A Bi-cultural Heritage

 Adaptation, Authenticity, Cultural integration  Comments Off on A Bi-cultural Heritage
Feb 112010

Since having moved to the US when I was seven, I’ve gone through various phases of adjusting and adapting to a new culture and figuring out what parts of two cultures I wanted to integrate. Some of this has been conscious, some not. There were swings of loyalty. On a study abroad trip to Rishikesh, India in 1990 when I was 22, students could visually see these swings in the attire I wore. One day I would wear a sari and the next jeans. I started the days at the ashram early with a candlelight, reading the Bhagavadgita, which we were studying, and listening to bhajans, with the sound of the Ganges nearby. I had never felt more at peace.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that there are many factors that play into how people respond to a different culture and to the extent that they adapt. South Asians from India have come to label people as “FOB” (fresh off the boat) or “ABCD” (American Born Confused Desi). I’m realizing that there are many grey areas between these labels where most people from India fit. There are people in India that could be labeled “ABCD,” even though they may never have lived or visited the US.

By the same token, I know Indians that were born in the US that could be labeled “FOB,” and may have just taken a few trips back to the “motherland.” This has much to do with the culture they find themselves in at the time and how this resonates for them at a personal, individual level. As the world becomes more global, there are increasing numbers of Indians in India that live in a very Western world within India, although it may be a stereotype of a Western world. Some of these changes can be seen in portrayals in Indian cinema, at least in terms of what appears to be “cool,” even if many may not live those lifestyles.

For instance, in “Pyaar Ke Side Effects,” dating appears to be common, along with premarital sex (being accepted) and women living on their own. The attire is almost entirely Western, and there is even open kissing! The theme is a typical Western theme, of a non-committal guy and a woman ready to get married after dating a long time, and who is also a “runaway bride.”

It seems counterproductive to try to label others or ourselves on some range of FOB to ABCD. With increasing globalization, it will become irrelevant. We are just people that resonate with different aspects of different cultures we are exposed to at different levels based on our different temperaments and personalities, some of which we are born with and some we develop from our experiences.


Christmas as a South Asian

 Adaptation, Holiday Rituals  Comments Off on Christmas as a South Asian
Dec 292009

Ever since I first learned of the Christmas holiday, probably at age seven, when I moved to the US, I have been attracted to it. Although I could not label myself as a Christian, I remember putting up a nativity scene as a child. I played Christmas carols on an organ and later sang carols with a group in the neighborhood. I was the one that bothered with the tree and presents at Christmas.

I am still into Christmas and have felt the season is too short. I love the carols and singing along. On Christmas eve, we watched “White Christmas,” at my son’s request. This was surprising as we have been trying to expose him to classics and black and white movies. It’s possible he was trying to please us, but he did stay awake throughout. Listening to Bing Crosby belt out “White Christmas” brings tears to my eyes. It is at moments like these that I feel in touch with my “American soul.” It is one thing to appreciate something, it’s quite another to have an emotional response.

At the same time, I know that if I heard a classic Indian song, like from the movie Mother India or others from the ’70s, I would also feel tears come to my eyes.

Maybe it is as a result of truly coming to peace with my bi-cultural heritage that I am able to fully appreciate the beauty of both. I can therefore enjoy singing to “Silent Night” and truly appreciate my peaceful environment while celebrating my baby’s first Christmas.


Being South Asian in the South

 Adaptation, Cultural Confusion  Comments Off on Being South Asian in the South
Dec 232009

Being South Asian in the South is an intriguing concept. This is is portrayed somewhat in the movie “Mississippi Masala.” Dynamics between the minorities of South Asians and African Americans is portrayed. There is an underlying tension of determining which group is “higher” and which is “lower.” Egos fly as tensions between the two groups is highlighted in the background while two individuals from both groups fall in love. Even within the South Asian community, there is jostling to determine which group is a “higher” group in some way.

Having had my formative years in North Carolina, I can relate to some of the portrayals. The movie depicts a specific group of South Asians, many of whom happened to own motels and other such businesses. I knew some of these families. Their culture is different from other South Asians from other parts of India, and each sub-caste is aware of the differences.

I have always been amazed, growing up South Asian, how divided people from different parts of India can be. There is the first distinction of either being from the North or from the South. I’m from the North. If you’re from the South, that literally means we have different descendants: the ancestry of Aryans in the North and Dravidians in the South. This is part of what I remember from World History in 10th grade High School and classes in college for my Asian Studies Certificate.

From there, there are many divisions by state, language and caste. I’m a Brahmin, which is supposed to be the highest, priestly class. It’s been diluted as a second generation Indian what that means exactly. Growing up, in rituals it meant all our food was offered first to God. We had a room devoted to being a puja/temple or prayer room. All food was brought there first. I assumed all Brahmins were supposed to be vegetarians, as we were, but I met other second-generation Indians that were not and my former Indian husband and his sister were not, although they were supposedly Brahmins.

Technically, a Brahmin is supposed to be able to perform weddings, which I believe my father had, at least once. Beyond some vague idea of purity, I’ve ceased to understand what it means, if anything, in today’s age. It seems to be a label that doesn’t do much good. I assume that by marrying a caucasion and American, I have violated some Brahmin principle as my husband would not register anywhere in the caste system.

However, for some reason, I believe that for South Asians, marrying someone white would be less shocking than marrying someone black. It is not very logical considering that many South Asians are as dark as many African Americans. Skin color is a hot topic for South Asians, particularly in India. Many companies make a lot of money there for skin lightening creams. I have been amused to see commercials for these products on Indian channels on my Direct TV. Somehow, being “fair” increases one’s worth in India. You would NEVER see an Indian in a tanning booth! It is hard for Indians to understand how much one in the states can spend to tan!

Perhaps it is this preoccupation that the movie was touching on as well. Why must society create a hierarchy? It seems that if we were to look closely in most communities, this would exist. Perhaps this is related to the concept of “keeping up with the Joneses.” I bet that if you put any group of people in a room, before long, you would find an order of who is the leader and who is at the bottom rung. Reality shows seem to thrive on this. This characteristic of ours just doesn’t seem very civilized or spiritually advanced.


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.


Leaving my Village

 Adaptation, Transition  Comments Off on Leaving my Village
Oct 282009

JaipurLooking back on my life in the village until I was 7, I feel that it was over-all positive. It was the third home I had by the age of 7, that I was aware of. My parents had already moved a few times in India after moving from Pakistan, their ancestral home. The frequent moves would continue for a significant part of my life.

One late evening, my mother had us prepare for a trip. My sisters and brother, along with my mother and a family friend, sneaked out in the middle of the night for what was to be the next chapter in my life. I recall the trip vividly. I remember the sound of the train as night turned to dusk, the dull echo as it crossed a gorge. I remember looking out and being afraid of the height and the expanse of space in front of me. I had not been on a train prior to this experience that I could recall. I vaguely recalled hearing about the distant city of Jaipur and how I wanted to travel there.

On what turned out to be my last night in the village in October of 1974, I reached home to find my mother hurrying me inside. I saw about 10 bags packed and I was urged to hurry up and eat as we were about to leave to see “papa” – who lived across the oceans in a land they called America. We were sneaking away in the middle of the night and were eventually on a plane bound for the US to join my father in Winchester, MA.

My father had gone to Northeastern University in MA, US when I was about 5 to get a Master’s in Engineering. Eventually, he was able to save enough money after a few years to bring his wife and 4 kids to the US. He wanted to secure a stable future for his family of 4 – 3 girls and 1 boy.

I remember the train ride away from our village and towards Delhi. The hollow sound of going over a river sounded a little scary and I looked over in the window to see the height I was at. We were leaving our home and way of life for good. I had not had the chance to say goodbye to Pinky or any of my other friends. It seemed for the rest of my life since then, I have been on the “run.”

My first plane ride at the age of 7 on Air India was an experience I could not compare to anything else. I had been excited about the prospect of just riding a train to Jaipur! This experience, flying in the sky in a bus, I could not compare with anything in my life till then. My vivid memory is that of tasting vanilla ice cream for the first time aboard the flight. My family handed it to me one by one. I’ll never forget that first taste; it was unlike anything I had ever had. It was a taste I could not place, but it started to become appealing. To this day, I love good quality, plain vanilla ice cream.

There were also tastes in the village that I have not quite experienced since such as spiced sugar can juice. The big black manual juicing machine that is outdoors naturally attracted flies. You could normally count on some being in the juice. There was also a delicious slushy that had all sorts of syrups and noodle-like additions. When I see the slushies here, I wince at the comparison I have in my head.


Immigrating is Stressful

 Adaptation, Cultural Confusion  Comments Off on Immigrating is Stressful
Oct 242009

Village sceneEveryone knows that moving in general is stressful. What doesn’t get much attention is how stressful it can be to move from one country to another, particularly for children. It is as if their entire world has changed. Everything they learned about and grew accustomed to is no longer. All the rules have changed and it seems just about everything needs to be re-learned. Immigrating affects not only how they view the world around them, but themselves as well.

According to research, children feel the stress more. Parents are more concerned about economic factors. Adapting to a new culture requires societal support that is often non-existent. Sometimes families may already have other families in their new country and are able to get assistance in transitioning. For those that don’t, they are left to find a way to adapt on their own. Of course, there is a correlation between the amount of support, stress, and adaptation. The less support there is, stress is higher, and adaptation is reduced.

There is often a tendency for the parents to want to hold on to their heritage and past as much as possible. This of course must be balanced with integrating to the new culture and perhaps taking on some new customs and rituals. Sometimes, parents aren’t able to balance these different needs and aren’t able to help their children develop a clear sense of what their new life is about and how to transition.

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