UC Berkeley News


'Summer Journal' correspondents roam the globe
One builds solar cars; another prowls Cairo. Each summer, Berkeley students write home about their time away

03 August 2005

For the past four summers, the UC Berkeley NewsCenter (newscenter.berkeley.edu) has featured dispatches from Berkeley students spending their summers doing research, formal and otherwise, often in far-flung locales abroad, but sometimes as close to home as Southern California and the Bay Area itself. These "Summer Journal" dispatches have allowed NewsCenter readers to share in the experiences and insights of undergraduate and graduate students working on a diverse range of projects: inventorying artifacts from the excavation of a classical Greek athletic stadium; observing the reconciliation (gacaca) trials in post-genocide Rwanda; studying the relationship between free-trade policy and the cascade of migrants leaving Mexico; or exploring the contemporary role of the "mediation committees" established in China during Mao Tse-Tung's era.

This summer's correspondent cadre includes a linguistics student studying Arabic literature for a year in Cairo; an urban studies major of Palestinian heritage working in Bethlehem to establish a "micro-clinic" for diabetics there; a major in engineering physics who has spent the past two years working on a student team designing a solar-powered car that this month is being raced cross-country against other collegiate entrants; and a first-year medical student who is researching the whys and wherefores of sex-selection decisions among South Indian families in the Bay Area.

The report below is from the latter student, Sunita Puri. Her dispatches, and those filed by her three summer 2005 "Student Journal" fellows, are online at newscenter.berkeley.edu/goto/sj05.

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Sunita Puri (Steve McConnell photo)
Prior to earning her M.A. in modern history from Oxford University, Sunita Puri earned a B.A. in anthropology from Yale University, where her senior thesis focused on domestic violence among South Asian immigrants in the U.S. and U.K. and the responses of health-care providers to battered South Asian women. Currently enrolled in the Joint Medical Program at Berkeley and UCSF, she is doing fieldwork this summer in support of the M.A. requirement that program entails, under the aegis of Berkeley's Human Rights Center. In this, her third dispatch for the NewsCenter's "Summer Journal" feature, she ponders the universality of the phenomenon she has chosen to explore in its relation to a distinct subset of the Bay Area's population.

Scenes criss-cross in my mind, and I am taken back to that fine line that I walk.

Saturday, daytime, Central Valley. I am with the woman whose case I am working on through Narika (www.narika.org), an organization that focuses on domestic violence in the South Asian community. This particular case, involving a client I will call "K," is one of the most complicated cases I have experienced. Hers is also the family to whom I have become the closest in my years of working in the South Asian community, and I have a tremendous amount of affection for K and her family, especially her children. We talk about how one daughter wants to become a physician "like Sunita didi" (a compliment, an honor, that has no equal in my life and probably never will), how her other daughter is determined to become an engineer "and build my mom a house," and how her son aspires to professional basketball. On this visit, we forgo basketball to sift instead through photographs that they have taken over the past week. I have brought them a CD of devotional music, and it plays in the background as we laugh over the strange expressions and faces that the photographs, some candid, have captured.

The resilience of these children floors me. Their ability, indeed their natural desire, to laugh and joke in the shadow left by trauma is at once startling and inspiring. K was in a violent marriage and left unable to work as a result of the injuries she sustained at the hands of her husband. I have found her a physician who speaks her language, who is kind and unafraid to engage with her as a fellow Punjabi, who allows K to call her didi, not doctor. I hold her hand as she cries in the exam room, describing the origin of her injuries, explaining that she does not have money to buy crucial medications, wondering aloud how she will support her family since working at the moment is a challenge, given the severity of these injuries. We are working to raise money to pay for a CT scan of her head, which is vital given the injuries she sustained. I have wished often over the months I have worked with K that I had the money to write her one big check to cover everything, especially this medical cost. More importantly, I wish I had a metaphorical patch big and tough enough to cover the hole that this experience has left in her heart.

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Back to Berkeley. Days later. I stand, clad in salwar kameeze, in front of a room of educators who are India-bound on a special program promoting cultural exchange. They are interested in women's issues, and I was asked to give a presentation on women's health in India as part of their orientation.

Cut to the audience's questions.

Question 1: "Well, I read this story in the news about how there was this 5-year-old girl in India. She was an epileptic and her uncles were raping her. Is that ... common in Indian culture?"

Question 2: "Is it true that Indians exile their daughters if they have birth defects ... or fistulas ... or body odor?"

Question 3 (to myself): "Why am I doing this again?"

Which leads me to explain: This dispatch is not directly about my project, but instead it is about one of the biggest concerns and frustrations I have in doing this project. It is an issue I ponder almost daily as I try and recruit women and physicians for interviews and as I play and replay snippets of interviews in my mind and transcribe them on my computer. What is particularly "South Asian" about the suffering of women like K? Why are their situations always discussed from the vantage of culture and religion, as though there is something organic and deliberate and predictable about patterns of abuse among South Asians as opposed to Americans? On one hand, South Asians are defined in terms of their "ancient, amazing" culture, and on the other hand, this loosely defined "culture" steps in as an explanation for all that is deviant and supposedly pathological about South Asians?

It is a very strange, liminal position to inhabit: writing about complex social phenomena among South Asians and then contending with factors that lead people to interpret any writing or research on South Asians through one particular lens. Wanting on one hand to draw attention to the diverse struggles of my sisters, but not wanting more generalizations and more stereotypes to be attached to these struggles.

This week highlighted my dilemma because I spent a good amount of time with my client and her family, and on the phone trying to coordinate various services for them. And I spent time researching and preparing a presentation in which I was asked about domestic violence as if it were somehow emblematic of the plight of Indian women in particular. Needless to say, it is not. In the same way, the Laci Peterson case is not emblematic of the plight of white women.

And yet, how can I speak about K, her needs, and her situation without falling into the trap of feeding stereotypes, which clearly exist? This juxtaposition — of engaging directly with the ramifications of domestic violence in the South Asian community, and then being asked offensive questions about domestic violence in the South Asian community — has had me thinking and writing all week.

These musings are not intended to deny the importance — indeed, the necessity — of drawing attention to South Asian women who are brutally mistreated in their homes. It's an extraordinarily important (and sadly common) issue that affects women of all backgrounds; the consequences for some women, such as K, happen to be especially devastating because of linguistic, cultural, and social isolation that worsens abusive situations. K bears these isolations oceans away from all that is familiar to her; she has worked hard ever since she came to California, working 18-hour days and earning a degree as a health assistant, all to make a new life for her family. In a few seconds that she barely remembers, her world changed. She wonders every day why this has happened to her, and what will happen to her from this point on in this vast country. Stripped of all identities that could be politically or subjectively interpreted, K is just a woman who has been horribly and unjustly abused, and who is looking to move forward with her life without the means to do so.

At moments like that, it doesn't matter what her race, culture, or language is: There is a common emotional experience that women in K's situation may experience to different degrees and in different ways. Her alternating sorrow, rage, worry, grief, and anxiety have nothing to do with her birthplace, religion, or ethnicity. Her children have everything to do with the emotional force she is tapping into in order to move past this experience.


Narika, the nonprofit with which Sunita Puri is working this summer, is coordinating ongoing fundraising efforts for K and her family, to pay for medical treatment and groceries. Donations with the code "AD" will be designated for her. For details, visit www.narika.org/support/Donate.html.