From generation to generation, and culture to culture, one common thread remains—the quest for zen, balance and a sense of identity. The grammar of immigration and ethnicity absorbs the ties and traditions of the settled and the unsettled. As newer immigrant generations come of age, the search for identity often follows a blend of the new with the old. Who we are and what we impart to our children becomes part of the mosaic of diversity that America stands for.
Though it was years ago, I can remember the conversation as if it were yesterday. We were both awkwardly sitting on a bench in a local park, where the only noise was the wind whipping through the trees. Our parents were more interested in our meeting than we were. After several minutes of silence, he finally broke the tension with the following question, “Do you know how to make sambar?” I timidly turned to him and uttered, “No.”
Fast forward to twelve years later. Standing in a cramped kitchen, with sweat pouring out of every pore, in Chennai, India, my mother-in-law turned to me and asked, “Do you know how to make sambar?” This time, without hesitation, I boldly told her, “No.” Her eyes pierced, but she calmly asked me, “What has your mother taught you?”
What have my parents taught me?
They taught me to be polite in public. They made sure I showed respect to any adult who crossed my path. They continuously reminded me that a good education is the foundation for a successful life. But what things have I learned from them that were not specifically taught? As a second generation Indian American, what is my “zen—the attainment of enlightenment?”
In the late 60s President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which changed the face of America. “This bill that we will sign today is not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions,” Johnson said at the signing ceremony. Contrary to the President’s views, more than 18 million immigrants entered the United States over three decades following the passage of this law.
My parents, like several Indian immigrants who came to this land in the late 60s, early 70s, seemed determined to build an India here that mimicked the one they left behind. This generation wanted to bring India to the United States during a time when Indian activities were few and scattered. I remember sitting in the car, struck with utter boredom, driving from Foster City to Berkeley, just to have a masala dosa at the only South Indian restaurant at the time, Pasand Madras Cuisine.
Enjoying a masala dosa there, I never imagined the influence Indian culture would have on American society.
As a second generation Indian American, I realize it is not necessarily beneficial to be part of only one culture, but to embrace aspects of both cultures.
But how much, if any, of the Indian culture, tradition and language is lost as future generations assimilate more and more into the American lifestyle?
Although several of my friends and I enjoy various cuisines, wear dresses and jeans, and don’t necessarily speak any Indian language fluently, we continue to value our traditions and teach our children the important values and lessons that those traditions uphold. Will future generations have a well-balanced outlook on life, ethnicity and values, where they will be able to embrace any culture and proudly say that they have found their zen?
“Radhika, you are going to be late for school!” “Put your shoes on and get in the car!” I remember my mom rushing me till I was buckled snugly into the car seat. As we screeched down the residential streets in order to save thirty seconds of time, a brightly dressed person caught my mom’s eye. Even though she rushed me through the house and sped down the quiet neighborhood streets, she stopped to meet this new Indian face in this foreign land.
Pretty soon, my parents found a few friends and created a tight circle that met almost every weekend. During one of their “dinner parties,” it was decided that the Bay Area needed a Hindu temple where everyone could gather, socialize and pray. Livermore, in California, was chosen as the central location and people from all over the Valley were to be involved in the construction and erection of this monumental establishment.
In July of 1986, the temple construction was finally completed. Thousands from all over the Bay Area witnessed the grand opening, or Kumbhabhishekam, of the temple. Walking through the throngs of people, it was impossible not to ram into someone as we tried to catch a glimpse of the action.
My father flew overhead in a helicopter, from which bags of flowers showered over the temple. My mother and grandmother were on two different ends of the temple. Hours went by without my seeing my parents. I was, essentially, a teenager all on my own. Despite the hours spent, I did not understand or care to understand the significance of the rituals.
The generation that built the Shiva-Vishnu temple did so hoping to teach their children the importance of the temple and its rituals. With Hinduism being not only a religion, but also a way of life, my parents’ generation turned to the temple and other religious activities to find their balance.
While many of them brought their children up with strong ties to religion, how much will be passed onto the next generation? I cannot help but wonder how many Indian Americans like me visit the temple these days? When I casually asked some friends if they go to the temple the most common response I got was, “Yeah, sometimes, with my parents.”
David Roche who writes on South Asian music and culture and was an arts columnist for India Currents writes that
“The South Asian tradition of building these establishments in order to find definition may not continue with as much intensity when it is left up to the future generations. They may integrate certain religious aspects into their lives and their childrens’ lives, but they may not frequent their local temple.”
Culture-making and tradition-defining are creative, messy processes. The establishment of temples, and cultural organizations are archetypically fissiparous behaviors typical of South Asian social tradition. There is not an efficiency quotient for passing down cultural legacy and no real Urtexts, despite the beloved and constant harkening back to the Vedas and Shastras as religous authorities.
The blue, faded pullover sweatshirt I was told to wear one cold winter morning barely fit over the long braids that were crisscrossed on the back of my head and attached to either side with a brightly colored ribbon. Sitting in admiration of those girls who had their hair hanging loose just below their shoulder blades, I wondered if they chose to wear their hair loose. Why was I constantly told to tie my hair? Was it for sanitary reasons? Was it stylish? Or, was it for no concrete reason at all? Thoughts would constantly cross my mind of how it would be to choose how to dress, to choose how to wear my hair, to choose to wear a sweater or not …
“Hurry up, we are late,” my mom shouted from the kitchen. I stood staring at my closet for what seemed like decades, debating what to wear. I grabbed a pair of jeans and a pink V-neck sweater. I thought this would be ideal to wear to a dinner party at my mother’s friend’s house. I was finally ready and I walked down the hallway, trying to exude confidence. With my grandmother’s room behind me, a sense of overwhelming relief consumed me, for she would have, more than likely, frowned at my attire.
My mother turned to look at me and her smiling face turned into that of someone who had just eaten a lemon. Without an utterance, I turned around, disappointed, and went back to my room to change my attire. It may have been fear of what other people might think of her or her daughter that prompted my mother’s reaction. There was a reputation to uphold for the family and it was hard for me, a teenager, to understand this.
With my own daughter, I would like to give her a choice when it comes to attire. Some children love to dress up in the bright colors of Indian clothes, while others find it very uncomfortable and unforgiving.
When my in-laws arrived last September, they brought what seemed like an entire suitcase of Indian clothing for my now, two-year old daughter. The pure silk outfits were colorful and really suited her complexion. While my mother-in-law pulled out one expensive outfit after another from her overfilled suitcase, I began to wonder where she might wear all of these outfits. The freshly starched cotton and the prickly zari on each pavadai (long skirt) looked very uncomfortable and would probably not be used on a regular basis.
According to Smita, a resident of Fremont, and a mother of two girls, “My kids love wearing it [the sari]. The older one thinks that it is a princess outfit. The girls like wearing Indian clothes. Maybe because I don’t wear it, they like it.”
A high school friend Vishnu exclaims, “I don’t think anyone wears traditional clothes anymore, even in India. We wear what people wear in movies.”
Even as the eastern culture has been influenced by western styles, western culture has recently begun using styles and colors that imitate Indian designs. American department stores carry “kurti” tops for women in designs that are similar to those available in India. Will these trends alter the way people choose to dress in America? “The influence is naturally superficial, and therefore short-lived,” says Meera Mohan, a resident of Ohio, and a mother of three. Sandhya Shah draws the line between cult and culture, “It is great that people are more cognitive of other cultures. I am annoyed when I see people wear bindis because they think that is a fashion statement.” Are people turning to other cultures to find a sense of zen?
Even as cultures in America seem to melt together, the distinct association of attire to culture remains strong. As young children grow up in this melting pot, they may adopt a variety of clothes and accessories that may not necessarily be associated with one particular culture. Maybe someday, people will combine the patterns of a sari border with the ever popular and comfortable blue jeans.
The Taste of Home
A few years ago, I decided that a change of pace and environment was important for me, and I moved to a village in rural Tamil Nadu and got a job as the Principal of a K-8 school, where I was served fresh meals regularly. For the first six months, the meals were welcome and I truly enjoyed the authentic flavors. But as time went on, I found myself craving foods that were never my favorites. Lasagna with meat sauce. A burrito with the works. Fish and chips. And then white rice gradually became a late onset allergy, which no amount of Claritin or Allegra could alleviate.
One hot, humid day in the middle of Thottanaval Village, four volunteers and I crammed into a small Sumo car and headed out to Pondicherry. The extremely bumpy and uncomfortable ride was a minor price to pay for the major payout we were about to receive. One volunteer had mentioned a Pizza Hut located there and from that moment, our eyes and mouths had watered in anticipation.
The Pizza Hut situated in the heart of the French quarter of Pondicherry was the perfect remedy for our homesick cravings. After arriving there, the five of us stood dumfounded at the corner as the brightest light shone down on the rundown, dull building. It seemed like the sun was particularly focused on the one building, much like a spotlight during a theater performance.
In fact, Pizza Hut was my least favorite brand of pizza, but that day, it was the most scrumptious meal I had ever eaten. When the oozing cheese and the over-sauced slice was put on my napkin, I felt a sense of joy and relief. We enjoyed that pizza for what seemed like hours.
Why is it that we find some sort of comfort or zen in familiar foods?
Food is something that connects the world together. America is a place where a person can have several types of authentic cuisines within a 25-mile radius. For this reason, children born here have a palate that allows them to enjoy and relish different cuisines. “I think my kids will have to find out what works best for them. They do understand the idea of listening to their bodies and … of mind control, which is central to vegetarianism,” says Vaidy from Virginia. Asha Ranga from Fremont says, “I see them liking American food. I am hopeful that they will come back to the phase of liking Indian food. I think they will turn out similar to me. They really like spicy food.”
Food is such an integral part of culture that parents will continue to accustom their children to Indian dishes. With Indian restaurants appearing like mushrooms on a well-watered lawn, newer generations may decide to order in when it comes to authentic Indian food, rather than spend hours in the kitchen preparing meals like our parents and grandparents did.
What is Your Mother Tongue?
How important is learning another language?
Several of my friends who grew up in Indian households understood other languages, but spoke very little. They were able to communicate with their parents, but were not really interested in learning the language completely, while others were forced to attend language classes once a week.
A short film, Tamil Ini by Mani Ram attempts to portray the state of the language in a foreign country three generations later. The grandfather in the film insists on speaking in Tamil to his grandson. The boy is not interested in learning the language and replies only in English. The grandfather is insistent that the family follows not only the cultural events, but also speak the native language. The son is not as insistent and, eventually, the grandson not only does not understand Tamil, he eventually does not know how to say his own grandfather’s name.
“My grandparents speak to them in English. My children understand Malayalam. The ratio of what they hear is about 75% English and 25% Malayalam. All the third, fourth generation kids are going to want to join a class to learn a language that they could have easily learned at home,” Rupa, a mother of three from Fremont, is sad to say that her children are not picking up their native language as much as she did growing up.
My daughter hears three different languages at home (Tamil, Malayalam and English). She should be able to pick up all three languages fluently, if we are consistent. It is important to us that she understands the languages her parents and grandparents speak. We plan to give her opportunities to speak these languages, but if she only speaks English, that would be fine too.
Amisha, a mother of three from Ohio claims, “Without a constant Gujarati presence in the home, it is a challenge to keep speaking it. My husband and I don’t speak it to one another, but I do speak it to the kids. This is another aspect of culture that has been difficult to maintain. I think, unless we put in a very strong effort to maintain the languages, we will lose them in this next generation.”
Although all aspects of our culture are rich, the acceptance and emphasis made will ensure the continuance of it for years to come. Whether children understand and embrace the language, diet, attire, or religion is not as important as them following the values that we, as parents, teach our children.
“I think it is a confluent, bi-culture that will be passed on to the next generation …” says David Roche. In other words, bharatanatyam dancers with ballet and pilates training and Karnatik and Hindustani musicians adept with media technology.
The next time someone asks me whether I know how to cook sambar, I can confidently answer, “Yes, and I also know how to make, lemon chicken, vegetable lasagna, and enchiladas.” I am, like many Americans of Indian descent, a beautiful and elegant blend of several different cultures and traditions.
Radhika Dinesh is a teacher with over ten years of experience in the California public schools and as a Principal in India. She is the Artistic Director of Alarippu Dance School for bharatanatyam in the Bay Area. She is also a photographer at Dinesh Kumar Photography in San Jose.