Fielding the “What Are You?” Question by Anna Coats

I am half Indian Guyanese Hindu and half Hungarian Dutch Welsh Cherokee Catholic. My maternal great-grandparents emigrated from India to Guyana, a then British colony in the West Indies / South America that is predominantly Asian Indian. My mother immigrated to the United States when she was 19. When I was born, a Hawan, or religious ceremony, was held to welcome me into the Hindu world.

My paternal grandmother was Hungarian; her parents immigrated to the United States, met while here, and my grandmother was born in Queens. My paternal grandfather’s ancestors have been in the United States since the 1500s and, as best as we can tell, they were Dutch and Welsh, with a little bit of Cherokee. My grandfather was born in Missouri. When I was born, I was baptized to welcome me into the Catholic world.

It is normal for people to question me about my race and/or begin talking to me with the assumption that I am XYZ race. Sometimes, when strangers mistake me for one of “their own people,” this leads to cool conversations. Usually, having to explain myself all the time is exhausting.

The following are real conversations I’ve had over the past twenty years while fielding the “What are you?” question.


STRANGER1: “What are you?”
ANNA: “I am half Indian and half white.”
S: “India Indian or Native American Indian?”
A: “India Indian.”
S: “What part of India is your family from?”
A: “My family is actually from Guyana.”
S: “Isn’t that in Africa?”
A: “No, you’re thinking of Ghana. Guyana is in South America.”
S: “I thought you said you weren’t Native American.”


STRANGER2: “What part of India are you from?”
ANNA: “I’m from New Jersey.”
S: “But you look so Indian! You must be from India.”
A: “My family is from India.”
S: “I thought so. This is what I meant. Where is your family from?”
A: “My mom is actually from Guyana. Her grandparents immigrated there from India.”
S: “Ew, Guyana? Never mind. . .”


ANNA: “I’m half Guyanese and half white.”
ACQUAINTANCE1: “You’re Guyanese?!”
A: “Yes.”
A1: “You don’t look Guyanese.”
A: “What does a Guyanese person look like?”
A1: “Well, now that I sit here and talk with you I can see that you’re Guyanese but I can’t see by looking that you’re Guyanese.”


COWORKER1: “What are you?”
ANNA: “I am half white and half Indian.”
C1: “Dot or feather?”


PATRON1: “Do you have some Indian connection?”
ANNA: “Yes, I am Indian.”
P1: “You are Indian??!”
A: “Well, I am mixed. I am half Indian and half white.”
P1: “But you don’t have an Indian name. How can you be Indian??”
A: “My name is Indian.”
P1: “No, it is not.”
A: “Have you ever seen the movie Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa? Shah Rukh Khan’s character was in love with [an Indian] girl named Anna.”
P1: “That girl was Christian. Anna is not an Indian name.”


FAMILY FRIEND: “In Guyana we have a dish called ‘cook up rice.’ It’s made by—”
FAMILY MEMBER: “She’s Guyanese! Don’t try to explain to her what cook up rice is like she doesn’t already know. Do you know who her grandmother is?!”
FF: “You’re Guyanese?!”
ANNA: “Yes.”
FF: “You don’t look Guyanese.”


ACQUAINTANCE2: “The problem with Guyanese women is they have dark skin, they wear such red lipstick, and they dress so provocatively, but you don’t look Guyanese at all. There is nothing wrong with you.”


STRANGER3: “What are you?”
ANNA: “I am half Indian and half white.”
S3: “India Indian or Native American Indian?”
A: “India Indian.”
S3: “What part of India is your family from?”
A: “The Mumbai area.”


PATRON2: “Do you have some Indian connection?”
ANNA: “Yes, I am Indian.”
P2: “You are Indian??!”
A: “Well, I am mixed. I am half Indian and half white.”
P2: “Oh, I thought your husband was Indian or something. I saw your 24K bangles so that’s why I was asking.”
A: “I thought you were asking because I look so Indian.”
P2: “Yes,” the questioner gasped, as if seeing for the first time. “You do!”


COWORKER2: “What background is ‘Coats’?”
ANNA: “What?”
C: “What background is ‘Coats’?” My coworker stared at me intently.
A: “Oh, I’m mixed. I’m half white and half Indian. The Dutch part of my family Anglicized their last name.”


ACQUAINTANCE3: “What kind of food do you cook at home?”
ANNA: “Just about everything.”
A3: “No, what kind of food do you cook at home?”
A: “Just about everything. Recently I’ve been cooking a lot of Korean and Persian food at home but I also cook Indian, Thai, Hungarian, Italian. . . just about everything.”


ACQUAINTANCE4: “What nationality are you?”
ANNA: “I am American.”
A4: “No, I mean what nationality are you?”
A: “I am American.”
A4: “No, I mean where are you from?”
A: “I am from New Jersey.”
A4: “No, I mean what is your background?”
A: “You mean what is my ethnicity?”
A4: “Whatever, you know what I mean.”


FRIEND1: “I hate the way Asians act like they’re better than everyone.”
ANNA: “What?! We are Asian!”
My friend considered this. F: “Wait a minute, how are you Asian?”


COWORKER3:  “Someone asked you if you were Puerto Rican?! You don’t look Puerto Rican. You look Chinese.”


NEIGHBOR: “Are you half black and half Jewish? One of my friends is half black and half Jewish and you look just like her.”


CLASSMATE1: “Can we hang out? I just started seeing this Egyptian guy and I need someone to teach me how to cook real curry.”


CLASSMATE2: “Did you hear that some Indians bought the old abandoned Pizza Hut and turned into some sort of Indian vegetarian restaurant? I’m telling you, those people are taking over. It’s like the town isn’t even ours anymore.”


ANNA: “When I die, I want to be cremated. It just makes sense with the limited amount of land on the earth.”
BOYFRIEND1: “Of course you will be cremated. You are Hindu. You were born Hindu and you will die Hindu.”


ANNA: “I know it’s Christmas Eve but I don’t want to go to church.”
AUNT: “You are going to church because it will make me happy.”
ANNA: “But I will not be happy. I’m not Catholic and I don’t like going to church.”
AUNT: “Oh yes you are. You were baptized and confirmed Catholic, and you are going to church.”


STRANGER4: “You look so exotic. Can you teach me Spanish?”


STRANGER5: “You know, I love Indian food.”


STRANGER6: “I’d love to get to know you better. One of my friends married a white woman.”


FRIEND2: “You don’t look white at all. Do you really pass for white in New Jersey?”


UNCLE:  “Is that Mexican guy still after you? I bet he’s really proud of himself thinking he got himself a white girl. Boy, is he in for a surprise!”


BOYFRIEND2’S FATHER: <<exclaimed after getting through a slow checkout line>> “I hate Indians! I wish they would all go back to where they came from!”
The boyfriend later comforted me, “My dad didn’t mean what he said before. And anyway, he doesn’t think about you as Indian, so he didn’t mean you.”


DATE: “If we had children together they would be ¾ Indian. It is important to me my children are raised with Indian values so they will know they are Indian.”
<<later in the same conversation>>
D: “You are not Indian. You are too far removed from the motherland. Why do you think you are Indian??”


I find it interesting that when a white person asks some form of the “What are you?” question, they usually focus on my Indian half, defining me as an exotic other. This is not just limited to white people; in a country where white is the norm, black and Hispanic people also usually focus on my “exotic” Indian half. In my experience, East Asians usually do not question my answer. However, when an Indian person asks me some form of the “What are you?” question, they usually focus on how I am not Indian, how white and American I am, also defining me as an exotic other.

It is not as though people cannot visualize a multiethnic and multicultural person; I stand before them. This leads me to question, “Who gets to define race, ethnicity, identity, and group inclusion? Does it matter?”


group picture of family members at a wedding

Photo courtesy of the Coats/James/Markulin family. Author’s parents, 1st row, far left, with family.

Group photo of people standing at a wedding.

Photo courtesy of the Robert/Chandra/Barrios family. Author’s parents, 3rd couple from the right, with family




image of Anna Coats

Anna Coats
Children’s Librarian at East Rutherford Memorial Library
Rutherford, New Jersey


Editing assistance provided by Melissa Cardenas-Dow and Raymond Wang.



National / Racial Identity

Bald, Vivek. Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2013.

Bald, Vivek, Miabi Chatterji, Sujani Reddy, and Manu Vimalassery, eds. The Sun Never Sets: South Asian Migrants in an Age of U.S. Power. New York: New York UP, 2013.

De Castro, Aníbal, Mark Kurlansky, Junot Díaz, Edwidge Danticat, and Julia Alvarez. “Two Versions of a Dominican Tale.” New York Times. 31 Oct. 2013.

Dewan, Shaila. “Has ‘Caucasian’ Lost Its Meaning?New York Times. 6 July 2013. Web.

Flint, Woz. “What Makes a Latina?HuffPost Latino Voices 22 July 2013. Web.

John, Anna. “A War of Tweets Erupts over Latest Miss America.” NPR Code Switch. 16 Sept. 2013. Web.

Pendakur, Vijay. “An Open Letter to Asian American Parents.” Vijay Pendakur: Higher Education Blogger, Speaker, Consultant. 7 Oct. 2013. Web.

Purkayastha, Bandana. Negotiating Ethnicity: Second-Generation South Asian Americans Traverse a Transnational World. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2005.

Raushenbush, Paul Brandeis. “Prabhjot Singh, Sikh Columbia Professor, Attacked in Possible Hate Crime (VIDEO).” HuffPost Religion. 22 Sept. 2013. Web.

Wilkinson, Tracy. “Dominican Republic Citizenship Ruling Stirs Outcry across Caribbean.” Los Angeles Times. 13 Oct. 2013. Web.


On Being Mixed

Bean, Cathy Bao. The Chopsticks-Fork Principle: A Memoir and Manual. New Jersey: We, 2002.

Fulbeck, Kip. Half Asian, 100% Hapa. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2006.


Overcoming Stereotypes

Banaji, Mahzarin R. and Anthony G. Greenwald. Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. New York, Delacorte, 2013.

Milstein, Sarah. “5 Ways White Feminists Can Address Our Own Racism.” HuffPost Women. 24 Sept. 2013. Web.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1988. 271-313.

Yawson, Ama. “When It Comes to Fighting Stereotypes, I Want My Kids to Dare to Be Impolite.” The Atlantic. 4 Nov. 2013. Web.


West Indies

Bahadur, Gaiutra. Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture. London: Hurst, 2013.

Lai, Walton Look. Indentured Labor, Caribbean Sugar: Chinese and Indian Migrants to the British West Indies, 1838-1918. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993.

Naipaul, V.S. An Area of Darkness. New York, Vintage: 1964.

Naipaul, V.S. The Loss of El Dorado: A Colonial History. New York, Vintage: 1969.



APA Library Leader Interview — Patty Wong, Yolo County, Calif.

by Melissa I. Cardenas-Dow

This feature essay on an Asian/Pacific American library leader focuses on Patty Wong, County Librarian/Archivist of Yolo County in California. Patty is also a lifetime member of APALA and a wonderful advocate of diversity in ALA and the library profession. Patty was recently recognized by the California Library Association with its prestigious Member of the Year Award.

In November and early December 2013, I sent some questions to Patty, focusing on her thoughts on library leadership and diversity. This article provides an edited version of Patty’s responses.

Melissa Cardenas-Dow (MICD): Tell us a little bit about yourself, your career to date?

Patty Wong (PW): My name is Patty Wong and I am currently the County Librarian for Yolo County Library since January 2008, serving a rural/urban community of 210,000 in northern Calif., just above Sacramento.  Yolo County Library consists of seven branches, one of which is a joint-use with a city high school; a satellite location located in an elementary school library; an adult literacy program; and an Archives and Records Center.  During my tenure, we have built two new libraries, renovated a third building, developed a strategic plan, and positioned the library to be the point organization responsible for the County’s tactical direction: Collaboration to Maximize Success.  I am also responsible for teaching one of the four core supervision training courses on leadership for Yolo County and have been blessed to serve as a Eureka! Mentor for this key leadership program developed by InfoPeople for the California State Library.

My career as a librarian has spanned a few decades since receiving my MLIS in 1984 from UC Berkeley, where I also received my BS in Women’s Studies.  Since that time, I have been honored to have served as a children’s librarian, beginning my employment at Oakland Public Library, where I was responsible for up to ten branch libraries.  I also worked as a school librarian at Oakland Unified School District, where I was responsible for the District Library, the professional collection and copy cataloging, and founded a small, but now defunct, International Children’s Library in Oakland, Calif.

From there I worked in management and administration, as children’s librarian and later Supervising Librarian in branch services at the South Branch and Tool Lending Library at Berkeley Public Library.  There I developed a passion for working with community as key to library service development, and a deeper understanding of the strong role mentors can play in my personal and professional growth by working with leaders like Regina Minudri and Linda Perkins, Rhonda Rios-Kravitz and Gary Strong, Camila Alire, Luis Herrera and Jose Aponte, Ken Yamashita, EJ Josey and Betty Turock.

My journey took me to return to Oakland Public Library to lead Youth Services as Coordinator.  There, another opportunity developed into another community engagement professional benchmark for me through the DeWitt Wallace Readers Digest funded Public Libraries as Partners in Youth Development.  As the Coordinator of Youth Services at Oakland Public Library, I learned about the role a public library can play in creating change through youth development.  I also actively learned about fundraising and friendraising, garnering more than $2.0 million in grants, contributions and donations for youth and afterschool programs in a little less than two years.

My work and abilities and influence developed as I took on another critical position: Deputy Director at the Stockton-San Joaquin County Public Library.  I learned how to coalesce teams, build budgets, and strengthen the library’s position within civic governance.  Advocacy became another foundational support for my professional tools.  From there I went to Yolo County.

“Knowing when, where and how to take action are not things that come naturally to leaders but are learned and acquired skills.  A good leader will balance knowledge and experience with the needs of the community.  A great leader will intuitively gauge and critically assess the climate and the situation before a question is asked.  And the best leader involves others in solution-building and the success of the operation at hand.”

MICD: What ways do you see yourself as a diverse professional?

PW: I am a fourth generation Californian, Chinese American, youth development advocate, committed to inclusion and developing strengths in others.  My reflection has evolved over time as I now have the language to articulate more of my personal and professional philosophy.  I see my role as an advocate for social justice and making the world a better place.  My leadership strengths have been to strategically position my team and organization to leverage and bridge relationships toward those goals. That includes contributing to the support and growth of a stronger American Library Association that is more inclusive and accepting of change.  My commitment to social justice advocacy also includes devoting time and personal contributions to the development of the five ethnic professional associations (American Indian Library Association, Asian/Pacific American Library Association, Black Caucus of the American Library Association, Chinese American Librarians Association, and REFORMA) and local engagement with regional agencies that support communities of color and diversity.  I try to encourage and challenge my colleagues to engage within their own communities in a similar manner.

Most recently, a colleague introduced me to the Gallup Strengthsfinder.  It emphasizes a focus on our natural talents.  Bringing out the best in our colleagues, our family and friends, our communities and recognizing their natural strengths and interests are keys to our thriving as a society.  This is a foundation for the majority of my current work.

MICD: Please describe an instance in which diversity played a beneficial role in your library work.

PW: While at Berkeley, I successfully wrote my first grant and managed a five-year $500,000 program that would change the path of my work with community and people of color.  Partnerships for Change, a California State Library project, provided the resources to fully develop community work in neighborhoods with changing and diverse populations.  In South Berkeley we worked with an increasing number of Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese patrons in a predominantly African American community.  Through the leadership at the California State Library, I became part of the development of services to a variety of diverse populations, crafting seminal documents in collaboration with other leaders in the state that created awareness, training and expectations of how public libraries could develop community partnerships in service.  Those experiences provided me with the advanced thinking and the penchant for developing a teaching style that has guided my professional life and a core foundation in grant writing.

MICD: How did diversity play a role in attaining your next position?

PW: I have always envisioned and modeled my own diversity as an asset in my own development and the commitment that I have in developing others as I have been developed.  As a champion and advocate of diversity and inclusion as strengths, my abilities and personal and professional experiences as an individual of color enhanced my skills and abilities.  I was able to articulate who I was, and my deep interests as valuable attributes to all of the positions I pursued.  More importantly, I sought positions that broadened and enhanced that philosophy – I chose very carefully where and with whom I wanted to work based on my interest to cultivate a stronger world based on diverse activism and community engagement.  In essence, I thoughtfully prepared a toolchest of experiences that would parlay my goals.  These actions in most cases advanced my perspective long before I pursued another position.  The Library world is very small – people talk, they notice, they compare.  A critical nugget or idea to share with everyone is to be able to talk about yourself and your work without hesitation.  Remember the work we do is in service to make the world a better place.  Our talents are key to that effort.  Your confidence in the work, your ability to leverage that strength into something that will benefit many, is exactly what that next employer may be looking for. Remember, you seek to always create a stronger organization – the legacy you leave is part of our commitment to community.

MICD: Has it been challenging to move higher up the leadership ladder?  How did you make the move from middle to upper management?

PW: Moving up the leadership ladder has always been a challenge based on a dynamic set of situations.  I have always assumed key positions, sometimes only through opportunity and assignment.  The critical difference is being strategic in taking advantage of opportunities when they arise, volunteering for key lead positions or learning from engagement with a new project or committee work.  Because of a number of early lead experiences within the profession and in particular at ALA, within the ethnic professional library communities and through my home library association at the California Library Association, it is often a misperception that I am a seasoned library director when I have only been in this type of position for a little less than six years.  However, I have been in middle management and upper management for most of the past 30 years of my professional career, elevating fairly quickly after five years as a frontline children’s librarian.  The move from middle to upper lead positions was incremental and based on assuming additional responsibilities, setting goals for increased responsibilities within my organization. For instance, as a branch supervisor, responsible for a branch and an adjunct service, Berkeley’s Tool Lending Library, the lead responsibility for the Partnerships for Change grant provided a key five-year program of significant influence within the system and great community impact.  That experience led to more exposure to diversity work though the California State Library, to stronger statewide networks and was the precursor to the establishment of key committees within my home agency.  It was easy to transition to an upper management position afterwards, as I was a recognized leader at home and regionally.  I also surrounded myself with key individuals who are hard-working and resonate a similar philosophy of service and community engagement.  I provided them with the same growth opportunities and leadership experiences afforded to me by my mentors.

MICD: How does diversity influence your leadership style?

PW: Diversity is intrinsic to the way I work, both in my professional and personal life.  It is part of my framework and moral compass.  I am committed to foster the development and mentoring of diverse professionals interested in advancement and leadership.

MICD: What attributes do you look for in future leaders?

PW: Here’s a list: Achieves results, Action, Adaptable, Agile, Authentic, Breaks rules, Capable, Change agent; Embraces change, Communication Skills/Communicative, Confident, Creative, Decisive, Delivers on promises, Direction, Drive, Dynamic, Engaged, Ethical, Excitement for work, Facilitates, Flexible, Focused, Knows when to follow and when to lead, Genuine, Heart, Humble, Interpersonal Skills, Intrinsically curious and eager to learn and continue learning and contribute to the learning of others, Long-term, New Roads, Optimism, Organizational consciousness, Passion, Personal charisma, Persuasive, Proactive, Provides meaning, Purpose, Respected, Responsible, Seeks, Self-aware, Sets direction, Strengths focused, Striving, Trustworthy/builds trust, Uses conflict, Values, Vision, Visionary

MICD: Are these the same skills, talents, and qualities you recommend diverse professionals develop as they seek new leadership positions?

PW: Yes.

MICD: What advice would you give to young professionals, especially those from diverse backgrounds?


  • Continue to improve, incrementally, working from a plan. Know where you stand in achieving your goals.
  • Credibility is KING. Be responsible, mature, and consider the effect you have on others.
  • Everyone, enjoys, and to some degree, needs to be recognized sincerely and often.
  • Each of us has taken the opportunity, whether at work, at home, or in our community to take a risk, to do the right thing, to innovate or originate or initiate, to inspire trust, to challenge, to lead.
  • Remember, you are an ambassador of your organization and your community. Be the best representative you can be.  As a leader you can inspire colleagues to get involved.
  • It’s not all about you.  Sometimes the most effective networking leads to ways you can help others.
  • Become engaged with your community.  Make the world a better place.  The service we can provide to others is a noble and impactful endeavor.
  • Act with intentionality and strategy to benefit your world.  Join local, regional, national networks and the ethnic professional associations to contribute your best.  We need you.
  • Everyday is a leadership opportunity.
  • Seek a mentor, be a mentor.

MICD: How about advice for mid-career professionals, especially those who are interested in moving into higher management?

PW: A continuing challenge for me is to focus my energies and influence toward my own professional team when I receive more immediate and positive response from my leader volunteerism experience.  It is easy to apply leadership skills and experience to those who are ready to receive them, such as students, or incoming library leaders, or even other colleagues in the County who are eager and interested in learning and adopting different practices.  I have a limited time with these key contacts.  These groups of people elect to receive my leadership suggestions and ideas.  These individuals actively listen and are receiving, analyzing and synthesizing the information and techniques shared for actual implementation.  They are primed for change.

In the day-to-day, it is a challenge to address the needs of a staff member who may or may not be ready for the shift.  So, remembering that everyone has different learning styles, making a conscious effort to apply change management processes, taking the appropriate steps to include early adopters in any shifts, and seeking the counsel of my strongest naysayers is critical to learning what would best appeal to those who remain on the fence.  Effective leadership takes time, focused energy, and enlisting the strategic support of colleagues across the spectrum.  Working effectively with people – our greatest assets – continues to be among the greatest challenges that leaders face.

Leadership is the personal and professional acumen to influence positive outcomes to advance human positions.  Leaders take strategic action, make a difference and develop others to become leaders.  Remember that all can lead from any position.  All members are valuable and should be valued and encouraged to take a lead role to build the team and larger community.  Diversity of skills and divergent points of view is key to creating a stronger and more sustainable outcome.  I have found that a deeper, broader inclusion is more satisfying to my personal leadership style.

There are times when the most advantageous situation involves following or coordinating through the leadership of others.  Leadership involves courage, flexibility, adeptness, and a willingness to serve for the good of the whole.  Knowing when, where and how to take action are not things that come naturally to leaders but are learned and acquired skills.  A good leader will balance knowledge and experience with the needs of the community.  A great leader will intuitively gauge and critically assess the climate and the situation before a question is asked.  And the best leader involves others in solution-building and the success of the operation at hand.

Remember that great leaders makes the best managers.  Follow your heart and your conscience.  Develop those who are on your team and in your community, as you have been developed. Remember those who have come before you and pass on your insight and lessons learned to help others.


Editing assistance provided by Jaena Rae Cabrera.

APA Collections — SAADA (South Asian American Digital Archive)

SAADA: “An investment in our past is an investment in our future.”

by Melissa Cardenas-Dow


Samip Mallick, SAADA co-founder and executive director

To find out more about SAADA (South Asian American Digital Archive), I conducted a phone interview with Samip Mallick, SAADA’s Co-Founder and Executive Director, on August 21, 2013. SAADA is an independent nonprofit organization working toward a more inclusive society by giving voice to South Asian Americans through documenting, preserving and sharing stories that reflect their unique and diverse experiences. SAADA focuses on digital information and is primarily an online entity but is physically based in Philadelphia. The following article is excerpted from our conversation.

Melissa Cardenas-Dow (MICD): Tell me a little bit about the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA) as an organization. How did it come about?

Samip Mallick (SM): SAADA was founded in 2008 by me and Michelle Caswell. At that time, we were both working at University of Chicago in different capacities. Michelle is now an Assistant Professor of Archival Studies at UCLA. Michelle and I realized that materials related to South Asian American communities were not being systematically documented and collected by any traditional repositories. We felt that these histories were being overlooked, and over time, in danger of being lost. My background is in computer science and Michelle’s is in archival studies, so we also realized that we could combine our backgrounds and create a powerful model for documenting South Asian American history. Out of these conversations, SAADA was born. SAADA is a way for us to make a contribution to documenting, preserving and sharing the stories of South Asians in the United States.

MICD: Are you affiliated with any other institution? Tell me a little bit more about how SAADA provides access to its digital objects.

SM: SAADA is an independent, nonprofit organization, but we definitely work very closely with institutions around the country. Our archive uses a post-custodial, digital-only model. This means that we don’t take physical custody of any archival materials. Instead we work closely with community members, organizations, and institutions to digitize and provide access to materials relevant to the South Asian American community. The physical materials, however, stay with the individuals, organizations or institutions from which they originate. One of the great strengths of this model is that it allows us to work collaboratively with many different groups around the country that may have relevant materials in their collections. We are then able to provide access to these disparate materials and create awareness about them in one online location. All the materials we collect are freely accessible through our website. In addition to the digital objects made available for web browsing and viewing, we also have high resolution objects that are meant for long-term digital preservation, which are not available for public web access. These two types of digital objects that we house represent the two parts of what we do: provide access and preserve histories for the long-term.

MICD: What do potentials users need to do if they require the higher resolution objects?

SM: For those who are interested in using our digital objects from our public access website, they certainly can do that. Materials from the archive have been used for individual scholarship, documentary films, lesson plans, research, blogging, creative works and many other formats. For those who require higher resolution and higher quality digital objects, we encourage them to contact us directly. Should we not have the permissions necessary for the use of the high resolution files, we direct users to the institutions or groups who hold copyright. Once permission has been granted, we grant access to the higher resolution files. One such instance like this happened recently. A documentary filmmaker wanted to use higher resolution files of images he found in SAADA. We put him in touch with the rights holder of the images, who was a descendant of the creator of the images. The rights holder granted permission and we released the high-resolution files to the filmmaker, which were then used in the documentary film.

MICD: SAADA’s mission, then, really, seems to be two-fold: First is the more technical aspect of working with digital objects: provide access and preserve materials that serve to document South Asian American history. Second is to help educators, researchers, writers, journalists and South Asian American community members to become more aware of individuals, groups, organizations and institutions that may have these materials or knowledge of the community’s history and stories. Do I have that right?

SM: Yes, that’s right. Besides providing access to materials, we also aim to raise awareness to the stories of South Asians in the United States–to make them relevant today, to both members of the South Asian American community and to the general public. We do this not just through the SAADA website, but also through events, through media, through outreach and educational programming. We attempt to use a variety of ways to raise awareness of the stories and contributions of South Asians in the United States; how they are an integral part of the American historical narrative. In many ways, we have gone far beyond just archiving and documenting materials. We’ve moved toward thinking about the usefulness and relevance of SAADA to various communities today.

There are many of us in the South Asian American community who are not aware of these stories, so raising awareness is not just a matter of academic interest. For me, it’s a very real problem that the community itself doesn’t have access to its own stories. As an organization, SAADA can play a role in connecting people with their own history. What’s amazing and fascinating is that interest comes not just within the South Asian American community, but from across the world. We’ve had nearly 150,000 unique visitors within the last year alone. And more than half of this traffic comes from outside of the U.S. Much of it comes from South Asia–countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Most there do not know much about the diaspora communities in the United States and are learning about these histories for the first time.

MICD: Speaking of outreach and educational programming, are there particular outreach or educational projects that SAADA would highlight in particular?

SM: One recent project that we’re really excited about is SAADA’s First Days Project, where we ask community members to submit their stories about their first day in the United States. What inspired this project was realizing how often I would hear from an individual about their first impressions of life in the United States, remembering a time in their life that was maybe 30 or 40 years ago. Somehow these memories from many years prior were crystal clear for them. So we wanted to create a way to capture these stories, and through the snapshot of one day capture the intimate details of arrival that are otherwise lost in the grand sweep of history. We have had more than 80 stories submitted to us already and more coming in every day. It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience to be able to capture and document an incredibly poignant moment in a person’s life.

As an organization we will continue to think creatively about how we can document, preserve and share stories from South Asian Americans and ensure that these communities are included in the narrative of what it means to be American.


Many thanks to APALA Board-Member-At-Large 2013-2015 Anna Coats for paving the way to making this article possible.

Editorial assistance provided by Jeremiah Paschke-Wood.

My Nomadic Life by Anchalee (Joy) Panigabutra-Roberts

This theme of a nomad is so apt, now that I live and work in the Middle East as the Head of Cataloging and Metadata Services at the American University in Cairo. It was a long journey from being born in Phitsanulok, Thailand, then having to uproot to Chiangmai, Thailand after my father moved to our current family home. There, I attended Chiangmai University, where I got my undergraduate degree. After graduation, I got a scholarship to attend St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN, and continued my journey on to Madison, WI, where I got my MLS. After graduation, I got a one year visa for practical training and got a job as an LC Cataloger at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.  After the training, I went back to Chiangmai briefly to try out a teaching job, before deciding to return to Ithaca to marry and spend my life with Ernie, my husband. From Ithaca, education and the (travel) pulses in my feet (a Thai expression, equivalent to ‘wanderlust’) took my family back to Madison, WI for graduate school, then Atlanta, GA, where Ernie got his first professional librarian position and my daughter, Alyssa, was born. I took my family back to Madison, WI to continue my study in the doctoral program at UW-Madison-SLIS. My dissertation research took us back to Thailand to do fieldwork research in a Northern Thai valley district with a weavers’ cooperative. Due to the difficulty of village life on my family, we decided to return to Madison, even though my fieldwork was not completed. While I was working on my dissertation, I got a teaching position in London, Ontario, Canada, where I taught organization of information, diversity in librarianship, social science resources and scholarly communication for three years. After having difficulties completing my dissertation while teaching full-time in Canada, I took my family back to the U.S. and changed my career track to become a professional librarian and accepted the Catalog Librarian position at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. My last position prior to relocating to Egypt was in Lincoln, NE as a Metadata and Multicultural Services Librarian and Women’s and Gender Studies Library Liaison.

I see my life’s “itinerary” literally recorded on my mother’s wall calendar with one big page filled with my addresses and phone numbers over the years. This record on her wall calendar is a testament to my nomadic life. Although I hardly planned for my life to turn out like this, deep down in my psyche, I know this must have to do with my curiosity about the world, my yearning for adventure and new experiences in life. I love to learn and explore new things, ideas, peoples and places. I am not one who stays still, obviously. To travel around like I have done, however, requires one to love adventure and embrace differences. One has to be willing to learn and adjust to some drastic cultural differences, languages and general disruption of life routines. It is not too far off to say that it requires one to be both brave and bold. This is not something for the faint of heart. One needs to be resilient since there is much difficulty to overcome in living in a new culture. But the positive experience one will gain is far greater and worthy of all the troubles one may have to go through. I won’t trade this for anything else.

I am fortunate to have love and aptitude for learning languages. My native tongue is in Thai, but I have learned English, Japanese, French and German, although I do not retain much of these language skills. However, these learning experiences trained me in new language acquisition, which is very handy now that I am learning Arabic. Like learning any new language, you have to be dedicated and willing to give it time and effort. I told my Egyptian staff to give me a year to master the Egyptian Arabic language. I’d better keep my word.

Beyond overcoming the language barrier, one also has to manage cultural differences. Basically, though, if you engage with others with respect, dignity and compassion, and expend the effort to learn their cultures, you will overcome the differences over time and will learn how much in common we all have. We all share the basic human experiences of love, losses and joy in our lives. And I have applied the above principles in my new life in Cairo, Egypt, as well. I will be at AUC for the next couple of years. And I would like to share a bit of my experience of living and working in Egypt.

So what’s my normal in Cairo?

I came to Egypt at a time of uncertainty, after the Arab Spring that toppled Mubarak, and subsequently the revolution that toppled the Former President Morsi. The protests still continue, mostly after the Friday prayers at various squares throughout the governorates of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, Fayoum and so on. Maadi, the suburb of Cairo where we rent an apartment, has seen some protest marches pass through, but we have not seen the violent clashes depicted in the media. In some way, we live in a bubble, not much affected by the unrest, so far.

Normally, my day starts with a bus ride provided by AUC, from a square in Maadi to the American University in Cairo, located in New Cairo. My ride starts at 8 a.m. and lasts for an hour on a good-traffic day. I get on my return trip at 5:15 p.m., arriving in Maadi between 6:30 to 7 p.m. or later, depending on the traffic. With free WiFi on the bus, I usually get some work done on the way to work. I enjoy working with my 8.5 FTE Egyptian staff very much. However, I do have some personnel issues to work through; most recently is the death of a new staff member who was so promising with his multilingual skills and a master’s degree. His death is a great loss for the whole library. As for other issues, we also have a tighter budget. It is a direct impact of the current political unrest in Egypt that hurt the economy and businesses. Other issues are the need for training, the documentation of cataloging procedures, quality control and efficiency in our process, to name a few. In many ways, we face similar issues other university libraries in North America and elsewhere are wrestling with; from e-books and e-videos, patron-driven acquisition, tightening budgets, the need to repurpose library space, redesign the liaisons’ responsibilities, and so on. In all, it has been a busy time since I started my current position at AUC on September 1st this year.

Although I’m no newbie to adjusting to a new culture, I still found myself being surprised by the differences. For example, I found learning Arabic, especially learning how to write from right to left, to be a huge strain. It goes against my writing habit as a right-handed person accustomed to writing from left to right to switch to reading and writing in Arabic from right to left. I also try to accommodate staff’s praying and fasting schedule especially during Islamic holidays, from Ramadan to the Eid al-Adha. I also had to learn about Islamic funeral rites due to the loss of a member of my staff in a tragic car accident. Another surprise is how the numbering of floors of buildings start with the ground floor, as in the British system. Or a work week starts from Sunday and ends on Thursday. TGIF no longer works as an expression for the joy of resting from the work week!  And oh, the Cairo traffic! I dread crossing the streets here with the fast and unruly driving, certainly not suitable for a faint of heart. I also found the communication style to be more personal and face-to-face, with less emphasis on work e-mails.

I have to say that I love my new job and the great opportunities to practice my leadership skills. I hope my experiences at AUC will pave the road of my career toward library administration. The University also provides great benefits, from a furnished apartment owned by AUC (I do pay rent), free bus services from Maadi to New Cairo, and generous salary and benefits. The Faculty Services also organizes weekend trips around Cairo and outside of Cairo. Our recent trip was to the Red Sea at Ain Sokhna, a resort town, with visits to the Coptic monasteries dating back to more than a thousand years old. Next week, we will go to Islamic Cairo, a well-known historic area of central Cairo, and I will post the photos from the trips on my Facebook page at

Last but not least, I hope to visit with you all at the ALA Annual Conference in Las Vegas in 2014. See you again soon, insha’ Allah (in God’s will, a very common expression in Arabic language).


Anchalee Roberts










Anchalee (Joy) Panigabutra-Roberts
Head of Cataloging and Metadata Services
American University in Cairo
New Cairo, Egypt


Editing assistance provided by Jaena Rae Cabrera and Melissa Cardenas-Dow.



American University in Cairo

American University in Cairo Libraries

American University in Cairo Press

AMICAL (our consortium)

APA Author Interview — Lisa Lim, New York City, N.Y.

Drawing from Life: Lisa Lim’s World in Words and Images

by Dawn Wing

Lisa Lim was born and raised in Queens, New York, where she grew up listening to magical storytellers like her Chinese grandmother and her Puerto Rican stepmother. She is the writer and illustrator of self-published graphic memoirs such as “Pots and Pans,” “My Egyptian Fortune Cookie,” and “Mi Madre.” Since then, her comics have been featured in Guernica magazine, Nashville Review, PANK magazine, and are available in the Museum of Chinese in America bookstore.

Of her art, Lim says, “Since I was a child, I’ve tried to capture their [my grandmother’s and my stepmother’s] colorful tales by writing short stories, novellas, and poems, but they always seemed to be missing that special something. That’s when I discovered comics.”

Ms. Lim just finished illustrating “Soma So Strange,” a children’s book by Carrie Rosten that came out this summer. In addition, Lim illustrated for a hip T-shirt company. While searching for her next creative adventure, Lim will continue to tell the funny and strange tales of her family. The Queens native generously took time out of her busy schedule to share her thoughts with APALA on being inspired by her family’s stories, the future of the comics industry and the importance of libraries/archives in the creative process. The article below is an excerpt from an interview I conducted in July 2013.

"Rose Garden" from "Mi Madre," a story about Lim's Puerto Rican step-mother.

“Rose Garden” from “Mi Madre,” a story about Lim’s Puerto Rican stepmother.

Dawn Wing (DW)What were your favorite books to read as a kid? What about as an adult?

Lisa Lim (LL): As a child, I was fascinated with “Grimms’ Fairy Tales.” I was spellbound by the gripping storylines and vivid imagery; how the stories blended innocence, violence, humor and imagination. The stories always elicited a strange mix of emotions in me. It was confusing yet exhilarating.

As an adult, I fell in love with Faulkner for the same reasons. Like Grimms’, Faulkner’s stories were dark, funny, unexpected, and always very visual. What I also loved about Faulkner was the musicality in his language and his use of stream of consciousness. I remember feeling I was almost in a state of meditation when reading his books. Like I was being hypnotized.

DW: How did these books and/or authors influence the work you do today?

LL: As a storyteller, they reinforced my own tales as a child. They made me feel okay about having grown up differently. Many parts of my childhood were grotesque, but beautiful and often hilarious. I found the same qualities in their tales. In my art, these authors also inspired me to think more visually and musically.

DW:  What drew you to comics and writing?

LL: I was always writing stories, ever since I was a child. After college, I became a writer in advertising. During which I went to grad school for creative writing at City College. I was immersed in the reading and writing of words for so long. Eventually, words became the last thing I wanted to create. So began my creative Renaissance. I started taking every class from African dance to salsa to painting to improv theater to comics. I remember my first comics class. It was taught by Matt Madden and Tom Hart, two awesome professors at the School of Visual Arts. All of a sudden, I found myself combining stories with pictures, as I imagined them. Sometimes, words alone were not enough to fully evoke the imagery I wanted to express. Now, I had a completely new form of storytelling – comics – through which to tell my tales. This medium was liberating and so much fun.

DW: What are your hopes for the comics industry?

LL: My wish is for the comics industry to continue to thrive; that unique and experimental voices have a space in literature. While I appreciate traditional superhero tales, it is wonderful to see “alternative” comics flourishing on bookshelves. I especially hope that it continues to embrace memoir graphic novels such as “Persepolis,” “Blankets,” “Fun Home,” etc. One day, I hope to complete my own graphic novel about my family to share with readers everywhere.

DW:  How does your diversity (cultural, educational, racial, gender, etc.) influence your work ethic?

"Angie in Egypt" from "My Egyptian Fortune Cookie," a story about Lim's sister, who is half Egyptian and half Chinese.

“Angie in Egypt” from “My Egyptian Fortune Cookie,” a story about Lim’s sister, who is half Egyptian and half Chinese.

LL:  My melting pot family is a constant source of inspiration. My father and mother separated when I was young. My father, who is Chinese, married my stepmother, who is Puerto Rican. My mother, who is also Chinese, married my stepfather, who is Egyptian. I grew up in a family where English was drowned out by loud Chinese, Spanish and Arabic. Rituals of many cultures surrounded me: my stepmother making rose baths to cleanse evil spirits; my grandmother telling me tales of her youth in China; my father taking us to the Cypress Cemetery to burn origami money so our ancestors would have money to spend in heaven; my mother teaching me how to feed the moon gods during Mooncake Festival. My stepfather cooking fried kofta in the kitchen and all the smells of Middle Eastern food.

Since the age of 4, I lived with my father, his mother and my stepmother. My grandmother assumed the “tiger mom” role, wanting me always to do better and work harder. My Puerto Rican stepmother was the nurturing maternal force, full of love and warmth, always encouraging me to pursue my passions. So, between the cultures, I became a nice blend of practicality and creativity.

DW: Can you describe an instance when libraries and/or archives played a beneficial role in your work?

LL: Since my grandmother outlawed the air conditioner in our home, because she thought it caused arthritis, I spent most of my summers as a child in the Queens Public Library. It was an air-conditioned sanctuary for me. It was where I worked as an assistant in the Adult Learning Center for many years. It was also where I escaped to vastly different worlds from mine by reading and watching movies. One of my fondest memories as a child is watching Rocky IV in the basement library. Every week in the basement of the library, they would feature free movies. I also borrowed tons of movies from the library and became a student of film in this way. Immersing myself in cinema really helped me think visually, and it would later help me create comics because I thought of story as cinematic scenes versus pure narrative.

DW: What message would you give to librarians/archivists/writers/artists regarding their value in the field you work in?

LL: For writers and artists, the message I would give is inspired by a recent Robert McKee lecture I attended. When asked what to do in the face of the daunting creative block, he answered unequivocally, “the library.” He said to go to the library and you research your story from top to bottom. I couldn’t agree more. No matter how well you know your subject, digging into it deeper, learning details that no one else knows about your subject, that kind of curiosity is what makes your story authentic. You must know the world you create inside and out. And the library in all its resources can help you discover this world.

For librarians and archivists, thank you for being the nurturing bridge to this information. Without you, our stories would be less, in every way.

DW: What advice would you give young professionals, especially those from diverse backgrounds, who are interested in a career in comics/illustration?

LL: My biggest advice is to find multicultural authors whose works inspire you. Take a trip to your local library and research works that spark your imagination and interest. Then turn to your family for their own stories. Ask your grandparents, father, mother, aunts, uncles, sisters–anyone and everyone–about their lives. Their stories will surprise and inspire you. Remember that your cultural perspective is what can make your story unique. Through narrative and illustration, you can give readers a glimpse into your own world. Be part of the growing number of voices that represent multicultural storytelling. Be brave, curious, and always have fun.

To see more of Lisa Lim’s work, visit

Her illustrations in the new book “Soma So Strange” can be purchased here:

Editing assistance provided by Melissa Cardenas-Dow and Jeremiah Paschke-Wood.

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