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.

÷ it is from those who have suffered the sentence of historyŮsubjugation, domination, diaspora, displacementŮthat we learn our most enduring lessons.

Homi K. Bhabha, Redrawing the Boundaries

  1. Call me American. Having lived in the United States of America since August 31, 1975 -- first as a ‘non-resident alien’ student (F-1) and then as a trainee (H-1), as a permanent resident (‘resident alien’ or holder of the coveted ‘Green Card’), and finally as a naturalized citizen -- with papers documenting my legal entry and continued stay, I have never had any doubt about my immigrant identity, at least in a political and legal sense. Armed with a number of papers–a passport that bears my picture and assigns it a number, a social security card with a nine-digit number that identifies my status as a wage earner and a tax payer, a driver’s license that certifies me as a person qualified to operate a motor vehicle, a voter ID that recognizes me as a mentally sound person eligible to exercise my civic rights and duties by electing representatives to the state and federal legislatures, a school ID that signifies my position as a university professor, not to mention the many credit cards that fatten my wallet in testimony to the trust of several financial institutions in my financial affairs and to their willingness to extend me the privilege of buying things on credit (at a cost) -- I am constantly assured of who I am: a middle class, tax-paying, white-collar worker. Like the other roles I play in my private life as a husband, a father, a neighbor, a friend, a son and son-in-law, a brother and brother-in-law, etc., I take these public roles seriously, and obviously my total self emerges from a composite of all these over-lapping roles and images. But beneath these masks of transient identities, the true identity whose central concern is the whatness or thisness -- in Latin idem or Sanskrit idam--of my self remains problematic and contested.

  2. My self-description as an American is a spatial identity; constructed from the external territory, it has nothing to do with my whatness, my essence or being as a person, until the larger dominant culture readjusts itself to accommodate my presence. For the time, it is a contractual domicile arrangement: in exchange for my willingness to accept the subject-hood of the sovereign nation called the United States of America, I am ‘subjectified,’ branded with a territorial marker of citizenship that, like a stamped emblem on the back of the visitor’s palm in an entertainment park, allows me access to certain privileged areas of political, social, and economic life. Yet the territorial persona, as a mask of my identity, cannot fully represent the subject/object of my person, the material body and the psychic being. Additionally, leaving aside the larger and more complex question of an unambiguous and unequivocal definition of the non-descriptive term ‘ American’ that I have used to describe myself, I must also resolve the secondary problem of my relationship with the two spaces, two geographic regions, that are externally located on the opposite sides of the globe but overlap each other in the internal space of my body and, even deeper, in my mind.

  3. In their recent work, Displacement, Diaspora, and Geographies of Identity (1996), Smadar Lavie and Ted Swedenburg have argued that there is no ‘immutable link’ between cultures, peoples, or identities and specific places. Yet the most common manifestation of one’s other-ness in an alien culture is a question one encounters from time to time: ‘where are you from?,’ not ‘who/what are you?’ Its follow-up is often ‘ No, I mean where you are really from.’ An explanation of one’s being ‘ by origin/birth’ leads to an ambivalent rejoinder such as ‘what brought you here from there?’ signifying sometimes a na‘ve curiosity but oftentimes a resigned resentment. Such encounters, common I should say for people of Indian diaspora in the United States but perhaps also for immigrants in countries such as the United Kingdom or Canada, will serve as the springboard for my reflections in this paper on the formation and development of diasporic identities and their retention. As I begin to theorize this defunct home/abroad or here/there binary both to understand and to explain the complexity of the diasporic experience, I will draw from my personal experience of a quarter century as well as from the literary and non-fiction works that bear upon my discussions. I will propose that Trishanku, the character from the Indian epic Ramayana who went ‘embodied’ to heaven but had to settle at a place midway between the earth and the paradise, serves as a metaphor for the modern expatriate/immigrant inhabiting the contested global-local space, and I will explore the ‘globloc’ geography, the surface and depth of the individual as an intersection of the global (cultural) and the local (material).


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Last Modified: 7 March 2002