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Giving Back to the Motherland
–by Maneka Sinha | February 05, 2007

“My family’s village in Bangladesh.”

“Urban areas in India.”

“My parents’ hometown in Pakistan.”

Photo by: bee!

These are typical answers I have received over the years from first-generation South Asian Americans who like myself, have been born and raised in the US, when I ask them, to the question, “if you had the ability to give back to communities in need, where would you focus your efforts?” Usually, I respond follow-up with, “what about the neighborhood you grew up in, or elsewhere here in the US?” To this usually unexpected question, I often hear, “Well, yeah, there too.” – but without the same enthusiasm that accompanied the original answer.

After becoming successful, minority groups frequently focus on public service in addition to their careers.1 What’s more, the national US population, where sports figures, celebrities, and even corporations support the mainstream tradition of giving back to local American communities, only donate to international causes at a rate of 2.2% of all charitable activity. Minority groups, on the other hand, tend to “give back” on an international scale at a higher rate of 13%.2 Though as a whole minority groups focus on international giving at higher rates, there are discrepancies between these rates among different ethnic groups. While all minority groups demonstrate a strong tradition of giving at home and abroad, African Americans tend to focus a large degree of their charitable activity on domestic efforts supporting community churches, other community organizations, and education.3 Asian Americans place the least emphasis on international giving, focusing a majority of charitable efforts on the Asian American community and education.4 The Latino community gives internationally at a level somewhere between those of the Black and Asian American communities and also tends to focus its charitable efforts on its own community here in the US as well as on education.5 However, South Asian Americans in particular often give back to communities tied not to their own upbringing, but to their parents’ upbringing – namely, communities in South Asia.6 That is not to say that South Asian Americans aren’t doing valuable public service here in the US – many organizations like SAAVY, SAALT, and The Freedom and Justice Foundation show that there are a number of South Asians engaged in domestic non-profit efforts. But why is there a debate between giving back domestically and giving back in South Asia? Or rather, why isn’t there such a debate among South Asians – why do many completely dismiss the boundaries of the country in which they were raised and instead focus their charitable efforts in the countries where their ancestors grew up?

…South Asians are considered one of the most successful minority groups in America, with a high percentage of wealthy professionals.11 Consequently, many South Asian Americans believe they are in the best position to assist their parents’ homelands…

There are several clues as to why South Asian Americans are affected differently than other minority groups and tend to “give back” to communities in their home countries instead of in the US at greater rates than the rest of the population. as opposed to domestically. First, some argue that there is a greater need for assistance in these regions than in the US. While the US faces poverty, civil rights hurdles, health care concerns, and continuing recovery from Katrina, its population is in many ways better off than that of South Asia. Bangladesh and Pakistan are some of world’s poorest nations (compare their per capita GDP to that of the U.S. – $2,200 and $2,600, respectively to $43,500). India suffers from significant poverty, corruption, and human rights issues. All three have literacy rates below 60% compared to America’s near 100% mark.7 8 9 10 Because of these disparities, many South Asian Americans are simply more motivated to do public service in South Asia.

Moreover, South Asians are considered one of the most successful minority groups in America, with a high percentage of wealthy professionals.11 Consequently, many South Asian Americans believe they are in the best position to assist their parents’ homelands—as a community with talent and resources, they feel that if they do not lead efforts in South Asia, westerners will not make the attempt to assist foreign countries to which they have no strong ties.

But this is only one side of the answer to the question, “why do first generation American populations so frequently focus service efforts in their parents’ home countries?” It is not far-fetched to suggest that South Asian Americans feel somewhat isolated from the American mainstream. Many do not fully identify with the concept of being “American.” Do an experiment: ask 100 first generation South Asian Americans if they consider themselves more American or more Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi. Don’t be surprised to find that many more readily identify as South Asian than they do as American. South Asians are typically raised in culturally rich households under traditions and value systems distinct from those of mainstream America. As a result, many use public service to connect to their South Asian roots, to which they often feel a deep tie that cannot be fully explored in the U.S. But this is no different from Black, Hispanic, Jewish, or other Asian minority groups all of which are more active in domestic charity efforts than South Asian Americans despite continuing to give back to their home countries. So why the disparity? For one, many other minority groups have been “American” for several generations whereas for the most part, the South Asian community is in its first generation of being born in America.12 This might be one reason why South Asian Americans feel a dichotomy between their own cultures and the mainstream, ultimately resulting in feeling a stronger connection to their parents’ countries.

Resultant feelings of isolation lead many South Asians to question investing in a nation that has reaped the benefits of their success but hasn’t reciprocated.

A history of civic disengagement further suggests that South Asians don’t feel connected to the United States. Studies show that only about 30% of the Indian American community votes and many are not even registered.13 However, South Asians’ political apathy doesn’t present the full story about why the community remains disengaged from mainstream America. Much of the South Asian population identifies as democrat (74% according to one poll14) and doesn’t support the current administration’s policies which many believe to have contributed to the post-9/11 increase in racial profiling and hate crimes committed against South Asians.15 16 Many South Asians, like other minority groups, also suffer from discrimination and “glass ceilings” barring advancement. Resultant feelings of isolation lead many South Asians to question investing in a nation that has reaped the benefits of their success but hasn’t reciprocated. Instead, they turn back to a region that, albeit indirectly through their parents, has already invested in their success.

So what does this all mean for us, the first generation of South Asian Americans and for our broader community of first generation minority-Americans? Although we feel a powerful connection to our countries of origin in South Asia and elsewhere, it is likely that a majority of our population will remain settled in America and go on to raise families here. This means that there is a significant incentive for us to invest in our local communities – the communities that will become our children’s – that didn’t necessarily exist for our parents. It is difficult to accept that despite being victimized by discrimination and unfair barriers to progress, our communities and cultures will not be considered part of mainstream America until we assert ourselves as an integral segment of the American population. And until we do, those barriers will remain. Though it may be hard to swallow, the truth remains that we are American – we’ve been raised, trained, and educated here. If we don’t establish ourselves as an active force investing in the development of our communities and in aiding those members of the American population less fortunate than our own “model” South Asian community, our kids won’t either. And not only that, we will continue to remain somewhat isolated in a nation that benefits from our skills, talents and brainpower. Cringing at the thought of being “American” without addressing the underlying reasons why we shy away from that label is not an option – it is necessary to give back to the communities where our future generations will be raised in. Showing the mainstream population that we identify as American and are fully invested in the betterment of our local communities will help the general population appreciate us as such and ultimately allow us to shatter some of those glass ceilings.

1 Stacy A. Teicher, Where minorities give: Education is a top choice, The Christian Science Monitor, http://www.csmonitor.com/2004/1122/p15s01-wmgn.html.

2 Felinda Mottino & Eugene D. Miller, Pathways for Change: Philanthropy Among African American, Asian American, And Latino Donors In The New York Metropolitan Region vi (Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society and the Coalition for New Philanthropy 2005), http://www.philanthropy.org/programs/documents/6-20-05_pathways.pdf.

3 Id at 95-97.

4 Id at 102-04.

5 Id at 99-100.

6 Sunaina Maira, Making Room for a Hybrid Space: Reconsidering Second-Generation Ethnic Identity, Sanskriti, http://www.proxsa.org/resources/sanskriti/dec95/sunaina.html

7 https://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/bg.html.

8 https://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/pk.html.

9 https://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/us.html.

10 John Sudworth, Indians head home in ‘brain gain,’; BBC News, August 27, 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/5290494.stm.

11 http://www.asian-nation.org/demographics.shtml.

12 Chidanand Rajghatta, Indians lead the pack in America’s ethnic mix, The Times of India Online, December 16, 2004, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/msid-961323,prtpage-1.cms.

13 http://www.iacfpa.org/census2k/iapol.shtml#citizen.

14 South Asians in the 2004 Elections: A Preliminary Analysis of Trends, Patterns, and Attitudes, http://www.saalt.org/pdfs/South_Asians_and_2004_Elections.pdf.

15 Threat and Humiliation: Racial Profiling, National Security, and Human Rights in the United States, http://www.amnestyusa.org/racial_profiling/report/index.html.

16 http://www.saja.org/roundupsept11.html.

Maneka, 24, is a graduate of UC Berkeley (Go Bears!) with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering. She is also co-founder of EducationForward, an organization working to provide educational opportunities to youth in need. Currently, she is a J.D. candidate at the New York University School of Law.

The views and opinions expressed in these comments do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The CulturalConnect.


February 12, 2007, 11:48:34
abhikal Interesting and comprehensive article………….my personal feeling is that the urge to give back something to the places where our fore-fathers belong will be more ……………
February 12, 2007, 11:51:10
abhikal Interesting and comprehensive article………….my personal feeling is that the urge to give back something to the places where our fore-fathers belong will be more ……………

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