In 2007, I was struggling to finish writing my first book on South Asian diasporas.
With a particular focus on culinary cultures in my articulation of diasporic movement and lives, I had spent the better part of the 2000s trying to think through the place of food in the life of immigrants in the various nodes of the South Asian diaspora.
My higher educational training had taken place entirely in the United States, where the experiences of Asian Americans, and occasionally Asian Canadians occupied centre stage. Lip service was paid to thinking through the complexity of diasporas and migrations to other places and spaces, notably in the southern hemisphere. Certainly, this is always the privilege of being in the “centre”—one can theorise diaspora (as my coeditor and I had done in my first coedited collection) with a strong emphasis on the US and yet this was not a dynamic I wanted, or could replicate unproblematically, in my monograph.
For me, the issue of decentering the United States was more than just an intellectual issue. It came from a grounded and lived experience of being an immigrant to the United States, an Indian national who had moved to the US from Papua New Guinea when my “centre” for the first twenty years of my life was Australia.
Going to primary and high school from Years 1 to 12 in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, Australia had always been my assumed destination for university. But, at the last minute, I decided against going to Macquarie University to study journalism and enrolled instead at the University of Wisconsin to study postcolonial literature.
I had experienced versions of anti-Asian racism from Australians overseas all my life and, as only an 18-year-old, I imagined an alternative utopia in the United States, free of the racist taunts I had experienced in PNG. Though no one called me a curry muncher in the US, I came to learn the nuance of racisms and, over the next 15 years, I assiduously read postcolonial literature and immersed myself in theoretical readings about diaspora, race and social justice.
As the time came for me to think about how to finesse my ideas about my book, I realised I couldn’t talk about diaspora or Asian Americans without talking about the rest of the world writ large. As a literary scholar, it had always surprised me to think of a silo-ed approach to literature along national lines as though writers were not parts of larger transnational networks that read one another works.
At the same time, as my years in America grew, my connection with the southern hemisphere grew distant and I had to fight to maintain my memories and connections.
Before social media had really taken off, the academic conference was one of the main ways to engender a real connection with people and their ideas, to try and understood Australia’s vexing issues with race and ethnicity that had always existed. But I had no community with whom to think comparatively about race. I picked up books in used bookstores, libraries and read what I could. I had read Vegemite Vindaloo (2006), Seasonal Adjustments (1994), A Change of Skies (1992) and read David Malouf, Peter Carey, looking for an Asian presence in Australian literature.
I still needed a critical space for conversation.
I had been lucky enough to “meet” Tseen Khoo virtually a few years ago. We were both early list mistresses in the bygone era of the Yahoogroups: I managed the Association for Asian American Studies group, and Tseen managed the Asian Australian Studies Research Network group.
Somehow, that led to me becoming aware of the AASRN conference in Melbourne in 2007, a time when I was struggling to free myself from the shackles of the US centrism of my thought.
I submitted a paper and, to be honest, it wasn’t very good. I didn’t know the discourse. I was an interloper and should have just gone to listen and learn. In fact, that is what I wanted to do. But funding structures as they are, I had to present to get funding, and flying to Melbourne from Columbus, Ohio, was not in my personal budget as a new untenured faculty.
Australia has always felt like home to me. The English is easier for me to understand. My head orients the correct way when I want to cross the street. People get cricket. Pies are savoury. And people know what a lift is.
Still, I didn’t know the intellectual conversations. Being immersed for three days among scholars who were cutting edge Asian Australianists was downright humbling. I filled pages with notes and left with more questions than answers. My thoughts had been unsettled and I had new questions.
For once, I didn’t even have to try to decentre the US; it was just the way things were in the discourse. Certainly, there were different kinds of power at work and I could see that my colleagues were working towards similar goals but under very different circumstances. At the time, it was a given that Asian American Studies was a legitimate intellectual formation—we had departments, programs, even centres. In a few years, I would be appointed as a tenure-line assistant professor of Asian American Studies at the institution where I currently work. These were not the kinds of conditions under which my colleagues in Australia were working where Asian Australian Studies is far more precarious.
But, at the time, what impressed me the most was how much people welcomed me and took me in. They gave me ideas for my work, challenged my thinking and shared their work. I returned to the States with a new set of colleagues, a new appreciation for flat whites, a long reading list and, most importantly, questions that helped me rethink my book.
I couldn’t write a book about South Asian diasporas and centre it exclusively on the Americas; I had to rethink it. While I don’t have the space to go into it here, I ended up rewriting my book Culinary Fictions to include theoretical and fictional work by Asian Australians I had met and learned about in Melbourne. It was a small gesture but one that wrought big changes.
I had come back “home” to Oz to find a community, and decentre the growing monolith of the US centrism of my thought. I left with a sense of the power of what the small can effect.
The AASRN is a small group compared to the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS) but, as Arjun Appadurai has noted in Fear of Small Numbers (2006), “the small” can rapidly become a problem in a modern global context because they challenge national narratives of social cohesion and homogeneity. Certainly, this is true of minorities everywhere.
But the small is also powerful. Perhaps therein lies the real strength of Asian Australian Studies.