Image credit: Evan Sung for the New York Times
Teaching Unit/Resources on Indo-Caribbean Diaspora, Food and Cultural Identity
Anita Baksh, LaGuardia Community College (CUNY)
For the Building Asian American Studies Summer Institute curricular project, I integrated Asian American content into my English course: World Literature in English. I chose to focus specifically on the Caribbean region since this is my area of research. Given that the Caribbean was colonized by the French, Spanish, English, and Dutch, it includes peoples of various origins including but not limited to those of European, African, Indian, Chinese, and Syrian descent. As a result, its literature is diverse in its languages, literary styles and forms and themes. In my World Literature in English course, students examined poetry, novels, essays and films from Caribbean writers and artists of various ethnic, class, and national origins. They also considered the images of the region created by the tourism industry (in particular, how the Caribbean appears to us here in the US). In addition to developing an understanding of Caribbean history, culture, and experience through literature, the course aimed to improve students’ ability to develop and express both orally and in writing strong and original arguments based upon the literature read for this course, as well as to strengthen their ability to write critical essays with references to secondary sources.
Since my specific research interest is Indians in the Caribbean (Indo-Caribbeans), I decided to devote a unit on texts by Indo-Caribbean artists. This emphasis allows students to explore such topics as colonialism, migration, culture, race relations, and the politics of postcolonial independence. I have taught texts about and by Indo-Caribbeans in the past, but the Building Asian American Studies Summer Institute encouraged me to expand my teaching to include the topic of Indo-Caribbeans in New York City, and to introduce an experiential learning component into the course: a neighborhood teaching tour of Richmond Hill, Queens, an area known for its large population of Indo-Caribbean migrants. The field trip helped students explore an area of New York City and the experience of a group they may not have been familiar with. It also helped those who were familiar with Richmond Hill and Indo-Caribbeans to develop a more complex understanding of an area and group that may appear to be “Indian” and “Hindu.” Images of Richmond Hill as primarily populated by Indian immigrants from Guyana who are predominantly Hindu as seen in media outlets such as the New York Times eclipses the multiethnic and multireligious makeup of the area and the complexity of Indo-Caribbean identities and experiences.
To begin the unit, I showed a short excerpt from the BBC documentary, Coolies: How Britain Reinvented Slavery. The documentary provided background information about indentureship and empire in the Caribbean context. The students watched the film, Doubles with Slight Pepper, by Ian Harnarine at home and answered response questions before attending class. They also read an article about roti shops called “Eat, Drink and Gyaff” by Nadia Misir. As part of this unit we also read excerpts from The Swinging Bridge (2003) by Ramabai Espinet.
After this lesson, we went to Richmond Hill, Queens, for a neighborhood teaching tour. We visited the local library, which includes a special section of Indo-Caribbean texts and media, walked down Liberty Avenue, which has a large number of Indo-Caribbean restaurants and grocery stores as well as diverse religious institutions and various other businesses. We ended the tour by eating doubles (a common Trinidadian street food composed of curried chickpeas in flat bread) at a roti shop (small take-out style restaurant). After the field trip we examined closely the definition of diaspora and creolization from Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin’s book, Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts. Our in-class discussions also focused on cultural identity, immigrant communities, gender, creolization, and diaspora.
Overall, this unit was effective in helping students think through ethnic and religious identities, migration, immigration, community, and food culture. Students were especially engaged with the film. Through presentations and class discussion, they were able to identify and close read elements such as father/son relationships, family dynamics, and the ways in which the symbol of the doubles transforms throughout the film. The lesson on key terms and the in-class discussion was successful in helping students make connections between the different texts and the experiential learning experience. In students’ written and oral responses, they often related their own experiences as immigrants or children of immigrants and/or as residents of a diverse city to the text and neighborhood tour. We also productively discussed how a term like Indo-Caribbean can be defined in relation to political, religious, ethnic, class, and gender identity.
In future iterations of this unit, I plan to introduce students to definitions at the beginning of the unit and return to them after students have read the texts and experienced the teaching tour. I will also introduce them to the definition of enclave in Keywords for Asian American Studies, and unpack its complexity in relation to the common perception of enclave as a homogenous group or community. Introducing students to these terms earlier would give them a theoretical lens and provide them with the appropriate language to frame their analysis of texts and their observations. I will also change some of the texts. Instead of reading excerpts from Espinet’s novel, I may choose a short story. I was disappointed that students were not making deep connections between the various texts. I realize that a short story may be more manageable for students and allow them to think more deeply. In the future, I will also emphasize that Indo-Caribbeans as a group are often not included in dominant definitions of Caribbeanness or Asian Americanness, and how this category disrupts common definitions of both. While I believe this was clear in relation to Caribbean identity, I did not make this point in relation to Asian American stereotypes such as the model minority myth or dominant narratives of middle-class South Asian migration.