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A decade and a half ago, I made the brave move to America. Although I spoke English and was well-versed with American culture, nonetheless, I found myself in the midst of a transcultural identity crisis. As Jhumpa Lahiri aptly put it, “I felt intense pressure to be two things, loyal to the old world and fluent in the new.”

After much floundering, I slowly came to realize that I needn’t have an identity crisis at all. Instead, I could choose to mindfully and respectfully tread between “the old” and “the new”, or as Lahiri calls it, “either side of the hyphen” to enjoy a rich transcultural identity. As a result, I decided to sport my Indian identity with flourish and simultaneously learned and embraced all that I could about this vastly different country I had decided to call home. This mindset reduced transition anxiety and became a general outlook for me.

Fifteen years later, life seems to have come full circle. Today, as a mom of two high-energy second-generation Indian American boys, I find myself seeking creative ways to make my children’s transcultural identity as fluid and seamless as possible. Like other first-generation immigrant parents, I too would like my preschooler and second grader to embrace cultures, both of their origin and birth, welcome diversity, be tolerant, and self-accept.

Here’s where my chance discovery of Elmer by David McKee comes in. Every time I read Elmer’s endearing story to my boys, I find it a charming exploration of identity, diversity and acceptance. Topics that are close to my heart. Here’s a summary of the story to offer some context: 

Elmer is a famous elephant. He’s not grey like others, but a patchwork of bright colors. He’s lively, cracks jokes, and is well-loved. But he’s weary of being different and wants to be like the rest in his herd. Early one morning, he sneaks out of the jungle to cover himself with the grey colored juice of a berry bush. Once covered in grey, he isn’t Elmer anymore, but just another elephant. He enjoys the anonymity and joins the herd. Soon a rain cloud bursts, and Elmer’s grey color washes off. His friends laugh and understand his conundrum of wanting to fit in. They decide to celebrate his uniqueness by instituting an annual ‘Elmer’s Day Parade’. On that day, all the elephants transform themselves into colorful patchwork elephants, and Elmer colors himself grey.   

This straightforward and poignant story has made me think about some ways in which I could extend the “Elmer conversation” with my boys and start taking baby steps to help them navigate their transcultural identity. Here are some learnings from Elmer and how I translate Elmer’s narrative into action:   

Colors are meaningful

Elmer’s heartwarming experience made me realize the merit in allowing children to see differences in color and be accepting of their own appearance.

It’s no secret that children notice color. They tend to be curious and ask inadvertently provocative questions like why their friend’s hair or skin color is lighter or darker than theirs. Providing thoughtful answers could help them understand and respect diversity and self-accept. A blanket response on the lines of “we’re all the same” is wrong on so many levels. It’s inaccurate, confusing, could impede curiosity and make kids (and later, as adults), dismissive of diversity and racial differences.  

Understanding roots and shoots

It’s human to want to belong, to want a sense of community, and be part of a social structure. Maybe that’s why Elmer wanted so badly to fit in with the rest in his herd. Our children are no different. For them to comfortably tread on “either side of the hyphen” and have that rich transcultural identity, it’s important for them to understand their roots and where they grow their shoots.

Putting up a map of the world, I found is an effective way to offer children a global cultural perspective and a sense of belonging. For one, it piques their interest about continents, countries, and the cultural plethora thriving across the globe. Perhaps because a map can trigger animated discussions like where they are situated in the world vis-à-vis grandparents and extended family, it’s an easy way to make questions of identity and belonging tangible for children.

Empathy is key

Elmer’s journey offers a gentle, yet firm reminder on the point around empathy and can spark numerous conversations from this perspective. It’s heartening to see the herd’s true expression of empathy toward the patchwork elephant by instituting an annual parade to celebrate Elmer’s uniqueness.  

My personal journey taught me that respect and empathy for intra and inter-group diversity is critical in order to have a rich transcultural identity. I found that interactions with ‘the others’ through an empathetic lens makes the following possible:

  • The temptation to jump at prejudiced, knee-jerk reactions is curbed.
  • Rationality sets in to arrive at thought-through conclusions.
  • Relationships are based on mutual tolerance, acceptance, and respect.

As adults, we can consciously extend the empathy message from Elmer’s experience to our children in everyday scenarios. For instance, I miss no opportunity in reminding my kids to put themselves in another individual or group’s shoes. At the playground, at school, or while reading a book, it’s always interesting to ask questions like “why do you think (s)he’s sad or happy?”, thereby attuning their little minds beyond themselves to the needs of others.  

To conclude

Elmer, the patchwork elephant’s story most delightfully weaves complex themes of identity, diversity and tolerance. Its narrative persuasively demonstrates that it’s okay to be different, and that diversity should be seen, embraced and celebrated.

Admittedly as of now, I’m not fully certain how Elmer can shape my children’s transcultural identity roadmap. But I know it’s a great start. I foresee revisiting the goofy patchwork elephant’s story often and our elementary “Elmer conversations” getting more nuanced as life’s situations evolve with passing time. For that, I sincerely thank Elmer!     

Nidhi Kirpal’s pre-kids life was dedicated to the complex field of Communication Sciences. After choosing to be a fulltime mother, reading and playing with her high energy boys has been a fascinating journey. Children’s literature (both western and Indian) has been an inspiring discovery for her, where she constantly sees the world through little eyes, applying simple learnings to deepen life’s meaning for herself and her family.

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