Usha’s grief is simple. She barely speaks to her husband. She has not spoken to her twenty-two year old daughter for two years. “I am all alone,” she says. “I seem to be slowly falling apart. I don’t know what to do.”
Usha’s condition is not unusual. Stress and depression are fairly common among Indian immigrant women in the United States. They arise from complex issues: elements of almost feudal values and traditions met head on with a fast-moving and strange society. They are really symbolic of a larger social and cultural confrontation. India with its long historical tradition of religion, caste, and culture encounters America, which has moved from childhood to decadence without a period of maturity. The encounter is bound to be painful and harsh.
“Basically, the pressure is in dealing with an alien culture,” says Dr. B. Patel, a psychiatrist at a Boston hospital. “There are problems of adjustment for Indian immigrants because of an almost complete transposition of values of an old society on a new and modern culture, which as neither the need nor the respect for these values. These problems magnify a thousand times because no insulation for the shock is provided y family relationships as in India.”
Usha lives in a Boston suburb. She came to the United States in 1960 when her husband was studying at MIT. They visit India often, have mostly Indian friends, eat Indian food, listen to Indian music, see Indian films, and try to impart to their children what Usha calls “our Indian values.”
But these values haven’t taken her very far. She is alienated from her husband and her children and spends most of her time watching soap operas. Her husband is gregarious and a leader of sorts in the Indian community. He finds her a bore and a burden.
“Even men have a hrd time when they come here,” he complains. “They have to keep proving themselves in their work and have no larger network of friends and relatives to depend on. We have enough tensions outside the home.” He seems oblivious to her anguish.
Usha’s daughter, Maya, is cocky and aggressive. She walks around the house in a shocking pink bathrobe, behaving provocatively. A flash of anger crosses Usha’s face but she doesn’t’ say anything. The girl ignores her mother completely.
Maya is bitter. “My mother has given me all this hogwash about Indian values since I was a child. In trying ot be an Indian I have been pretty miserable all these years. I was almost never asked out on dates and I became very conscious of my color. The only way I could be accepted was, I felt, by being American in my ways.”
“It is really this dilemma which creates ambiguity,” says Dr. S. Vora, a psychologist. “Often Indians want to become Americans in the shortest possible time. But this creates sharp conflicts within families because it is usually the woman who resists giving up her cultural identity and value system.”
Some women are so afraid to lose their identity that they cling almost desperately to some overt forms of a cultural link. Many force their Americanized daughters to learn classical Indian dance or attend classes on Hindu religion. They worry endlessly about the future of their children in a culture they fear and cannot understand. They also worry about growing old in an uncaring society. They are not very clear about why they are here and often talk about going home. But harsh economic realities make going back difficult. Some are escaping oppressive family ties, but this leads to tremendous guilt about leaving one’s country and families behind.
Anju has lived in Burlington, a Boston suburb, for eleven years. “They shock for me was not so much in being here as in leaving my families behind. I had never been alone in my life before. Our house was always filled with relatives, friends and servants. When I came here I was suddenly in a cold dreary apartment with no one around, not even a crow. I just went to pieces. My husband was tied up with his work and had little time for me. Even now, after so many years, I haven’t gotten used to the loneliness. There is always a vacuum inside me and I often dream about going home. But my husband has convinced me to stay.”
Many women come here with men they barely know. Most marriages in India re arranged by the family, usually to someone from the girl’s own community, though some urban middle class families have modified the norm and allow their daughters to marry someone of their own choice. There are no institutional arrangements for men and women to meet and dating is not a cultural norm. Marriage is often more than just a contract between a man and a woman; it is often a larger social contract between families of similar caste and social status. In a typical arranged marriage it may take several years to work out close relationship. Even then the extended family relationship is emphasized rather than the marital one.
But in India the early tensions of marriage are buffered by social customs and a network of family support. Women often visit their mother’s homes or an old aunt or sister may come along to help. Or the women may marry into an extended family where the ground rules are already set and she slips into her role.
“Here the pressure for some newly-married women to adjust both to a new man and a new situation can be devastating,” according to Dr. G. Roy, a psychiatrist who has many women patients. “The women are alone and often rather poorly equipped to deal with a new language and culture. They may have never cooked in their mother’s homes or even know how to run their homes properly. Then they come here with a man who is often demanding and, if he has lived abroad for a while, impatient with their inability to adjust quickly.”
An engineer who has lived in Boston for many years went home, under parental pressure to marry. “I often ask myself why I married an Indian girl. MY own values have changed so much that I just cannot relate to her in a meaningful way. But somehow a divorce will be too much of a hassle,” he says.
Many men want their wives to be more like American women. They whole concept of aesthetics may change. One man said he became obsessed with white, blonde women and began to find his wife unattractive. Some badger their wives to switch to Western clothes because they don’t want them to stand out. Some may want them to drink socially, talk to their American colleagues and be more assertive in public. But the woman may want to cling to her sari and her traditional ways because it gives her a sense of identity.
For professional women the experience of living and working in the U.S can be both challenging and frustrating. Soma, a physicist, says she feels “terribly at home here. I guess it’s a function of the age at which you come. I came to Harvard when I was twenty and I had no problems in adjusting. I don’t think I could work in India anymore.”
Some don’t’ feel so comfortable. Rekha did a two-year residency at a Connecticut hospital. “It was traumatic. I was completely out of tune. I have never lived alone before and I couldn’t relate to any of the people around. But what was most upsetting was the fact that there was subtle discrimination. I was expected to prove myself all the time. Nurses would question me twice about the medication I recommended but they rarely questioned my American colleagues. This upset me enormously and made me very aggressive. I didn’t like this change in my personality at all.”
Many professional women complain that their husbands still go by rigid role stereotypes. “My husband wants me to behave like a traditional Hindu wife,” says Taran, a successful doctor. “When I come home from work he expects me to cook a full Indian meal while he watched TV. As far as he is concerned the children and the house are my responsibility, yet he insists that I work full time at the hospital.”
Several of these women are Westernized in their thinking, financially independent and see little reason to accept their condition if they are unhappy. When marital tensions escalate the result is sometimes divorce or separation for those who cannot accept the finality of divorce. Divorce continues to have great social stigma attached to in in India. People usually enter marriage with the intention of making it work. Even when marriages flounder they are usually endured.
One divorce lawyer estimates that about ten to twelve percent of Indian couples in Massachusetts live separately and another five percent are divorced. Many of these separations would not have taken place in India,” he maintains. “Some couples don’t’ tell their friends here or their families in India because they fear social disapproval or pressure to reconcile. Some even maintain the charade of going home of the holidays together.”
One young woman in California who left her husband after six months of marriage was rejected by all their Indian friends. “No one bothered to call me up even though they knew I was alone and in desperate need of support,” she says. “But my family in India were very supportive and really saw me through this crisis.”
Because parents are ambiguous about their attitudes toward this society, they transfer this ambiguity to their children. “In the bringing up of children here parents are torn in many directions,” says Dr. Vora. “They want their children to be in the mainstream of American life and they also want them to continue to be Indians at heart. Some urge their children to maintain a balance between the two cultures while others tend to be very protective and authoritarian especially with their daughters.”
Women are especially torn by this dilemma because traditionally women are deeply tied to their parents. Indeed, in this emotional tie are subtle attitudes of obligation to pass on the customs and traditions of their community to their children.
Nina, a twenty-six-year old economist, has lived din the United States since she was ten. “I don’t’ have a distinct identity,” she says. “My values are partly American and partly Indian. For instance, I would feel guilty living in the lifestyle of this culture. I just cannot go to bars and date different men. In trying to find my feet I decided to go to India but I didn’t fit in there either. All the eligible men my family trumped up for me to meet seemed to only want to use me as a passport to get here. Now it seems to me that I may never marry. “
In India, when a woman marries someone who lives abroad she is considered fortunate. Once leaving one’s country was a sin. Today going “foreign: is the ultimate in destiny, a boon showered only on the lucky or gifted to twice-blessed. For most Indians, American truly holds the promise of a dream and a happy escape from the uncertainties at home.
But many of the women here, surrounded though they are by all the symbols of luxury, live with a strange sense of loss, of deprivation, and a romantic, almost pathetic, nostalgia for India.
Sandhya, almost as an afterthought, while describing the superior qualities of Haagen Dazs ice cream over Indian brands, said, :I have been wanting to go back ever since we came fifteen years ago. I have told my husband that I only need 24 hours to pack. I am ready to leave whenever he is.”