memory lane

Photos: When Indians took part in the most American of American traditions – the road trip

Who does the quintessential American experience include? The Road Trip project archives the memories of those left out.

“About 33 years back, my husband Murthy and I made a road trip to Washington State,” writes Chitra Divakaruni. “We rented a car because our regular car was too beat-up to withstand a road trip. I remember the feeling of adventure and excitement. We felt so American!”

On the website of South Asian American Digital Archive, these words by the Indian author are accompanied by a picture of her posing in front of one of the waterfalls in Mount Rainier National Park. The picture is from 1984 and was sent by Divakaruni for SAADA’s Road Trips Project that aims to document the experiences of South Asians living in the US and participating in an old tradition – the American road trip.

Submitted by Chitra Divakaruni at Mount Rainier. Image courtesy: South Asian American Digital Archive.
Submitted by Chitra Divakaruni at Mount Rainier. Image courtesy: South Asian American Digital Archive.

SAADA, a non-profit organisation dedicated to documenting and sharing the stories of South Asian Americans, started the online project to highlight the way the South Asian-American community is often excluded from narratives like the road trip.

Romanticised in literature and Hollywood as a metaphor for freedom and adventure, family road trips are almost a rite of passage for Americans. Yet, for a long time this tradition has been limited, the open road has not always been open to all. From 1936 to 1966, a booklet titled, The Negro Motorist Green Book, was published annually to help African American road trippers plan their travels during the era of Jim Crow Laws, when open discrimination against non-whites was widespread. The book included information on where African Americans were allowed to stop, eat or rent a hotel room.

The Negro Motorist Green Book. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The Negro Motorist Green Book. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“By sharing these stories, we are working to redefine how we imagine this particular American tradition,” said Samip Mallick, executive director and co-founder of SAADA. “When imagining an American road trip, the stories that come to mind are most often the ones shared in popular culture. Perhaps it’s the Griswold family driving to Walley World in their wood panelled station wagon in the film National Lampoon’s Vacation, or maybe the best friends in the 1991 road film Thelma and Louise setting off on a vacation. But this imagery matters. Who is included and, by extension, who is excluded affects the way we understand what it means to be American.”

SAADA’s Road Trips Project comes at a time when immigrant lives and experiences are being devalued in the US through a xenophobic discourse. “This question of who belongs in this country is one that comes up time and again,” said Mallick as he listed the incidence of hate crimes against people of colour.

In February, two Indian men were violently attacked by a white supremacist in Olathe, Kansas, who called them “terrorists” and told them “get out of my country”. One of them was killed in that attack. In March, a Sikh man in Kent, Washington, was shot at by a white man who also shouted at him: “Go back to your own country.”

The many photographs in the Road Trips Project of South Asian families at Yellowstone National Park, in front of the White House, at Disney World, and yes, of course, at Niagara Falls, help illustrate the diversity of both the American landscape and the American experience,” said Mallick. “Each photograph and story that is submitted adds another exclamation point to the statement that this is our country as much as it is anyone else’s.”

Submitted by Sharmila Rao Thakkar. Image courtesy: South Asian American Digital Archive.
Submitted by Sharmila Rao Thakkar. Image courtesy: South Asian American Digital Archive.

SAADA has received over 50 entries from all over the country thus far. For some, the trips inspire nostalgia about time spent with a deceased family member, while for many others, it meant traversing unknown and foreign lands they suddenly called home.

In one of the entries, a sari-clad woman stands inside the Yellowstone National Park area spread across three states – Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. “My mother had arrived in the US in 1963,” writes Sumana Reddy. “She was homesick, but also excited about exploring this dramatically different state, with nothing familiar she had heard of.” Reddy writes about her mother’s experiences as she tries to settle down in a country she knows little about. “My parents describe the professors, who were warm and friendly, who shared a haunch of venison or a string of trout (both terrifying to a South Indian woman who barely knew how to cook and had to mail order spices from New York). She consulted an Indian professor’s wife, Mrs Ali, an expert at cooking with meats and learnt what to do to make such foreign ingredients edible to her tastes.”

Submitted by Sumana Reddy. Image courtesy: South Asian American Digital Archive.
Submitted by Sumana Reddy. Image courtesy: South Asian American Digital Archive.

Food is a common theme with many families, especially vegetarians, packing the kind of food they are used to eating. Kaumudi Pandya writes about how she spent an entire day cooking in preparation for a road trip to Yellowstone. “My sister-in-law and I were so concerned about getting good Indian food during the drive to Yellowstone. I especially was concerned as I follow a vegetarian diet. We prepared idlis, puris, sabzi, yogurt rice, and athanu (pickle). We stopped at this rest area to eat, and it was completely empty. We had the whole place to ourselves for hours!” The accompanying image is of a typically Indian spread being enjoyed by the family at the rest stop.

Submitted by Kaumudi Pandya. Image courtesy: South Asian American Digital Archive.
Submitted by Kaumudi Pandya. Image courtesy: South Asian American Digital Archive.

Another common theme, according to Mallick, is of South Asian Americans exploring aspects of American culture and history that have been a big part of their own lives. An entry by Neil Singh shows a photo of him at Abraham Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Illinois, talking about how, as a lawyer himself, Lincoln was a hero to him.

“A final theme that emerges in many stories speaks directly to the ‘mythology of the open road’ and how quintessentially American it feels to be on a road trip,” said Mallick.

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