Literature Review

Questioning Identity:
Examining the Historiography of South Asian Immigrants

The historiography on South Asian immigration to the United States needs to be further developed because it is extremely under-developed. While the story of their immigration to America does not follow the popular narrative of other American-bound immigrants, in which most came to straight to the United States and settled, there is no excuse for their historiography and all its unique facets remaining unexplored. The literature that does exist needs to be both elaborated on and branched out from other immigrating groups. An examination of the available literature makes it very obvious that the story of South Asian immigrants is vital to the current American identity and history. These immigrants come from eight different countries; Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, and of them India receives the majority of the narrative with a few sources nodding to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal. There are many successes in the South Asian American immigration narrative. Despite the lack of resources, the field is rapidly expanding. The currently available source material presents a wide variety of topics and aspects of their lives. These materials explore a long history of immigration across the world, religious influences and misconceptions, a wide variety of jobs, and many other minute details of their experience. The narrative, however, needs works both in cohesion and inclusion. There are gaps in the historiography, particularly involving the Colonial period narrative as well as including the female perspective. However, none of the historians truly address how they would like to see the field progress. Most of the sources continually bring up South Asian migration and globalization, their selective adaptation, and what nationalism means to them.

South Asian migration was more than just a group of people emigrating from one country to another. Their diaspora, if you were looking at a map, would look more like a doodle of wind, in which they left South Asia, traveled to America and other countries, and eventually end up returning back to their home countries.[i] That is not to say that a large amount do not stay, especially given the political climate of newer South Asian immigrants’ home countries, but Vivek Bald argues that this cyclical migration cycle was the norm during the nineteenth century.[ii] Bald also argues that cultural migration is the truly defining facet of their migration, crediting South Asian peddlers as the founders of what Americans call ‘Orientalism’ today but generally accredited to China and Japanese cultures.[iii] The South Asian identity was commodified and Bald addresses several aspects of this such as tea culture and fashion while only briefly mentioning the sex culture that found a home in the South. However, the information was readily available as Priya Srinivasan wrote an article entirely focused on Nautch dancing culture in 2009. Both authors challenged how the average American defined Orientalism, where the Asian identity was the property of China, North and South Korea, or Japan rather than countries by the Arabian Sea or Bay of Bengal. In Locations for South Asian Diasporas, Sandhya Shukla discusses transnationalism amongst the South Asian immigrants and how they were very connected with their homelands. Shukla presents the most modern discussion on their connectivity and does not nod to the varied migration patterns of Bengali peddlers, but rather how India’s technology boom has led to their ability to maintain their connectivity with their culture and their national identity.[iv] The South Asian immigrants are a unique case study, not only in how they migrated but in their determination to cling to their identity.

South Asians who settled in America found themselves in multiethnic communities; however, scholars consistently use a narrative in which their culture and customs did not change very much. Shukla repeatedly described their culture as hierarchical and in every way possible. Specifically, Shukla discusses the Sikh and Tamil communities and how the gender and class hierarchies were not only a part of their familial relationships but also a factor in business.[v] Shukla recalls Leonard’s observation on hierarchy between different ethnic groups and the preference of being called Indian, even if the person was a second generation Punjabi-Mexican born in America, but offers no counter or development.[vi] Bald’s narrative provides a slightly different light on the subject, explaining that those few immigrants of the nineteenth century that chose to stay in the United States “integrated into working-class African American communities.”[vii] There are similarities between Bald’s group of Bengali Muslim peddlers and the Punjabis that settled into agriculture in a community with Mexican immigrants in California. Leonard addresses in detail that it would be the second-generation, their children, that truly adapted to living in America but not without struggling to label their ethnic background and religious identity after being integrated in not only another ethnic group’s society but American culture.[viii]

A large number of South Asian immigrants that are religious are Muslim and Hindu, two vastly different religions with very different communities; however, there are also Buddhists, Sikhs, and Parsis, as well as those that are nonreligious or the few who practice a Christian faith.[ix]  This is significant and important for two reasons. First, scholars agree that their faith was a sort of glue to the family, both important and kept through their adaptation to the States. Second, most scholars seem to focus mainly on Muslims and Hindus with a slight inclusion of Sikhs, leaving Parsis out entirely and just a few references to the Buddhists. If their faith is such an important part of their adaptation, then exploration beyond the immigrants of Muslim and Hindu faith needs to be developed to get a complete historiography. However, their adaptation still seemed to be factored more by what they could offer, the communities that were symbols of their homelands led to their acceptance rather than an erasure of their culture or identity.

Bald lists the goods sold by Bengali Muslims to have been “embroidered cotton, silk kerchiefs and tablecloths, small rugs, and wall hangings.”[x] While their culture was commodified, the Hindu community, as explained by several writers, was not as sexually conservative. The Hindu’s involvement in Burlesque and Nautch dancing, particularly in New Orleans, is undeniable an they are credited with Burlesque’s foundation.[xi] Bald discusses their involvement in the Mardi Gras aspects of New Orleans history but focuses less on the sex work and dancing and more on how their culture was adapted into architecture and decor aesthetics.[xii] However other scenarios, as explained in vulgar detail, show that the comfort with sexuality was not always accepted. In fact, a court case involving homosexuality flatly blamed the man’s nationality, claiming that “his actions evidenced intrinsic amorality that was incompatible with American ethical behavior, despite Singh’s having lived [here] for twenty-three years.”[xiii] Every Scholar explains that South Asians were not interested in becoming ‘Americanized’, but rather becoming financially stable as shown by the selling of physical goods as well as their customs and traditions.

To some, the mere concept of coming to America for a successful life means that you aspire to be Americanized, to assimilate rather than maintain any aspects of their nationalism or culture, because to be Americanized means to live the American Dream. The American Dream is, of course, different for every person and with groups of South Asian immigrants returning home, money crossing between their host nation and their homeland, success appears purely self motivated and familial in its nature. The historiography of their adaptation, however, also has its gaps. There is very little discussion from any scholar regarding the Colonial period or the women’s perspective. Bald presents a brief introduction to South Asians immigrants moving from the United States’ East Coast to West Coast for work after facing discrimination, but only develops the narrative of the peddlers selling goods down the East Coast.[xiv] A modern adaptation perspective on present Indian Americans is provided by Pawan Dhingra. Dhingra presents the new narrative on South Asians controlling a massive portion of the motel industry and studied how different their migration and adaptation differs from the ideals of American society, particularly the American Dream. This is significant because he is arguing that after migrating to America just as long as the colonists their ideals are shifting to mirror those of any other immigrant in which they want to come, settle in one place, and have a successful job.[xv] Moreover, he discusses that the likely reason for the takeover of the hotel industry is because their children carry on the business.[xvi] In doing so, he uses Jewish Americans in the fashion industry to present a case that this act is an example continued difference in their ideals from other immigrants while showing a similar hierarchical inheritance to that of the upper class Americans.[xvii] This coincides with their familial ideals and financial aspirations repeated throughout other scholarly works.

Many South Asian immigrants were proud of their heritage and home country, but while they were not interested in losing their identity those that did permanently settle in the United States experienced racism, that impacted their experience in the States as well as their immigration and access to citizenship. Bald addresses the nineteenth century South Asians that settled into African American communities.[xviii] Also, Leonard addresses a group of Punjabi immigrants that settled in the Imperial Valley in California with Mexican immigrants.[xix] Wherever the South Asians took residence in the States they were normally seen as non-whites and this clearly impeded their naturalization because the laws of identifying who could and could not become a citizen or have rights were complicated by the color of your skin. Bald points out that in 1908 they were denied because they were not “a free born white person or of African nativity.”[xx] Leonard follows up with a case in 1926 in which the United States was attempting to revoke citizenship from sixty-nine men, ten of whom were soldiers.[xxi] This was after a U.S. Army veteran had been stripped of his citizenship by the Supreme Court in 1923 for being non-white and, therefore, ineligible for citizenship.[xxii] This is not to say that they identify as white or Asian, just to present that the ordeal was problematic. At Angel Island, all South Asians had been labeled one of three options: “‘Indian’, ‘East Indian’, or ‘Hindoo’.”[xxiii] Their identities have continually been obscured by the media and politics, the present offense being the broad labeling of all people from around the Mediterranean Sea through South Asia as Muslim.

Their identity crisis continues to this day, not just as an attempt to become citizens, but as an attempt to be themselves, culturally and ethnically, and without fear. Alex Ninian discussed the issue of ethnicity in politics after the September 11th terrorist attacks and how Indian and Pakistani immigrants had to identify as Native American Indians to feel safe after the death of Osama bin Laden.[xxiv] Additionally, he addresses physical attacks on Indians that were mistaken for Pakistanis, as the public had begun to label all Pakistanis as terrorists post-9/11, and how Indians were also verbally attacked for companies choosing to relocate their businesses.[xxv] These are significant because the historiography on South Asian immigration is going to drastically change as the media continues to generalize terrorist organizations, religions, and ethnic groups. The identity crisis that South Asians experienced was not entirely related to their ethnic acceptance in America.

The identity crisis of Punjabi immigrants that settled in California was different than others that settled into African American communities because they not only had to adapt to American culture but that of the Mexican Immigrants living there. Leonard discusses that the Punjabi immigrants that married the Mexican immigrants in their community had to balance their faith and their spouse’s Catholicism when raising children in a new country that had a mainly Protestant identity.[xxvi] More interesting is the entire idea of identifying as South Asian at all, it provided clarification of the Asian identity which was most often used for the Chinese and Japanese but provided no clarification to the common reader. Moreover, the standards for being South Asian can vary from nation to nation with Menon noting “South Asians in Britain have been and continue to be included in the designation black, the racial identity of South Asians in the United States is more flexible…South Asians have the dubious distinction of being Caucasian, and not yet white…”[xxvii] Sridevi Menon focused on how their identity as American rather than Asian, Asian-American, or South Asian shaped their adaptation as well as the adaptation of their children born in the United States.[xxviii] Leonard has been the only other source to delve so deep into the historiography of the second-generation and was briefly acknowledged by Menon. She acknowledged that there was a change of identity because anything separate from their home country could fall into a loss of identity and the second generation was heavily integrated into the typical American society.[xxix] Scholars all emphasize that the preservation of their identity was of vital importance to South Asian immigrants and the generations to follow.

Khayati Joshi focuses heavily on explaining and understanding the South Asian identity and stated that the available material in YEAR focused on defining their identity by “cultural, racial, and national-origin traits such as language, immigrant tradition, and assimilation” rather than accepting that faith is a vital facet of their identity.[xxx] His essay in Asian Americans in Dixie particularly focuses on Indian South Asians. These Hindus living in Metropolitan Atlanta maintained their nationalism, culture, and identity by opening schools and temples that preserved their rituals and traditions within their own communities.[xxxi] This narrative is vital because it not only identifies a current crisis for South Asian Immigrants, but what the problems are and, albeit optimistically, addresses how things may change.[xxxii] The sentiment was presented many years prior by Margaret A. Gibson. She argued that Sikh immigrants were being mistreated in schools that refused to acknowledge their language and cultural barriers and that as soon as these barriers were lifted the students were succeeding.[xxxiii] Joshi explains why holding onto their customs was important, while Gibson seemed more focused on the Sikh immigrants ability to become Americanized as if this was synonymous with success. While the Melting Pot theory may be rightfully dead, America is an undeniable mix of cultures, customs, religions, and ethnicities. Though the States have, of late, become resistant to many people entering the country, practicing their religion, or expressing their faith through a veil, religious freedom and a long history of diverse immigration has shaped and preserved the United States. Though Joshi and Gibson may not have engaged in a dialog it does speak volumes to the content in available material.

Upon extensive reading, there are too many gaps in the historiography of South Asian immigrants. From the beginning with Colonialism, while briefly mentioned in one source, being an absent narrative. It raises questions on validity, documentation, and American History. Women are also missing from the narrative. When they were included it was in regards to women’s communities, their children, marriages, or sex work. Though South Asians may not have originally traveled as families, they did so in the Imperial Valley and do so presently. Leonard could have expanded on their immigration experience and the many scholars that discussed modern immigration of South Asians should have included their perspective.

Moving forward, historians should continue to expand the field by presenting the entire history, Colonial to the present. Additionally, they should acknowledge that the South Asian identity is still challenged by immigrants from the designated South Asian countries and was created more out of legal necessity during heavy Asian immigration to America. Also, scholars must present the women as a vital part of the identity of all Asians and Asian-Americans, not just as mothers and wives or sex workers. To even the untrained eye their small portion of the narrative seems more like they are an object for men. The historiography available is only just beginning to show just how important their narrative is and as immigration changes and Americans become more or less sensitive to the media regarding people of color and of non-Christian faiths, it will be vital to know the male, female, and children’s perspective of both their immigration to America and American’s response to their presence. The growth of scholarly work on South Asians beyond migration and globalization, their selective adaptation, and what nationalism means to them will better the field and our understanding of their life.


[i] Vivek Bald, “Selling the East in the American South,” in Asian Americans in Dixie, ed. Jigna Desai and Khyati Y. Joshi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 34.

[ii] Bald, “Selling the East in the American South,” 33-34.

[iii] Bald, “Selling the East in the American South,” 34-35.

[iv] Sandhya Shukla, “Locations for South Asian Diasporas,” Annual Review of Anthropology 30 (2001): 553-555.

[v] Shukla, “Locations for South Asian Diasporas,” 565-566.

[vi] Shukla, “Locations for South Asian Diasporas,” 557.

[vii] Bald, “Selling the East in the American South,” 34.

[viii] Karen Isaksen Leonard, Making Ethnic Choices: California’s Punjabi Mexican Americans, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992), 159-162.

[ix] Karen Isaksen Leonard, The South Asian Americans, (Westport, Ct: Greeenwood Press, 1997), 107.

[x] Bald, “Selling the East in the American South,” 35.

[xi] Priya Srinivasan, “The Nautch Women Dancers of the 1880s: Corporeality, US Orientalism, and Anti-Asian Immigration Laws,” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 19, no. 1, (March 13 2009).

[xii] Bald, “Selling the East in the American South,” 41-44.

[xiii] Nayan Shah, “Between ‘Oriental Depravity’ and ‘Natural Degenerates’: Spatial Borderlands and the Making of Ordinary Americans,” American Quarterly 57, no. 3, (September 1 2005), 717-718.

[xiv] Bald, “Selling the East in the American South,” 46.

[xv] Pawan Dhingra, Life Behind the Lobby: Indian American Motel Owners and the American Dream, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012), 50-52.

[xvi] Dhingra, Life Behind the Lobby, 53.

[xvii] Dhingra, Life Behind the Lobby, 53.

[xviii] Bald, “Selling the East in the American South,” 38.

 [xix] Leonard, Making Ethnic Choices, 37-40.

[xx] Bald, “Selling the East in the American South,” 38.

[xxi] Leonard, Making Ethnic Choices, 254.

[xxii] Erika Lee and Judy Yung, Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 145-146.

[xxiii] Lee, Angel Island, XXIII.

[xxiv] Alex Ninian, “The Indian and Pakistani Diaspora in the US,” Contemporary Review 294, no. 1706, (September 2012), 318.

[xxv] Ninian, “The Indian and Pakistani Diaspora in the US,” 321-322.

[xxvi] Leonard, Making Ethnic Choices, 90-95.

[xxvii] Sridevi Menon, “Disrupting Asian America: South Asian American Histories as Strategic Sites of Narration,” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 31, no. 3, (July-September 2006), 348-349.

[xxviii] Menon, “Disrupting Asian America,” 360-361.

[xxix] Leonard, Making Ethnic Choices, 144-162.

[xxx] Khyati Y. Joshi, New Roots in America’s Sacred Ground: Religion, Race, and Ethnicity in Indian America, (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2006), 34.

[xxxi] Khyati Y. Joshi, “Standing Up and Speaking Out,” in Asian Americans in Dixie: Race and Migration in the South, ed by Jigna Desai and Khyati Y. Joshi. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 208-209.

[xxxii] Joshi, “Standing Up and Speaking Out,” 202-208.

[xxxiii] Margaret A. Gibson, Accommodation Without Assimilation: Sikh Immigrants in an American High School, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988), 142-166.


Bald, Vivek. “Selling the East in the American South.” In Asian Americans in Dixie: Race and Migration in the South, edited by Jigna Desai and Khyati Y. Joshi. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013.

Dhingra, Pawan. Life Behind the Lobby: Indian American Motel Owners and the American Dream. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012.

Gibson, Margaret A. Accommodation without Assimilation: Sikh Immigrants in an American High School. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988.

Joshi, Khyati Y. “Standing Up and Speaking Out.” In Asian Americans in Dixie: Race and Migration in the South, edited by Jigna Desai and Khyati Y. Joshi. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013.

Joshi, Khyati Y. New Roots in America’s Sacred Ground: Religion, Race, and Ethnicity in Indian America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2006.

Lee, Erika, and Judy Yung. Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Leonard, Karen Isaksen. Making Ethnic Choices: California’s Punjabi Mexican Americans. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.

Leonard, Karen Isaksen. The South Asian Americans. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Menon, Sridevi. “Disrupting Asian America: South Asian American Histories as Strategic Sites of Narration.” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 31, no. 3, (July-September 2006): 345-366.

Ninian, Alex. “The Indian and Pakistani Diaspora in the US.” Contemporary Review 294, no. 1706, (September 2012): 317-323.

Shah, Nayan. “Between ‘Oriental Depravity’ and ‘Natural Degenerates’: Spatial Borderlands and the Making of Ordinary Americans.” American Quarterly 57, no. 3, (September 1 2005): 703-725.

Shukla, Sandhya. “Locations for South Asian Diasporas.” Annual Review of Anthropology 30 (2001): 551-572.

Srinivasan, Priya. “The Nautch Women Dancers of the 1880s: Corporeality, US Orientalism, and Anti-Asian Immigration Laws.” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 19, no. 1, (March 13 2009): 3-22.