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. Bhabha’s analysis of this turmoil-rich hybrid space illuminates my point here by historicizing the dimensions of my individual experience. Bhabha sees these individual/local experiences as a part of the larger processes of historical change. He notes that "it is in the emergence of the interstices -- the overlap and displacement of domains of difference -- that the intersubjective and collective experiences of nationness, community interest, or cultural values are negotiated" (2). Another way of looking at Bhabha’s views, then, is to say that to keep the momentum of the identity dynamics going we need to maintain the cultural exchanges or even the conflicts in the ‘in-between’ space of our communities, because precisely in this region "the negotiation of cultural identity involves the continual interface and exchange of cultural performances that in turn produce a mutual and mutable recognition (or representation) of cultural difference":
    Terms of cultural engagement, whether antagonistic or affiliative, are produced performatively. The representation of difference must not be hastily read as the reflection of pre-given ethnic or cultural traits set in the fixed tablet of tradition. The social articulation of difference, from the minority perspective, is a complex, on-going negotiation that seeks to authorize cultural hybridities that emerge in moments of historical transformation. (2)

    Diasporic identity formation serves as a primary and fundamental step in the larger transformation of history, though Lawrence Phillips, who traces Bhabha’s ‘third space’ philosophy to Derrida’s differance, finds fault with this dialectic description of history because it privileges the process of production rather than guarantee a product:

    Bhabha seems to suggest that history is not made or lived as a temporal process in material space, but as the fluctuation of meaning that characterizes the signifier’s displacement along the chain of signification. This can be recognised as a temporal process, yet history, in this formulation, must be analogous to the deferral of absolute signification. Since the deferral is limitless, or at best circular, history itself can never signify absolutely; have any absolute meaning. (6)
    Such a schematic representation of history, Phillips argues, is untenable because it presents history as perpetual flux, its structures of difference leading to nothing beyond endless difference and deferral. But in The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse Abdul JanMohamed embraces such a position on history for that very same reason (1-16).

  2. Lavie and Swedenburg point out, however, that displacement "is not experienced in precisely the same way across time and space, and does not unfold in a uniform fashion." Instead, they suggest, "there is a range of positionings of Others in relation to the forces of domination and vis--vis other Others" (4). The recent Indian diaspora in the United States -- that is, the wave of immigration in the post-Vietnam period of the mid-1970’s, of which I am a part -- is a case in point. It has a complexity uncharacteristic of the diasporas of the earlier times, especially of the neocolonial and postcolonial world. Unlike the first immigrants to the new world, who were running away from religious and other political or social persecution, the post-Vietnam Indian was going in search of a better life, greater promises of prosperity and material success. Unlike them, s/he did not have to burn the bridge and travel with a one-way ticket; the new immigrant was a colonizer in a twisted but true way, the initial motive in many cases being to harvest the fruits of one’s skills and send money home, a motive still guiding many unskilled and skilled laborers who travel to Iraq and Iran on short-term assignments. These were highly trained and well-educated people -- engineers, physicians, scientists, technicians, teachers, academicians, mostly -- who met the demands of the wartime labor market, but they had no intention of ruling over the land. When there was enough savings in the bank, it was time to visit home, or to reverse the equation one might say that money had to be saved because there was a home to go back to. Even when the motive was not travel, many chose to keep their national identity, opting to remain permanently as ‘resident aliens’ without ever changing their citizenship. Ironically, the ‘resident alien’ abroad (mostly in the USA and the UK) is also called a ‘non-resident Indian’ (NRI) at home, a term synonymous lately with people who hold the power of investment capital for development projects in developing nations. Professor Amartya Sen, winner of the Nobel prize in the Economic Sciences for 1998 and a vocal theorist of ‘ identity politics’ together with Gayatri Spivak, was recognized in the international press for maintaining his ‘Indian’ identity even after working the last several decades in the United Kingdom and the United States.

  3. The other Asian diasporas in the United States had radically different experiences, and their histories are unique. In Troubadours, Trumpeters, Trouble Makers: Lyricism, Nationalism, and Hybridity in China and Its Others, Gregory B. Lee offers some revealing instances of how the Chinese American was constructed as an Other in the mid-nineteenth century. He quotes the following from the New York Daily Tribune of 29 September 1854:
    Any of the Christian races are welcome . . . [in California], or any of the white races. They all assimilate with Americans . . . and are gradually all fused together in one homogeneous mass. . . . Take a look at Chinamen in San Francisco. . . . They are for the most part an industrious people, forbearing and patient of injury, quiet and peaceable in their habits: say this and you have said all the good that can be said of them. They are uncivilized, unclean, filthy beyond all conception, without any of the higher domestic or social relations; lustful and sensual in their dispositions; every female is a prostitute, and of the basest order; the first words they learn are terms of obscenity or profanity, and beyond this they care to learn no more. Clannish in nature, they will not associate except with their own people . . . the Chinese quarter of the city is a by-word for filth and sin. Pagan in religion they know not the virtues of honesty, integrity or good faith; and in Court they never scruple to commit the most flagrant perjury. They have societies among themselves . . . by whose edict they are governed, and whom they dare not testify against for fear of secret death, thus rendering our very laws powerless. (4)

  4. As Alberto Memmi has noted, this language reflects a fundamental kind of racism based on the ‘absolute negation of difference.’ It rejects anybody different from an implied ideal of homogeneity, which serves as the norm, and considers all difference as negative. A similar mindset is reflected in the following New York Times article of 3 September 1865:
    we are utterly opposed to any extensive emigration of Chinamen or other Asiatics to any part of the United States. . . . The security of free institutions is more important than the enlargement of its population. The maintenance of an elevated national character is of higher value than mere growth in physical power. . . . With Oriental thoughts will necessarily come Oriental social habits. . . . The free institutions and Christian virtues of America have a sufficiency of adverse elements to contend with already. We have four millions of degraded negroes in the South . . . and if, in addition . . . there were to be a flood-tide of Chinese population -- population befouled with all the social vices . . . with heathenish souls and heathenish propensities, whose character, and habits, and modes of thought are firmly fixed by the consolidating influence of ages upon ages . . . we should be prepared to bid farewell to republicanism and democracy. (1)
    In the case of the thousands of Vietnamese ‘boat people’ who came to the United States as political refugees, the experience was different from that of either the Indian or the Chinese, complicated as it was by the American military engagement in Vietnam, the inglorious defeat, and the subsequent moral compunction of a nation haunted by its ethical lapse masquerading as national interest. The diasporic experiences for the Mexican Americans, the Cuban Americans, the Eastern Europeans, the Africans -- each is different. The African diasporic experience in America is especially poignant because of the Africans’ experience with the institution of slavery and the subsequent segregation politics. As Zora Neale Hurston has said, "Slavery is the price I paid for civilization, and the choice was not with me. It is a bully adventure and worth all that I have paid through my ancestors for it"(375-76).


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Last Modified: 7 March 2002