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Oral history interview conducted by Jen Chau
January 08, 2012
Call number: 2011.019.010
JEN CHAU: Hi, this is Jen Chau. And it's January 8th, 2012. I'm with theBrooklyn Historical Society, doing an oral history interview for the Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations project. Um would you start by saying your name and introducing yourself?
ASHA SUNDARARAMAN: I'm Asha Sundararaman. (laughs)
JEN CHAU: Anything you want to say?
ASHA SUNDARARAMAN: Um I've lived in Brooklyn for about five years.
JEN CHAU: OK, great! Um and can you just give us your birth date and where youwere born?
ASHA SUNDARARAMAN: [date redacted for privacy] uh in Palo Alto, California
JEN CHAU: Excellent. Um so I know you have a lot to talk about, as far asmulti-heritage identity but, before we really go into that, I would love to hear 1:00about some of your life history. So can you start by telling me your earliest memory?
ASHA SUNDARARAMAN: I -- I think I have a memory from preschool when I was aboutthree. Uh there -- uh it's very -- uh it's very vague. But it's something about a -- there's a church and an altar and -- uh was with my preschool class. But my mother tells me that's probably not a real memory. (laughs) But I do remember my brother being born. So. That was about that time, as well.
JEN CHAU: So he's a few years younger than you.
ASHA SUNDARARAMAN: He's about 3 1/2 --
JEN CHAU: OK. Um and can you tell me a little bit about where you're from?
ASHA SUNDARARAMAN: Uh I'm an oil brat. So I grew up in California, Canada,Nigeria, spent a year in Indiana, just kind of -- kind of random. Uh and since college I've lived in a few other places (laughs) around the world, before I 2:00came back to the States.
JEN CHAU: And can you talk a little bit about those different places and -- andyour experiences, how they varied in those different places?
ASHA SUNDARARAMAN: I mean, California was -- is where I'm from here. So it's --it's kind of home. It's -- But it's also -- I lived in very homogenous communities. Uh Canada was also very homogenous, one of the places where everyone had -- Uh in Calgary everyone had lived -- grown up in the same place, lived in the same place, didn't really know every-- anything outside of -- outside of the city. So, (laughs) coming from California, I was kind of an oddity. Uh Nigeria was a lot more people who had -- who were from all over and who had -- who understood, and the -- our l-- our lifestyle and the way, you 3:00know -- the way we lived, the way we traveled. And everyone was just kind of -- they were mostly there from other -- other countries. And there were also a lot of other mixed-race kids, actually. Um and then coming back to California was -- I don't know. Uh it was inter-- it was interesting. It was definitely a change. (laughs) But -- but, I mean, I -- I like it there. So.
JEN CHAU: Can you say more about that, about how it was a change?
ASHA SUNDARARAMAN: It's -- as opposed to when I had first lived there, whereeveryone was kind of, you know, from the area, the -- a lot of the -- a lot of people that I went to school with had -- had varying experiences but none of them had really -- They'd been out of the country but never really lived out of the country. There -- it wa-- it was diverse bu-- I kind of went to a -- what we like to call -- We liked to call ourself the hippie school, uh (laughs) 4:00where -- call our teachers by their first names and -- It was -- everyone was -- everyone was really open-minded, which is really -- really nice. Uh but it's definitely -- you definitely still sometimes feel like --
JEN CHAU: Mm.
ASHA SUNDARARAMAN: -- you're an -- on the outside looking in, when you come backto that kind of -- uh kind of environment. But I did have classmates from all over the Bay Area, uh Oakland, San Francisco, Napa, as well as, you know, in the -- in the town that our school was in. So, a little bit more -- little bit more diverse. (laughs)
JEN CHAU: And of the -- all those places that you've lived, uh was there onethat sort of made you feel the most at home?
ASHA SUNDARARAMAN: I think Nigeria was definitely uh most -- That was home.And it's still -- at least Nigeria in 1995 is still home. It -- You can't -- 5:00you can never really go back. But uh it's one of those -- it's one of those things where everyone -- everyone understands your life. And so you don't really have to say much. They'll -- they're just -- they get it, you know, because they had the same -- they had the same kind of life. They're all moving around and traveling everywhere and going back home, wherever home was supposed to be. (laughs) So.
JEN CHAU: And in 1995, was that when you first moved there or --?
ASHA SUNDARARAMAN: I first moved there in '93.
JEN CHAU: OK.
ASHA SUNDARARAMAN: We were there from '93 to '98. Uh and I left for a year in'97, to go to school in Indiana, which is -- Tha-- OK, that was definitely more of a change (laughs) to California but -- That's like farm -- farm country. And even Indianapolis is still farm country.
JEN CHAU: And was that for high school?
ASHA SUNDARARAMAN: It was for high school. My high -- my school in Nigeria6:00didn't have a high school. It had -- it went up to ninth grade. And then they just didn't have the demand, so they had never built a high school. Everyone went off to boarding school, and various parts of the world. Uh and that's -- I mean, it's just kind of what you did. So I went to Indiana to live with my mom's family and go to school with my cousins. Because my parents were still there and so there's nothing else to do. (laughs)
JEN CHAU: And can you tell me a little bit about your family?
ASHA SUNDARARAMAN: My father's from India. Um he moved to the U.S. in 19-- Iwant to say it's like 1973 -- 1972, 1973, uh for grad school. My mom is American but a military brat. So she grew up on military bases in various parts of the country and -- and in Europe. Uh my grandfather was a Marine. He's from 7:00the South -- (laughs) Deep, rural -- rural Mississippi kind of South. Uh my -- my mom's mother is from Indiana, uh by way of -- Her family is originally German, Austrian. Uh they're farm -- farm people, as well. Actually, I think my great -- one grandfather o-- great grandfather owned like a -- Wasn't a dairy farm. It was a -- some kind of farm equipment. And the other one was a train conductor, which is kind of a change from my dad's family, who are all very highly educated, professors and -- (laughs) except for his father, who wasn't. But -- Uh and I have one younger brother, uh who's about 3 1/2 years younger than me. He's doing an MD/PhD. Because he's an overachiever. (laughs) Uh my parents are both one of five -- well, five living. My grand-- my father 8:00was one o-- one of six and then his older brother passed away, sometime in the '50s, I think. That's my family, in a -- in a nutshell. (laughs)
JEN CHAU: Uh what -- how would you describe your relationship to your family?
ASHA SUNDARARAMAN: I think uh my mom's family is the people I spent the mosttime with. We -- we used to go back every summer um and spend some time on the farm and -- My grandmother has a farm. And some uh -- My grandfather had a farm, as well. Uh spent so-- uh spent a lot of time with them. And my mom is very close to her sister. She's close to her brothers too but not as -- not quite as much as her sister. Her sister's very much, you know, her rock, I guess. Uh and so we -- uh I spent a lot of time with them and so they're very much -- they're family and they're -- You're comfortable with them. You know them. Uh my dad's side, I spent less time with -- with them. Because they are 9:00-- they're on, at the moment, four continents. Um I have one in Austral-- uh family in Australia, India, Italy, and here in the States. Uh so I spent -- uh definitely spent less time with them. But they're also --
JEN CHAU: Mm
ASHA SUNDARARAMAN: There's more of a -- similar lives. Because either they'realso mixed race or, you know, they're children of immigrants or they're immigrants themselves. And they -- they are well traveled, as well. And so just -- As opposed to (laughs) my mom's side of the family, who travels but not in the same kind of way. Uh my dad's side has just been exposed to more, I think, and more life experiences, that are closer to my own. So we just kind of -- even though we see each other once every, I don't know, ten years, probably, 10:00I mean, as one big family, and you kind of still have the -- you have a rapport. You just -- you just, you know -- you know, you know each other, even though you don't really (laughs) spend a lot of time together. So. We're trying to get better at that. But it's a slow process.
JEN CHAU: And who did it feel growing up, spending more time with your mom'sside of the family and being -- uh feeling that difference?
ASHA SUNDARARAMAN: I don't know if I really noticed. Uh I -- I think I noticeit more now that I'm older and uh there are things that stick out. And I'm like, "Wait, that's -- that's different." Uh I remember my cousin commented that she liked when my -- that my parents lived in Nigeria, that we lived in Nigeria, we lived in Angola, and uh because she got cool presents uh from other places. And I think they've just kind of -- they've -- I mean, uh I don't 11:00remember how it was back in the beginning but they just kind of accept that we're -- our -- kind of our difference is a part of -- part of the family and -- My -- my aunts -- or my grandmother used to keep uh Indian pickle in her -- (laughs) in her fridge. Now my cousin actually has a lot of it. My cousin loves to cook Indian food! So she's got -- she's got everything. Uh so I think we influenced them a little bit, not enough to really make a huge difference but, you know, enough for them to recognize that -- I don't know, that they were a little different than every-- than everybody else uh in town, because of (laughs) who we are. So.
JEN CHAU: Did your family ever kind of openly talk about this difference? Orwas it not really a conversation?
ASHA SUNDARARAMAN: It wasn't -- it wasn't really a conversation. Uh I -- I12:00remember, in elementary school, definitely feeling very different from my classmates. In fact, they would -- if -- if they ever wanted to tease me about something, then they would bring it up, uh or they wanted to leave me out, then they would bring it up. But we were very much -- My mom put us in uh -- really put me, actually, in Indian dance classes and voice lessons. And so we -- even though we weren't really part of that community, we were still involved a little bit. And so she'll say, "Oh, well," you know, "it wasn't your father who did that. It was me." Uh she really wanted us to know where -- where we came from. Uh and we used to have language books, kids' language -- alphabet books in my father's language to -- And we would read. And she -- she -- my mom used to know a -- a Tamil lullaby that she used to say. She can't recite it anymore. But at some point, she used to -- she used to be able to do it. So it was just -- it was kind of -- It wasn't something we talked about. It was just 13:00something that was always there. Like the food was -- [food was] always fusion -- fused together. My mom made Indian food. My dad makes American food. It's just -- it's definitely, uh I think, a melding of cultures, religions, a little bit less so but -- Uh yeah, d-- I don't know. I don't they under-- they knew, really, how to talk about it, so they just didn't. (laughs) But they did -- actually, my parents, before they got married, went to premarital classes for interfaith marriages, actually. Uh I remember my mom complaining that -- said, "Well, you know, they don't really know what Hindus are. So all the classes are for Jewish/Catholics. (laughs) That's what --" you know, "that's who they're catering to." It's 1980s California. Uh so I'm not sure how helpful they found it. But I think they -- they went to premarital counseling and everything, just 14:00to make sure that they could -- that they knew what they were getting into, I think.
JEN CHAU: And do they -- have they talked a lot about that experience or uh toldyou about the kind of uh maybe attitudes that surrounded their relationship, at the time?
ASHA SUNDARARAMAN: They -- uh it wa-- it's never really been -- they've neverreally said much about it. Uh I asked my grandmothers once what they thought when my parents got married. Uh and my -- my Indian grandmother said she cried and she prayed and she asked God what she'd done wrong. Uh and my white grandmother said that my mother was going to do whatever she wanted, because (laughs) she's a very stubborn person. So I th-- uh I think they've kind of -- they just want to put it past -- you know, get past it and have it not be a 15:00conversation anymore. My -- I heard a story from -- uh I don't remember who it was, a long time ago, that said -- who said that my grandmother almost didn't come to my parents' wedding, my white grandmother -- almost didn't come to my parents' wedding. And my mom completely denies this. She's like, "No, that didn't happen -- uh didn't happen. I don't know what you're talking about." So I'm not really sure whether or not whoever it was that told me was -- was telling the truth or whether it was -- Uh well, that's just something that my mother doesn't want to even consider. It comes up every so often, because my gr-- my grandmothers, each -- uh both of them, will make -- still make comments. But my parents just get really annoyed at them when they do that. (laughs)
JEN CHAU: Comments that sort of hearken back to that time or --?
ASHA SUNDARARAMAN: My -- Uh well, the -- It's as if they still -- as if theystill hold some resentment. My Indian grandmother uh actually complained to my 16:00father that her -- uh most of her sons went off and, you know, got married to -- to white women and now she has all these problems. And my father actually really got really angry at her and really -- "If you ever say that again, I'm never talking to you. Like that -- that's it." Um she has actually -- because she had said that to me previously, a few years before. "Oh, well, if my sons had stayed in this country, then they would have married good [Iyengar] girls and I wouldn't have all these problems." Like what problems? You don't have any problems. (laughs) Uh and my white grandmother likes to say things to my father like, "Oh, you're getting -- getting a little bit brown. Maybe you should stay out of the sun." My father's quite dark. "Uh maybe just -- The sun -- You're spending too much time on the beach," and, "in Angola. You need to stay out of the sun. A little -- a little dark." Uh and she's -- she's also made quite a number of racist comments, that I kind of -- I either push back on 17:00or -- "You just -- you like are -- I can't -- can't take it," you know, "There's no -- there's no -- nothing left to say." Uh but uh usually they're fine -- (laughs) just occasionally.
JEN CHAU: How do you -- how do you make sense of, you know, the Indiangrandmother who says that she has these problems? I mean, how does that make you feel?
ASHA SUNDARARAMAN: It mostly just makes me feel like she's being ridiculous.It's -- She's also -- she also said, "[Well], you should date lots of -- lots of men but you should marry an Iyengar." My mom was like, "Why? You're no-- you're not pure anyway. (laughs) Your uh -- your blood is already tainted. It doesn't really matter." Uh it's just kind of one of those things. She's -- she's old fashioned. And I can argue with her about it and then there's nothing 18:00-- there's no point anymore. Uh I think my grandmother uh was -- she was better when she started having grandchildren. The grandchildren come along and uh they're like, "Oh, well, that's nice. That's my -- my first grandchild," [I guess]. Uh it's only now that she can actually complain about it, that she's started complaining again. She didn't use to -- I don't remember her use -- uh her complaining before. Now she complains. She's kind of -- she's kind of regressed in her old age. She's gone back to be more conservative, just more -- She wants to do things her way. And it doesn't really work in an extended family. [Uh] --
JEN CHAU: And -- and on the other side, your white grandmother, who says thingsthat -- that are racist. Uh how do you decide whether or not to engage? 19:00
ASHA SUNDARARAMAN: Uh I engage her mostly to contradict her. Uh but uhsometimes I think that she's -- she's doing it to get a rise. Because she does a -- she does that a lot. You -- you're not really sure, with her, whether or not she's serious or whether or not she's just trying to -- trying to annoy you. Because that's the kind of person (laughs) that she is, actually. Uh and it's -- to be honest, she doesn't just say racist things. She also says incredibly inappropriate things at various -- various times. And just like, well, you can either ignore it or you can engage. And I -- I kind of enjoy engaging, because I like -- I don't know. I like -- I like being difficult uh with her. But 20:00she's -- she's not -- uh she was never a very easy person. Neither of them were. They were never very easy people. And so I guess, because they were never really like the quintessential grandmothers, you just kind of -- you're like, "All right. Whatever." (laughs) Doesn't -- or it doesn't really affect our relationship, because our relationship was never that great to begin with.
JEN CHAU: Would you say your brother has a kind of similar relationship to thesefamily members or do you think he's experienced things differently in the family?
ASHA SUNDARARAMAN: Um I think he has a better relationship with my Indiangrandmother. Because he actually -- I -- I don't really have the patience. Uh but he'll sit down and try to be nice and -- And it's -- Uh if you -- if uh he makes her made for some reason, he'll, you know, uh work it out. I just don't 21:00-- I don't have the patience for it. My white grandmother, she's never really liked her grandsons very much. She has three and she doesn't really like them very much. Uh I mean, she doesn't really like most of us. But -- (laughs) They've uh -- she like-- she likes my brother, now that he's going to become a doctor, a double doctor. So uh -- And sh-- and also he -- he's also very patient with her, will, you know, sit down and show her things and explain things to her -- that I just -- I never got that patience. (laughs) So I think he probably has better rela-- a better relationship with them, because they -- he just will -- he'll take the time to, I don't know, talk to them, sit with them, deal with whatever it is they're saying. Uh so they're probably a little bit nicer to him (laughs) than they are to me. What can you do?
JEN CHAU: It sounds like the grandmothers are definitely prominent. Uh --22:00
ASHA SUNDARARAMAN: They're -- they're pr-- My grandmother -- uh my grandfatherswere not so prominent. Uh my grandfather on my dad's side, my actually grandfather, passed away when my dad was ten. So uh he hasn't really been around. Obviously, he wasn't around. Uh f-- the -- my dad's uncle, who kind of took his place and we're his grandchildren and, you know -- he's -- he's a little bit quieter. And he doesn't -- he doesn't make nearly so many controversial statements. He makes some but usually about things other than race. (laughs) Uh my -- my other grandfather died when I was 12 and -- He was very -- he was a good grandfather. He liked -- he liked having grandchildren. Uh and my step-grandmother liked -- uh seemed to like us. Uh but he was -- he 23:00was very quiet, didn't really say much. So I'm never really sure -- It was just kind of li-- he was just there. And he took us fishing and, you know, we rode the tractor and -- Uh he wasn't as big a presence, um especially since he died a while ago. So.
JEN CHAU: Can you talk a little bit about your friends growing up?
ASHA SUNDARARAMAN: I m-- I moved around so much that I didn't have a lot of --The -- the friendships never really sustained. I mean, obviously I had my elementary school friendships and my best friend, who -- uh who I played soccer with. Uh in Canada -- I -- I didn't have that many friends in Canada. Because everyone kind of had their -- already had their own -- uh already had their friends. So my friends were the people who had -- honestly, the -- the people 24:00who were foreign or from -- not from the area. Uh I was friends with two Lebanese twins, and the first year I moved there. And then they -- they moved back to Lebanon. Um and then I was friends with like people who were -- who had moved -- moved in. Uh Nigeria, I mean, uh it was so small. (laughs) I had a class of 60 people when I started and 22 by the time I ended. Uh and I was mostly friends with people in the -- within the corporation. Uh because we lived on a compound and you hung with people in the compound. Everyone just kind of did everything, played tennis, went s-- went swimming, played, you know, manhunt, and played basketball. Uh we jus-- we just kind of did things together. When I came -- when I came back to the U.S. -- Indiana, I -- I was 25:00only there for about a -- uh for nine months. So I made friends and -- They -- I don't know. I just -- I somehow mana-- I found this group of friends and -- It was -- it was also a private school and so they'd only been there a year and -- It's a lot easier to transfer into a private school as a sophomore, because people's friendships are not completely established yet. The-- but they were -- you know, they're -- it's a group of people that I ended up being friends with. And I -- uh they're still my Facebook friends. (laughs) Uh California, I was -- I was friends -- actually, because I transferred in as a junior, I was friends mostly with the sophomores. And I'm still friends with them. My two best friends are two guys I went to -- I went to high school with. Uh I think it was just a different -- it's -- it's a different -- It was definitely people with different perspectives, I think, in California. And it ma-- it made it easier for friendships to sustain past -- uh past the end of high school. So a 26:00few of them I'm still friends with. One of them moved to Germany with -- with her husband. Uh one of the-- one of them lived -- used to live here and -- My two best friends are kind of -- one of them is a child of immigrants and the other one is currently in Poland doing theater. In college, I was -- My roommate in -- my first-year roommate, who I ended up living with second semester sophomore year, uh was also a third-culture kid and also mixed race, which is kind of -- Uh it's kind of impressive that they (laughs) put us together, actually. Uh her father was Japanese. Her mother was American. And she was born in J-- born in Japan. She'd lived there the first eight years of her life. She had not had very good experiences being Amerasian, in -- in Japan, as it ha-- as, you know -- Most Amerasians don't have -- don't have very 27:00good experiences. And so she came back to Jersey. We used to tease her that she lived on a commune in -- in Jersey. (laughs) Uh we still -- we still k-- But she lives in California now. We still keep in -- keep in touch. I don't call her as much as I should but -- She's -- I could -- even though I talk to her about once a year, I still consider her one of my closest friends from college. Uh because we shared a lot of the same experiences. And then I have -- I have other groups of friends tha-- from college that I'm friends with because we kind of -- I mean, we had a group and we lived together and we share -- uh we share senses of humor. But -- oh, I think, more and more, there's -- I still kind of feel like I'm -- I'm on the outside. And they're just -- they're really, really white, really white. And it's because -- [and] since college -- 28:00Uh in college it was kind of -- I don't know. For some reason, it was kind of buffered or something. Since -- since we graduated, (laughs) it's just -- sometimes it's just there. You're just like, "Wow! Wow, you're really white. Oh, my God!" Uh especially since they all, except for one -- one girl in the group, who was trans-racially adopted -- they're all from small town, or America, pretty much. Uh I'm not entirely sure how we became friends! (laughs) I think it's becau-- I really think it's because we had the same sense of humor. Uh just I c-- I can deal with them either one-on-one or if it's a group and I -- it's not in a closed space, it's a place -- it's somewhere I can -- I can just leave, if I need to leave. But they -- they still get together, you know, and every year, at least once a year. And I -- I just can't do it. I 29:00can't. Uh it's too much -- it's too much all in one -- in one place. And as I've -- since I -- I went to grad school. Everyone was kind of from all over, because it was London. Uh made a few friends in India. And Ang-- I moved to Angola. And tha-- actually, that group of people, I -- even though I was only with them for a few months, I could really -- They -- I still consider them my friends. They're -- they're also from all over the -- all over the world. And it's just kind of this group that -- 20-somethings, 30-somethings that came -- came together because they're -- they're not -- they weren't affiliated with corporations and they were -- they weren't married and -- uh just a really good -- It's a good group of people, who's well traveled and -- uh and smart and fun, have a lot of fun together. Everyone dances. Uh Angola was definitely 30:00focused on dancing, partying until 7:00 am. New York -- uh New York is a funny place. I don't think I've had the same friend group in the entire five years I've been here. Every year it's a different group of people. And I'm still fr-- it's 31:00 32:00 33:00 34:00 35:00 36:00 37:00 38:00 39:00 40:00 41:00 42:00 43:00 44:00 45:00 46:00 47:00 48:00 49:00 50:00 51:00 52:00 53:00 54:00 55:00 56:00 57:00 58:00 59:00 60:00 61:00 62:00 63:00 64:00 65:00 66:00 67:00 68:00 69:00 70:00 71:00 72:00 73:00 74:00 75:00 76:00 77:00 78:00 79:00 80:00 81:00 82:00 83:00 84:00 85:00 86:00 87:00 88:00 89:00 90:00 91:00 92:00 93:00 94:00 95:00 96:00 97:00 98:00 99:00 100:00 101:00
Oral History Interview with Asha Sundararaman
Asha Sundararaman was born in Palo Alto, California. She grew up in California, Indiana, Canada, and Nigeria. Her father, an immigrant from India, worked for Chevron and was relocated several times during Sundararaman's childhood. Sundararaman attended Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where she was an active member in Fusion, an organization for mixed race students. She attended graduate school in London, England, and also lived in India and Angola. She later moved to Park Slope, Brooklyn, and worked as a volunteer coordinator for Orbis International, an organization that works to prevent blindness in developing countries.
In this interview, Sundararaman talks about how her family's frequent moves affected her childhood, including a heightened appreciation of other cultures and the transience of her friendships. She also discusses being mixed race in the United States; race and community in Park Slope, Brooklyn; and her work for Orbis International.
CitationSundararaman, Asha, Oral history interview conducted by Jen Chau, January 08, 2012, Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations oral history collection, 2011.019.010; Brooklyn Historical Society.
- Sundararaman, Asha
- East Indian Americans
- Education, Higher
- Interfaith families
- Racially mixed families
- Racially mixed people
- Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
- Park Slope (New York, N.Y.)
- United States
Finding AidCrossing Borders, Bridging Generations oral history collection