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 !!!!