Samip Mallick 2016-11-16 13:38:10
"Do you ride an elephant to go to school? Do you live with monkeys?” These were the questions that fellow students asked Madan Vasishta when he arrived in the United States from India in 1967 to attend Gallaudet University in Washington, DC. “I was really shocked by the kind of questions people asked me about India—what little knowledge they had!” Vasishta recalled. He also admitted that the cultural confusion went both ways: “Even in my own experience, I had the wrong idea of America—just what I had read in books. I assumed people rode horses and were cowboys like in the Wild West. I was shocked when I arrived at Dulles airport, taking the bus to Gallaudet University. I kept looking, but never saw any cowboys. I was so disappointed!” Madan Vasishta’s story is one of nearly 300 shared through the First Days Project, a digital storytelling initiative launched by the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA) at www.saada.org in 2013 to collect stories from immigrants and refugees about their first experiences in the US. The stories—each about three to five minutes of audio, video, or text—reflect feelings of excitement, nervousness, loss, humor, sadness, adventure, confusion, and many other emotions that immigrants feel upon arrival in a new land. Whether five, ten, twenty, or forty or more years ago, their first day in this country is one that immigrants remember vividly. Preserving a Diverse History Founded in 2008, SAADA has worked to digitally document, preserve, and share stories of South Asian Americans, those in the US who trace their heritage to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Maldives, and the many South Asian diaspora communities around the globe. SAADA’s post-custodial, digital-only approach reimagines the potential of community archives in the digital era. Through extensive collaboration with community members, community organizations, and archival repositories, SAADA has built the largest publicly accessible collection of materials related to the experiences of South Asian Americans. The materials in the archive, dating from the late 1800s to the present day, reflect the richness and diversity of this community and its history, which has typically been overlooked in the American historical narrative. For example, the story of Dalip Singh Saund, elected to US Congress in 1956 after more than 20 years of being denied American citizenship, uncovers a largely unrecognized history of exclusion of South Asians. The story of Anandibai Joshee, who earned an MD in Pennsylvania in 1886—the first South Asian woman in the world to do so—highlights the specific struggles faced by women in an early period of migration. The story of Eqbal Ahmad, an intellectual and activist who became a powerful voice in opposition to the Vietnam War, illustrates one example of South Asian American legacy in political and civic engagement. The “First Day” Story The First Days Project came about organically through SAADA’s mission to capture the lived experiences of South Asian Americans. As the co-founder and executive director, I frequently share our work about South Asian American history in venues around the country. Often after my presentations, community members come up to me to informally share their own stories. Time and again, their experiences of their first days in the country are what they highlight. I realized that these first day stories were ones that we were not collecting and were also not being systematically collected elsewhere. In response, we launched the First Days Project. Because SAADA’s mission is related specifically to South Asian Americans, we initially focused our story-collecting efforts on this community. However, over time we began to receive requests from those in other immigrant groups wanting to share their stories with us for the project. In 2014, we relaunched the First Days Project as an independent website (http://www.firstdaysproject.org) to collect stories from immigrants and refugees from all parts of the world. Since then, we have collected nearly 200 additional stories for the project, many submitted by volunteers, others through partnerships with media outlets, such as Public Radio International’s ”The World,” The Seattle Globalist, and NBC News Asian America. The First Days Project has been widely used in K–12 and college classrooms. Some educators use the stories to expose students to first-person immigrant narratives. Others have students conduct and submit first day stories to gain experience in oral history interviews. In 2015, the First Days Project was recognized by the American Historical Association with a Roy Rosenzweig Prize for Innovation in Digital History. Earlier this year, SAADA was the 2016 recipient of SAA’s Philip M. Hamer–Elizabeth Hamer Kegan Award, which recognizes individuals or institutions that have increased public awareness of archives documents. The Mundane and the Profound Although the stories in the First Days Project are focused on a particular moment in an individual’s life and are relatively brief, they contain the nuances and complexities of a lifetime’s worth of experiences. In her first day story, Rituja Indapure recounts how her first year in the US included the realization that she would not be able to continue her work as a lawyer, which she had trained for in India: “The first year was just grappling with, ‘Oh, I’m not going to be able to do that so what does that mean for me and my identity and, you know, for all the hard work I put in.’ And that it seemed like a waste of time. That was potentially the hardest thing that I faced in my first year. And the other things were just learning how to take care of the home, learning how to do groceries, and learning how to not eat a tub of ice cream when I was depressed.” In his story, Mohamed Sheikh Hassan recounts that he enjoyed a stable life in Somalia, but after war broke out in the early 1990s, he was surprised to find himself as a refugee: “You never think that people with those kinds of qualifications can be refugees. But, when the war broke down, it could reach anybody. Refugees can be anybody.” The multitude of stories presented alongside each other, dating from the late 1940s to the present day, illustrates the changing nature of arrival in the US—how technology has familiarized people around the world with the intimate details of life in the US, or how post-9/11 America sometimes invokes feelings of fear and trepidation in those who had previously felt welcome. As Ahmad Ali, a refugee from Syria who arrived in the US in 2011, shares: “My worry was only about racist things as a Syrian refugee or a Palestinian refugee. And, as a Muslim, as I heard in the news . . . Because we watch the news every day. Like, how will they treat me as a Muslim? How will they treat me as a guy from Syria? Do they know about my country?” Both the profound and the seemingly mundane details shared in these stories encapsulate what has come before immigrants arrive in the US and often anticipates what is to come. By collecting and preserving these immigrant stories, we are preserving American history.
Published by Society of American Archivists. View All Articles.
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