In February 2017, a white racist shot two Indian tech workers in Kansas in an anti-immigrant rampage. One died. That and other anti-Asian attacks, occurring amid a surge of racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric accompanying Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and elsewhere, so alarmed retired Oregon tech manager Sankar Raman that a few weeks later, he founded The Immigrant Story as a nonprofit organization.
The following month, a white supremacist attacked two immigrant women on Portland’s Max train, then killed two men who tried to protect them. All that violence, ignorance and hatred, along with the Trump administration’s so-called Muslim ban that restricted travel to the U.S., underlined the desperate need for Raman’s artistic response to racism and xenophobia: telling the stories of immigrants through words and images, many of them his own evocative photographs.
Since then, 235 profiles (and counting) have appeared on TIS’s gorgeous multimedia storytelling website, most written by student scholars who are mentored by experienced journalists and authors. Last year, Raman decided to forge even closer connections by bringing some of those inspiring stories even closer to other Oregonians in a free-of-charge, recurring live event called I Am An American. This Saturday, the second and latest edition, already sold out, brings a half-dozen more stories and original music to Beaverton’s Reser Center for the Arts.
Understanding through storytelling
Raman arrived in Oregon in 2004 when his wife accepted a job at Intel’s Hillsboro campus. They’d previously worked at the company’s New Mexico operation. As detailed in Dmae Roberts’s ArtsWatch story and podcast episode, the 2017 anti-Asian attacks particularly resonated with him, because he, too, had been violently assaulted because of his immigrant background, shortly after he came to the U.S. Midwest in 1980 to study at Purdue University. After earning bachelor’s, master’s (in physics and engineering), and doctoral (in engineering) degrees, he worked for decades in engineering.
According to its mission statement, The Immigrant Story aims to, among other things, “advance the national dialogue and dispel myths about new Americans through strong, thoughtful, narratives,” and to “provide a platform that focuses on the common strengths of all Americans, not their differences.”
In astonishingly short order, the all-volunteer organization gained contributions from educators, journalists, designers, visual artists, web developers and others, as well as awards, grants, and increasing recognition as “one of Portland’s premiere storytelling sites,” Roberts wrote. Along with publishing dozens of profiles drawn from over 250 interviews and counting, it also expanded its offerings with podcasts, movies, videos, exhibitions, and live events like this Saturday’s show at The Reser.
TIS doesn’t have a central headquarters. “We came of age in Covid,” Raman explains. “Zoom is our office.” It works well because the organization relies on dozens of volunteer contributors from coast to coast. It also partners with other community organizations, including ArtsWatch, and you can find several TIS profiles republished on ArtsWatch.
Immigrants, of course, have always made immense contributions to American culture. “Immigrants — we get the job done,” as the Hamilton song notes. The dozens of profiles on The Immigrant Story’s site attest to their value to Oregon in many areas. Yet why are more than half the subjects artists?
“We do have a lot of artists,” Raman acknowledges. “The key is, I really like exploring the traditions these guys are bringing to America. What happens to those traditions?” The stories of artists and their art represent the larger story of how immigrant traditions persist and evolve in a new land.
The proliferation of artists on TIS may also reflect its founder’s own vision. As a glance at his striking photography on the site, and Blake Andrews’s 2021 ArtsWatch’s story about it, attest, for all his tech and organizing skills, Raman is an accomplished artist himself. Yet the power of his photos of TIS subjects emanates not just from his technical skill and experience, but also from his attitude toward the immigrants the site celebrates.
“We have about 60-70 percent refugees of color,” Raman explains. “Typically in America refugee imagery has been defined by a colonialist lens. We avoid that by honoring them and what they represent, making sure they’re represented right. Everything about [the photo shoots] is done in such a way as to focus on their eyes, because that’s how you look at other people in person.” He centers faces and expressions rather than following common mainstream media attention on “exotic” fashion or “that high contrasty, doom and gloom image,” as he puts it, that define so many stereotypical refugee media representations.
From web page to live stage
To bring those connections between immigrants and other Oregonians even closer, the irrepressibly energetic Raman decided to add two live events per year, in which audience members could see and hear TIS subjects in person. This Saturday’s second edition of I Am An American Live (TIS’s ninth live show since 2019) features storytelling from a quartet of immigrants from the Portland tri-county area: Toby Loftus, Chanpone Sinlapasai, Ghassan Bin Hammam, and Megna Damani.
“We have interviewed 250 people in Oregon,” Raman explains. “A lot of times we sit down with these folks for 2-3 hours, so we know what these stories are and who are the good storytellers.” But TIS also provides them abundant resources over a six-month prep period. “The whole format is home-grown and created here in Portland,” Raman says. Local author and internationally experienced English as a Second Language teacher Nancy E. Dollahite interviews and works with each storyteller and helps them construct a script, including a story arc and other compelling narrative elements. A performance coach, Alton Takiyama-Chung, helps with developing their onstage delivery.
“I figured the power of storytelling is when you go in front of the audience and tell your own story,” Raman says. “I have seen the space transform into a place where everybody is empathetically listening to you and walking with you as your story progresses. It’s about building communities, sharing stories, creating conversation.”
Along with the stories, the show features original sounds. Past shows have included Sarajevo String Quartet, an ensemble of Afghan Ghazal singers, an Afro-Jazz ensemble, a Mariachi fusion band, and a pan-Asian orchestra of nearly 20 musicians. The first edition, last May at Beaverton’s Reser Center for the Arts, even produced an album of the event’s original music, and Saturday’s show includes original pan-Asian music played on traditional Asian instruments and backed by Western classical harmonies, composed by Balamurali Balu.
Studio to stage
The Oregon composer/musician, whose story appears on The Immigrant Story website and was republished in ArtsWatch last year, has now created an entirely new original score and production for Saturday’s show. He grew up near Chennai and came to work for Intel after earning his master’s, bachelor’s and doctoral degrees. In his spare time, he took music courses online from Boston’s famed Berklee College of Music.
Balu’s professional music career ignited when he began scoring short films for the Tamil market in 2011. He’d create those early scores in his off-hours (often working till 2 or 3 a.m.) from his home studio in the Bethany area west of Portland. He’d promote the scores online at social media sites like YouTube. One of those films won him an award for best music director and recognition on Indian national television. That in turn led to his participation for several seasons in a TV series he characterized as similar to American Idol — “sort of a short film idol.”
All those film scores and work with emerging film directors led to assignments scoring features when those short film directors graduated to full-length films and needed composers and music directors. One song from his first feature went viral and became a staple of Tamil TV. That success enabled him to quit his job at Intel to work full-time as a screen composer.
Still, even after scoring a couple of successful features, “I realized that you can break through and get some projects long distance,” he told ArtsWatch, “but you can’t really compete with composers who live in Chennai” if you live in Oregon instead of the heart of South India’s film industry. He opened an office and studio there and commutes frequently to make recordings and work with directors in person, renting it out to other musicians when he’s back in Bethany.
For years, Balu made all his film projects for the Indian market — until one day he got a call from Sankar Raman, who had told a mutual friend about his desire to create a live performance outlet for The Immigrant Story. The two connected via Zoom as Balu was down with Covid at the time. “He was explaining about this project,” Balu recalled. “I didn’t know that Zoom call would turn into such a beautiful event later. That changed everything.” He signed on to provide music for I Am An American.
Not that it was easy. A couple of obstacles immediately presented themselves. First, Raman wanted music as multicultural as TIS, not just the Indian film music Balu specialized in. He’d have to take a crash course in various other Asian musical traditions.
Moreover, Balu’s music-making in Oregon happened in his home studio, on keyboards and computer screens. For a live performance, he’d have to play live — and build a band.
He quickly began scouring Spotify playlists, YouTube tutorials, and other research sources about Chinese, Persian, Japanese music. Even though by now he was approaching age 40, Balu knew from experience that he could learn unfamiliar music on his own, using abundant online resources, a practice that he continued through his film scoring career.
“Film music doesn’t have a genre,” Balu explains. “As a film composer, what we write depends on the movie we work on. One day, we might work on an R&B song, the next a classical music score. If I’m working on a movie and the director says we need a Western orchestra score, that day I’m an orchestra composer. The next day I’m a music producer and I’m working with hip hop artists. With that mindset, when I approached this project, it was fascinating for me. Exploring uncharted musical territories gave me musical strength — I learned how I can weave in different ideas from different cultures.”
While accumulating musical knowledge, such as which notes could be played on unfamiliar instruments like koto, Balu was also putting together a band, starting with some of the musicians profiled on The Immigrant Story website. They in turn referred him to others, so many that he and Sankar compiled a database of musicians, checked out their portfolios and demos, and selected an ensemble appropriate for the first IAAA show last year.
For this weekend’s concert, Balu wrote an entirely new set of compositions and chose a different musical mix, including a string chamber orchestra to back the lead Asian instruments, and vocalists on two numbers. He wrote the lyrics for one of them. “It’s about how music got into me and how it has transformed my life,” he explains. “But it’s not just about me — it’s about the love between the musician and the music.” For these concerts, Balu creates music that echoes the values embodied in The Immigrant Story itself.
“Everyone from different cultural backgrounds brings their beautiful and valuable traditions to this country,” he says. “My job is to understand the beauty in their music and try to tap that.”
Although he’s still creating movie music, with another score in progress, that first IAAA concert revived Balu’s love for making live music for the first time since his college days. “I’ve been a studio musician for the past 20 years, working dog hours in my home studio. But nobody knows what I’m working on, so it’s been rejuvenating for me to interact with audiences again. All these years, I have been giving music to the audience, but I didn’t know how they feel. Now I’m performing in front of them and experiencing that audience vibe. The taste of this event has opened my eyes.”
And also his family’s. ”When I work on movies, my work just appears on screen,” he explains. “So my family don’t feel it, they don’t see me in that, but when I perform in concert in front of my family here, it’s a completely different experience. It’s a very touching experience for me to see my wife becoming emotional. She used to see me perform in my college band as a drummer, and now twenty years after that she’s seeing me performing again now.”
West Side Vibe
Raman’s choice of the Reser Center reflects the prominence of Asian culture on the west side of the Tualatin Mountains, what Washington County residents might call the East Hills — Oregon’s most ethnically diverse neighborhoods, where East and South Asian faces and languages enrich hiking trails, shops, and other public spaces. Both Raman and Balu live in the diverse suburbs between Beaverton and Hillsboro, near the Intel campuses where both worked and which are part of the tech sector that attracts thousands of Asian immigrants who contribute to Oregon’s economy.
It’s also no accident that The Immigrant Story’s next major project happens in Washington County, at Hillsboro’s Walters Cultural Arts Center, which, especially in recent years, regularly programs and supports performances across the arts spectrum that reflect the area’s cultural diversity, part of the city’s broader cultural arts inclusiveness policy.
“It’s important to not only me, but to all our staff, as well as City of Hillsboro leadership, Hillsboro Parks & Recreation leadership, and our HACC board members that we represent the diversity of our community, bringing a wide range of performers, voices, and viewpoints on our stage,” Performance, Event, and Marketing Supervisor Katrina Hill told ArtsWatch. (See also Friderike Heuer’s ArtsWatch photo essay.)
Running June 6-24, To Bear Witness, a collection of photographs and accompanying profiles, illuminates the stories of Oregon immigrants who escaped hardship and danger in their original homes and then contributed mightily to ours — and now theirs, too — here in Oregon. (Read Beth Sorenson’s ArtsWatch story.) Along with the portraits and stories created by The Immigrant Story, the exhibition also includes images from Portland photographer Jim Lommasson’s exhibition What We Carried, which depicts objects that survivors managed to bring with them on their risky journeys, and then the participants responded with handwritten testimonies, in words and images. Hillsboro Public Arts Supervisor Karl LeClair also hopes to include in-person engagement opportunities, a question-and-answer session, and maybe even a film screening as part of the exhibition.
After that, TIS’s next I Am An American live event hits Portland Center Stage September 22. (Check the site for free ticket info, because they go fast.) Preparations are already underway, to help the next set of storytellers counter fear with stories, ignorance with understanding.
The Immigrant Story presents I Am An American Live at 7 p.m. Saturday, April 15, at Patricia Reser Center for the Arts, 12625 SW Crescent St. Beaverton. The show is sold out, but the website offers plenty of opportunities to enjoy, volunteer for, and contribute to The Immigrant Story. Information on the Walters Center’s To Bear Witness exhibit will soon be available at the Hillsboro arts website.