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Ask an Immigrant: Ranjan Adiga

Ranjin Adiga black and white portrait

by Liz Dobbins

Ranjan Adiga, Westminster associate professor of English, was born and raised in Nepal—a country many may think of as “third world.” As a part of the upcoming Westminster Thinks Big event, Ranjan will discuss—in a Ted Talk format—his experience as an immigrant and the loaded word that “third world” is.

In your own words, what is Westminster Thinks Big?

“It’s an important platform to give people from different backgrounds a voice on campus. It’s letting the community know that people from diverse backgrounds exist and they have a story.”

Part of your talk will be discussing the word “third world” and it’s negative impact. Can you give a brief explanation on that?

“I grew up in Nepal and Nepal is regarded as a third-world country. I’m going to question that term ‘third world’ because I feel like a lot of us have moved beyond that, but a lot of us haven’t. And the reason why we haven’t is because you hear this in the mainstream and social media all the time; even from politicians and celebrities. Even people like Bernie Sanders who’ll say, ‘Oh, we don’t have healthcare, which means we’re like a third-world country.’ So that’s very ingrained in people’s vocabulary. I’m making the argument that it’s not nice to put different countries in a hierarchical setup like that. When countries are defined as third world, inevitably the people from those countries are also defined as third world: they’re poor and brown and they’re useless.”

Do you think “third world” is a word used mostly in the US?

“I think it’s used everywhere. It’s definitely not specific to the US. The first time it was used in the 1950s, it wasn’t used in a racist way. It was to differentiate countries that were not a part of the US or the USSR. But over time, the word just became a shorthand for brown people from poor countries.

“People in Nepal use it too. People either will say that to countries that they think are inferior to them, so the racism kind of plays out in different ways. Some people might say, ‘Oh, we’re not really third world.’ Some sections of the Indian news media does that. They don’t like to think of themselves as third world, and rightly so. But they’ll point to other countries that they think are terrible, and call them third world. It’s interesting how that kind of racism gets so internalized by different groups and they use it to kind of punish people who they think are beneath them.”

Another area of your talk discusses the immigrant experience. What’s your experience as an immigrant in Utah?

“It’s a very different experience here because I was in Hawaii before this, which is like the other end of the spectrum; it’s very diverse. In fact, whites are a minority in Honolulu—which is where I was. In a sense it’s difficult here because I’m noticed a lot more. I stand out a lot more. I worry more about my family because my son was born in the US, but he’s brown. I worry that he will get bullied even though he’s five years old.

“I’ve lived here for five years, but I can only remember one time when I had a really horrible experience and I wrote about that as an op ed in the Salt Lake Tribune. But essentially what happened was this guy at 7-Eleven accused me of stealing a bottle of water. And then when he made the 911 call he said the guy looks Middle Eastern, which sounded like a coded word for dangerous and brown. Apart from that, on daily basis, it’s not something that I experience overtly. I think the Mormon culture is polite and they leave you to your own. But there are the usual, subtle examples of people speaking slowly assuming you might not know English. That happens more than you’d think.”

How is this experience different for other immigrants?

“I do want to acknowledge my own privilege as an immigrant. So there’s levels of where you’re at in the immigration process. When I was a student, or when I was on a work visa, it affected me more because if you’re on a work visa, it can get canceled anytime for reasons out of your control. I now have a green card and I don’t necessarily have to worry about that so much, but that’s not to say that it’s not affecting other people. I’m not thinking about this every day, but it’s going to impact the guy who has to worry about their visa. Then there are people without the right documents, which is a whole different experience of living constantly in fear. So, “immigrant” is not a homogenous term.”

What can Westminster do to help immigrants on our campus?

“What Westminster can do is talk about diversity a lot more. And we need to talk about the international students too because diversity here, I mean we’re way better than what we were five years ago, but we still have long way to go. But diversity is still focused on US-specific issues and those are important issues like race and gender, but the international community gets left out of that conversation.

“I like the idea of giving people from different backgrounds a platform to talk about their experiences, their lives.”

Why should readers come to your Westminster Thinks Big talk?

“Come to listen to stories that have not necessarily been told. ”

Westminster Thinks Big will take place on November 8 at 6:oo pm. 



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The Westminster Review is Westminster College’s bi-annual alumni magazine that is distributed to alumni and community members. Each issue aims to keep alumni updated on campus current events and highlights the accomplishments of current students, professors, and Westminster alum.