Why Indian Americans are not the new Jews

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In the 2000s I would have arguments with some Indian American friends about the ethnic trajectory of Indian Americans in terms of their similarity American Jews, where I staked out the position that the analogy was superficial (e.g., on the Sepia Mutiny blog). To understand why the analogy doesn’t work, you need to know the history of American Jews first. Though Judaism in the United States goes back to small Sephardic communities along the eastern seaboard before the Amerian Revolution, to understand the Jewish community in the 20th and 21st centuries one needs to focus on the two Ashkenazi migrations from Central and Eastern Europe that occurred in the 75 years between 1850 and 1925.

The first wave was the “German Jews”, most of whom were Bavarian peddlers. Many of them scattered across the country, starting general stores and the like. Though numerically a very small migration, they founded many Jewish American institutions. There is a reason that the headquarters of Reform Judaism, which is of German origin, is in Cincinnati. This reflects the migration of German Jews along routes of commerce in the 19th century.

The second wave, and the much larger one, is the migration stream that issued out of the expanded Russian Empire, in particular Lithuania and Galicia. These are who the German Jews referred to as the “Ostjuden”, the Eastern Jews. This was a term applied in Germany to Jews from Poland and further east as well. The Ostjuden were often destitute. Those that fled the early 20th century pogroms may have had nothing but the clothes on their backs. In fact, in all likelihood, the richer and more assimilated Jews were the ones who remained in Europe.

America was the destination for the more marginalized.

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Endogamy and assimilation: Parsis in India

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The Guardian has a long piece about Parsis, The last of the Zoroastrians. The author is the child of a Parsi mother who married a white Briton. Though he brings his own perspective into the piece, I appreciated that he did not let it overwhelm the overall narrative. The star are the Parsis themselves, not his own personal journey and viewpoints.

In relation to the Parsis, there are two aspects in the Indian context that warrant exploration

– high levels of cultural assimilation

– high levels of cultural separateness

These seem strange outside of India, but they make sense within India. The Zoroastrian priests who migrated to what became Gujurat integrated themselves into the local landscape as an endogamous community. From a genetic perspective, the best overview is “Like sugar in milk”: reconstructing the genetic history of the Parsi population:

Among present-day populations, the Parsis are genetically closest to Iranian and the Caucasus populations rather than their South Asian neighbors. They also share the highest number of haplotypes with present-day Iranians and we estimate that the admixture of the Parsis with Indian populations occurred ~1,200 years ago. Enriched homozygosity in the Parsi reflects their recent isolation and inbreeding. We also observed 48% South-Asian-specific mitochondrial lineages among the ancient samples, which might have resulted from the assimilation of local females during the initial settlement. Finally, we show that Parsis are genetically closer to Neolithic Iranians than to modern Iranians, who have witnessed a more recent wave of admixture from the Near East.

The major finding is that most of the ancestry, on the order of 75%, of Indian Parsis is generically Iranian. On the order of 25% is “indigenous”, probably Gujurati. The fact that the proportion of mtDNA, the maternal lineage, is closer to 50% in both modern and ancient samples, indicates that the mixing with Indians occurred through taking local women as brides. Further genetic investigation in the above paper suggests that this was not a recurrent feature. In other words, once the Zoroastrian community in Gujurat was large enough, it became entirely endogamous.

And yet the Parsis speak Gujurati (or in Pakistan Sindhi and Urdu), and in many ways are culturally quite indigenized.

I bring this up because this portion of the above piece I’ve seen elsewhere:

The small community of Iranian Zoroastrians is even more liberal, allowing female priests, and there are also nascent neo-Zoroastrian movements in parts of the Middle East.

I have read repeatedly that Iranian Zoroastrians are more “liberal” when it comes to the issue of religious endogamy. The term “liberal” indicates innovation. But if you look at the historiography it seems clear that though Zoroastrianism was strongly connected to Iranian-speaking people, it was not exclusive to them. Zoroastrianism was cultivated and encouraged by the Sassanians in much of the Caucasus, and it spread into Central Asia, even amongst some Turkic groups, before the rise of Islam.

Zoroastrianism was not aggressively proselytizing but before 600 A.D. neither was Christianity outside of the Roman Empire. This is not a well-known fact due to the religion’s gradual diffusion to non-Roman societies, such as Ireland and Ethiopia, but before Gregory the Great missions to barbarian peoples were not organized from the Metropole but were ad hoc (the Byzantines eventually began centrally organized missionary activities after 600 A.D., but they were never as thorough or enthusiastic as the Western Christians). Our understanding of Zoroastrianism then may not be clear because the religion went into decline during a transformative period in world history when the religious boundaries and formations we see around us were still inchoate.

The major takeaway from all this is that strenuous Parsi arguments for the ethnic character of Zoroastrianism are a reflection not of their Iranian religious background, but their Indian cultural milieu. Zoroastrian “traditionalists” in India are actually Indian traditionalists, who have internalized an innovation to allow for integration into South Asia. And, I would argue some of the same applies to Indian “traditionalists,” whose cultural adaptations to the “shock” of Turco-Muslim domination resulted in the strengthening of particular tendencies within Indian culture that were already preexistent.

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Indian Matchmaking

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The Juggernaut has the usual predictable take. Racist, classist, colorist, heterosexist, etc.

Myself, I don’t take these shows as illustrations of how the world should be, but how it is. Anthropology.

When I was younger I was very opposed to an arranged marriage. My parents had an arranged marriage, and I found it to be regressive and backward. Now that I’m older, and married with 3 children, I have more moderate views. Many of my friends have not settled down, and they are not happy about it. Finding a partner can be hard. The dating scene can be Darwinian and brutal. It’s not really that edifying.

I don’t come with any answers. Rather, I think we should give people more grace whatever path they take.

The Western romantic vision of a nuclear family where the parents are an island in the world is the path I took. But I’m far less self-righteous about it than I used to be. If there are negative things about arranged marriages, and there are, we should focus on those things, rather than the whole institution. In some ways, dating apps are now becoming the new matchmakers in any case.

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Life is a great test

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Being Asian American is often about tests. Doing well on tests. That’s what Asian Americans are supposed to do. Two conventionally liberal (“woke”) publications have stories about test-prep, testing, and Asian American academic life.

First, in The Juggernaut, Why Test Scores Can Be a “Proxy for Privilege”. To be franky, I did not like this story, because the conclusions were already there to begin with, and the author was just figuring out how to buttressed the preexistent argument. For example:

Mettu, for example, is well aware of her advantages as the daughter of educated, middle-class Indian immigrants who could invest in her college preparation. She recognizes that few students enjoy such privilege. That is why Mettu sympathizes with efforts at higher education institutions across the country to downplay — or altogether eliminate — test scores as a criterion in admissions. “In terms of equal opportunity,” she said, “it is a good shift.”

That’s the general gist. “Actually, testing is bad for the underprivileged.” Even though standardized testing actually emerged as a way to get around the unfairness of recommendations.

Meanwhile, Refinery29 has a much better story, An Interview with an Asian student at Stuyvestant. Since it’s an interview, most of the talking is given over to the student. That results in more candor and less canned conclusions:

How do students talk about the lack of Black and Latinx students?

When the news came out, it just wasn’t a big thing in Stuy. No one cared about it. We saw it in a random newspaper and everyone was just like, okay. We’re used to places writing about us. I remember one time, one of the chairs broke during one of our theater productions, and that made headlines. Everyone was like why?

Honestly, we were more vocal about school shootings. There was a whole walkout, a lot of us missed class for it, and we went to city hall. We were way more vocal about guns. The reason that Stuy is Stuy is that we’re the smart kids who do well on tests. NYC has LaGuardia, which is for people who are good at dance or music or singing. We have other schools with different talents that anyone else with those talents can get into. I think that’s one of the reasons that everyone in Stuy thinks the SHSAT test should be there, because if the test wasn’t here, what’s the point of Stuy then? What’s the point of even being here?

One thing to note: well-off white New Yorkers send their kids to exclusive private schools like Dalton. Stuyvesant is populated by children of working-class immigrants by and large.

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Why the Far Left Is More Dangerous Than the Far Right

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I still remember the good old days.

When the biggest internal danger to America was Bible Thumping McDonald’s addicts and a spontaneous KKK takeover of the White House. I was a young brown kid growing up in a post-9/11 America. Politics was one of the last things on my mind and easily summed up as Democrats = “tolerance” and Republicans = “racist.” Barack Obama’s 2008 victory showed me that a minority in the United States could achieve anything.

All was well.

Then an apparent apocalypse happened in 2016 when the Anti-Christ was elected. I still remember watching the CNN panel go from Manhattan arrogance to DC downplaying to Rust Belt frustration to Portland freakout – the coast to coast American experience all within a day. And I kind of shared that fear too. I liked Bernie, voted for Hillary, and was aghast at Trump. I still believed my old Republican and Democrat dichotomy.

Then I decided to take a second look. I started to notice unnerving parallels between American and Indian politics, particularly those on the left end of the spectrum. Looking at it from a different angle, I realized I was misjudging the waves for the tide.

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India before the binary

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How Britain’s colonial past can be traced through to the transphobic feminism of today:

The British Age of Enlightenment prized itself on scientific rationality, including with it strict taxonomies of racial and sex categorisation – i.e. your biology meant you were strictly male or female, and there was a rigid hierarchy of race superiority (with whites at the top). And so, Britain’s cannibalisation of the rest of the globe simultaneously erased rich non-Western trans histories.

Take, for instance, the transgender Hijra people of India, who, prior to British imperial rule, were exalted in their communities, tasked with important legal duties like collecting taxes and duties; in 1864, Britain imported its 1533 Buggery Act, which directly criminalised Hijra people and reduced them to second-class citizens. It was only in 2019 that this colonial law was rescinded. This obliteration of well-established transgender communities was replicated across the Global North; European colonists, when invading the Americas, pointed to the transgender Two-Spirit traditions of its indigenous people as proof of their primitivism.

It seems clear that the British introduced a rationalization. But this strikes me like saying the “British invented caste.”

This isn’t about Indians at all. Indians are seen as instruments in culture-wars.

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Pass the samosa, spare the postcolonialism

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Edward Said’s Orientalism was a work of scholarship. I think it was a very mixed work of scholarship (better as a critique than a plausible interpretation of the facts, in keeping with the author’s expertise as a literary scholar rather than a historian). But it was one of the later 20th century works which ruminated on the impact and power of the colonial experience.

Its influence has echoed down through the past two generations, and not to good effect. One could actually understand the argument of Orientalism. The argument of much of mass-level postcolonialism is inchoate, while its academic variety is insular and unintelligible.

Consider this piece from The Juggernaut, Keeping Up with Cultural Appropriation:

What qualifies as cultural appropriation is complicated — some advocate for cultural sharing, while others call it cultural theft. Cultural appropriation is “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission,” according to Susan Scafidi, the founder of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School, in her book Who Owns Culture: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law. This “taking” can occur in a variety of ways, from creative collaborations to cringe-inducing Halloween costumes.

Taking cultural elements without permission from a less predominant culture in a specific context is at the heart of appropriation. “It involves a culture with relatively more economic, social, or political power taking from a culture with less power, and so it involves an unequal relation,” explained Rina Arya, professor of visual culture and theory at the University of Huddersfield.

First, as an empirical matter, the individuals of a “less predominant culture” who object to cultural appropriation are invariably privileged, deracinated, and Diasporan or Diasporic in their cultural influence. People who reside in Japan, for example, have no problem with white people wearing kimonos. Instead, it is Asian American activists. Therefore, you have the farce a few years ago of an Indian American woman explaining to a Japanese art curator why white people in kimonos is “problematic.”

There are two points of this post:

– Is there anything of value in 2020 in the way postcolonialist academia views the world? I’d stay no. What’s the “postcolonial” angle on Chinese aggression Ladakh? Yes, the British borders matter, but note that the Manchus invaded Nepal without the influence of white people. Academic postcolonialism is sterile, offers no novel insights, and frankly centers white people and Europeans to a degree that is idolatrous.

– Second, mass-postcolonialism with its concepts such as “cultural appropriation” is not fertile toward cultural creativity. Rather, it promotes a vague and unclear essentialist idea of cultures, societies, and presumes a lack of dynamism and a static element of power relations. The Romans conquered Greece, but in their turn, they were conquered by Greek culture. One could say they “appropriated” Greek culture, but the synthetic glories of Greco-Roman art and thought would not be possible without the “appropriation.”

Contrast the above piece with another one from The Juggernaut, “Not Indian Enough”. Yes, it trades in some signaling to woke shibboleth, but it explores an interesting topic that is genuinely novel and not simply a rearrangement of cognitive furniture.

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