Mosaics: My Muslim-Indonesian-Okinawan Identity by Ariana Hussain

I am a Muslim. I am an American. My father is Indonesian and my birth mother is Okinawan. I grew up in the Monterey Bay area in northern California. Growing up, I was never perceived as Asian. At one time, I chose “Pacific Islander” as my ethnicity, since my peers kept telling me that real Asians looked a certain way. That way didn’t look like me. Before I started wearing a headscarf, people assumed that I was Mexican. It was not an unfair assumption. The majority of the ethnic minorities in my primarily Caucasian town were Mexican or of Mexican descent. But it became rather tiresome to try to defend my inability to speak Spanish or know about my culture, when it really was just what others assumed as my culture. Not that I knew a ton about either of my inherited cultures in the first place. So, to add another layer to what I was supposed to know, a collective history of people over the last 1,400 years from different continents, cultures, languages, races – just because we shared a common religion – was just a little bit daunting.

An image of Ariana Hussain, the article's author, in a family photo, consisting of nine individuals.

The author, Ariana Hussain (second person from the left, first row) with the Sani family.

A 2009 Gallup report found that the American Muslim community is the “most racially diverse religious group surveyed in the United States.” African Americans constitute 35 percent of this demographic and more than a quarter classify themselves as racially white, (yes, Virginia, a lot of Arabs check the white box), 20 percent are Asian, 18 percent identify as other, and 1 percent identify as Hispanic. So many Muslims have talked about our large “imagined community”[1] and what it means here in the United States. In this country, as in others, the Muslim community is a blend of Islamic ideas and identities. What it means to be Muslim is a conscious existential choice rather than a cultural given. It is a microcosm of the larger world and an amalgamation of identities, practices and norms that vie for a place of being authentic, Islamically and morally correct.

Since Islam is more of a blending of my cultural norm and ethnic identity, nationality took precedence in my identity, and I identified as just an American. I went to school, hung out with friends, did my homework and was involved in multiple extracurricular activities. It didn’t even occur to me that I was different from my friends, except that I knew I was Muslim, Indonesian and Japanese. I did have a teacher ask one time if English was my second language and a parent ask if anyone had ever discriminated against me because I wasn’t white. That was when the concept of identity really entered my consciousness. I asked my friends what they thought of me. They just said they saw me as me, and that meant more to me than anything else. It still does. The concept of a colorblind society was an idea that disturbed me, though, and I began to realize the privilege my peers had and what my own privilege had been.

Then 9/11 happened. I can honestly say that before then, I never thought I would wear a scarf. I was deeply interested in my faith, but it was much more in the context of history and spirituality rather than in actual practice. Until I went to college and met other Muslims, I only knew some of the social and religious normatives in the “mainstream” Muslim community. As I grew in my faith, I adopted more of these social mores, and my identity became more complex. When I put on my scarf, I automatically became an Arab. People assumed that I knew Arabic, that I didn’t know English, and that some man in my family was oppressing me, forcing me to veil myself.

Even my own family’s perception of me changed. One of my uncles was worried that I was never going to have fun again. My identity became faith first, then ethnicity and nationality. Yet, I was a minority within a minority, as most of the students in my Muslim Students’ Association were Pakistani and Arab. Strangely, though I was already supposed know everything about my collective Islamic history, my parents resented my adopting more Arab dress. I thought it was fine if I was wearing clothing from everywhere and everyone, but Indonesia wasn’t very well represented in Islamic fashion, at least in the States. And though this has changed in recent years, I found that unless they had been to the archipelago, other Muslims did not know much about Indonesia, other than that it is the most populous Muslim country in the world. It is a strange thing to think, in a community that is so large and diverse, it is almost an accepted norm to know each other by stereotypes.

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to study abroad in Turkey in 2003. Like most study-abroad experiences, it was enlightening in so many ways, both frustrating and rewarding. What I found amusing, though, was the perception of Muslim Americans by the Turkish students I met. I had a conversation with a slightly inebriated young man who had watched “Malcolm X” and thought all Muslims in America were black. I thought it was funny when one of the Turkish girls on my floor said that they loved the slight chink in my eyes and declared me to be Asian, not questionably Asian. I was also able to travel a bit, visit other countries in the region. My overall takeaway from that experience was realizing just how American I am, despite, or perhaps because of, my multi-layered identity. Upon returning to the U.S., I felt like my identity had fractured even more.

When I was young, my cousin’s cousin came over from Indonesia to visit one summer. Upon meeting me, then a teenager, he declared me to be hancur. Hancur is an Indonesia word and has an array of meanings. In this particular context, it was used to describe something broken. It was not a nice thing to say. People with multiple backgrounds can have a view that might even be described as multi-faceted — layering mixed cultures, American identity, religion outside of the status quo and the perception of others. Such a viewpoint can lead to confusion, despair and the idea that one is never enough. I felt this way particularly during graduate school, despite my attending a program that had a cohort that was substantially diverse and in a very multicultural city. Graduate school can be an isolating experience for everyone, but I felt almost unwelcome, though I received my MLIS at my undergraduate alma mater. Little incidents, like hearing someone say there was too much of a focus on diversity in our program, having books knocked out of my hands as someone brushed past me, or facing glares in class from those that perceived me to be strongly prejudiced against the LGBT community, were flooring. The latter particularly disturbed me, as a relative had just come out to our family and I was helping my friend, a trans-man, acclimate to the area and to his physically expressed, postoperative identity.

Image of Ariana Hussain and Imad Hussain at a children's library.

Author, Ariana Hussain, in the foreground. In the background is her husband, Imad Hussain. Photo credit: Fizzah Raza Photography.

Added to that was my attendance at a professional librarian panel program, in which a known critic of Islam was invited to speak. This panel was intended for an audience of ethnic and multicultural librarians as a representation of my community. By extension, it was meant to represent me. I felt even more unwelcome in the library field.

Graduate school allows a student to develop skills and explore professional opportunities, but I found myself paralyzed into inaction. I entered the library field because of my interest and belief in the power of libraries. I wanted to provide information and dispel misinformation, not only in general, but specifically false impressions about any of my communities. I thought that it would be empowering for the public to see a person who looks like me working at the local level and to see that I was a normal person. I do regret not being more active, or more willing to advocate for myself during my graduate school years, but I was unwilling to share so much of myself with people whom I thought would not accept me even if I tried. It was much later though, with the help and support of a few good friends, and the recommendation of a professor to join APALA, that I was able to find my feet and my voice again.

There are problems that I face everyday, or at least on a regular basis. I have had patrons leave me proselytizing material, had a child ask if I was going to blow up the building, and have even received an anonymous death threat while on the job. I have been called “that Korean lady,” “that White lady” and, my favorite, “the lady with the rag on her head.” Like all of us in the public eye, I have had my share of negative experiences and I am sure there will be more over the course of my career. Working as a children’s librarian has also given me some of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

Finding support from other professionals in the field who have had similar experiences helped me to move beyond those negative experiences. Now more than ever, I am determined to stay true to my initial career goals, develop professionally and share my experiences with others. I hope that people will see me for who I am beyond my appearances and beyond stereotyping in the field and out of it.

Image of Ariana Hussain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ariana Sani Hussain
Children’s Librarian at District of Columbia Public Library
Washington, D.C.

 

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

 


[1] See Anderson, B. (1983). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism.

 


 Resources

Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism by Benedict Anderson

The New Imagined Community by Uriya Shavit

Muslim Americans: Studies

Pew Research Center:
Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream
http://www.pewresearch.org/2007/05/22/muslim-americans-middle-class-and-mostly-mainstream/

How Muslims Compare With Other Religious Americans: http://www.pewresearch.org/2007/07/06/how-muslims-compare-with-other-religious-americans/

Muslim American Identity: Scholarly

Encyclopedia of Muslim-American History by Edward E. Curtis IV

Muslim American Youth: Understanding Hyphenated Identities through Multiple Methods by Selcuk R. Sirin and Michelle Fine

Muslim American Identity: Books & Literature

Living Islam Out Loud: American Muslim Women Speak edited Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur

I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim edited Maria M Ebrahimji & Zahra T Suratwala

Muslim Women in America: The Challenge of Islamic Identity Today by Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, Jane I. Smith and Kathleen M. Moore

Love in a Headscarf by Shelina Janmohamed

Does My Head Look Big In This? by Randa Abdel-fattah (YA)

The Butterfly Mosque: A Young American Woman’s Journey to Love and Islam by G. Willow Wilson

 

 

Member Highlights Showcase — Katie Seitz

Katie Seitz is a new APALA member. She is currently getting her MSLS at Simmons College GSLIS with a concentration in archives and expects to graduate in August 2015. Through the Simmons chapter of the Progressive Librarian Guild, Katie curates a lecture series for the Simmons Anti-Racism Working Group. This project features various LIS professionals invited to Simmons College to speak about race and racism in the field. Additionally, she is an intern at the Massachusetts State House Special Collections department, Roxbury Community College Archives and has an upcoming archives assistantship with Tufts University’s Digital Collections and Archives.

Katie is working hard towards her goal of being a public librarian and archivist:

I enjoy the service and community aspects of library work and the chance to publicize history that comes with archives work. I have welcomed the opportunity to grow in different ways at my various internships, whether that’s learning how to put together a MARC record or writing a blog post about a Civil War-era collection of papers. Some days I still can’t believe that I will soon get to do this work professionally.

She identifies as a multiracial Korean American. She writes,

My mother is Korean and my father is white of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage. Though I was raised in a predominantly white town, my mother sent me and my sister to Korean school every Saturday and we got to spend time with Korean American family and friends. I am so grateful for her hard work in helping us maintain a connection to Korean language and culture.

Having joined APALA just a few months ago, Katie looks forward to becoming more active with APALA in the future:

I was so glad to connect with other A/PI people in the LIS world. This profession is not diverse, and we must advocate for our own concerns because no one else is going to do it for us…. I have only been a member for a few months, but I have been so impressed already by the way that APALA works to promote A/PI visibility, supports and celebrates its members, and is responsive to member voices. I have a deep commitment to promoting social justice and I am excited to be part of a group that has an active, conscious membership and engagement with social issues. Of course, I’m also looking forward to meeting people at conferences and in the Boston area!

Welcome to APALA, Katie!

 

Edited by Alyssa Jocson and Raymond Wang

Mark Your Calendars for APALA @ ALA Annual, 2014 Edition

Just a reminder: For the latest news on events APALA has planned for ALA Annual Conference in Las Vegas, check out the APALA @ ALA Annual page.

APALA Tour: Zappos and the Downtown Project
APALA Executive Board Meeting
APALA Literature Awards Banquet
APALA Membership Meeting
APALA President’s Program: Immigration Reform, Asian Americans and Librarianship

More details on the APALA Tour and Literary Awards/Social to be announced, so keep your eyes and ears open!

 

Congratulations to the newly elected 2014 APALA Executive Board

Congratulations to our incoming Executive Board members, who will be serving under the leadership of incoming President Eileen K. Bosch.

President: Eileen K. Bosch

Vice-President/President-Elect: Janet Hyunju Clarke

Treasurer: Dora Ho

Secretary: Sarah Hong-Ji Jeong

Member-at-Large (2014-2016): Melissa Cardenas-Dow

Member-at-Large (2014-2016): Paolo P. Gujilde

Member-at-Large (2014-2015): Annie Pho

Member-at-Large (2013-2015): Anna Coats

Immediate Past President: Eugenia Beh

All terms will begin after the 2014 ALA Annual Conference.

 

Celebrating 35 Years of APALA — Interview With Gary Colmenar

Recollecting APALA’s Past: An Interview with Gary Colmenar, APALA 35th Anniversary Conference Steering Committee Co-Chair

by Melissa I. Cardenas-Dow and Alyssa Jocson

Save-the-Date: APALA 35th Anniversary, June 2015 (San Francisco)

Save-the-Date: APALA 35th Anniversary, June 2015 (San Francisco)

In late March 2014, APALA Web Content Sub-committee members Melissa Cardenas-Dow and Alyssa Jocson conducted a long-distance, asynchronous e-mail-based discussion with Gary Colmenar, prominent APALA member, current ALA Council candidate, and SRRT Action Council member (Social Responsibilities Round Table). We focused on APALA’s upcoming 35th Anniversary Conference, of which Gary is one of the three program chairs. The APALA 35th Anniversary Conference will be a conglomeration of events intended to showcase the bridge that is the past, present, and future of APALA, both as an organizational entity and as a social group of diverse librarians intent on supporting each other and the Asian/Pacific Islander (API) communities in North America. The following article is the first of a three-part mini-series marking APALA’s 35th Anniversary. It also offers an edited version of our conversation. 

Melissa Cardenas-Dow (MICD): Thanks, Gary, for agreeing to do this interview with us. Please briefly tell us about yourself and your position(s) in APALA, especially your role in planning APALA’s 35th Anniversary celebration.

Gary Colmenar (GC): Thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about APALA’s 35th Anniversary. The Anniversary Steering Committee has met several times now, since the call for volunteers was sent last fall. We received a high number of responses from the initial call. Since then, we have met via phone conferences and collaborated over email and the APALA wiki. We also had a meeting at Midwinter in Philadelphia [ALA Midwinter 2014]. Currently, the committees are engaged in the initial stages of planning.

I am one of the co-chairs for the APALA 35th Anniversary Steering Committee. The other co-chairs are Jade Alburo and Florante Peter Ibañez. I am also involved in the Program Planning Sub-committee. I was APALA President in 2002-2003 and Executive Director from 2006-2012. Currently, I am the Editor of the APALA Newsletter. I am a Humanities and Social Sciences Librarian at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

MICD: What do you think is the most important function(s) of APALA?

GC: I’d like to answer this question by going back to the history of APALA and looking at the original goals set by the founders. This history is well-chronicled by Ken Yamashita in his article entitled, “Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association: A History of APALA and Its Founders.” Ken mentioned several critical issues affecting librarians of Asian Pacific American heritage, which the founders wanted to address through a formal body. They wanted to address the lack of visibility and recognition of librarians of Asian and Pacific Islander (API) descent in ALA, to provide a forum through which API librarians could voice and share their successes and concerns related to their work and profession.  The founders wanted to establish an organization that will open lines of communication with ALA, its units, and the public in general.  Furthermore, they wanted to create an organization that welcomed all Asian ethnicities, a place to discuss issues shared by Asian Pacific Americans. In 1975, the Asian American Librarians Caucus (AALC) was formed.  Five years later, APALA was created.

MICD: How do you think these goals and functions evolved over the years? Do you think they did (or didn’t) change?

GC: Yes, I most definitely think these have changed! It seems that evolution or change is a natural trait of a dynamic and working organization. The functions have evolved also with increase in membership, changes in the composition of the Executive Board, and with more resources. As a result, the organization has expanded in what it does. For example, APALA has been engaged in giving scholarships and other types of awards. APALA has become more involved in philanthropic work, making donations to API organizations, communities and libraries. APALA has made donations to the Asian American Federation WTC in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. APALA has made donations to groups in other countries. APALA also has made great strides in developing professional relationships with other library organizations, especially the various ethnic library affiliates and ALA units. Most recently, the Executive Board, with input from membership, voted to endorse the joint statement of ALA and BCALA regarding Florida as the site of the 2016 ALA Annual Conference.

I would also emphasize that while the functions have expanded and changed, the original principles established by APALA’s founders still remain at the core of APALA’s activities.  This is evinced from the activities and initiatives APALA officers have engaged in over the years, such as the creation of an Executive Director position to improve workflow within the Board, the development of a strategic plan to capture APALA’s vision, mission and goals. These changes allow APALA’s Executive Board and committees to continue to grow and develop the organization, to focus on achieving our original goals through programs and new projects.

MICD: What role(s) has APALA played within the larger organization of ALA during its 35 years of existence? How has this changed over the years?

GC: As an ALA member for over a decade, I have seen the number of APALA members elected or appointed in various ALA units and committees increase during the last ten years.  Our members have been elected to the ALA Executive Committee, ALA Council, ALA Divisions, Round Tables, and Task Forces. These are important committees where policies, programs, and standards of practices related to library services, information access, and many other issues important to the library profession are discussed, developed, and decided. Moreover, APALA members on these committees engage with members from other ethnic affiliates and Round Tables to address common concerns.

As an ALA affiliate, APALA has received tremendous assistance from the ALA Office for Diversity (ALA OFD) and the ALA Office for Literacy and Outreach Services (ALA OLOS).

“History is not the past. It is the stories we tell about the past. How we tell these stories–triumphantly or self-critically, metaphysically or dialectally–has a lot to do with whether we cut short or advance our evolution as human beings.” — Grace Lee Boggs, “The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism For the Twenty-First Century,” 2011, p. 79.

MICD: In considering the past 35 years of APALA’s work, what would you consider its highlights?

GC: Since I joined APALA in 1998, a lot of memorable and important events have happened. The first National Conference on Asian Pacific American Librarians in 2001 was a major event for both APALA and CALA. Ken Yamashita from APALA and Ling Hwey Jeng from CALA were conference co-chairs. With their leadership and hard work, the conference was a major success. Literary awards were presented at the conference, which APALA now presents each year. The APALA 30th Anniversary celebration held in Washington, D.C. was a memorable event, which included tours of the White House and Library of Congress.

MICD: What about in terms of specifically promoting and advocating for API information professionals and patrons?

GC: I think many of APALA’s activities promote and advocate for our colleagues. The APALA scholarship and travel awards first come to mind. We have supported the ALA Emerging Leaders program since its inception. The mentoring program provides a formal structure that connects new librarians with more seasoned members.  Outside of the formal structure, I would like to think that mentoring happens everyday in APALA, within committees and in the Executive Board. It happens informally and serendipitously at social gatherings. APALA has sponsored several programs on leadership and management.

But, I also think that we could do more, especially in the area of advocacy for colleagues related to finding employment and other work-related issues. We also need to be vigilant and conscious regarding representations of API people in literature and advocate against stereotypes. The presentations from our guest speakers at the APALA social dinner in Philadelphia addressed this issue very well.

MICD: With regards to building bridges with other ALA groups, especially those that focus on cultural and ethnic diversity, could you describe for us the collaborative projects APALA has engaged with?

GC: There are many.

  • The collaboration with CALA, which was the first national conference on Asian Pacific American Librarianship.
  • The Joint Conference of Librarians of Color (JCLC) held in 2006 and 2012 were huge undertakings and I am pleased to say that many APALA members volunteered to collaborate with AILA, BCALA, CALA and REFORMA to make these events successful, informative and entertaining.
  • The Talk Story joint project with the American Indian Library Association (AILA) is one of the projects our organization is engaged with currently. It is also a funded project.
  • On a smaller scale, APALA has co-sponsored programs at ALA Conferences numerous times, with other ethnic affiliates and ALA units such as the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table (LGBTRT) and the Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT).
  • It is important to mention that APALA, through the initiatives of some of its members, has been engaged in social justice issues in recent years. I am happy to see this trend, especially given the intentions of APALA’s founders.

Our organization has also been successful in collaborating with Asian Pacific American organizations, cultural institutions and communities through the tours we hold at ALA Conferences.  The tours of the Newberry Library (Chicago), Versailles Vietnamese community (New Orleans), Chinatowns (Boston Chicago, and Philadelphia), Tri-state Denver Buddhist, Little Saigon (Orange County, CA), South Asian American Digital Archives and Asian Arts Initiative (Philadelphia), and the International District and Wing Luke Museum (Seattle) were all successful events.

MICD: What do you think were the biggest challenges APALA tackled during its 35 years of existence?

GC: In my opinion, some of the biggest challenges APALA has tackled since its establishment were related to membership participation, financial stability, and leadership transitions. Given the smaller size of APALA’s membership, calling on volunteers for elected positions and committee work was especially difficult. I am pleasantly amazed that APALA has accomplished a lot with few resources every year. This demonstrates the quality and dedication of APALA’s membership, which I hope will continue into the future.

Losing the historical memory of our organization is another major challenge for us as an organization. This is an important source of the organization’s collective identity and inspiration.

One of APALA’s unique traits, and its strength, as many have already pointed out, is the diversity of its members. This engenders a climate, a sensibility and an awareness of differences in people’s perspectives and experiences. At the same time, these differences–in race and ethnicity (I include mixed races here), gender and class, just to name the most visible forms of differences–that APALA members embody presents a significant challenge for the organization.

MICD: How will the APALA 35th Anniversary Conference highlight APALA’s history to new members and non-members?

GC: The Steering Committee and the Sub-committees have been brainstorming ideas for a while now. Here are a few that I can mention at this time:

  • We plan to involve several individuals to take part in the events to talk about APALA’s history.
  • There is a plan to include a plenary speaker to address the theme of the symposium, which is on building bridges, the past, present and future.

The Steering Committee will consider other ideas as we plan for this event scheduled in June 2015.  More importantly, we will seek participation from APALA members as we plan for the symposium.

I greatly appreciate the fantastic work of the members of the Web Content Sub-committee [a sub-committee of the APALA Newsletter & Publications Committee], who have been engaged in conducting interviews with and doing historical research on the founders and original members of APALA. These articles will be posted on the APALA website.

MICD: Thanks, Gary, for the shout-out! What message do you hope attendees will get out of the APALA 35th Anniversary Conference?

GC: The overarching theme of the symposium/anniversary is building bridges and making connections. We intend to capture the spirit of this theme through programs and workshops that identify the connections between librarianship and community, as well as the links between APALA’s past, present, and future.  I hope that the symposium would provide a space for attendees to articulate and develop these linkages in as broad a manner that will be useful to them.

MICD: Any last words for our readers? What message would you like to leave them with, regarding APALA’s past and history?

GC: I hope to have shared some of APALA’s rich past related to service, advocacy, and support for API librarians, API communities and the library profession, beginning with the initial intentions of its founders. But, like any organization, APALA has encountered its shares of struggles and internal strife as well.  All these combined throw into sharp relief the commitment and passion of its members, especially its officers and committee members who volunteer their time and effort in the service of APALA’s mission and goals.

I have shared with the readers my perspective and thoughts on APALA. I am certain that each member has a story to share and all of these individual stories, good and bad, combine to present a more-complete version of APALA.  I am also hopeful that more stories will be told because APALA has a mission to uphold.

I end by sharing a quote from a lifelong activist, scholar, and Asian American feminist Grace Lee Boggs. She is the subject of a film documentary entitled, “American Revolutionary: the Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs”:

“History is not the past. It is the stories we tell about the past. How we tell these stories–triumphantly or self-critically, metaphysically or dialectally–has a lot to do with whether we cut short or advance our evolution as human beings.”

 

Questions created and interview conducted by Melissa I. Cardenas-Dow. Editing and writing support provided by Alyssa Jocson.

 

APALA Travel Award

Are you planning to go to ALA 2014? The APALA Travel Award will provide $500.00 to support attendance at the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference. The Travel Award will fund one APALA member to attend the conference and will be used to help cover registration and travel expenses.

Criteria
Applicant must be a current APALA member in good standing by application deadline.
Applicant must be either a student who is enrolled in a master’s or doctoral degree program in library and/or information science at a school accredited by ALA, or a professional possessing a master’s degree or doctoral degree in library and/or information science.
Applicant must be a citizen or permanent resident of the United States or Canada.

How to Apply
Complete the APALA Travel Grant online application by April 14, 2014: http://www.apalaweb.org/awards/travel-grant/apala-travel-award-submission-form/

Selection Procedures and Timeline
The APALA Scholarship & Awards Committee will select and notify the recipient by April 28. The winner will be announced by May 5.
The Travel Award check will be distributed at the ALA Annual Conference.
The recipient will submit a report to the APALA Scholarship & Awards Committee after the ALA conference discussing what they gained from attendance and how the Award assisted them. This report will be due by September 1.

Contact Information

If you have questions or need additional information, please contact the APALA Scholarship & Awards Committee chair Tassanee Chitcharoen at tassanee.chitcharoen@coloradu.edu and co-chair Valeria Molteni  at valeria.molteni@sjsu.edu

The selection committee is composed of Frans Albarillo, Emily Chan, Paul Lai, Tassanee Chitcharoen, Valeria Molteni, Gayatri Singh, and Melanee Vicedo.

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