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  • Fatima Shahbaz

WLP 2019 Week 4: South Asian Americans - Supportive and Engaged

WLP 2019's Public Service Project @desigirlscount

When you think of the South Asian American identity, what comes to mind? Week 4 helped encapsulate the nuances of identity formation and the responsibilities that come with being a South Asian American in public service.

For many of us, our identity as South Asian Americans is one that we wear proudly. An identity that, for me personally, did not come to complete fruition until I left for college and became more engaged with the Desi-American community. For some, like many of our parents, their identity rings more closely with their native country instead of a constructed “regional identity.” Within domestic politics, it’s easy to work across country-specific and ethnic cleavages and embrace a pan-South Asian identity, drawing upon a shared cultural history, immigrant story, and political struggles. However, this identity is complicated when foreign affairs come into question. With the current state of the subcontinent, it can be hard to shy away from your individual country-specific biases and monikers when discussing US-South Asia relations. Thankfully, our first event of the week showcased that it’s possible to do service to both components of our identity, while still prioritizing your responsibility and commitment to our country as Americans.

This week, we had the immense privilege of meeting Nisha Biswal, former Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs at the U.S Department of State, and Ambassador Rich Verma, former U.S Ambassador to India under President Obama. As a foreign policy nerd, it took every bone in my body not to burst with excitement throughout the entire panel. The two speakers detailed their extensive career histories, reassuring us all that they, too, started off as confused interns and volunteers, unsure of their path or passions. We discussed the intricacies of foreign policy effectiveness, savior complexes, diplomacy, and the importance of staying eager and informed. As Indian-Americans, they both faced naysayers who claimed they wanted “real Americans” representing them and were even mistaken for representatives of foreign governments--multiple times.

I asked Ms. Biswal about how, if at all, her identity as an Indian-American informed her role in the State Department, because I always wondered if my identity as a Pakistani-American would influence any hypothetical foreign service career. In short, she answered, it didn’t. Her role as a public servant was to serve the American government, something she did proudly as both an Indian-American and a South-Asian American. Ambassador Verma shared a similar sentiment. Despite the fact that his family was of Indian descent, he was appointed to represent the interests of the American government. Although seemingly obvious, hearing two South Asians in foreign service reassert their commitment to the American government to me, a South Asian American, made me realize just much we’re forced to qualify our American-ness.

The best part of that panel, however, was just how supportive Nisha and Rich were of each other. The two constantly one-upped the other in bragging about each other’s accomplishments, letting no success go unrecognized. That, to me, spoke volumes to our identity as South Asian Americans and the responsibility we have to lift each other up--particularly when we may come from a background that makes us feel as if we’re competing against each other. Here we had the two most successful South Asians in foreign service, but they couldn’t stop talking about each other.

The next day, we got a chance to meet with Christine Chen and Julie Wu from APIA Vote and learn more about their census efforts, which perfectly aligned with our project #DesiGirlsCount (follow us!). There, we discussed the low levels of census engagement within the Asian American community, and in doing so, began thinking about our role as South Asians in the greater Asian American community. The Census Department had undergone major budget cuts, and as a result, is unable to provide any outreach or language services to our South Asian community, despite the fact that our community is over 5.4 million strong. So it’s on us--all of us--to help educate and mobilize our communities.

For me, being a South Asian American is being proud of my immigrant identity--so proud that I will fight and work to make this country be the best it can be. It's elevating other young advocates and working to support my fellow South Asians. It’s dedicating my time and energy to make sure they #countusin and to utilize my privilege within and outside of my community.

What does it mean to you?

Fatima Shahbaz

Harvard College

Congressman Ami Bera

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