Sometime in the mid-2000s, my cousin and I called each other excitedly during a Superbowl: Did you see that Indian guy in the Budweiser ad?! We felt we had finally arrived: to be included in something as American as beer and football! While I empathize with Hari Kondabolu’s campaign against The Simpsons’ caricature character Apu, my friends and I loved him for being Indian. The Simpsons showed Apu’s arranged marriage, his legume-laden vegetarianism, his god Ganesha. We were thrilled to recognize ourselves and the specificity of the lampooning felt affectionate. Since then, American stereotypes of Indian-Americans have expanded from convenience store clerks and cab drivers to include tech workers and doctors. But how do we belong outside these roles? How are we cared for as a community in America?
In the wake of the recent covid crisis, only one person has reached out to me expressing care for India. That’s fine as all my close family is nearby and doing well; plus, I process best with intimates or through writing so I have felt resourced enough. But many Indian-Americans are here alone or have their dearly beloved facing hell far away and would benefit from more social support. Does America understand or care how Indian-Americans are struggling right now?
I hadn’t noticed the social silence around what we Indian-Americans have been struggling with until someone cared enough to break it. Then I became suddenly and acutely aware of the crickets. Where is the outreach exhorted for other groups? Where are the public expressions of care that, albeit sometimes virtue-signaling, also spread awareness of how to relate to those affected?
Right now, India is throbbing in pain and we of that land are throbbing with it. Here is one simple thing you can do and two bonus ones.
- “I too love India and hope to return someday.”
When I posted about this on social media, someone I haven’t even met made this comment, then donated to a recommended org. I was moved to tears. Until I saw it, I didn’t realize this is what I need from other Americans: to feel the connection to and care for India from those who do its yoga, drink its chai, and benefit from its culture. To know that we as a people are not invisible in America, trapped in a hellish blind spot where “Asian” or “people of color” always refers to other groups.
The simplest thing you can do for your friends and colleagues is to share in their love for their homeland and acknowledge its pain. The epicenter of the crisis in India but there are Indians right here also caught in its shockwave.
You can just say “I’m sorry about what’s happening in India” or “I feel for what India is going through” or “I hope you and any loved ones in India are okay”. What you say isn’t that important, simply to speak is to say I see you. If you do nothing else, just express care.
2. “How are you doing?”
An extra step you can take is to make space for people’s emotions. People in the diaspora may feel entirely disconnected or utterly shattered or anywhere in between. You won’t know until you ask, then accept whatever it turns out to be.
For me, my heartbreak is not only for my clan but for my motherland. My first decade of life was in India. The world my senses first met was Indian so imprint on my deepest self is Indian. I am rooted in India’s soil even if I grow in America’s air.
In recent weeks, I have contacted people in India almost daily, overwhelmed by care for them. In meetings with Indian-American colleagues, I see their loss or fear right at the surface — alongside the helplessness and guilt over being safe far away.
India’s massive trauma is both personal and collective: people losing their dearly beloveds and everyone witnessing each other’s horrors. It spills from the homeland into the diaspora. People may be frantically searching for oxygen for ill parents out there from here, or be dialing into more and more midnight Zoom funerals, or be simply overwhelmed by the relentless news.
By inviting people to express themselves, you give them a place to put some of their feelings, however intense or cursory those may be.
3. “How can I help?”
A bonus is to offer your help. Can you lighten a colleague’s load? A cousin just returned from a “vacation” where he spent hours daily searching for medical help for his mother — after cremating his father. Alone. Now he is back and behind on work that I can’t imagine how he has the capacity to do well. Maybe he is your colleague. Maybe you can adjust expectations of productivity or help with deadlines or workload, etc.
Can you donate? Choose Indian organizations that have more grassroots insight than international ones. Some trusted ones that have surfaced on my radar: The Antara Foundation, Give India, Ekal Vidyalaya. A longer list updated twice daily is here.
Don’t let worry of corruption stop you, it’s hardly limited to India. The Red Cross catastrophe in Haiti or Steve Mnuchin hiding PPP beneficiaries in the US exemplify its universality. Grab your trust in humanity with both hands and extend it somewhere along with your money.
Can you call your representatives? The US only extended support after much domestic pressure. Your calls make a difference. Let elected officials know you want America to help India so they don’t fear losing your vote. Tell them to support sending supplies and releasing vaccine patents.
Whatever you choose to say or do, don’t let it be nothing. I understand the continuing toll we bear as Americans, for example, from witnessing almost real-time the murders of Black and East Asian folks. I, too, am fatigued from responding to each other’s woes. In fact, it wasn’t until global events hit close with India that I truly faced what I had already known of the famine in Yemen or the slaughter of Uyghurs or the violent coup in Myanmar. In confronting my numbness toward others’ pain, I can accept theirs toward mine.
But to be numb is to be less alive. I want the world’s suffering to open my heart, not to close it. Being alive opens us to connection — through healthy boundaries. Understand whether your boundaries right now include the second or third steps above — but don’t let them preclude you from the first.
Connect with your Indian-American friends and colleagues.