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What is National Belonging in a Nation that Doesn’t Belong?

Vivek Bald, Associate Professor
Vivek Bald, filmmaker and Associate Professor of Writing and Digital Media

“They ‘bypassed the nation,’ as I had put it, and instead forged human connections that were on a local and transnational scale.”

There was something here staring me in the face and it took me a few more years to fully understand it. National belonging. Inclusion. Assimilation. Citizenship. Throughout so much of the history of South Asian migration and settlement in the United States, at least since the turn of the twentieth century, these have been our focus, our goals. The South Asian ship-workers who jumped ship in the U.S. during the Asian Exclusion era – and who settled and intermarried within African American and Puerto Rican communities – inadvertently, if only briefly, escaped the hold of these goals. Because the state rendered them “illegal aliens,” because they had to “disappear” into neighborhoods with others who looked like them, other brown-skinned women and men, their goals elided official inclusion in the nation. They sought to quietly put down roots and make new lives not as part of “the nation” but as part of the specific cities and neighborhoods to which they had come. Then, grounded in those local spaces, communities, and economies, they sought to work jobs and send money back across oceans, to their villages of origin in what was first East Bengal and later East Pakistan and would eventually become Bangladesh. They “bypassed the nation,” as I had put it, and instead forged human connections that were on a local and transnational scale.

South Asian Review, Volume 42, Issue 2

Vivek Bald
Written by
Vivek Bald

Vivek Bald is a scholar, writer, and documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on histories of migration and diaspora, particularly from the South Asian subcontinent. He is the author of Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America (Harvard University Press, 2013), and co-editor, with Miabi Chatterji, Sujani Reddy, and Manu Vimalassery of The Sun Never Sets: South Asian Migrants in an Age of U.S. Power (NYU Press, 2013). His films include "Taxi-vala/Auto-biography," (1994) which explored the lives, struggles, and activism of New York City taxi drivers from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and "Mutiny: Asians Storm British Music" (2003) a hybrid music documentary/social documentary about South Asian youth, music, and anti-racist politics in 1970s-90s Britain. Bald is currently working on a transmedia project aimed at recovering the histories of peddlers and steamship workers from British colonial India who came to the United States under the shadows of anti-Asian immigration laws and settled within U.S. communities of color in the early 20th century. The project consists of the Bengali Harlem book as well as a documentary film, “In Search of Bengali Harlem,” (currently in production), and a digital oral history website in development at bengaliharlem.com.

Vivek Bald Written by Vivek Bald