My mother did not understand me
I don’t understand you, my mother said to me, 42 years ago, when I was an eighteen-year-old teenager. I didn’t understand her either.
Despite the fact that the values which colored my world had been largely shaped by my parents, I couldn’t understand a large part of where they were coming from. How could I? They had both been born in the 1920’s, and their adolescence and young adulthood had seen the freedom struggle from the British and the bloody Partition of British India, when they had fled from West Punjab with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. My parents’ generation believed in carving one’s own destiny into an iron clad world through a stern focus on the future.
I had been born in the 1960s, in relative prosperity and stability. I believed in the Beatles and Fleetwood Mac, and liberty and equality for all humankind. I believed in John Lennon’s vision of a world without religion, and in the “world becoming one.” I resented patriarchy but adored my father. I took pride in my education at a tony Indian school and felt wise, unoppressed, and free, despite the miserable statistics on a general lot of Indian women. I believed I would be the perfect, progressive mother and there would be no gap in understanding between my children and me. I would be youthful and would ‘get’ everything, instantly.
I don’t understand my daughter
“I don’t understand you,” I told my daughter when she turned eighteen.
“You don’t get it at all,” she retorted.
The wheel had turned full circle. Despite my hubris about my open mindedness, we had fallen into the classic, timeless crevice of the ‘generation gap.’
When I looked in the mirror, I realized that for me to understand the quirks and cultural idioms of her generation I would first need her to understand where I came from.
I needed her to understand what it took to tear up roots and come to a country which seemed all too familiar from the movies we saw and the books we read, but which, in reality, was a world with values so alien that it caused a cultural shock that crumbled every previously held cliché about ‘life in these United States.’
My homeland does not understand my adopted land
“You must be rich now that you live in the land of milk and honey.”
“Milk and honey are cheap, but for everything else we’re taxed to the teeth.”
“Watch out for your man—I believe you get sex at every street corner.”
The only people I saw on my suburban street corner were folks walking their dogs and picking up doggie doodle with surgical plastic gloves.
My adopted land did not understand me
She would have to understand the insecurities, and the struggles, associated with looking and speaking differently— Where is that quaint accent from? Africa? This was an era when the globe couldn’t be googled on the internet-Oh yes, I know India. My cousin went to Islamabad. She went on a camel ride.
She would need to understand the desperate need to build a community from scratch, and to replace the network of friends and family which had anchored us back home, and which we had thoughtlessly left eight thousand miles behind. And the automatic gravitation to other immigrants like us. Also, the slow chipping away of an established identity by the subtle war of attrition American culture waged on our Indianness, in an era when it wasn’t fashionable to be Indian.
Immigrant Indians don’t understand their homeland
She would need to understand why for years many immigrant Indians would dream about going Back Home, but when a few finally gathered up the resources and courage to do so, Home had changed so irrevocably that they found it as alien as they had found America when they first landed on its shores.
“Ok Mom, I’ve heard this lecture a thousand times,” she said. “You still don’t get it.”
I tried hard to “get it” by reflecting on the struggles my daughter has faced growing up in a culture where her differences stand out like different species of birds do.
My daughter does not understand her immigrant parents
“Why don’t I have blonde hair? How come we all have black hair and black eyes and why don’t we have blond hair? Why is my skin so dark? And Ryan said my boobs probably smell of curry. I’m buying school lunch—don’t give me that Indian stuff?”
To “get it” I would have to put aside some of my notions of what constitutes success —money, accolades, recognition, large homes, all the standard totems which are a product of our immigrant struggle to prove that we’ve ‘made it.’
“I don’t need a giant house—I want to travel and experience the world not work myself to death like Daddy and you do.”
Also, my notion of what is the best way to live out a life—the standard trajectory of marriage, children, and an endless round of obligations until retirement.
“Why does one have to get married at all? They don’t in Europe anymore and they’re perfectly happy.”
I need to understand the next generation
I would have to demonstrate an appreciation of a notion of marriage that is blind to color/gender/religious affiliation/sexual orientation not as performative lip service, but as a from-the-gut welcome to any gender/color/religious affiliation/sexual preference she might bring home as a life partner.
“You have that funny expression on your face when I said that John told Meera he’s ok with being bisexual.”
But most of all, I would need to understand the notion of ‘personal space.’ The vastness of America requires a lot of space between inhabitants, especially parents and children. The space contracts and expands at your offspring’s will, but is needed the most when a child turns eighteen. That is also when personal freedom becomes as essential as breathing to the average American teenager.
Personal freedom means different things to each generation
Personal freedom for my generation meant permission to stay out late at the movies.
Personal freedom for her generation means not having to ask for permission at all.
“Do you know I don’t need to share my medical information with you after I’m eighteen. Of course, I will because I’m an obedient daughter but still, thought you should know that.”
However, the generation gap, like all open wounds, has a way of closing over time; life has a way of knocking the youthful hubris with which we judge our parents right off its pedestal.
Glimmers of understanding
In my later years I came to understand my mother, and the joys and vicissitudes of the life journey which had made her who she was.
As maturity begins to slide quietly, into my daughter’s world, I see the same glimmers of understanding light up occasionally in her eyes, which I had in mine when I looked at my mother, 20 years ago.
“I see how hard it must have been for you, Mom, with no parents to support you when you came here, and we were born. I’m going to let you babysit my kids all the time.”
To which I retort, “Not all the time, only on my time. You’ll bond with your baby if you take care of it yourself. Take it from an old timer, who’s seen it all.”
Despite the gap, it’s hard to outwit an older, wiser generation.
To which I say–
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