjusting for under-reporting or under-testing on children, at least “22 million children and adolescents 5 to 17 years have been infected in the US since the pandemic began.” Forty percent of children who are hospitalized have no high-risk conditions like asthma, diabetes, obesity or developmental delay or immune compromise issues, said Dr. Lee, “So, we cannot predict who will be hit more severely by Covid 19 infection.”

“We have to protect children from Covid disease,” Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, a principal investigator at Stanford Pfizer trials told NBC. She reiterated that vaccines are necessary for herd immunity. Reports of long-term side effects in teens are only rumors spread by anti-vaxers she added. “There is no evidence that vaccines cause fertility issues – it’s an idea that “has been disproven over and over again.”

In Texas, Priya Flores agrees. “We are a family of scientists and I strongly believe that facts should impact your decision making.” As a healthcare professional, she was in the early wave of those vaccinated . “I felt lucky and grateful I could access the best of what science could offer.  When my extended family who wasn’t vaccinated got sick with Covid, I was able to help them because I was better protected by the vaccine. It was challenging because I wanted my husband and kid to get it too.”

How to Move Forward

Getting that shot in the arms of adults and children means that “The role of people of color like me and professionals like me becomes very important,” said Dr. Perez. Providers who are POC need to dispel misinformation and encourage parents to vaccinate themselves and their children, because when “patients trust people that look like them, the more likely they are to listen to our voices.”

“We have paid a heavy price” said Dr. Murthy, referring to the unprecedented toll on human lives by the virus, but the US has a pathway out of the pandemic with its arsenal of vaccines that time and again, have proven effective.

In Texas, the CDC reports that 51.73% of Texans are fully vaccinated. But Priya Flores says her family is only ‘half protected’ from the virus as she waits for her son’s age group to be approved.  “I often tell my husband our job has shifted from constant vigilance in general to vigilance for our son. We have relaxed a bit, but once again, …the virus hasn’t disappeared, and our fellow Americans haven’t decided to help our children gain herd immunity. So here we are again.”

“If someone asked my son to be part of a vaccine trial I would say yes. I believe in this vaccine and that it is safe and effective for almost all, with the understanding that there will always be vulnerable populations that need higher monitoring and consideration before deciding to take it.”


Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents
image source: CDC


 

Left to Right: Book- 'I Will Not Bear You Sons' and Poet - Usha Akella

Usha Akella’s ‘I Will Not Bear You Sons’ Pulls No Punches. And It Shouldn’t Have To.

Usha Akella tells no lies. 

The first time I met this poet, producer and founder of South Asian poetry collective Matwaala was at a Desi poetry reading moderated by India Currents. It was a surreal moment for a South Asian American teenage girl who grew up on a diet of Mahabharata reruns and idolized authors like Jhumpa Lahiri and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. My love for South Asian literature always began and ended with the literature itself, but the poetry readings gave me the opportunity to witness the beauty of a thriving community built around this art form. And at the forefront of building this community is Indian-American poet Usha Akella. 

Matwaala Co-Founders, Pramila Venkateswaran (left) and Usha Akella (right) (Image from Poets &Writers)
Matwaala Co-Founders, Pramila Venkateswaran (left) and Usha Akella (right) (Image from Poets &Writers)

The 2019 Creative Ambassador for the City of Austin, Usha uses her platform as a poet and as a storyteller to advocate for immigrant rights and gender equality. When I watched her read for the first time, I was struck by her refusal to mince words. In recent years, the so-called “third-wave feminist movement” is often asked to soften its message, simplify itself, and turn its head at the more implicit forms of misogyny that plague America today. In fact, I’ve often found myself reading and writing poetry wondering whether the forthrightness of my activism will offend, as though the realities of gender inequality need to be sugar-coated to be swallowed. 

Usha Akella’s latest poetry book I Will Not Bear You Sons does none of that. This collection of poetry delivers the pain, purpose, and newfound power of marginalized women in their rawest forms. This book dances from the misogynistic expectations placed on South Asian housewives to China’s foot-binding tradition to sexual harassment experienced by working women. Beyond her activism, this book also weaves sharp-witted social commentaries with penetrating glimpses into post-pandemic life. True to her cuttingly honest writing style, in I Will Not Bear You Sons Usha Akella offers an outreached hand to women everywhere — as well as a confident middle finger to the patriarchal norms which silence them. 

The book is broken into two sections — I and We.

While I offers autobiographical looks into Akella’s experiences as both a writer and Indian-American woman, We acts on her hopes for intersectional feminism, and tells the stories of marginalized women from other cultures and identities.

“Can women ever cease perceiving their ‘tragedy’ as ‘Mother’?”, Usha writes in Ants  — a poem that is dedicated to her Amma but widens into a broader discussion about familial ties and patriarchal perceptions of motherhood.

What is interesting about this book is that Akella recognizes the collectivism buried in her individual narrative; she manages to use her personal experiences to connect with other women and uplift different communities. One of the most memorable poems in I Will Not Bear You Sons, in my opinion, is Women Speak — a matter-of-fact call for justice. Although nowhere does Akella talk about herself in this poem, it grows clear through her strong sense of voice that Women Speak is a command for every woman, Usha included. 

Despite her support for intersectionality, however, Akella is also self-aware of the regional and socio-economic divisions which exist within the feminist movement.

From A Brahmin Niyogi Woman to a White Woman toys with the differences between Western and South Asian notions of freedom. “I didn’t dye my hair blue,” writes Akella. “I didn’t say fuck you!,” highlighting this divide with a discerning, humorous outlook on Western and Eastern stereotypes.

As a teenager somehow grappling with both realities, I thoroughly enjoyed her sense of humor, even in its darker moments (think: sardonically dismissive references to AIDS, homosexuality, and divorce). What does a feminist want? Akella’s poetry slyly peels back the layers to this question, while also revealing how internalized misogyny and generational judgment distort a possible answer. 

The titular poem of the book, I Will Not Bear You Sons, undoubtedly shines through. In fact, my only critique of Akella’s book was the positioning of this poem, which manages to overshadow shorter, and perhaps underrated pieces like Storm and Harmony. It’s an interesting demise, where I Will Not Bear You Sons may be too good for where it is placed, and we see diluted successors to this poem rather than a powerful lineup.

The piece below, which has been included with Akella’s permission, chronicles Akella’s feelings of isolation and oppression within her own family. Personally, I was drawn to the poem’s strong sense of chronology, where Akella uses specific visual imagery to walk her readers through the most intimate parts of her life. The poem begins at the door, where the readers are introduced to this setting and Akella as a person. She then slowly moves the narrative into different parts of the house, her use of setting paralleling the poem itself — a journey within the innermost pieces of her psyche, which has been damaged by the patriarchy and now seeks to heal through poetry and group empowerment. The very phrase, I will not bear you sons, is unforgettable on its own, yet the way Akella repeats this line gives the poem a defiant and enduring heartbeat. It’s one of the longer poems in this collection, as Akella has plenty to say about the demands to birth a male child, a society which degrades and commodifies women, a history of misogyny which perpetuates this society like a terrible machine — this poem is a lot, and I found myself only getting angrier as the work unfolded. The range of emotion in this book is beautiful. Yet it is Akella’s unadulterated anger, which spreads like wildfire in this poem, that truly brings I Will Not Bear You Sons alive.

What can a door deliver?

 

The setting of this poem is innocuous—at the door,

A door is innocent of its exits and entrances,

What can a door deliver?

Hellos, bye-byes, blessings, Namaste, a peck on the cheek …

 

An open door can be the hole in a noose.

 

I had just celebrated his seventieth birthday,

decorating the house so, so, fit to welcome a God,

the saris draped on the ceiling, cascading rainbows

falling from the sky,

we wore our finery, our ornaments

as if the earth was liberated from every evil.

 

The food was laid out—kitchen-labor, labor of forgiveness,

I will not waste words on the menu

for I must speak of women, wombs and India.

 

A poem can glisten like a fresh wound.

 

In his speech he praised his wife,

his daughter, his sons, his grandchildren,

he omitted his daughters-in-law, and I

stilled my voice on the verge of bleeding red like a period,

and they ate and ate and danced and smiled and smirked,

and all was well with the world.

 

– Usha Akella in I Will Not Bear You Sons


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. 


 

Film, 'If I Go, Where Do I Go?' at BAMPFA.

Berkeley’s Film Archive Diversifies History With Films by Amit Dutta

“Cinema becomes a way of searching and learning through culture, history, music, beauty and eventually truth.” — Amit Dutta, Many Questions to Myself

UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) is UC Berkeley’s resource for artistic resources and serves the broader Bay Area population. Their mission is to create dialogue and community engagement through art mediums on local and global topics.

In pursuit of diversity in history, BAMPFA is showcasing Indian filmmaker and writer Amit Dutta. Dutta is known for his distinctive cinema through deep explorations of India’s artistic, literary, and cultural traditions, both contemporary and historical.

His recent shorts and features, including the premiere of If I Go, Where Do I Go?, on his five visits with Hindi experimental writer Krishna Baldev Vaid, are now available for viewing on BAMFA’s website.

Dutta’s landmark film Nainsukh, on the eighteenth-century painter, is also a part of the series. The 2010 film first took Dutta back to the Kangra Valley near his childhood home, a land from which he has since drawn much of his inspiration. Dutta, who characterizes his films as research- and process-based, notes: “I became very interested in indigenous knowledge systems and the workings of tribal/folk and classical modes. How could these systems produce such stunning works? What was the source?”

Shambhavi Kaul describes his varied films as “travers[ing] genres, moving effortlessly from crafted scenario to spontaneous encounter, from mindful self-reflexivity to ghostly magic.”

Whether in sensuous tracking shots of past paintings on gallery walls or ancient sculptures in their original setting; animations of artworks that reveal their underlying effects; moments of improvised acting; or expeditions and visits with unanticipated results, Dutta’s evocative films find new and beautiful expression in dialogue with their subjects.

This isn’t the first time Dutta has been featured by BAMPFA. In 2017, BAMPFA presented several of Dutta’s films on Indian art in conjunction with the exhibition Divine Visions, Earthly Pleasures: Five Hundred Years of Indian Painting. View artworks from the BAMPFA collection in the exhibition brochure, written by guest curator Robert Del Bontà.


Srishti Prabha is the Managing Editor at India Currents and has worked in low-income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.


 

Can COVID Burst America’s Bubble While The World Battles The Virus?

On May 13, after combating three waves of the coronavirus, the CDC released guidelines stating that  Americans who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19 can resume activities without wearing masks or physically distancing in most settings, indicating that the pandemic may be near an end.

“If you are fully vaccinated you can start doing the things you had stopped doing because of the pandemic,” announced CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.

But experts at a May 14 Ethnic Media Services briefing questioned whether it was too soon to go back to normal.

“Bubbles are beautiful, but bubbles do not last long in this world,” remarked Dr. Ben Neuman, Chief Virologist at the Global Health Research Complex at Texas A&M University.  “Any vaccine bubble that may exist is going to be fragile, unfortunately.”

As Covid-19 outbreaks occur in Michigan, Florida and Puerto Rico, the AMA reports  there is potential for a fourth pandemic surge.

And yes, the Indian B.1.617 variant is here, says the CDC. It’s monitoring the Indian mutation that the World Health Organization classified as “a variant of concern at a global level” because it may spread easily. According to the CDC, new mutations of the virus are more transmissible and are resistant to treatments or vaccines. These include five notable variants – B.1.1.7: (UK),  B.1.351 (S. Africa), P.1 (Japan/Brazil), B.1.427 and B.1.429 (identified in CA).

Going back to normal could expose adults and children to deadly new strains of the virus and its variants, rippling across the US and elsewhere in the world.

 

Can America survive in its Covid-19 bubble?

Variants can burst our bubble said experts, voicing concerns about our vulnerability to virus mutations and the prospect of ever reaching herd immunity.

Dr. Neuman has been sequencing the virus strains in Texas, and has identified different variants thriving even locally. At the peak of Covid-19 in January, he found that 30% variants of concern were from the B.1.1.7. UK variant. By late April and early May however, he added, “every single virus …has been a variant of concern.”

The virus is changing in unexpected ways, explained Dr. Neuman, driving certain lineages of the virus out of existence.  It’s a Darwinian process that  showcases “an increase in viral fitness.”

But, without any checks or balances on the virus which operates on a short-term risk-reward cycle – a 6-to-8-hour timetable – scientists find it difficult to predict long-term movement.

You can trust a snake, a chicken, or a cat to act in its own best interests to the best of its ability said Dr. Neuman, but “a virus has no such impulse.” Instead, it has an evolutionary incentive that drives it not in the direction we would hope or expect, but in the direction of more severe, sustained disease.

Over time the virus will continue to mutate, and vary unpredictably, warned Dr. Neuman, and solutions will have to be updated continually.

“In this particular place and time, there is approximately a 100% chance that you will run into something that grows faster, and has the potential to spread farther, and perhaps hit harder than one would be expecting otherwise.”

The world has underestimated the virus over and over by relaxing restrictions and causing a virus resurgence, reiterated Dr. Neuman.

 

The question is, “Can we do the wrong things and still expect the right results?”

One outcome that scientists predict could keep the virus at bay or banished altogether is Herd Immunity, a popular concept that is mired in misconception and misunderstanding. Dr. Marc Lipsitch, Professor of Epidemiology and Director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard School of Public Health, described herd immunity as a state in which completely immune completely or partially immune people in a population slow down transmission by making it impossible for the virus to pass through them from one person to another in a sustained way, “till the virus essentially goes away.”

Will vaccinations and infections create herd immunity in the current phase of the pandemic? Dr. Lipsitch believes that’s an unlikely scenario – even with the vaccines we have.

At the start of the pandemic, before lockdowns and social distancing, a person infected up to 21/2 or 3 people each. But compared to early versions of the virus, contagious new variants have increased transmissibility by up 4 to 5 persons each. To reduce transmissibility by a factor of 5, explained Dr. Lipsitch, means immunizing 80% of the population,  a challenge that may be impossible given a number of factors.

At the moment, every variant in the world is present in the US.  Immunizing the nation won’t be easy because vulnerable populations – especially racial/ethnic minority groups and economically and socially disadvantaged communities – lack equitable vaccine access, children under the age of 12 are ineligible, and vaccine hesitancy is prevalent.

In the US vaccine hesitancy is based on a lack of trust in its efficacy. At issue also, is that all vaccines currently available in the US do not offer 100% protection. But added Dr. Neuman, “I trust the virus less!”

While Yale Medicine rated Pfizer-BioNTech at 95% for preventing symptomatic disease, its stability depends on strict storage requirements; Moderna has a similar high efficacy of 90% upon full immunization, while the single shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine has a 72% overall efficacy.

There is also concern about waning immunity and about revaccination. Limited studies that exist clarify that antibodies decrease over time, but there is uncertainty about at which point a person is no longer protected.

Annual boosters may be necessary at a minimum, confirmed Dr. Neuman, but although each of the vaccines is reasonably effective against each of the variants, there is definitely a lower effectiveness against some, like those coming out of Brazil and South Africa.

It’s more the virus changing than waning immunity that will drive the vaccination cycle.

 

Defanging Not Defeating the Virus

In the wake of the CDC’s new mask guidelines, Dr. Neuman noted that people calculating what precautions to take – to mask, social distance, or get vaccinated – are making decisions predicated on the original versions of the virus.

As ‘stay-at-home’ lockdown measures gradually ease, NIH reports also say that much of the population may return to spending increasing amounts of time in inadequately ventilated workplaces, offices, schools and other public buildings, where they may be exposed to a risk of acquiring viral infections by inhalation.

So, in the midst of an ongoing epidemic, as social barriers to transmission are lowered without reaching herd immunity, and high-risk populations in the other parts of the world face vaccine shortages, we are “in some sense “ said Dr. Lipsitch, “not ‘totally defeating, but simply defanging the virus,” – just making it less dangerous to have transmission.

He predicts “a quiet summer” followed by “some virus resurgence in the fall” as people move indoors and continue to lower their guard.

 

Fighting the Virus at Warp Speed

All the experts argued that the only way out of the pandemic is to ensure that more vulnerable populations across the world get vaccinated.

Peter Maybarduk, Director of Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines Group, called for a global response at warp speed for the world – a catalyst for more funding, sharing resources and technical assistance, more manufacturing, and a definite plan to vaccinate everyone, everywhere, with at least 8 billion doses of MRNA vaccine within a year to make up the global shortfall.

Apart from the moral argument, added Dr. Lipsitch, “we like having interactions with the rest of the world, and for all the reasons we value the rest of the world, we should value their health as well.”

Dr. Neuman called for a single global solution to vaccinate everyone within a window of six months to a year.

Maybarduk, an expert on the Covax initiative which partners with the World Health Organization to get vaccines to low-income countries by sharing vaccines equitably, pointed out that wealthy countries have purchased much of the global supply of doses in bulk, so less than 5 % of the world’s population – only 340 million (one quarter of the doses already administered in the US alone) – have been vaccinated worldwide.

In Brazil only 17% of Brazilians have been vaccinated, said Dr. Rosane Guerra from the Department of Pathology, Biological and Health Sciences Center at the Federal University of Maranhao (UFMA). Brazil does not have an adequate supply of medication to prevent or control the virus.

Covax aims to vaccinate 20 percent of the world with a 2 billion dose target for 2021 but has only been able to ship 64 million doses, stated Maybarduk.  Worldwide access to vaccines is hobbled by the lack of manufacturing capacity, inefficient distribution channels, and low production volumes, access to raw materials, export controls, meeting regulatory requirements for safety and efficacy, obtaining qualifications from WHO for manufacturing facilities, and by politicians prioritizing their own citizens for vaccination first.

Sharing vaccines and vaccine knowledge (like the Trips waiver) is imperative to overcome the vaccine shortfall Maybarduk suggested, and getting vaccines to those who desperately need it in other countries..

“We should not cross our fingers and assume all is going to work out.”

Fighting the virus is like mobilizing for a world war which requires collective, integrated human effort towards achieving one goal. “I don’t think halfway solutions are going to get us there,” said Dr. Neuman. Getting to the next stage requires an integrated effort that scientists know is doable but is ultimately a political decision that world leaders must make.

“It’s impossible to have any kind of bubble in a world when people can move between countries in the middle of an epidemic. We have to close every border to control the disease,” Dr.Guerra concluded.

The bubble could burst as restrictions are relaxed before the pandemic is under control, said Dr. Neuman. “I don’t think that is the path that leads to the fastest extinction of the virus.”

“Get the vaccine, wear a mask, and when the numbers go down, then you know it’s safe to relax!”


Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents

Photo by Marc Sendra Martorell on Unsplash

Photo by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash


 

Film still from IFFLA featured film 'Kanya'.

Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles Opens with an Expanded Virtual Lineup

The 19th edition of the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (IFFLA) returns with an expanded virtual lineup of shorts, narrative, and documentary features on May 20-27. The festival boasts a total of 40 films, including 3 World, 8 North American, 5 U.S., and 17 Los Angeles premieres, spanning 17 languages, with 16 women directors. 

IFFLA will open with the Los Angeles premiere of the powerful female-centric film, Fire in the Mountains, the 2021 Sundance-selected debut feature by Ajitpal Singh that immerses audiences in the splendor of the Himalayan mountains. Academy Award-winning filmmaker Asif Kapadia will join Singh for an insightful conversation and Q&A, highlighting the journey of the making of the film. 

IFFLA’s closing film on May 27 will feature a screening of Sthalpuran (Chronicle of Space) by Akshay Indikar, the Marathi film that premiered at Berlinale 2020 and has captured the hearts of audiences at festivals around the world for its breathtaking minimalist exploration of the inner life of its protagonist, a young boy named Dighu. Long-time IFFLA alum Anurag Kashyap (Sacred Games, Gangs of Wasseypur) will join Indikar in a Q&A discussion, putting together an exciting up-and-coming independent filmmaker with one of the most celebrated independent filmmakers of our generation. 

“This is a very special year for IFFLA. Taking the festival online has given us the freedom to curate programs we would not have been able to present in a physical setting. We have expanded our reach to all California residents, doubled the shorts program with a strong representation of films from the diaspora, and curated discussions on timely and pressing topics, celebrating the independent film community from India and the Indian diaspora,” said Christina Marouda, Executive Director. 

IFFLA’s feature lineup includes a vast array of highlights from 13 regions in India, representing over seven languages, including the Los Angeles premiere of Rotterdam Tiger, the award-winning Tamil-language debut film from director PS Vinothraj Pebbles; the North American premiere of debut filmmaker Thamizh’s Seththumaan Pig, about the caste politics of food culture in rural Tamil Nadu; IFFLA alum Bhaskar Hazarika’s romance-thriller Aamis (Ravening); the powerful Bengali ensemble film Debris of Desire; and the North American premiere of National Award-winning filmmaker Farida Pacha’s disarmingly intimate documentary Watch Over Me.

The shorts competition lineup will spotlight notable films directed by women, including the 2021 Academy Award shortlisted film, Bittu by Karishma Dube and Sushma Khadepaun’s 2020 Venice Biennale selected Anita.

For more information and passes visit www.indianfilmfestival.org

Opening Night

FIRE IN THE MOUNTAINS

Film still from 'Fire In The Mountains'
Film still from ‘Fire In The Mountains’

India | 2021 | 104 mins | Hindi

Director/Screenwriter: Ajitpal Singh

Chandra single-handedly manages her family’s homestay in a Himalayan village, struggling to save for her son’s medical treatment, while her alcoholic husband spends their money on shamanic rituals, pitting desperate pragmatism against entrenched superstition. 

Closing Night  

STHALPURAN (CHRONICLE OF SPACE)

'Sthalpuran' film poster
‘Sthalpuran’ film poster

India | 2020 | 86 mins | Marathi

Director: Akshay Indikar

When eight-year-old Dighu’s father mysteriously disappears, he is forced to relocate with his mother and sister from their Pune home to his grandparent’s coastal village, turning his life upside down. 

BRIDGE

Film still from 'Bridge'
Film still from ‘Bridge’

India | 2020 | 88 mins | Assamese

Director/Screenwriter: Kripal Kalita

Drawn from real-life incidents, the story follows the unusual struggle and the accompanying empowerment of a teenage girl residing at the bank of a tributary of the mighty, overflowing Brahmaputra river in Assam.

THE TENANT

Film still from 'Tenant'
Film still from ‘Tenant’

India/USA | 2020 | 112 mins | English, Hindi

Director/Screenwriter: Sushrut Jain

A conservative Mumbai suburb is bestirred by the arrival of an alluring cosmopolitan woman in their midst. When a wide-eyed 13-year-old boy pursues a friendship with her, he stumbles upon her secret past and is thrust headlong into adulthood.

VANAJA

Film still from 'Vanaja'
Film still from ‘Vanaja’

India | 2006 | 111 mins | Telugu 

Director/Screenwriter: Rajnesh Domalpalli

After seeing 14-year-old Vanaja’s prowess, the reigning local landlady decides to teach her Kuchipudi dance. The initial chemistry between Vanaja and the landlady’s son turns ugly, pitching Vanaja into a battle of caste and hostility. 

KANYA

'Kanya' film poster
‘Kanya’ film poster

India | 2020 | 15 mins | Tamil 

Director: Apoorva Satish

An adolescent girl growing up in a traditional Tamil household aspires to become a competitive swimmer, but her life takes an unexpected turn when she gets her first period.

RAMMAT-GAMMAT

Film still from 'Rammat-Gammat'
Film still from ‘Rammat-Gammat’

India | 2018 | 18 mins | Gujarati 

Director/Screenwriter: Ajitpal Singh

Their different socioeconomic backgrounds have not stopped two schoolboys from being best buddies, but a brand-new pair of soccer shoes will put their friendship to the test.

PEBBLES (KOOZHANGAL)

Still from film 'Pebbles'
Still from film ‘Pebbles’

India | 2021 | 74 mins | Tamil

An irascible drunkard drags his reticent boy to a distant village to get his estranged wife to return, but when the encounter turns ugly, the journey home through unforgiving Tamil Nadu barrens transforms the father and son’s parched relationship. 

SETHTHUMAAN (PIG)

Film still from 'Seththumaan'
Film still from ‘Seththumaan’

India | 2020 | 112 mins | Tamil

Director/Screenwriter: Thamizh

A basket seller with big dreams for his grandson is asked by his bellicose landlord to prep a pig for a victory meal. The ensuing affair reveals the fraught caste politics surrounding forbidden meats in rural Tamil Nadu.  

WATCH OVER ME

Film still from 'Watch Over Me'
Film still from ‘Watch Over Me’

Switzerland/Germany/India | 2021 | 92 mins | Hindi, Malayalam

Director/Screenwriter: Farida Pacha

A palliative care team in New Delhi helps terminally ill patients and their families come to terms with the inevitability of death.

Short Films:

BITTU

India/USA | 2020 | 17 mins | Hindi 

Director/Screenwriter: Karishma Dev Dube

When adversity strikes, the future may depend on Bittu, a defiant young girl with a brilliantly foul tongue.

ANITA

India/USA | 2020 | 18 mins | Gujarati, English

Director/Screenwriter: Sushma Khadepaun

Anita returns to India for her sister’s wedding, eager to share some news about her exciting, independent life in America. But her pride quickly turns to disillusionment when the deep-rooted force of patriarchy rears its ugly head.


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: mona@indiacurrents.com


 

Hate Crimes & The Pandemic Create Mental Health Distress Among Asian Americans

Many Asian Americans say – we can wear a mask to protect against Covid but how can you protect yourself against racism? 

The physical assaults are the stories that show up on the news.  But the mental impacts of racism have been deadly for Asian Americans. They have experienced the highest mental health distress from both the pandemic and rise of hate crimes during pandemic while they are the least likely to seek help for the same.

“There are a lot of trauma reactions, similar to PTSD symptoms. However what makes racial trauma very unique is where PTSD is post traumatic stress disorder, a lot of racial trauma is not post.  There is no ending to it right now.  It is past, present and ongoing.  So, it makes it very unique and tricky trauma symptoms to treat sometimes.” says Linda Yoon, a therapist and the founder of Yellow Chair Collective.  

For many older generation South East Asians including Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian refugee immigrant population, the recent violent crimes have triggered their PTSD symptoms that remind them of war, genocide, displacement they experienced in their home countries.  

Yoon says that there are a lot of physical symptoms in this trauma, including sleeplessness, nightmares, flashbacks, dissociation, confusion, loneliness, and a lot of anxiety and depression.  And a lot of anger towards the injustice that they are experiencing. 

A lack of understanding of the available mental health services as well as the cultural stigma associated with it, makes it even harder to reach this community.  

The concept of mental health comes from psychology, which comes from the western culture and study, says Yoon and because psychology separates mind from the physical body, it feels alien to the eastern society.  “In traditional eastern medicine and wellness, they talk about yin and yang – balance which also includes balance of your body and mind.  And there is no separation between body and mind.” 

So a lot of times Asian Americans will complain about their mental health symptoms in their physical somatic sense.  “We talk about pain in our body, we talk about anger that lives inside our body, we talk about the shoulder pain that was caused by family stress, we talk about stomach issues that have been impacted by stress and anxiety.” 

To address mental health issues and reduce the stigma, more integrative holistic approaches to mental health will make more sense to Asian populations in a culturally sensitive and linguistically competent manner. 

But the good news is that they do not want to “shoulder the fear burden anymore” reports Anh Do at the LA Times.  At the start, they “bent to cultural tradition” and kept quiet.  They were taught to keep their troubles to themselves.  And they wanted to avoid attention to their families.  But then as assaults increased, they started reporting and creating safety plans for their loved ones. 

 “They gave their children mace.”  “He makes sure his phone battery is always charged ready to be used in case something happens” and he needs to record it. “Never go alone, even for the smallest errand.” “Hyper vigilance, and avoidance of places”. These are some of the strategies ordinary Asian Americans are employing to stay safe, here in America, according to Do.

The potential for bullying, stereotyping and violence is so high that Asian American parents are afraid to send their kids back to school and generally go back in public.  

 

Who are Asian Americans Exactly?

In 1968, UC Berkeley student activists Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka coined the term “Asian American” to unite the different communities of Asian descent and strategically create more political power in numbers.  

Then, in the 1980s and ’90s this classification was broadened even further via the addition of Pacific Islander and creating the term Asian American and Pacific Islander, or AAPI.  While AAPI was meant to be inclusive, in reality it has often had the opposite effect. 

According to Pew Research, this demographic marker includes about 19 million people, up 81 percent since 2000. 59 percent of all Asian Americans are immigrants, including 1.4 million of whom are undocumented. Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial group in America, currently 5.6 percent of the county’s population but projected to be as much as 14 percent by 2065.

The income gaps among different Asian American ethnic groups are the widest of any racial group, and they are still growing. While Indian Americans have the highest median income of $100,000, for example, Burmese Americans have the lowest, at $36,000. By bundling over 50 ethnic groups that speak over a 100 languages under one broad AAPI banner, the aggregated data does a disservice to the individual communities.

But what makes us uniquely Asian says Professor Karthick Ramakrishnan, Professor of Public Policy, UC Riverside, to Vox, “is our “history of exclusion” whether this is the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, or the 1917 Immigration Act that barred Indians or by 1924, the Japanese as well. 

In all these three cases, the immigrants came to the US as laborers but were framed as the source of economic problems, and in some cases public health ones, too. 

The yellow peril is a racist metaphor for Asian Americans who are seen as outside threats that are invading the west with their diseases as explained by Professor Russell Jeung, Chair & Professor, Asian American Studies Department at San Francisco State University, at a USC Center for Health Journalism webinar titled “What Anti-Asian Hate Means for Mental Health, Safety and Justice.”

The “model minority” trope that suggests that all Asian Americans are well off, hardworking and successful and pit them against other minorities “masks the inequalities that Asian Americans face.  The yellow peril is much more operative” suggests Professor Jeung, one of the founders of STOPAAPIHATE.org

“Sometimes when we are on the inside, we are model minorities, we are white adjacent, we are crazy rich Asians. But in times of war, such as Japanese incarceration, or what happened to South Asian muslims and Arab Americans with islamophobia –  in times of economic downturn and in times of pandemic,  Asian Americans are framed as perpetual foreigners, or outsiders who don’t belong” says Professor Jeung.

Time and again, when diseases come from Asia, says Professor Jeung, “Asian Americans are perceived as the source of the diseases, policies seek to exclude them, and Asian Americans are met with interpersonal violence.” 

 

AAPI Hate Crime on the Rise

#stopAAPIhate website tracker was created to collect individual reports, to document the issue, to figure out what’s happening, to track trends, and to provide policy interventions.  The hate and anger directed against Asians was appalling, up to 100 incidents a day and that surge has continued. 

Asian Americans report everything from being barred from ride shares, to being coughed and spat on, their businesses being shunned, their elderly being shoved and kicked, their children being bullied in person and online, racial epithets and slurs and the ever common curse –  “go back to China”. 

Almost unanimously, respondents named racism as their biggest stressor and greatest fear during the pandemic. Asian Americans are more concerned about other American’s hate than they are of a pandemic that has killed over half a million Americans.  That’s how widespread and traumatizing the racism is.  

Here in the Bay Area, there were higher incidents of hate crime against Asians in the beginning of the pandemic. This is likely because Northern California, more dependent on public transportation, the likelihood of different communities and different cultures interacting with one another is greater versus Southern California, which is very steeped in the car culture. 

 

Help is At Hand

In Oakland, a volunteer service has been activated where a volunteer comes within 10-15 minutes of a call to accompany you to the bus stop, help you to a grocery store or back to your home. 

Professor Jeung is angry and sad and distressed about the state of America although he is heartened that the Asian American community is standing up and “seeing our community really mobilize and working in unity with other allies.”

But he questions what healing looks like?  And “as we experience racism, we might become racists – how do I stop this within my own self and how do I stop this for my students? What prescriptions do we have for our society so that we can stop that cycle of violence and racism?”

These are questions that do not have easy answers for us in the South Asian community either.  Many of us faced stigmatization and violence in the aftermath of 9-11 but how do we become better allies and show support to our discriminated Asian brethren now? 

A simple check up on your Asian American friends and neighbors, says Yoon, will go a long way.  Her patients report feeling invisible and alone.  Other strategies include intervening if you can when you see an incident, report what is happening and donate when you can.

Words matter, says Professor Jeung as the world watched Trump’s hate speech about the “China Virus” going viral, and normalizing hate towards the Asian American community.  “We need official statements to normalize love and respect.  It is sort of obvious but it is really needed.” 

So, whatever organization you belong to or work at, pressure them to put out official statements about supporting the AAPI community because it helps them be seen and heard and acknowledge their pain and suffering.  

President Biden’s new actions to respond to the increase in acts of anti-Asian violence have been celebrated in the community as a movement in the right direction. But in order to address the root case will require “ more education, more expanded civil rights protections and more restorative justice models”, says Professor Jeung.


Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney is a Bay Area resident with experience in educational non-profits, community building, networking, and content development and was Community Director for an online platform. She is interested in how to strengthen communities by building connections to politics, science & technology, gender equality and public education.

Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents

Photo by Matthew Ball on Unsplash

Did It Feel Like A Truck Hit You After Your Covid Vaccination?

If you think vaccination is an ordeal now, consider the 18th-century version. After having pus from a smallpox boil scratched into your arm, you would be subject to three weeks of fever, sweats, chills, bleeding and purging with dangerous medicines, accompanied by hymns, prayers and hell-fire sermons by dour preachers.

That was smallpox vaccination, back then. The process generally worked and was preferred to enduring “natural” smallpox, which killed around a third of those who got it. Patients were often grateful for trial-by-immunization — once it was over, anyway.

“Thus through the Mercy of God, I have been preserved through the Distemper of the Small Pox,” wrote one Peter Thatcher in 1764, after undergoing the process in a Boston inoculation hospital. “Many and heinous have been my sins, but I hope they will be washed away.”

Today, Americans are once again surprisingly willing, even eager, to suffer a little for the reward of immunity from a virus that has turned the world upside down.

Roughly half of those vaccinated with the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines, and in particular women, experience unpleasantness, from hot, sore arms to chills, headache, fever and exhaustion. Sometimes they boast about the symptoms. They often welcome them.

Suspicion about what was in the shots grew in the mind of Patricia Mandatori, an Argentine immigrant in Los Angeles, when she hardly felt the needle going in after her first dose of the Moderna vaccine at a March appointment.

A day later, though, with satisfaction, she “felt like a truck hit me,” Mandatori said. “When I started to feel rotten I said, ‘Yay, I got the vaccination.’ I was happy. I felt relieved.”

While the symptoms show your immune system is responding to the vaccine in a way that will protect against disease, evidence from clinical trials showed that people with few or no symptoms were also protected. Don’t feel bad if you don’t feel bad, the experts say.

“This is the first vaccine in history where anyone has ever complained about not having symptoms,” said immunologist Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

To be sure, there is some evidence of stronger immune response in younger people — and in those who get sick when vaccinated. A small study at the University of Pennsylvania showed that people who reported systemic side effects such as fever, chills and headache may have had somewhat higher levels of antibodies. The large trial for Pfizer’s vaccine showed the same trend in younger patients.

But that doesn’t mean people who don’t react to the vaccine severely are less protected, said Dr. Joanna Schaenman, an expert on infectious diseases and the immunology of aging at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. While the symptoms of illness are undoubtedly part of the immune response, the immune response that counts is protection, she said. “That is preserved across age groups and likely to be independent of whether you had local or systemic side effects or not.”

The immune system responses that produce post-vaccination symptoms are thought to be triggered by proteins called toll-like receptors, which reside on certain immune cells. These receptors are less functional in older people, who are also likely to have chronic, low-grade activation of their immune systems that paradoxically mutes the more rapid response to a vaccine.

But other parts of their immune systems are responding more gradually to the vaccine by creating the specific types of cells needed to protect against the coronavirus. These are the so-called memory B cells, which make antibodies to attack the virus, and “killer T cells” that track and destroy virus-infected cells.

Many other vaccines, including those that prevent hepatitis B and bacterial pneumonia, are highly effective while having relatively mild side effect profiles, Schaenman noted.

Whether you have a strong reaction to the vaccine “is an interesting but, in a sense, not vital question,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of infectious disease at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. The bottom line, he said: “Don’t worry about it.”

There was a time when doctors prescribed cod-liver oil and people thought medicine had to taste bad to be effective. People who get sick after covid vaccination “feel like we’ve had a tiny bit of suffering, we’ve girded our loins against the real thing,” said Schaenman (who had a slight fever). “When people don’t have the side effects, they feel they’ve been robbed” of the experience.

Still, side effects can be a hopeful sign, especially when they end, says McCarty Memorial Christian Church leader Eddie Anderson, who has led efforts to vaccinate Black churchgoers in Los Angeles. He helps them through the rocky period by reminding them of the joyful reunions with children and grandchildren that will be possible post-vaccination.

“I’m a Christian pastor,’’ he said. “I tell them, ‘If you make it through the pain and discomfort, healing is on the other side. You can be fully human again.”


This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

image credit: getty images at KHN

Bindu Desai with colleagues in England (Image provided by Bindu Desai)

A Welcome of Sorts: Stranger In a Strange Land

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.