I was in sixth grade, summer vacation, and we were driving along a dirt road off some major city in Kerala. The white ambassador soldiered on through the pothole-infested road, as the ten of us cramped inside bounced up and down every five seconds. My mother said something to us in English, but instead of answering whatever question she had just asked, I started thinking about how odd it was to hear her speak in English. In India, she rarely spoke anything but Malayalam, and I found her Indian accent a little strange, when for years it had been nothing but commonplace at home. It was then that I proceeded to venture off even farther on the Indian accent train of thought and eventually asked my cousins, “What would happen if a white person grew up in India? Would they have an Indian accent?”
They laughed, and so did I, because, honestly, that’s hilarious and my first idea for a primetime sitcom should I ever write one (for the record, the lead role would be played by the always reliable Val Kilmer). But ever since then, I started thinking more about the idea of culture and the environment in which one grows up. I’ve since watched my mother and father more closely, compared them to my sister and me, and I’ve noticed just how different we truly are.
Many people attribute the rift between their parents and themselves to the generational divide, which is certainly evident in our family. (My mother and I have gotten into countless heated arguments about changing her profile picture on Facebook.) Yet there are numerous differences I can spot between us, subtle ones that I can see are direct products of our two vastly different upbringings.
It was the summer between seventh and eighth grade, and my dad was particularly excited for that year’s India visit: his college’s 25-year reunion. Unfortunately, we all had to accompany him; needless to say, the rest of us weren’t too excited to sit around in a hotel while the only time my dad stopped laughing with someone was when he was introducing us to someone else for a few seconds.
I was with my sister at the buffet on the first night when we saw our father recognize someone new. They smiled, laughed and hugged, quickly beginning the script of the standard college reunion meet-and-greet. But it took a while for the two to let go of each other’s hands.
My first thought was, “What the hell is that?” My sister and I exchanged looks that said as much, and she added, a little loudly, “That’s just gross.” We watched for another minute or so before they let go, and the absurd situation was over. But I looked around and saw that a lot of other men were holding each other’s hands as they talked to friends they hadn’t seen in 25 years. I didn’t understand at all; two men holding hands for that long would raise too many eyebrows to count back home. It was one of the most awkward encounters my sister and I have ever witnessed, but that was it: it was only weird to us. My mother quickly explained to us that in Kerala, at least, that kind of closeness was accepted, and not seen as a sign of something more.
Summers in Palo Alto are definitely hot; we still enjoy amazing weather, but our vacations from school can still reach a level higher than “toasty.” And when my sister was in middle school, her friends used to visit our house in the summer far more often, and I’d always see them for a minute or two before they stole the TV. I still had enough time to notice, however, that while they all wore shorts, my sister still wore jeans and a t-shirt. Over time, I would overhear shouting matches between my sister and my mother about her wearing shorts and my mom responding with a resounding “No!” each time.
The issue began to take more shape as I noticed that my sister packed jeans for every trip to India, yet by the end of the summer they were no more worn than the three rain jackets I always thought I’d need. Eventually, I learned that my grandmother will never let her out in India in jeans because, as my mother told me once, “it’s just not the way.” To my sister, our mother was being ridiculous by not letting her wear more comfortable clothing in the summer, but to my mom, she was being generous, by her own standards.
As I’ve grown up, I’ve witnessed more of these awkward brushes between Indian culture and American culture. My parents are oblivious to some American social cues that, to me, are blatantly obvious, and I’m confused much of the time in Kerala when they know to act a certain way that I don’t immediately. To that end, we’re in the same boat, my parents and I.
The culture shock that accompanies my initial days of every summer trip to India must feel awfully familiar to my parents, and by realizing and accepting this, I can sympathize. To be sure, my parents have become more experienced as they’ve lived in the United States longer, and I become more practiced with each visit to India. Yet there will always be a divide between the two environments, and I’ve started to see that everyone needs to simply recognize this.
When I was young, I had hoped for my parents to eventually assimilate. Now I see how naïve I was, and I even regret my wishful thinking. I’ve come to love my parents’ stubbornness to sacrifice their culture for my pride. The clashing ideals within our house have often provided me with indispensable experience and advice, not to mention a constant source of cross-cultural humor.
My mom laughed at the prospect of a Caucasian in India. She answered, “He or she would learn the language, the culture, and everything else about India. Just like we did here. It’s not as weird as you think.”
Nabeel Chollampat is a senior at Gunn High School and writes for the school newspaper, The Oracle.