One of the most significant changes in identity one goes through in life is the transition from identifying as single, to being part of a couple. Not a transient, boyfriend-girlfriend kind of couple, but this-is-my-partner-for-life kind of couple. The journey from being single to being someone’s wife has been for me one of the most poignant, unnerving, blissful, fretful, experiences I have ever had, and we’re not even married yet. My married friends tell me it a roller-coaster ride for the first few years when it really starts to sink in.

On the other hand, I feel as though through circumstance and self-discovery, sometimes by accident and mostly on purpose I have also forged my personal identity in a way many either don’t have to or don’t want to.

I was foraging around for some writing samples the other day, and I came across a paper I had written about the construction of identity in response to a rather rude and unruly classmate (a Caucasian-American (it’s relevant) who by her own account had never traveled out of America) who informed me that I could not identify as being Kenyan because
a. I didn’t “look” Kenyan and,
b. Identifying myself as an African-American was just plain wrong (I don’t, by the way, identify as African American. Most Africans I know who migrated when I did choose to identify nationally (Ghanian-American/Ugandan-American) rather than using “African American” which I believe is a term of respect and historical significance that I do not feel I can usurp)

Anyway, I was pretty pissed when this happened, and chose to write my final paper for the class on the construction of identity among East African Asians. Here is the conclusion of the paper (my fave part):

The struggle for the construction of identity is not unique to any one person or group. I was chatting on IM to a friend of mine (a fellow Kenyan of desi heritage – in his case Punjabi Muslim) about this issue as it was brought up in class, and my end of the rant – punctuated infrequently by his attempt to keep up with my rage (I was an impetuous 21-year old, these things made me mad!!) – went something like this:

If we let ourselves be defined in colonial contexts alone, we are second grade citizens with no rights and liberties. India, Pakistan and Kenya are all colonial constructs. Nationalism can only be built based on a feeling of pride for one’s nation. But if one has no cognitive memory of “nationhood” than one cannot appropriate that nation. The land my forefathers left was Gujarat. Their cognitive memory holds no place for India or Pakistan. Those borders too were taught to them by British teachers, from British texts. And if one were to deconstruct history, one would realize that it differed greatly from these colonial texts. Our history is not bound by the words that the Raj appropriated on behalf of India or Pakistan. Why should our identity be bound by these same colonial words and constraints? ~Anjali Sanghvi, 21 year old Kenyan-Asian

We were speaking about the need to claim our right to self-define our own identities. An argument raised in class was that I could not call myself African because society does not see African on my face (whatever that might mean), but that they see Indian. Well, I have a Malyali friend, born and raised for six years in Kerala, who gets told that she is Israeli, and Hispanic, and even Caucasian, but never Indian. By the logic above, this girl would have every identity but her own, proving that what you see is almost never what you get.

Vijay Mishra, an author who has written about the emergence of identities in migrant communities makes mention in one of his books to the fact that those belonging to a diasporic community have a sense of “familiar temporariness” (Mishra, 421). They always speak fondly of their homeland (the original one in this case South Asia), but given the opportunity to return there to live, they pass. Both South Asians in the Caribbean and those from East Africa have this in common. After choosing to move from the homeland, people chose to move forward not ‘back’ to the ‘homeland,’ although that too is changing.

In an interview about his play on the lives of East African Asians who chose to move to the UK in the 1960’s-70’s, Jatinder Verma had this to say:

So is this epic play an attempt to identify his roots? “It depends how you’re spelling the word,” he muses. “I prefer to think of it as r-o-u-t-e-s. Roots lead backwards. Routes are more progressive, leading you to make connections with others. I’m not interested in the particular village in India where my grandfather came from. My identity is located on the road. East Africans [Asians] are a real conundrum for modern anthropologists because, in some ways, we represent the future, beyond ethnicity. In a truer sense, we are world citizens. I know people who are moving on again, to America. It’s as if, having taken the first step out of India, our people are perpetually on the move.” ~Jatinder Verma in Society Guardian, Staging a Survival, March 13, 2002 (http://society.guardian.co.uk/societyguardian/story/0,7843,666048,00.html)

This also has something to do with Rushdie’s notion that we are “translated men,” the idea that we are not fully South Asian, not fully African, and yet we are fully both (Rushdie, 17). The idea that looking back at our roots may not be as useful in deconstructing identity as looking at the routes our forefathers forged in new worlds, routes that we will be forging in yet other worlds. In this way we CAN claim the dual, triple, multiple heritages that forge our own identities, without having to forsake any of the others that claim to be us. Like the poem in Pure Chutney that has the author taking possession of all that was India, we must take charge of all things that establish our sense of self.

The forging of community is based on similar experiences, common goals, and common obstacles is characteristic of human nature. East African Asians have managed to maintain both micro-communal ties (the Ismaili community of East Africa has a huge settlement in Canada, and is always willing to take in one of their own) and a unified East African Asian bond that transcends borders and space. It consists of people tied together by a bond that cannot be drawn across and cut. Asked, as I often am, Where are you from? or sometimes even, What are you? I reply that I am from Kenya, or that I am Kenyan. This is where my journey of self begins. All that is in my past ARE my roots, but I’d rather trace my routes.

(Forgive the lack of appropriate sourcing, I can’t seem to find the bibliography page for this paper, but I will try and find the sources at some point in time)

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