• Tarini Krishna

Identifying “I”

Club Zamana sparks a South Asian–American reckoning.

By Tarini Krishna


I love the month of November. The trees bloom golden and maroon. The air nips but doesn’t bite. There’s a sense of renewal when Diwali—the festival of lights, of the triumph of good over evil and knowledge over ignorance—lands. I had never celebrated the holiday with anyone outside of my family, but many of my friends from my first semester of college were planning to attend the Diwali celebration held in Ferris by the Hindu Students Association. In preparation, I had kept my lehenga in my dorm room wardrobe, tightly wrapped in plastic.


The week of the Diwali celebration, I overheard two students behind me in Ferris talking.


“Are you going to be going to that Diwali party that’s being thrown this weekend?”


“Oh, God no. I’m not that type of Indian.”


I knew I would have said the same thing if my friend group in those early months of college had been predominantly white. My cultural heritage would have been celebrated solely within the confines of my family, and I wouldn’t have been able to share it as easily with my college friends. I grew up in a small town in Protestant New England where Asian-American stereotypes were used either to exceptionalize or to alienate. So I had spent most of my high school experience rebelling against stereotypes— pursuing STEM or working to please my parents—in order to blend in with my peers.


After hearing that student dismiss the Diwali celebration, I suddenly felt self-conscious. Was I becoming that type of Indian-American? I knew I wasn’t the type of brown kid to hang out only with other brown kids—I wasn’t raised in an environment where that was possible. But my friend group was, unintentionally, predominantly Asian-American, and some of my friends were even part of Club Zamana, Columbia University’s South Asian affinity organization. I couldn’t have predicted at that moment that two months later, I would become a part of Club Zamana, run for secretary, then slowly back away from it once again.


At that time, though, the thought of running across the 116th Street crosswalk while holding up the skirt of my lehenga, chunni billowing out behind me, nauseated me. In fact, I specifically decided not to interview for Club Zamana because I didn’t have an answer to their rumored question, “What does being South Asian mean to you?” All I had was a Jhumpa Lahiri Namesake style answer: Woe is me, I grew up in a predominantly white town. But I began to wonder, do other people think I’m that type of Indian?


In Cathy Park Hong’s essay “United,” she writes that Asian-Americans take up apologetic space. Asian-Americans, specifically South Asians, have a noticeable presence in American universities. Yet I personally found it difficult to gaze admiringly at the South Asian cultural organizations on Columbia’s campus. I had been told that these clubs were incestuous and one-dimensional, filled with Indian-Americans who had a claim on the second-generation immigrant narrative: Their parents immigrated to the United States for their children to have a better life and more opportunity, and so they had to deliver on the American dream. I couldn’t relate to that either; my parents lived in the U.S. for almost two decades before I was born.


Hong also develops the concept of the self-hating Asian—asking oneself in a room full of Asians, “Who let in all the Asians?” For a while during my first semester of college, I wondered if I was a self-hating Indian-American. My perception of these South Asian clubs lined up with Hong’s description: as I saw it, there were enough of us to span multiple groups, so we were taking up space. Hong writes that “racial self-hatred is seeing yourself the way whites see you, which turns you into your own worst enemy.” As a result, “Instead of solidarity … the boundaries of yourself are no longer distinct but congealed into a horde.” I worried that I would lose my carefully cultivated individuality if I were to join an organization like Club Zamana.


···


Over winter break, I rehashed the semester with my friends from high school. I told them stories about my involvement in Columbia’s mock trial team. They were meant to elicit laughs and smiles but my friends, many of whom were also on their college mock trial teams, reacted in the opposite way: That’s horrible. Toxic. Do you guys even have fun as a team?”


Illustration by Samia Menon

I spent almost eight hours a week and every other weekend in November at tournaments, staring in disinterest as the clock ticked away. I didn’t trust the people on the team, who thrived in the adrenaline-heavy, competitive culture of “Columbia’s most winning team,” as it likes to call itself. But I also came to see the activity itself as a lesson in the “art of whitening oneself,” as former mock trialer Abby Cao, CC ’23, described it to me, in order to perform for old white judges. I quit the team the day before spring semester classes started.


Soon after, Club Zamana released applications for operating committee members (OCMs). As a first-year at Barnard, it was only natural that I felt lost. Mock trial had failed its purpose as a club: to be a community to take part in, to make campus feel less daunting. I longed to be part of something that I would be excited to attend meetings for, as my friends on Club Zamana were. They talked about upperclassmen in the South Asian community who helped guide them. They had club bondings and inside jokes, and they walked each other home at night.


When I walked into my interview, I finally knew how I was going to answer that “What does being South Asian mean to you?” question that had been haunting me since first semester. I talked about the accepting and familial environment a South Asian community can create. It’s not cool to outright reject your culture in Club Zamana to assimilate into white America. You can ask someone where the best place is to get your eyebrows threaded and receive an answer, instead of hearing a white woman bragging about how they don’t need to worry about that. You can mention specific aspects of your childhood, like summer trips to India or certain foods, and people will immediately understand and add on.


That same evening, I received an acceptance email, along with instructions to choreograph a thirty-second dance for the first meeting. Shortly after introductions, the co-presidents asked the new OCMs to perform their dances. All the new OCMs, except for myself, stood up together and did the TikTok renegade dance. It dawned on me that the dance was a prank. I then sheepishly stood up to perform my amateur Bollywood dance to the song “Bole Chudiyan.” Once the music started playing and I started dancing, I realized that I was at ease. My dance ended in applause and soon became a running joke, but I wasn’t mocked as the weird girl or the gullible new member. I was now one of them. I was accepted.


Despite differences in personality, background, and interest among its members, there is a level of unconditional acceptance within the club. People wanted to learn about me as a person, which is how I found myself at a James Bond–themed club bonding event discussing my passion for local politics with the two presidents. Campus immediately felt smaller. I’d bump into other members walking from Kent to Butler, or buying Girl Scout cookies outside the main gates, and they’d always stop and ask how I was doing. During the early stages of the pandemic, the club held regular Zoom calls. Upperclassmen were committed to uplifting underclassmen. “I would literally ask anyone [for help] and if anyone asked me, I would be more than happy to help them with anything,” said Fatima Khan, BC ’22, former vice president for Barnard and now a senior adviser.


Before joining, I hadn’t considered how diverse the organization truly is. Khan also commented on the geographic and economic diversity of members within Club Zamana, with international students from Singapore, Hong Kong, and Sri Lanka; students from ethnically diverse areas of the U.S., such as the Bay Area and New Jersey; and people from predominantly white areas, like her home of New Hampshire. Club Zamana was not the stereotypical, one-dimensional club I thought it was.


···

As I settled into the club and found safety in this community, though, I saw that it still had its own flaws to grapple with. Club Zamana’s exclusivity has ignited a lot of anger for individuals who were interviewed but not accepted. It stirs up questions that do deserve answers—answers not many of us would like to hear. Why do you need to interview to be part of a cultural club? How do you prove your identity? What are the criteria for acceptance?


Hiba Ismail, CC ’21, joined Club Zamana in her first year. She described her interview as less than stellar, but she had been introduced to the club by a lifelong friend sitting on the board. “She’s going to be able to vouch for me in a way that no one else in the room can, in a way that honestly extends beyond the interview process,” Ismail said. “I definitely think that she had a strong role to play. And I’m not denying that.” Although I was not interviewed by any of my friends who were in the club, I am sure that my familiarity with some of the members may have helped me during my interview.


As Club Zamana’s secretary during the 2020-2021 school year, I had a vote on who would become our next generation. I pushed more for interviewees who discussed their lack of a cultural community growing up because I personally identified with that background. We debated whether students who spoke about being part of a South Asian association in high school needed Club Zamana to find community in college, as if we could determine that.


The process is undeniably subjective. The board wants to accept as many new members as possible. Paradoxically, to foster a tight-knit community as promised, the club is bound to exclude many.


When we spoke, Khan suggested creating a general body of people who can attend meetings and participate in the club without being on the board. More outreach could also bring more people into the fold. But club president Rahil Bhatia, GS ’23, pointed out that an open environment can disrupt the administrative work that needs to happen at these meetings. Club Zamana meetings are more bureaucratic than social. An hour or more is spent covering details on upcoming events, hashing out the logistics, and assigning people tasks. Bhatia suggested taking a poll of people who have interviewed with the club and those in the community to gauge who would like to contribute to meetings.


Another potential focus for the upcoming year is Club Zamana’s political responsibility. Members have decided that they are no longer satisfied with the general perception that the organization is a social club, and are taking action on internal and external complaints that as an affinity organization, it does not take enough initiative on social and political issues.


During the wave of Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd, members of Club Zamana organized a virtual discussion about anti-Blackness in the South Asian community and police reform that was attended by over sixty people. The club has also hosted a discussion on combating Hindutva, the Hindu nationalist ideology underlying Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, that undermines India’s secular values.


But as an organization dominated by Indian-American Hindus, those who do not share that identity can feel unsure about speaking up about more controversial issues. Ismail, who identifies as a Pakistani-American Muslim, explained that certain political topics can be difficult to broach when the majority may not have the same perspective: “I think, in a sense, it’s also brought about a chilling effect,” she said. Myesha Choudhury, BC ’23, who identifies as a Bengali-American Muslim, echoed these sentiments. As Club Zamana’s former political chair, she found that the social issues the club prioritized focused on India or the Indian-American experience, and she wishes they could address issues affecting South Asians at large, such as the persecution of Muslims in India under the BJP. “Zamana does tend to shy away from overly political issues in fear that it will have repercussions in the turnout for social events,” said Choudhury.


Bhatia hopes to change that culture and “raise a community where people feel comfortable to come to me with ideas … [and] issues that they care about and feel need to be talked about.” The South Asian umbrella is rife with divisions based on religion, wealth, and colorism, along with the variable experiences of the diaspora. As a cultural affinity organization, Club Zamana can continue to work towards opening a dialogue along these fault lines.

As for the dreaded question, “What does being South Asian mean to you?”: The board may subject it to some revision this year, so it’s not as easily interpreted as asking interviewees to prove their South Asianness. Bhatia does not like the question, and he suggests that it could be rephrased to ask the interviewee what it means to be part of the South Asian community. If I could answer that question today, I would say that it means safety, both in individual identity and in a sense of belonging in a community.

Still, I decided to leave the club at the end of this year because I wasn’t sure I was entirely dedicated to it anymore. Many people will join Club Zamana and stay for all four years, though sometimes they only stay for a year or two. But the organization welcomes its former members back to every event. I know I’ll always be a part of the community because I understand, through my time with the club, that South Asians can take up space unapologetically.


In Sanjena Sathian’s novel Gold Diggers, a question is asked at the Miss Teen India pageant: “What does it mean to be both Indian and American?” If I wasn’t involved with Club Zamana, I wouldn’t be able to answer that question for myself. But now, I know that I don’t have to choose between displaying my South Asian and American identities. They’re intertwined. I was so worried that my ethnicity would overshadow my personhood that I didn’t understand that that type of South Asian is a character, born from the imagination of those who are many generations past the second-generation immigrant. It’s a character built from the stereotypes imposed on South Asian Americans. I had never defined myself based on those stereotypes and in that quest for individuality, I learned that finding a cultural community does not negate my cultivated personhood. Rather, it can provide a space to further flourish.

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