South Asian Heritage and History

Picture of Nepal mountains – Photo by Sparsh Karki on

South Asian Heritage Month

South Asian Heritage Month runs from 18 July to 17 August 2022. If you haven’t heard of it, no worries, this is your chance to learn more. South Asian Heritage Month is celebrated more in the United Kingdom than in the United States, BUT just because it isn’t a US thing doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate our South Asian relations.

South Asia is made up of eight independent countries, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Collectively, these countries cover about 12% of Asia, 2 million square miles (5.2 million square km for our metric system counterparts). About one-quarter of the world’s population resides in South Asia, making it one of the most densely populated regions of the world and important for its diversity.

Too often the broader Asian race category hides and overshadows the unique histories, migration stories, racism, contributions, languages, and cultures. Part of my hope is by highlighting some of South Asian history and contributions we can be a more holistic and inclusive country and community. Like my previous blog post about Hawai’i, this history is overly abbreviated – this is a taste of the richness of South Asian American history. As an Asian (Japanese and Okinawan) I want to make sure I am not glossing over other Asian histories; by understanding South Asian stories, I understand my own Asian story more fully. I am not South Asian so please take what I write as my take on South Asian history as a starting point for you to authentically understand and build relationships with South Asian communities. The South Asian community deserves to tell their own stories and write their own histories.

South Asian American History – Short Version

According to the South Asian American Digital Archive, South Asians have been in the US since the 1700s. Early immigrants came from Punjab and Bengal. In the 1800s the number of South Asians grew in the US.

These early immigrants faced anti-Asian racism and restrictions on their seeking citizenship or civil liberties. The men were barred from marrying white women and they were forbidden from bringing over family members (spouses). In California, where some of the men had settled to work the land, and eventually pursued married life with Mexican Catholic women who also worked the field. This documentary Roots of Our Sands explores the interracial marriage between several families.  

More recently, after the September 11, 2001 attacks there was a significant uptick of anti-Asian violence against South Asians – especially Sikh and Muslims. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s reporting xenophobia and anti-Asian hate could be seen across the country.

South Asians in the US and West today

Like the Asian race group overall, South Asian ethnic groups are growing in the US. According to the Pew Research Center several South Asian ethnic groups saw their numbers double between 2000-2019. Pew also has a chart showing ages broken down by ethnic groups. This is important to understand since it impacts which South Asian families you may see in schools and youth programs.

South Asians Leaders

America (or more broadly Western cultures) would not be what it is today without South Asian influences. South Asians have shaped and continue to positively impact our communities and lives.

As an example here is a very short (too short) list of South Asian leaders:

Iman Vellani – Canadian Pakistani actress, playing Ms. Marvel [I’m very excited to see this new movie]

Venkatraman ‘Venki’ Ramakrishnan – Indian born, British and American, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2009

Kalpana Chawla – Indian American, first woman of Indian origin to travel to space

Harry Bhandari – Nepali American, first Nepali American elected to state office

Khaled Hosseini – Afghan American, writer of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns and other books. I’m currently reading his newest book Sea Prayer which is beautifully illustrated and covers the current refugee crisis.

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I am writing from the lands of the 29 federally recognized and non-federally recognized tribes in now Washington State, including the Coast Salish people — Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, Snohomish, and Native American organizations that have treaty rights and have been here since time immemorial. I give my thanks to the elders, Native and Indigenous colleagues and relations, and the land itself. Fakequity pays “rent” to Native organizations in Washington and Hawaii; a small act to repair and work to be in more justice-based relations.