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My parents were first-generation In-dian-American immigrants and my early memories are of a most happy childhood in the land of opportunity.
The good times seem forever etched on my mind—the glittering lights, the color and crowded excitement of Christmas, the breathtaking view of the schooners sailing down Lake Michigan, weekly trips to the mall with my mom, countless visits to the local library where I cultivated a passion for books, and the special She-Ra costume my mom had bought me when I went trick-or-treating with my friends on Halloween.
For a young girl growing up in America, I learned to neatly compartmentalize my American and Indian identities with considerable ease. My mother made idlis on Sundays, cooked rice most nights, and wore saris on all occasions and get-togethers. We spoke Tamil at home and celebrated Deepavali and Pongal. My parents taught me to respect my elders and narrated countless anecdotes of the India they knew and loved. My dual roles as an Indian and American caused me no uneasiness; neither was I culturally challenged in any way.
Indeed, the outsider can rarely appreciate an immigrant’s struggle in a strange country, but it was always there, simmering silently below the surface. It was a typical case of the grass on the other side being greener. On one of our visits to India, my uncle, who was known for his road rage, said to my dad, “You are so lucky you don’t have to put up with traffic like this. American roads are divine.” The roads may be divine, but there were other things besides driving. You missed your extended family and often longed for the simple ways of life that were all so familiar and friendly. In India, you could keep your own timings. Work pressure and on-the-job demands weren’t so intense nor were there bitter winters that froze your blood and turned you into human ice-pops. You didn’t have to be your own butler, mow your lawn in the spring, rake leaves in the autumn, and shovel your driveway every December.
But it was for another reason that my grandparents kept insisting that my father move back to India. Their thoughts were all trained toward the future. “Are you going to allow your children to grow up without an inkling of Indian values, without even a working knowledge of our culture?” became the persistent refrain. At first my father tried to convince him that it was possible to remain Indian in America, but my grandfather’s fears would not be assuaged. Eventually, my father gave in and I was packed off to India to join my grandparents and start school in my native land.
The transition from Chicago to Madurai was earth-shattering.
Homesickness aside, it was the cultural shock that shook my world. I couldn’t believe that kids my age were recruited to work in homes (it wasn’t considered odd to hire young housemaids, no older than 10), that you could get desperately ill drinking water straight from the tap, and that nobody cared if you littered on the roads in broad daylight. These observations overwhelmed me, and they were only the tip of the iceberg. I was beginning a new chapter in my life—entering a whole new world where change was the only constant.
In Indian schools, they had a name for people like me—ABCD, American-bred Confused Desi. It wasn’t long before I was branded. My accent, my annual trips back to the States to visit my parents, my not knowing what “community” I belonged to, even what the different communities were, made me … well, different! It took a while for me to digest the irony. I was considered different in my own country! What then was my true cultural identity and where exactly did I belong?
For a while, the ABCD mantle fit perfectly. It wasn’t until I stepped into the hallowed halls of college that the mystery sorted itself out. It turned out that I wasn’t the only one who was confused.
Most of my classmates wore tight jeans to college every morning. Nearly one and all whipped out their walkmans and listened to Whitney Houston or Boy Zone while shuffling between classes. Pizzas and burgers were staple foods, and when it came to branded goods, Nike, Reebok, Coke, and Pepsi stole the show. Regional cinema tunes began including English rap music and slang like “awesome” and “dude” was “cool.” It was a sign that you were hip if you were you wore a formal shirt over a T-shirt or if your jeans were tucked cowboy style into your boots—thick boots that were gleefully donned by fashion gurus in the 110-degree sweltering heat of the unrelenting Chennai summers. They sneaked off on dates and did their homework with MTV blaring in the background—even if they didn’t actually watch it with any great interest.
I began to see what was happening. American influence was slowly impinging upon modern Indian society, so much so that teens here unconsciously began a process of shedding their Indian identities—despite never having even once set foot on American soil! There is now an entire generation of youngsters who are ironically more “American” in outward appearances than their counterparts on the other side of the globe. For some reason, this revelation only saddened me.
Over the years I’ve also kept in touch with my Indian-American friends. What surprised me was that though most of them had been born and brought up in the U.S., they had a passion for Indian classical music. Some had learned bharatanatyam and others Indian folk dances. It was their habit to always let their parents know who they were with and where. This is a generation of young people that grew up on Amar Chitra Katha, has studied Indian history, and is well-versed in several Indian languages. ABCDs indeed!
Many of my Indian classmates migrated to the U.S. too, either after marriage or for higher studies. I hardly raised my eyebrows when one of them told me last year that she was living with her boyfriend to test the waters before marriage. Both of them were working, and in that permissive society, they saw no reason why they shouldn’t do as the Americans did. It was ironic that none of the Indian-Americans I knew (some of whom were even third-generation Americans) had ever even considered such an option. It was only what I had come to expect.
I realized that you aren’t “Indian” simply by virtue of your living in India. Being Indian isn’t about geographical status; it is not even your birthright, but rather it is more of an inward journey, your own unique way of appreciating and relating to your culture. It has nothing to do with where you are, and everything to do with where your heart is.
It was then that I was able to truly appreciate the steadfast Indian-ness of the Indian-American. Embracing Indian values often tends to take on greater importance when you live a life away from your native land. When you are thrust headlong into a culture that is so completely alien to your own, it would be foolish to think that you will lose your own identity or be totally absorbed into the mainstream. In reality, it is the reverse that happens. By adopting the progressive values of the country you have befriended, you are able to effectively root out the ills in your own culture and graft it with the good in another. You adjust, adopt and recreate—so much so that you even show up the original!
It took me a decade in India to learn that I would have perhaps made a better Indian of myself had I lived away from home! By this time though, my parents had moved lock, stock, and barrel back to Chennai. Everyone applauded us for having done the impossible. We had lived for 20 years in a foreign land and tore ourselves away with our identities intact. To them, it seemed a miracle. To us, it seemed but natural. And to this day, I can solemnly affirm that we had the best of both worlds, not to mention the last laugh!
Freelance journalist Kamala Thiagarajan writes from Madurai, India.