I’m “Asian”

 Cultural Confusion, Cultural integration  Comments Off on I’m “Asian”
Jul 182012

An on-going light-hearted “debate” I’ve had with my
“North American” spouse is over the word “Asian” to describe anyone from Asia. I told him that if I, as someone native to the country of India, is “Asian,” than he, as a native to the country of the US, should be referred to as “North American.”

Yes, that would include those from Canada and Mexico. Make sense? No? Then how does “Asian” make sense at all??! It seems like a lazy descriptive (not quite) way for “non-Asians” to describe anyone from the continent of Asia. It means they don’t have to bother with learning geography and finding out where we’re really from. I’m sure anyone from the continent of Asia would prefer that we’re referred to by the country we’re from, rather than continent, just like those North Americans.

There is a huge cultural difference between someone from India and China, for instance, even though the countries are fairly close together. The word “oriental” is not much clearer and is generally used to refer to cuisine and as an adjective for procedures.

How about bothering to learn the country one is from and use that as a reference point or just not use one? If we want to be completely fair (and lazy), we could just refer to all of us as from one planet and not worry about what country we’re from. If we use countries as reference points, then we may need to distinguish ourselves further by states and cities (and even what part of a city).

Apr 272010

I spent several hours last night reading my current novel, “Secret Daughter” by Shilpi Somaya Gowda, which I finished. It was compelling and easy to read, making the time fly by. I was intrigued and wanted to find out more. I kept wondering what was going to happen next. Some parts were difficult to read, particularly the specific references to incidents at the slum community called “Dharavi” in Mumbai.

It was also difficult to read the beginning reference to female infanticide and later blatant promotion in a village of gender selection ultrasounds. The references were made more difficult as a new mother to a daughter. I pushed through the challenging and moving descriptions to discover a story about family connections, love, overcoming obstacles, and hope.

Gowda’s debut novel is impressive in its descriptions, imagery, and character development. You begin to feel you personally know the characters, sympathize with them, and rejoice with them. The novel made difficult and endearing statements about South Asian culture.

Above all, “Secret Daughter” is about the love and connection between a mother and her daughter, making it a perfect novel to read in commemoration of Mother’s Day.


Unaccustomed Earth

 Books, Cultural Confusion  Comments Off on Unaccustomed Earth
Feb 162010

I just sped through author Jhumpa Lahiri’s book, “Unaccustomed Earth.” It was hard to put down and I’ve looked forward to whatever breaks I could get to read it. I even read it Sunday night, on Valentines night, when my husband fell asleep early in front of the television. I decided to not wake him and read my book for several hours with a gin and tonic. It was a nice evening! I’ve read all her other works so far, including “Namesake” and “Interpreter of Maladies.”

There seems to be an underlying theme to her stories, about immigrants from India. Specifically, I’ve noticed that all the Indians are Bengali, which I assume the author to be. It’s fine to write about what you know! There are common aspects to the Bengalis that holds true of all Indians from different parts of India. Once in the states, there is a tendency to seek one’s kind. Finding any Indian is good, but finding someone that is exactly from where one is even better.

I’ve seen this tendency of specific minority groups sticking together first-hand in various cities I’ve lived in. There are even different organizations for each of the sects, not just one Indian organization, of which there is normally one. Lahiri refers to this in all her stories. The mothers find others like themselves, or try at least. There is a struggle with fitting in and rejecting the culture around them, and then eventually, some sort of truce or peace. Many of the characters go back to India – usually the first generation parents. They have “paid their dues” in the states and once the kids are out of the home, there is a calling from the motherland.

Many of their kids run the other way. Some excommunicating their roots entirely and seek out the world at large. They are tired of their global experience consisting of annual trips to Calcutta. Most second-generation Indians, or ABCD’s (American Born Confused Desis), would be able to relate to Jumpa Lahiri’s stories. We would find a little piece of ourselves in the struggles the characters face, which she paints very descriptively. We feel we know them and are saddened when they die.

I look forward to Jumpa Lahiri’s next work.

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Feb 042010

Once I actually married the wrong man after living with him for three years and experiencing every red flag, I was surprised to not be immediately inducted into the “you’re now an acceptable Indian girl” club. But I was no longer being a “bad” Indian girl by living with him! Look, I married him. So that made me a bigger moron and then I was married to one, too…

Since I am persevering (I actually got “the most persistent account executive” award in college), I stayed with the wrong man for eleven years. Still, no award….Maybe the “you’re acceptable committee” lost my address???

Being a “babe in the woods” (as one therapist referred to me as) is a rough road for many South Asian women, an option that is intimidating and maybe encourages many to stay in the wrong situation for too long. There are a lot of scary things in the woods, that we haven’t seen before. However, if given the chance, we discover that the woods are just beautiful. They are majestic, proud, and allow for stillness and sweet solitude. Yes, sweet solitude, not being “alone.” It is the same concept, but a very different view.

It’s a view that allowed me to finally be the “happiest divorced woman in the world.” Dr. Phil says you must “earn your way out” of a marriage. Boy did I take that seriously. He probably would have told me to leave much sooner and to not have taken the marriage pledge in the first place. I filed almost four times. I took prescriptions for apparently being bipolar, but it was actually to deal with an emotionally unavailable and unresponsive man, and insomnia. I was first misdiagnosed with the illness after my breakdown at 18, though I was not informed until a breakdown and end of my first marriage. I started prescriptions and took them for ten years, until 2002, when a doctor confirmed I did not have the illness, that my issues were related to my destructive relationships. Right before the breakdowns, I had also not slept for several days, which can trigger episodes that mimic the illness, just as truck drivers who don’t sleep can experience hallucinations.

I believe it is true that the universe tries to give us messages, and we have to train ourselves to be receptive. In my situation, the messages had to get louder and more obvious. In 2001, there were very messy divorce proceedings, when my son was three. I struggled with the idea of failure of my marriage (again) and its impact on my son. 911 happened, which fed my reluctance to end my marriage. I should have pushed through these fears and completed the hard-won process.

However, I told my attorney that I wanted to cancel the proceedings. I allowed my husband back in my life and the bricks from the universe began being hurled at me in full force. There were monthly catastrophes. A pregnancy in February that ended, a roll-over in April that I escaped without a scratch, a bankruptcy in June…etc….etc….By my thirty-fourth birthday in June, I realized that if I didn’t end my marriage for me, I needed to do it for my son. I realized I would not want him to be in a marriage that made him miserable, and yet that is what I was role-modeling. We began living “separated” in our home, with my husband living in the lower-level. It was impractical and emotionally-damaging. By September, I had my husband legally removed (he had been unwilling to leave on his own).


Marrying the Wrong Man

 Authenticity, Cultural Confusion, Memoir, Memoir - 1991  Comments Off on Marrying the Wrong Man
Feb 032010

To be a good Indian girl (the Indian paternal voice in my head said), I needed to be married, to anyone, rather than be unmarried. I didn’t have a maternal force in my life to help make the right decisions in the area of romantic love. I was just to say “yes” to whoever my parents decided and that whole area was done! There was nothing to consider beyond this. No direction in understanding the opposite gender and creating a meaningful relationship.

How was I to know the type of guy that was right for me? I thought I was being noble and not “money-oriented” by not worrying about the fact that he didn’t have a car and didn’t seem achievement-oriented at all. Compassion somehow meant committing my life to someone! After all, when I had told my mother I was not interested in marrying the man selected for me, I was told to not be rude to our “guest.” Did that mean I was to marry him?? Having a sense of self-worth instilled was missing from parental objectives. If I had a decent sense of myself and valued that, I imagine that I may have wanted more for my life than what this man-child seemed to offer.

I let myself be abandoned to the moment and optimism that everything would work out. Misguided optimism has gotten me into a lot of trouble! It ends up meaning recklessness when events that require serious consideration are not given that. It is about not taking one’s life very seriously or valuing it much, and acting impulsively. I didn’t get the message from my environment to think things through clearly and make sure it matches what you want. When I tried, I was shut down. So when evaluating the guy I had met accidentally at a club and dated too long (after the first night), I thought “surely he would get his act together.” He would get an education. Why wouldn’t he? It was the reasonable thing to do and everybody was reasonable, right? So what if he was having a delayed start by not having started college while I was done? Pria, Pria, Pria!!!

If I were my daughter, I would say to her, yes, you should look at what has been done till now. If you could manage a goal by now, why shouldn’t you expect your prospective mate to have achieved that by now? If you have the values that you do at your age, perhaps you should expect the same from your mate at his age. People’s values and character don’t change very much. If you start out ambitious, you stay that way to an extent. Doesn’t that matter for a marital candidate?


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.


A Married Freshman

 Cultural Confusion, Transition  Comments Off on A Married Freshman
Dec 162009

Being South Asian in the South is an intriguing concept. This is is
In one of the three meetings with my fiance, he informed me about an Indian ex-girlfriend from graduate school he had wanted to marry, but she wasn’t of the Brahmin caste, so his parents had not approved. I encouraged him to see that route through and tried to be a friend. It turned out that she was brought up for the entire 5 years I was with him, with her living in the same state and his calling her whenever there was a conflict with me and called her from work. He had even disappeared one night. He later found out, as we were divorcing, that she had been with all his friends in graduate school, yet he still hoped to be with her. I determined that he was looking for a green card through me.

I was legally married 1/30/87, while still 18, with my mother and sister as witnesses. My mother wanted to make sure I didn’t back out. I was to have a regular Indian ceremony in June. I was in the middle of school and my fiance had even come to a class with me. I think I even told a teacher we were getting married later that day. Immediately after the court wedding, my new husband went back to Pittsburgh and I continued my classes at UNC-Charlotte. Shortly after, my new father-in-law in India was ill and I thought it was my duty to accompany my husband to India and try to help out. Wrong!


Tensions Erupt

 Cultural Confusion, Transition  Comments Off on Tensions Erupt
Dec 102009

Being South Asian in the South is an intriguing concept. This is is
Shortly before expecting to go away to college, pressures and conflicts at home got to be too much and after a violent triggering event at home and then not sleeping for three days and much public drama, I ended up in the hospital for three weeks. Part of the time was to put weight on me, as I had lost about 40 lbs (from 95lbs).

What was also traumatic was the response from the Indian community. Meetings were held about me, led it seemed by my best friend’s mother. It was assumed drugs were behind what happened to me, which was completely false (I was never around them). During this time, my admission to Carolina was apparently canceled by my family, along with my dreams of my future. I went from being considered a star in the community to being maligned. At a gathering, I overheard a man say that they didn’t bring their kids to Charlotte because of me. A friend asked why I was smiling at another gathering.

My mother decided that a solution to this problem (and disgrace) would be to get me married. A 24 year-old software engineer in Pittsburgh was chosen. I saw him three times and after reviewing his resume that showed a 4.0, I tried to speak up for my life and stated I didn’t want to marry him. I was not his employer and his GPA was irrelevant. He began to cry. My mother told me to not be rude to him. So this meant I was supposed to marry him? My father stated that they would take my car away and not let me go to the local university. I was further told that they were planning to move to India and they needed to sell the house. So I was supposed to get married to accommodate their desire to move to another country, away from all 4 kids. This was 1986 and they did not actually move until 1992, two years after I graduated from college and a year after my arranged marriage ended (after 5 years).

I started to see that the only way to leave my family and the trapped environment would be to marry this man and move to another city. This would lead me to transfer from UNC-Charlotte to The University of Pittsburgh, eventually, as that would be near my future husband’s home. I lost my scholarships and aid from Carolina and still carry student loan debt for U-Pitt.


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

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