If I had to label myself, I would say I am a somewhat typical second-generation Indian American. The American Born Confused Desi (ABCD) tag doesn’t quite fit me as I spent my first seven years in England and think that life itself is bewildering, no matter what one’s cultural heritage may be.

While there is usually a difference in worldview between the first and second generations, I have often seen outright prejudice among ABCDs who lump FOBs (Fresh off the Boat, who should be called FOPs anyway; don’t most of them fly here?) together without acknowledging the uniqueness of individuals.

It’s ironic that second-generation South Asians, who are so acutely aware and resentful of stereotypes applied to them—from model minority geeks to exotic unworldly creatures—don’t hesitate to typecast immigrants who share their heritage. While it is impossible not to make presumptions about people (after all, our brains categorize so that we can make sense of the world), it is essential to be aware of the complexity of individual experience.

To get to the root of this matter, I interviewed two recent immigrants who, like me, don’t believe they easily fit into any particular niche. Their reflections unearthed a slew of amorphous issues that proved far more complex and multi-faceted than the ways they are usually regarded.


The IIT Graduate

Mokshay Madiman came to Providence, R.I., five years ago to pursue his doctorate in applied mathematics at Brown University after graduating from IIT Bombay. A Konkani who grew up in Chennai, Madiman is an avid reader with a penchant for analytical thinking. At the age of 9 he was the youngest member of the Chennai Astronomy Association. The fact that two of his grandmother’s siblings were Gandhian activists made an impression on him; much of the time he could spend working on his doctoral research is consumed by the administrative role he performs for Association for India’s Development, a service organization committed to sustainable, equitable, and just development.

Madiman considered himself Westernized even before he came to the United States, since he was a part of the upper middle class and influenced by the European values embedded in the Indian educational system. Intellectually, he had a picture of what America would be like, and yet the atmosphere in the United States shook him. “I went through waves of culture shock. It took me at least a year to even begin to come to terms with it. These were the kind of shocks that slowly sunk into me, sometimes without my noticing … I would observe things, and I wouldn’t think ‘Oh god this is crazy!’ but it would wind and play through my brain, and after a few months … something would shift [in] my head.”

What shifted were many of Madiman’s fundamental beliefs. “The biggest thing that moving to the U.S. did to me was that it made me question my assumptions about human nature,” he says. “I can comment on surface things … they’re much more individualistic here and much more community-oriented in India. And all these things are true, but the depth to which this influences individual behavior is not captured by saying this.” He speaks of visiting his 6-year-old cousin in California and being amazed by the consciousness she had of her independent identity. When he was her age, his sense of identity was enmeshed with the identity of his family. He did not have an independent sense of himself until high school and didn’t rebel against his parents until college. “And even then, not openly,” he admits. “I felt no need to.”

His conversations with second-generation Indian-American friends revealed that many of the transitions and choices that American youth make in high school, youth in India are not free to make until college. He was struck by the second generation’s “schooling in dating rituals and the whole system that is built around it … American kids are trained, starting from high school, how to play that game. It’s really quite elaborate … I think that they capitalize on relationships here,” Madiman admits. The dating system, he says, is a market in which people are “bargaining and trying out different products. I always had this idea … that [a romantic] relationship was so special that you wouldn’t experiment with something like that.”

Interestingly, his attitude towards dating practices as contrived and objectifying parallels the mindset of most Americans who view arranged marriage as equally calculated.

It is important to note, however, that Madiman is critical of the practice of casual dating rather than “love” relationships. Whether marriages in India are arranged or not, the overall social tendency is to be all-accepting unless there are serious problems involved, such as abuse. In the United States, on the other hand, the prevailing mentality calls for a focus on personal evolution that overrides the needs, and often the acceptance, of another person. When they enter relationships, many second-generation youth are trapped between these ideals and must juggle and negotiate their own attitudes. That is why, in my own observation, the conflict faced by many second-generation Desis does not involve “arranged” versus “love” marriage, but unconditional acceptance versus continual reassessment and growth. This conflict can lead to cynicism: a close second-generation friend of Madiman’s astounded him with her belief that couples inevitably tire of each other. In 10 years, she said, a relationship would be completely dysfunctional and held together entirely for the sake of the children.

Also, Madiman notes that in India “there is much more appreciation for the grayness of things, for the non-black-and-whiteness.” He cites spirituality as an example. “Eastern religions are very undefined. There is no one text or one prophet. People in the same family will worship different gods … it’s very amorphous. That amorphousness is reflective of larger things also, and not just the ideas of religion … there is more tolerance for multiplicity. But one thing about the U.S., at least in the circles that I have wandered—academic, more cosmopolitan—is that it’s very diverse. There are people from all over the world, with extremely different opinions, different races … Diversity in India is not to that level. India’s diverse peoples are spread out in different places. You don’t get to know them as closely as you get to know them here.”

Despite large-scale cultural differences, Madiman’s outlook differs distinctly from most Indians and Americans. Rather than being influenced by practical, economic factors, he “moved from engineering into applied mathematics because of a love for the abstract, an aesthetic infatuation for the cold beauty of mathematics and physics.” Madiman’s interests range from Advaita philosophy to playwriting to development econometrics. He has visited rural Indian villages several times during the past few years to see for himself how the vast majority of Indian citizens live.

Unfortunately, however, his inner nature is lost on second-generation desis who typecast all Indian immigrants as narrow-minded and consequently close themselves to connecting with him.

When I asked Madiman about the way that second-generation desis ordinarily treat him, he hesitated. “It’s difficult to concretely identify [this] experience. Maybe it’s just that I’m not communicative … maybe it’s my lack of social skills …”

However, I have noticed how many second-generation eyes glaze over and tune out when they hear an Indian accent, and so has he. As Madiman assessed, “One reason that ABCDs have trouble relating to FOBs is that FOBs remind them of their parents. A lot of second-generation kids have had trouble with their parents, especially in teenage years … they push away FOBs because they feel they must be like their parents.”

He understands how their common experience unites second-generation desis: “Not only is that missing when it comes to FOBs, but FOBs are sort of the enemy party.” Since second-generation youth often struggle to fit into mainstream U.S. culture, their attitudes toward desis who are less Americanized can range from distrust to disdain.

When I asked what impact Madiman’s years in the United States have had on him, he responded, “I’ve become more selfish. I used to be much more open … I would value my time less and be more willing to listen to people even if they did not engage my interest. I would be patient. But now, I expect them to engage my interest. I’ve become less patient. And even though I don’t care that much about money, I seem more concerned about having a reasonable standard of living than I did a while back.”

Even so, Madiman is passionate about returning to India, where he initially plans to work as an “activist professor,” inculcating an interest in social change in his students. Eventually, he might start an organization that does the same.

India-Born Confused Westerner?

Natalia Fernandez came to the United States two years ago to join a masters program in physical therapy at Georgia State University. When I asked if I could interview her for this article, she was initially hesitant, explaining that hers is not a typical experience. “I’m weird,” she said.

Fernandez is Anglo-Indian. “My ancestors are British, Irish, Portuguese, or something like that. They all married Indians … they are the tea plantation owners, military or businesspeople that came over from the West. Most of [their descendents] went back to England … but some people just stayed back, and they’re all over India. We follow the Western culture, even though we’re in India.”

Growing up in Chennai, Fernandez was encouraged to cultivate an interest in all things Western. She and her brothers watched more movies in English than in Hindi or Tamil. They frequently had visitors from abroad, and spoke English at home.

“Our culture’s a little different from everybody else’s,” Fernandez explains. “I used to go out even over there, you know. Go out late and come back late, and I’d do stuff that other people wouldn’t do. It is allowed in my culture—and [by] my culture, you know, I mean Anglo-Indian.”

Even with these allowances, however, Fernandez admits to feeling like something of a misfit when she was growing up. “My mom said a decent girl wouldn’t wear dresses and skirts and go around with boys. The other girls wouldn’t do this. Even though it’s allowed [among Anglo-Indians], I think I was one step ahead, and my mom was like, why can’t you be like, normal? I was just more rebellious than everybody else. More rebellious than my brothers, too.”

As a minority within India, Fernandez’s experience reflects the experience of many second-generation South Asians in the West. “I don’t fit in there totally, and I don’t fit in here totally. I’m Anglo-Indian, but different … I was more Western than Indian over there. I feel more Indian here, I guess.”

Anglo-Indians often marry outside their community. “You’re supposed to get a love marriage. So sometimes you fall in love outside,” Fernandez explains.

Among Anglo-Indians, women are “in most cases, equal [to men], and maybe more than that.” Parents “are more accepting if you fall in love with guys or girls abroad because your parents think that you have the same culture, rather than if you marry someone in India.” I find this sentiment an odd parallel to the conviction of many first-generation South Asian parents in the West who feel that their children would be better suited with spouses from South Asia rather than with Westerners.

When Fernandez came to the United States, social dynamics were not as she expected. Rather than feeling at home as she imagined she would in a Western country, Fernandez found that many people regarded her as more starkly different than she thought herself. “I didn’t think it would be like that when I came here … I just thought it would be easier to make friends and blend in … [but] a couple of incidents kept happening again and again, you know, and I just felt more apprehensive. I feel like sometimes people are judging me, you know, ‘She’s not from here so what does she know?’ They think I’m this typical Indian, so they have all these notions … One of the places where I worked, they asked me, ‘Do you have houses in India?’ I have to go on explaining [myself] to everybody. Everyone looks at my name and looks at my face and thinks they don’t go together. [They say] ‘You look Indian, and you’ve got a Hispanic name. What are you?’

“[At school] I was interacting with a lot more Indians … I just didn’t fit in because when we go to a party, they start singing in Hindi or Tamil and I wouldn’t know half the songs! They used to pick on me, ‘Talking in English and she’s so American, talking with an accent.’ But that wasn’t an accent, it’s how I speak at home!” (Fernandez has a different accent when she speaks in English than most people from Chennai, but it does not sound American.)

These students often insulate themselves in a way that Fernandez doesn’t. She spoke of having black friends as a notable difference between herself and many other first-generation South Asians.

Also, she sees a marked difference between her own attitude and the general attitude at “FOB parties” where many first-generation desis go wild playing with the freedoms they didn’t have at home. This previous lack of freedom is a factor that often alienates them from second-generation desis as well—an alienation that they are conscious of. Often, they associate Fernandez’s attitude with that of the second generation. One Indian woman recently told her friends mockingly, “We saw Natalia the other day at school and she was walking with her shirt and pants and her bag like this, like she was a total ABCD!”

When I asked Fernandez how she thinks that first-generation desis view the second generation, she cited the difference in freedoms as the primary divider. “People from India pre-judge,” she said. “They just … get riled up that y’all had a better opportunity. We had to fight to get here. You were born here and y’all didn’t have to do too much. And they think you won’t think they’re good enough. They say, ‘Oh, those ABCDs. They think that they’re better than all of us.’”

For this reason, Fernandez is not at ease during initial encounters with second-generation desis. “I am nervous because … I just want to be like, normal, but it’s not going to be like that. I feel like people are judging me and I shouldn’t say the wrong thing. I think, am I pronouncing this word wrong, and are they going to laugh at me?”

Fundamentally, however, Fernandez is not too concerned about superficial attitudes: “I basically don’t give a damn about other people unless I like them,” she says matter-of-factly.

Shilpa Kamat is a writer and yoga teacher who is currently working with homeless youth in Northern California.