Meet Mr. Sanjay (or Vijay or Ajay?), your predictable computer consultant who works 60 to 70 hours a week, has very little knowledge of America’s social issues and has even less knowledge of Indian history or meanings behind the traditions he follows.
According to him Ganesh is some god he worships in a temple and Deepavali is time for exchange of sweets and disco dancing. He has no understanding of the mythology of this elephant-headed god named Ganesh, Ganapathi or Gananayaka and the beautiful stories of his life and his complex relationship with his parents, Shiva and Parvati.
For him, Deepavali is some event in the winter, where people have a few drinks and merely socialize. He wears shorts to the temple and carries his cellular phone wherever he goes. His wife wears a saree or a salwar kameez and insists that the children speak to her in Tamil, Hindi, Telegu or one of the the numerous different beautiful languages of India. She is his culture—both in preserving it and transmitting it. Maybe this is the reason our faceless and identity-less three-piece suited Mr. Sanjay, Vijay or Ajay with his laptop and cellular phone is terrified of “women’s liberation” and the dirty “f” word—”feminism.”
If the Indian woman left her traditions in the family and the community, then the Indian man has nothing to cling to. His core has been taken away by workaholism in an American culture and an economy where his labor is sought but not his life or his identity.
America has never paid attention to the cultural needs of its immigrants, as Rolle writes in his book, “The Italian Americans” (1980). The Polish, Italians, Irish, and the Jews, all have had to uproot themselves and their culture during immigration. And in the process of acculturation many became an emotionally repressed, hardworking, lonely version of the Anglo-Saxon cowboys whose only success in America were the big houses and the big cars they flaunted to their relatives and other immigrants. There were many immigrants who did not even achieve the economic success they had hoped for, though they kept writing to their family back home about how great America was while they were struggling in isolation, loneliness, and with low social status.
Immigrants were expected to deny their feelings or suppress it and denying culture was certainly a way by which America ignored the basic human need for connection, belonging, and acceptance. Rolle writes that some immigrants even sold their souls to achieve success in America—the ultimate sacrifice. Through all this sacrifice immigrants were supposed to smile exuberantly and adapt very well to the outrageous working conditions that demanded more and more with no reprieve.
Historically, work role remained the only important role and the only source of identity for much of the white European men (Bergh, 2000). They began to impose it on immigrants, women, and people of color. Nowhere but in America is a person who works his or her expected 40 hours, considered lazy, lacking ambition, and even gets labeled as a “loser.”
There is something sad in a society where artists, social researchers, people who pay attention to concerns of people, are considered “losers.” To some it is the shallow workaholic myopic worker who cannot think outside the box who is the real “loser.” And America loves to reward him by giving him more work!
If you take away work from many Americans there is nothing to replace it! Hence, most people obsess about being millionaires so they don’t have to work ever again. If work was truly enjoyable and the work conditions more humane, integrating personal needs and traditions, there would not be this urgency to escape it. The average American hates work as much as he works obsessively. It is not surprising that many people actually take a gun to their workplace and shoot their colleagues and bosses. Only in America is there such an obsession with a formal institutionalized work-world, which has nothing to do with creativity, enjoyment, or pleasure. It is all about efficiency, making money, and conforming. We in America are so efficient we have forgotten what we are efficient for.
A British anthropologist once wrote, “In America nobody plays tennis, they work on their back hands.” Even a pleasurable hobby like tennis is a competition and carries all the gestures of “work” for many. No wonder there is a group of youngsters who rebel by being couch potatoes while watching hours and hours of mind-numbing television. It is their way of saying, “I do not follow the society’s work rules.” This workaholism, without doubt, fosters poor relationships, high divorce rates, and misogynists who prefer dogs and computers to people.
Immigrants are the first to fall into this trap. The few assimilated immigrant men and his fellow nonimmigrant who do become millionaires will never tell new immigrants and other minorities about workaholism, while they play golf and take their kids to a basketball game. They’d rather have us unquestioningly and foolishly slave away—work, work, and more work. If the work-slave is depressed, has a complaining wife, has children who never see their father, has to juggle so many traditional responsibilities with little understanding or empathy, what does it matter to the boys in power? As Vijay Prashad succinctly states in his book Karma of Brown Folk “They care for our labor not our lives.”
So we immigrants, particularly Indians, constantly keep ourselves flexible. Immigrants do it better than others and some immigrants take the lead in this adaptation ritual. I believe three words Indians teach each other, their children, and especially their daughters, are “adjust, adapt, and accommodate.” Sometimes they may substitute the word, “compromise” for one of these three.
So, if in America there is no effort to bring affordable and accessible childcare, Indians will bring their relatives and their parents who will devotedly do these tasks. If Indians get unfairly fired from their jobs they will quietly acquiesce to get another one just to survive rather than file a lawsuit or demand justice. If we women complain and raise questions against the status quo, our men will shout at us for being too difficult and aggressive, rather than support our good fights. We will adapt, adjust, and accommodate until our backbones become supine and supple! An indelible trait the colonizers left behind. Hence women and men who fight against social injustices, be it the terrible treatment of our taxi drivers or the prejudiced treatment of blacks and browns by traffic cops, instead of being understood are outright ignored and actually criticized. Will women’s rights ever gain support in this atmosphere or will our community align itself on the side of the exploited? Take a guess!
Many Indian workers have lost their core amidst this obsessive work-world. Being poorly grounded in their own culture, other than the few rituals they blindly follow, and having very little connection to the social and cultural life of America, these are men who are going to become victims of depression, anxiety disorders, psychosomatic disorders, heart attacks, diabetes, divorce, suicide, etc, in their middle-age or sooner. Women are going to fall victims to this much later because many of us still find meaning in our singing classes, our pujas, our clothes, and our language—though some of these are becoming shallow without deeper meanings over time.
Critical thinking is important in helping us see the wrong path and wrong directions we may be taking. Our Vedic philosophy got it right when it stressed that the “development of the mind, intuition and the spirit,” all of which are part of buddhi is the ultimate salvation to humankind and personal happiness. When we don’t read or learn we cease to exist. When we don’t know ourselves we cease to exist. When we make no effort to learn new things beyond our small world, we cease to exist. When we don’t respect knowledge and those who give us knowledge, we are doomed to be the poorest of the poor both in intellect, emotional balance, effective actions and even in economic wealth. India’s poverty is partly due to the lack of discipline, insights and strategies for the development of the buddhi that never got passed down from the elites to the common folks because of classism and social fragmentation.
At the Independence Day mela in Northern California, I noticed how very few of our youngsters really understood what independence was or the rich history of men like Nehru and Gandhi. For them, the mela was another chance to dance bhangra, listen to Indo-rap, eat kulfi, and just hang out with their buddies. This is all well and good—but only to a degree.
Our kids should enjoy the pop culture of America and India but girls have to learn that there is more to being an Indian woman than being in a beauty pageant or wearing mehndi and boys have to learn that there is more to India than mimicking Shah Rukh Khan and dancing bhangra. Parents have to teach their children the meaning behind traditions rather than just do few rituals and sing “Om, jaya jagdish hare … ” after every aarti. How many of our kids even know what these songs mean let alone the right pronunciation?
I tell many young women students that the sexiest thing in a woman is her “brain” and “mind” for that will attract men and women at all ages. Spaghetti straps and mini skirts attract boys and men when you are 18 and thin. Once you cross that age and put on a little fat then you have nothing to protect you if you don’t have education and inner confidence. Many Indian girls and children of immigrants are losing that focus. Very few parents are conveying this in a language that girls will understand. So our second generation of Indian girls, while rightly rejecting their moms who are still competing with each other over the tradition of making the best paratha or khichdi, have no alternative role models for balancing the comfort of home, companionship, work, and success. Some immigrant women, who are not caught in this crossfire, are doing better than the home-bred girls in career success and identity focus.
There is nothing wrong in experimenting with culture. Much of Indian history is full of experimentation. The Bhakti movement was an experiment against esoteric Vedic practices that distanced the common folk from spiritual enlightenment. Bharata natyam was an adaptation of odissi and kuchipudi was an adaptation of bharata natyam. Traditional Hindustani music itself is full of fusion and modification. India and her traditions are full of experimentation. But the experimentation that has withstood the test of time and has brought meaningful change is one where the “mind” was applied. Blind following and mimicking did not get anyone anywhere.
I also tell my brown students who are into the black rap or hip-hop culture to figure out what they are trying to convey. If their parents blindly followed the white culture then the younger generation blindly following the black or hispanic culture is not doing anything different.
Much of the trendy African-American clothing, attitude, and behavior comes from years of rebellion against entrenched racism. There is a deep political and social message behind the songs, the aggressive posturing and daring lifestyles of many of our black youth. Theirs is a message against racism and oppression they have experienced and continue to experience.
I ask our Indian youth in America: “What is your message?” It is one thing to create the fashion of the baseball cap turned backward, which was a direct black fight against the white clean-cut frat boy image, and another to merely follow it.
What is our youth creating that can influence Mozart and Ice-T and not just be influenced by it? How is our youth influencing ballet and rap? How are our Hindustani and Karnatik ragas informing the Hungarian Rhapsody and R & B? If our immigrant fathers and mothers tried too hard to assimilate with the whites, covering up their culture in the privacy of their homes and small communities, our youth is trying too hard to assimilate with the black and Hispanic culture forgetting their own power to experiment in their own unique ways without mimicking. Both gestures of acculturation unfortunately continue to be about three similar things: adjust, adapt, and accommodate.
It is about time somebody among our older generation and younger generation lead and influenced other cultures rather than merely mimic others. Any takers?
Meera Srinivasan is a faculty at San Francisco State University and a senior evaluation specialist with Bay Area Academy. She writes prolifically on women, immigrant, and political issues.