Home(s) Abroad: Diasporic Identities in Third Spaces

Sura P. Rath, Louisiana State University -- Shreveport

Copyright © 2000 by Sura P. Rath, all rights reserved. This article is reproduced with the kind permission of the editors of JOUVERT: Journal of Postcolonial Studies.

  1. I present the three following anecdotes in order to re-conceptualize home as both a concrete location (a place or space in a geographic/cartographic sense) and an abstract space in the conceptual realm (an imaginary construct, at best) circumscribed by cultural and/or historical boundaries.

    • Item 1: A naturalized American citizen of Indian origin, I travel by American Airlines and Gulf Air via Dallas, Chicago, London, Abu Dhabi, and Bahrain. On my arrival at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi, the immigration officer matches the picture in my passport against my face to verify their identity (sameness), checks the information on the disembarkation card, and asks, ‘ Why have you come here?’ Although the information on the card is unambiguous -- ‘to visit family members and relatives’ -- he takes care to assure himself that there is no unwritten message in my eyes.
    • Item 2: On my return to the United States, at the D/FW airport in Dallas the INS officer checks my passport, smiles, and says, ‘ Welcome back home, Mr. Rath.’
    • Item 3: In a sincere and aggressive effort to globalize an urban comprehensive university campus for the twenty-first century, its Board of Trustees makes a proactive choice to appoint local people to all its administrative positions. Instead of bringing the world to this mid-size southern city, the logic holds, we project a home-made local world of ourselves out into the global stage.

  2. In the first incident at Delhi, as a person with the unmistakable physical features of an Indian -- eyes, nose, skin, face, and all -- I am mystified by the Indian immigration officer’s question at the airport. Leaving aside the possibility that its tone is skewed by the infelicity in translation -- a particular example of the perils of the linguistic hangover of British colonialism -- the question begs some reflection: truly, why have I come here? On the surface, it is my homecoming. I am here because my home is here; I am here because my mother, the source of my being, is here, and my brothers and sisters and their families are here, and because my friends and acquaintances and their families are here; I am here because my investments of the first twenty-five years of my life are here; I am here because I am at home here, because it is here, because family, friends, relatives, childhood experiences, formative influences -- all these are inalienably allied with our concept of home. One could say perhaps that home-ness and here-ness share the same psycho-lingual deep structure, and the officer’s question drew my attention to a radical separation between my home and myself.

  3. Yet the officer’s seemingly rude question, on further reflection, seems appropriate and necessary because of his and his agency’s historical experience with people who take advantage of their Indian origin and appearance to engage in activities injurious to India. To me, however, the more challenging aspect of the question was the here-ness of the here: where is my here? Those elements of my ‘home’ that I consider to be still in India seemed to need revalidation, since embedded in the officer’s question was an implicit separation between the speaker’s ‘here’ and the ‘ here’ of a visitor such as myself; the problematic here reminded me of my difference. My American passport separates me from my Indian identity, yet naturalization, essentially a transfer of one’s territorial identity for legal purposes, does not dissolve the other/earlier identities, even when it is accompanied by a change of name. Physically and spiritually Indian, but politically and perhaps intellectually an American, I stand at the crossroads where two nationalities/localities intersect. Both merge in me, yet each remains sovereign. In me the two engage in conflicts and tensions that are sometimes subsumed under my ‘internationalism’ or globalism.

  4. The second experience at Dallas is a corollary of the first. Dislocated from my birthplace home in the Indian city state -- i.e., I am no local and I have no locale in India–I return to my workplace home. Irrespective of the surface of my appearance and of his own personal views toward immigrants and naturalized citizens, the INS officer performs his duty by being pleasant to a fellow American citizen. Upon reflection, I realize that the homecoming welcome at Dallas is as empty a signifier as the matching of the passport picture with my face in Delhi. In each instance, surface meets surface.

  5. Now, to the third anecdote. On the university campus, where I am a part of the institutional statistics of 3.9% international faculty, presuming to enrich our students’ undergraduate global experience and collaterally satisfying the base-line expectations of the accreditation agencies, I am anything but local. The onerous burden of this token role becomes all the more painful when some colleague teaching International Business requires her students to interview a ‘foreigner,’ and advises the student working on India to knock on my door for an interview; or when I am invited as a panelist on the College of Education’s cultural diversity symposium to extol the virtues of cultural assimilation; or when I talk to a Sociology of Minorities class about the political injustices meted out to early Indian immigrants in Canada and America. During the international culture celebration, inquisitive students want to know about my encounters with tigers in nature around my village in India, but are disappointed to learn that the ones I saw were in Nandan Kanan (a zoo in the eastern state of Orissa in India) and the San Diego zoo. A few students who have had the privilege of traveling to London say, with patronizing voice, they love Indian food. These are the boundaries of my foreign-ness: the tiger, the cobra, the red dot on the Indian woman’s forehead, the spicy food, and naked children begging on the streets. To my neighbors, as perhaps to my colleagues and students, I represent the alien global culture fantastically framed by/in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, where the superstitious people of a whole village terrorized by a bully sadhu are rescued from their own fear by the American anthropologist Professor Jones, where raw brains of live monkeys are served as dessert on fine banquet tables, and where in the popular imagination the professor becomes an incarnation of Vishnu, a savior of the pagan flock. To them, my mind is a cultural production of some nebulous globalism that waits outside the municipal boundaries of my city, parish, and state. The reality of the body, a material production of one local culture, and the abstraction of the mind, a cultural sub-text of a global experience, provide the intertwining threads of my diasporic life, a neither/nor condition parallel to that of Trishanku. This is a third dimension of my multivalent identity. In The Location of Culture Homi Bhabha has called this the third space, a hybrid location of antagonism, perpetual tension, and pregnant chaos. Lavie and Swedenburg tell us "[I]ts products are . . . results of a long history of confrontations between unequal cultures and forces, in which the stronger culture struggles to control, remake, or eliminate the subordinate partner" (9).


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Last Modified: 7 March 2002