Thanksgiving as a South Asian

 Holiday Rituals  Comments Off on Thanksgiving as a South Asian
Nov 272009

Being South Asian in the South is an intriguing concept. This is is
When Thanksgiving rolls around, I’m not quite sure what to do with the holiday. Being from India, I didn’t grow up with any traditional memories. I don’t quite remember it at all. I think my family may have just tried to make a somewhat more special meal. As vegetarians (outside of the Asian cultural issue), turkey was not a consideration. Since I am still vegetarian, that part doesn’t help now.

My husband is not vegetarian and did grow up with some traditional Thanksgiving memories. So in compromise, we try to celebrate the occasion keeping both backgrounds in mind. This year, we went to my Unitarian Church’s Thanksgiving. It was $7 each and we brought a vegetable for eight. I made sauteed organic spinach in olive oil with roasted garlic. It went fast.

I was the only vegetarian in what seemed to be a gathering of about 80. I had gotten a call a few days prior confirming my vegetarian status and that something special would be made for me. I was curious and was looking forward to it. It ended up being a soupy mixture of celery and mushrooms in a little bowl. I had hoped for some protein.

My son was with his biological Dad (my ex) and was going to have somewhat of a traditional Thanksgiving, but as a vegetarian. It was our infant daughter’s first Thanksgiving. It was good to be able to leave not long after eating to get her ready for bed. She had a fit as we were driving off and we had to pull over to calm her. I thought this would have been challenging if we were with a family we knew, such as last year.

It is now Black Friday and I’m relieved Thanksgiving is behind me. I feel more in control with Christmas and am looking forward to bringing out the Christmas decor, singing Christmas carols and seeing my daughter’s reaction as she experiences her first Christmas.


Formative Years

 Adaptation, Transition  Comments Off on Formative Years
Nov 192009

Being South Asian in the South is an intriguing concept. This is is
We moved to Charlotte, NC around ’83 when I entered the eighth grade in Jr. High School, when I was about 12. I experienced my formative years there felt that I was setting some roots.

I was busy as a babysitter at 12 and then started selling Avon at 13, becoming one of the top 20 sellers in my area. My customers wanted to know how I looked so young and bought products from me to look as young. This successful experience instilled a permanent sense of being an entrepreneur in my psyche.

One of the women I babysat for in the neighborhood was a nurse and writer for a parenting magazine. She told me that if you want to be a writer, become an expert in something else, so you can write about that. I kept that in mind and my fascination with being a writer settled somewhere in my mind. It turned out that the topic I most wanted to write about was life, feeling I had lived enough to have many thoughts and questions. I seemed to always have an essay going on in my head. Was everyone else like this? Did everyone else analyze and question life as I did? At 12, I had a health exam while on a trip to India. The female doctor only stated to my mom, “she thinks too much.”

As a preteen, I won an essay contest, further encouraging my interest and confidence in writing. English had become easier and easier and I found comfort and release in expressing myself through writing. I continued to have an essay brewing in my head. When speaking with friends, the conversation seemed to always veer towards the topic of life. So much so that when there was a game of charades, one of my peers pretended to call someone and started talking about life. Everyone immediately knew it was me who was being impersonated.


Moving and School Life

 Adaptation, Transition  Comments Off on Moving and School Life
Nov 142009

My fate improved greatly when I moved from Winchester, MA to Commack, Long Island, NY at the age of 9. I missed the hills in the back of the duplex where we used to go sledding and my friend Magda. Long Island was much more liberal, I found, than Winchester—even with 9-year-olds. I was fortunate to experience a much more open culture where I was accepted, could fit in and blossomed more. I went from being the unpopular odd-ball who wore a “bindi” (dot on the forehead) and who didn’t eat meat to being the class president of my fourth grade. There was of course one incident when I ended up wrestling someone to the ground (she attacked me), because I was eating a peanut butter jelly sandwich and wouldn’t eat her chicken.

Other than that, Old Farms elementary school in Long Island seemed quite liberal to me. Kids were now fighting at lunch to be able to sit next to me. I didn’t know what to think of it. You can see the wide smile on my face in my third-grade picture. By the fourth grade, I consistently scored higher in vocabulary than my classmates. My teacher would remark to the others how despite just having learned the language, I was doing better than them and that they should work harder. I enjoyed being compared to in a positive light. I was finally getting some approval.

Before long (within two years), my family was moving to Tennessee. I was now a 5th grader and adjusting to differences in the people around me. I was lucky to have a 25-year-old teacher by the name of Ms. Sams, who forever helped me to believe in myself. Ms. Sams seemed to take a special interest in helping my reading and writing to improve. Initially, I was in the lowest reading/writing group, until getting to the highest, partly with the encouragement provided by Ms. Sams through words and even little prizes for progress. This instilled confidence in me. She also taught me about American culture. When I received a heart-shaped box full of chocolates from a male classmate who stated that he wanted “to go out with me,” I asked “where?” Ms. Sams explained his romantic interest in me.

School started to become the structured place I could count on to balance the kind of upbringing I was getting at home. It was reliable and predictable, starkly different from my home life. This gap began to increase and become more prominent as I grew older—through college. It was my safety zone. It was a world where I learned about the world beyond my home. I loved to learn new things. During the summers, my favorite activity had become to play “school.”

We moved every two years, from the north to the South. I did not fit in school the older I got, as I was not allowed to participate in the activities the others did, such as spending the night, going to parties, concerts, sports, or other school functions. Finally, we settled in NC for some of my formative years. I went to Junior High, High School and one year of college there.

High School Mascot

High School Mascot


A New Life and an Unexpected Visit

 Adaptation, Transition  Comments Off on A New Life and an Unexpected Visit
Nov 132009

In Winchester, MA, I had been the oddball kid who didn’t know the language. Therefore I was stupid. I must have believed it. I remembered crying under a tree during recess because no one would play with me. I progressed to not being included on any athletic teams in gym class. I did not look forward to the assigning of teams: one individual for both sides would be picked. Those individuals would pick the rest of their team. It was a horrible feeling being the only one left and ending up on the team that had to take me. I recall the team captain’s face as if he was just handed chopped liver.

Within two years after moving to the states, my maternal grandmother in Pakistan passed away. I had never met her, my maternal grandfather, or my paternal grandmother, all whom lived in a small village in the Eastern part of Pakistan. I had met my paternal grandfather when he visited us in India. My parents’ ancestral homes were somewhat close to each other in the desert town. Their marriage was arranged when they were in their teens and my oldest two siblings, a sister, and then a brother, were born in the village, in my mother’s home. Another sister and I were born in Bengal, India, after my parents, along with many other Hindus, moved to India. Since I had never been to Pakistan before, I had the privilege of accompanying my mother on the trip for her mother’s funeral. I guided my mother on the international flight, showing her which gate we needed to take, as she could not read English.

I spent most of my time in Pakistan with two maternal cousins, particularly the older one, closest to my age. We had fun camping out with cows and staying up to make cow patties for fuel. My grandfather would just shake his head at me and exclaim at what a girl from America was doing. He was the kindest, most gentle man I have ever known. He was a judge in his town and very religious. He spent much of his time while I was there meditating and praying at the temple in the house. He taught me how to make chai from scratch. Before we returned to the states, he informed me that he wanted to join his deceased wife and could not come to the US as I wanted. The connection and respect I felt for him enabled me to accept his desire and say goodbye. When we heard the news of his passing once we were the in the US, I did not cry. I did not feel that he was gone, but perhaps transcended to be my guardian angel. India07, KSB, family 150a


Helping Children Adjust to a New Culture

 Adaptation, Cultural Confusion  Comments Off on Helping Children Adjust to a New Culture
Nov 122009

Much was lacking in support for me to adjust to a new culture and country as a child of 7 years. Looking back, various approaches would have been helpful for me, and could help someone in a similar situation now.

On top of the list would be communication before and after the move regarding expectations. A child should be informed well in advance of the move and be told stories of life in the new country. Anything to reduce shock for a child should happen. If a visit can not happen first, pictures could help some, along with much discussion about how daily life would be different. Maybe some education in the new language could begin before the move?

The parents should have a sense of what they want to hold on to culturally and what they are willing to adapt to. What language do they want spoken at home? What rituals do they want to They need to be on the same page with each other and be able to communicate their shared cultural interests to children accordingly. The message I grew up with seemed to be that just about everything in the US was bad and should be resisted and fought. But then why had we moved here? That part was not quite discussed.

It was confusing for me to grow up in the US, but be made to feel I was being raised in a specific India that was my parents' static vision; while the culture in the actual country was evolving and many were trying to emulate their idea of the western culture.

Unfortunately, when children are made to feel they should resist their new culture, they end up feeling isolated and alone. They can not take part in the culture around them and don't have a sense of how to function in their new world. I later learned on my own what I valued from the two cultures I was growing up with and still am. The word eclectic took on new meaning.

My son at a McDonald's in Delhi

My son at a McDonald's in Delhi


Arriving in the US

 Adaptation, Cultural Confusion  Comments Off on Arriving in the US
Nov 042009

BackyardIt was strange to see houses shaped like boxes from the plane. There was so much symmetry and apparent order. I saw alienating fences for the first time. At my father’s duplex that evening upon arrival, the first thing I did was tap on the walls. I had heard that all the houses in America were made out of wood. I didn’t believe it, so now I was confirming in disbelief. In India, our house along with neighbors’ was made out of stone, cement, and bricks. These homes in American seemed as if they could be blown over by a strong gust of wind.

I have always had an intense curiosity and have been very inquisitive, particularly as a child. On my first full day in the U.S., I hurried out in the morning, ready to explore. I had not made it past the duplex front steps when I came across a lady walking by. She turned to me and said “hi!” I stared at her in amazement, and then ran inside to ask my father what this word meant. We were then gradually taught crucial words such as “sorry” and “thank you.” “Sorry” was used for an assortment of situations.

Winchester, MA was conservative and it took some adjustment to adapt to the different cultures of not just two countries, but also to a place I felt even more different than I would in some other US cities. I became the oddball kid who didn’t know the language. I might have therefore been considered “stupid.” I must have believed it and took it personally, as I remember crying under a tree during recess because no one would play with me. I think I had decided sometime after that, that I was a freak.

English was a completely new language for me. I had been accustomed to speaking several languages in the village I lived in prior to moving to the US. My friends spoke different languages or dialects of the same. The dialect of my native tongue has no written text. So to write, one used the common north Indian language, Hindi. In school, I was given books about Dick, Jane and Spot. These were challenging as I got stuck in rules such as why the “I” sounds the way it does in “Dick” versus “kite.” Then I discovered soap operas. Finally, English was making sense. I could see the language used in context. What had begun as a mysterious language had begun to unfold. From not knowing simple greetings, I had come to the finer challenges of differentiating the “v” sound from “w.” I would say “wan” and “fiwe” instead of “van” and “five.”

The American food around me seemed rather bland, consisting mostly of what seemed to be boiled vegetables with a seasoning choice of only salt and black pepper. In India, I had grown up with food such as Khichiri (a mixture of lentils, rice, and vegetables), which I now see in healthy gourmet cookbooks. I still normally use more spices than salt and vegetables. My taste in food has stayed mostly the same.

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