Monday, November 8, 2010

Am I an American or am I an ABCD?

When my son Nikhil was about 5 years old  I tried to explain to him how he was lucky to be both Indian and American.   Since he was born in America, he was American.    The fact that Pappa and Momma  were born in and lived part of their lives in India made him Indian too.   To my bewilderment, he started crying and screaming,  “NO,   I  am Spanish!!”    His 5 year old brain went on to argue that he watched Diego and could speak Spanish too. The fact that his playgroup at the time consisted of 4  Spanish-speaking boys only substantiated his argument.  

I could have argued that being able to say,”Hola” and “excelente”  made him about as  Hispanic  as eating  pizza made him Italian.   Not wanting to battle with a 5 year old,  I decided I needed to educate my children  about their Indian heritage.    I wrote and bound my own books about Indian mythological Gods such as Krishna and Hanuman.  I organized a story time with a few of Nikhil’s friends. After the story we would have related activities and try Indian snacks, some with interesting, made-up names like Indian donuts (South Indian mendhu vada.)

Another  time I was trying to explain to Nikhil that he needed  to address all Indian adults  as “Uncle”  or  “Auntie”.   He was rather perplexed  since in his school all the teachers, including his kindergarten teacher,  Sangita, were addressed  by their first names only, not  Ms. Sangita,  just plain  Sangita.   I explained that in the Indian culture no one called an adult by their first name.   He looked at me and said, ”Well, I’m not Indian. I’m American!”   As much as I wanted to smack him on the behind,  I had to admit that he did have a sound argument.

Since becoming a mother, I’ve done some soul searching  and introspection .   How can I teach my boys to be confident and proud of who they are if  I am unsure of who I am?   And who am I?   Am I “American” or am I “Indian” or am I an “ABCD”?   If I am truly an American why do I feel the need to teach my children about the Indian culture.

At times I did feel like an ABCD .  This is the acronym made up by the Indian community to classify each other.  The idea is that if you just came from India,  you are Fresh Off the Boat or an FOB.  If you were born here or have basically grown up in the US, you are somehow confused about who you are and hence you are labeled an ABCD (American Bred/Born Confused Desi), Desi being what Indians call each other.

Back in my high school days, I was often mistaken for being Hispanic.  As a teenager, frustrated with the restrictions placed on me by my parents in the name of following traditional “Indian values”,  I was actually glad not to be seen as an Indian.  My biggest gripe back then was when people asked ,  “So where are you from?”    I usually appeased them by telling them that I was born in India but what I really wanted to say was that I was from the Northwest side of Chicago!   Jhumpa Lahari’s book The Namesake touched on this topic.  Gogol, the main character of the book,  went through a stage in which he alienated himself from his family and everything it represented.  He gets involved with an American girl much to the dismay of his very traditional parents.  Without giving away the book,  it’s not till the end that  he comes to grips with his family and culture.

The irony is that as culturally diverse  as the US is today we still classify people according to the way we see them.  It’s human nature.   People are Chinese, Japanese, Indian,  Saudi, African, etc.    I still get the occasional, “Are you Indian?”  The fact is that I am from India.   I cherish the Indian culture for making my life richer .   I love Indian food,  which we have at least 3 nights a week.   But we also eat  Italian, Mexican  and Chinese too.  I love Indian clothes and wear them at Indian weddings and family affairs but I’m most comfortable in  jeans and yoga pants. The fact remains that the outside world  will  perceive me as being an Indian no matter how “American”  I  may be or feel. But despite how others may see me,  I   know I am American.  I love America  and could see myself  living nowhere else. This is the land of the free and being a women,  it’s all the more important to me that I am here. 

Christmas has always been one of my favorite holidays ever since I came to the US.  During the holidays my house is decked out, inside and out , with all the lights, glitz and gold. The fact that I love Christmas may be due to the fact that people are generally in better spirits and more kinder, friendlier and more giving. Maybe it’s because we tend to do more socializing and partying around Christmas time.  All I know is I’m still  “fa la la la  la-ing”  way past December 25th and  my husband remind me that it’s almost Valentines Day!!

Motherhood  has a way of  eradicating  any and all  confusions, insecurities and doubts a mother may have.  I am not confused anymore.  I know who and what I am and  I value the fact that I am Indian too.  I’ve made a choice to hold on to my Indian heritage and pass on what I can to my boys.   I am proud to be part of  a country that  invented  chess, the place value system, decimal system. Yoga, Algebra and ayurvedic medicine  also have origins in India.*  India is rich in history and culture.  It even has Bollywood which produces more movie per year than any other country, for better or for worse!!!

My boys are, without question,  American  but I want them to learn about their Indian heritage  not because they need to,  but because it  will enrich their lives too. Like me, they too can be Indian-Americans.  They speak mainly English but I want them to learn Hindi too.  If they can learn Spanish in school,  why shouldn’t they know the language of their ancestor.  They will always celebrate Christmas but why not Diwali too.  They can eat hotdogs for lunch and curry for dinner.  They can learn about the “Christ in Christmas” and Krisha in Vrindavan.  They are   fortunate  to be able to experience the best of two different cultures and the values and merits  of both.

America is not really a “melting pot”  as some  declared it to be .  I hope my boys will recognize  that  the different ethnicities have not all blended into one homogeneous group.   America is  more like a salad bowl.    Each ingredient of a salad adds it’s own unique color, texture and  flavor to the dish.  Without the individual items, it’s just lettuce…bland and uninteresting.    And who wants plain lettuce when they can have  lasagna, burritos ,biryani,  falafel, kababs,  Chicken teriyaki,  sushi,  chow mein, Thai curry and soooo much more !!!! 


Veronica Lee said...

Hi! Stopping by from MBC. Great blog.

Have a nice day!

Anonymous said...

Identity is definitely influenced by exposure and sure teaching your kids about their culture could only enrich their lives not complicate it.

Anonymous said...

Identity is definitely influenced by exposure and sure teaching your kids about their culture could only enrich their lives not complicate it.

amiraj said...

the point that america is a salad bowl is perfect. if any of the vegetable is hybrid, then that vege is ignored but if the natural essence of that vege is maintained then the whole salad tastes nice, n ofcourse the vege is appreciated. the thing is we cannot force them to preserve the indian essence unless they know the importance..n the best question we ask them ( the new generation) is what do they meann by life ?? just eating pizza, beer, job n gf ??? tats it ?? then where is religion, ethics, socialogy, or "rationalism n wisedom " ? by these claims i dont mean to infer the american culture but i try to emboss n trace out the chacteristics n features which make us Indians !!! the thing that we eat indian food n indian dressings does not resemble Indianism but how we behave n think decides who we are. even i try to speak spanish " como ustas ?" but i dont claim i m spanish.

so i think i can write a lot but i conclude that nikil is too young to differentiate the "race channels " n also that i dont want to be a racist!!