NOW Live from the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center


Indian immigrants work on the construction of the  Pacific and Eastern Railroad in Oregon, ca. 1906. Photo courtesy of Southern Oregon Historical Society (#1603).

Indian immigrants work on the construction of the Pacific and Eastern Railroad in Oregon, ca. 1906. Photo courtesy of Southern Oregon Historical Society (#1603).

by Priya Chhaya

If there is something I love more than telling (hi)stories, it is listening to them. As I’ve learned over the years there is never just one beginning, one middle, or one end–our histories are an endless ribbon of time with knots, frayed edges, and snags that shift with time.

When I walked into Beyond Bollywood I was curious, intrigued and held a smidgen of pride. I watched some of the artists take pictures next to their creations, observed others standing contemplatively in front of Balbir Singh Sodhi’s turban, and smiled as attendees read labels about NFL stars and other celebrities.

I recognized that I could walk through the gallery space a hundred times and come away with the one conclusion: there are many ways to frame our past. No one story is exactly the same.

For example, in the United States the immigrant story varies from country to country, decade to decade and involves for a variety of reasons: exploration, invasion, political persecution, religious freedom (or just to make a change).

For Indian-Americans the immigration story could be about the people who arrived in the early 18th century and struggled as agricultural laborers in the farms of California. It could also be about the immigrants who worked side-by-side with the Chinese in the construction of the trans-continental railroad. Those early immigrants are like Roston Ally a peddler from West Bengal who sold embroidered cottons and silks in New Jersey and New Orleans in 1895. He is just one example of Indian immigrants who, in the face of immigrating without Indian women, married others — Mexican, Creole, Puerto Rican and African American women. Sometimes even when they had wives left behind in India.

For most of us, the journey begins in the twentieth century. Many came starting in the 1960s, encouraged by new immigration rules asking for those with medical training. Abraham Verghese, arrived in the 1980s and started working as a doctor in Johnson City, TN. His experience is typical of medical students arriving to the United States — where medical professionals were needed in smaller, rural American towns.

There is so much information that those two stories tell us, but I am always conscious about who and what we leave out. I knew that what was on the exhibit walls was not the entirety of the story, that every single person visiting the gallery could tell me something new, something unexpected, something true.

So we are chefs, we are cab drivers, we are food truck owners, and engineers. We are artists and musicians. We are sons and daughters, parents and grandparents, ordinary and famous. We live lives that are shaped by the heritage of the motherland and by the promise and potential opportunities available through the ever changing American dream. We all have a story to tell, whether we are laborers or doctors. They may not all be success stories, but they highlight what it means to be arrive in America, to live in America, and to be American.

What’s Your Story?




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    May 11, 2014
    Beyond Bollywood
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