An American Holiday and the <i>desi</i> dilemma

10 years ago
This article was written by a member of the SheKnows Community. It has not been edited, vetted or reviewed by our editorial staff, and any opinions expressed herein are the writer’s own.

Notwithstanding the falling dollar, desis -- our local lingo to describe people from the Indian sub-continent in America -- have a lot to be thankful for this season. After all, all those Masters and PhDs we came over for are serving most of us pretty well. Many of us – with or without the U.S. degrees --- have good jobs, while a few of us have been inspired enough to become successful entrepreneurs and academics. A good many of us are probably going to settle here and raise our children as Americans.

I have been in America for four years, got invited to two Thanksgiving dinners, but have never been to a desi one. Both the times were with friends from graduate school(many of us from half way around the world, away from our families). It was a lot of food and fun, and we took our turns being thankful. It was also at my first Thanksgiving dinner here that I learned about the origin of the tradition, usually told with a sarcastic we-know-the-native Americans-hated-us-but-let's-have-dinner-anyway laugh.

I had such a fabulous time. There was enough food on the table to accommodate vegetarians (now that's something to be thankful for), people brought in their own dishes, and everybody was having such a good time talking, hugging, laughing and singing. I recall a friend mentioning that Thanksgiving was his favorite American holiday because unlike Christmas, he could get together with his family without having to worry himself sick about what gifts to buy for who and how to balance his checkbook at the same time!

This year I spent a lot more time socializing with desis. A sister-in-law has been mulling over a tofu-turkey for a while now, others are taking mini vacations, still others (me included) are waiting to grab the great deals at the stores. I wondered what desi FOBs – especially those raising their children here – were up to this Thanksgiving.

So I went blog-hopping only to find desi moms engaged in a furious discussion about being Indian, American culture and how to make the twain meet. What triggered the discussion was a special report in a Wharton journal about a family's journey from India to the U.S. and back, by newspaper columnist Shoba Narayan. Narayan tells her story of her 20 years in the U.S., about how she became an American citizen, and then how everything changed when she was faced with the challenges for raising her children.

She talks of the dilemma of passing on her Indian culture to her American children, her struggle to figure out her own identity here and her children's hyphenated status as American-Indians. Her longing to return home got the better of her and her husband's objections, and finally the family packed their bags for India. Now they live as Americans in India.

If the immigrant experience interests you and you enjoyed reading Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake or watching the film, Narayan's report will give you a fresh perspective. Quoting her:

Most immigrants of my generation are haunted by this conflict. They leave their homeland but it doesn’t leave them. We are economic immigrants, changing identities, choosing cultures and chasing opportunities. But unlike generations past, we can go back home and frequently do.

Compare this with the political refugees and religious exiles of yore who fled native lands to escape starvation, persecution and even death. They were the pregnant women who threw themselves onto boats, willing to submit to raging seas and the risk of drowning just so their children would be afforded the rights of U.S. citizenship. [...] They jumped fences, crossed borders in the middle of the night and slipped into the shadow world of illegal immigrants for years on end for one simple reason: They didn’t want to go back home. So they anglicized their names, disavowed all relations and links to their past and started fresh in the West.

Mine is not a tale populated by bloodthirsty dictators, rampant epidemics, boat people, barking dogs and blood-smeared fences. I am neither a political exile nor a refugee fleeing from revolution. I came to America merely as a student seeking opportunities.

The problem for economic immigrants like me, immigrants of this generation, is that we are equally at ease in two disparate cultures and therefore fit into neither. We do the Namaz five times a day while trading derivatives or keeping track of baseball scores. We can sing in Sanskrit and Rap. We belong to both countries, yet choose neither. At some point, perhaps when the going gets tough with the INS [the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service] and the green card [the card which authorizes permanent residency in the U.S.], the isolation that comes from being far away from family and friends becomes too hard to bear. That is when people like me, who live the American Dream, start dreaming about going back home.

For South Asian immigrants, particularly Indian, shrugging off ethnic identity can be hard. Really hard. In fact, it's not just the Indianness we live with. It gets pretty regional, too. Our hyphenated identities can be more accurately defined as Bengali-Americans or Tamil-Americans or Punjabi-Americans and so forth, rather than just Indian-Americans.

Sujatha at Blogpourri, who was the first to forward Narayan's article, has done a fine job putting together the reactions of immigrant bloggers.

Sujatha herself empathizes with Narayan's struggles but not with her desperation:

The anxieties she painstakingly chronicled, particularly about raising children so far away from grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, were familiar to me as a first-generation immigrant myself [...].

Generations of immigrants have been raising children here, and while their issues may not be exactly those of parents raising children in their home countries, by no stretch of the imagination were these problems insurmountable.

We'd already lived with this issue for so long in all its complexity and devised what solutions we could as we went along - Indian friends became uncles and aunts, then their children became surrogate cousins, festivals and pujas and American holidays were all celebrated or commemorated together with them, we tried to go to India as much as we could, my parents and in-laws visited, we seized the completely unexpected opportunity to live in India for a couple of years and eventually we returned to the US - that I could not relate to Narayan's urgency and desperation. I chalked it up to differences in background and experience.

Nikki's mom's talks about how assimilation can be a problem even within India, leave alone in America. You'll get a good sense of how deeply divided Indians can be. (Also check out Poppin's mom's post that I have quoted from next):

Cultural assimilation is a very complex multi-layered thing. [...]

I for one is a Telegu-tamilian but never felt that hyphen troubling because I never had any questions about my identity. I see myself as a Tamil who knows to speak the fractured telegu spoken in our family/community. As far as traditions, festivals, rituals go, we follow what is followed in our community, it is not radically different from what others follow. We have some extra / different rituals and festivals, the difference is something that you can find between 2 different castes( or sub-sects within the same caste) of tamil origin, I don’t think the difference is solely because of our telegu origin. I have visited Andhra only twice in my life time and that was for our 2 Tirupathi visits. [...]

Now I know I cannot extend this to a cultural disparity that is as wide as is between India and the US. I have been here only 3+ years but I think I have assimilated more than those who have lived here for 10 years. We celebrate Halloween & Thanksgiving understanding it's spirit fully. Thanksgiving is exactly similar to Pongal that we celebrate back in India, thanking Gods for the bountiful harvest. [...]

I have not chosen to celebrate July 4th and Christmas as they don't mean anything to me yet(other than vacation time & shopping deals). As Nikki grows and has American friends, I will start celebrating them too, because it is his country and I do not want him to feel alienated here. He is an American by birth and if he grows up here I will let him be an American, but one with Indian roots. American to the extent that it does not conflict with the ethics and values of our family.

Poppin's mom at Babies Anonymous, makes a fierce argument against raising children with cultures that will be ultimately alien to them:

In the US, I find way too many desi people live an insular stubborn Indian life and continually diss American traditions and their way of life. They will live in Indians only apartment complexes, put their kids in desi-fied private schools, and push their kids to Saturday classes to learn Bharatnatyam and Bollywood dancing. I know of parents who bring back Math and Science books back from their Indian trips so that they can bring their children upto speed with the Indian levels of education. What’s wrong with that you ask? Really nothing, I don’t have any issues if you want your child to be good at Math and Science, but isn’t the superior education system of the US, one of the main reasons you stayed back. Isn’t that why when you come back to India you seek americanized international schools? No?

[...]

You perhaps cannot become American overnight, but like it or not, your child is, why not let him/her be that way? She can teach you a thing or two and help you assimilate too.

Let’s take festivals for example. By all means celebrate Deepavali in your local Indian Community Center. And if you don’t want to celebrate Christmas that’s fine, it’s a religious festival after all. But Thanksgiving? July 4th? Do Indians living abroad celebrate it at all.

[...]

If I had chosen to bring her [Poppin] up in the States, I would have become a US citizen at the first opportunity, and learnt to cook and eat Turkey for Thanksgiving, I can assure you that. As tough as it is to raise children today, equally tough it is to be a child today. I’m not going to make it harder on myself or the child by giving her mixed messages.

I wondered, what the children raised on such “mixed messages” feel about all this. Maybe they learn how to separate the two cultures – that of their parents and that of their country – with far more ease than worried immigrant parents can imagine. I got a feel of that longing-but-we're-okay feel on Sepia Mutiny.

Here's a snapshot of mutineer Anna's conversation with her friend:

“Are you going home for Thanksgiving?”

“No. Mom’s traveling, no one’s there.”

“What timing for a trip!”

“Well…we never really celebrated the holiday. My parents had that typical snarky comeback, you know, ‘only Americans would need a special day to be thankful for everything. Hmmph! We’re thankful daily!’…like that. So it was just a regular day at our house…with slightly different TV programs.”

“So you have not had this…tofurkey you sent me, on Facebook?”

“No. I don’t eat tofu.”

“You sound sad.”

“I guess I am, a little bit. Everyone’s rushing off with a suitcase and while I don’t really want to travel THIS week, it reminds me that they’re going to be with their family, and that does make me miss home. This is my first Thanksgiving when I’m not going anywhere. It’s a little depressing.”

“Well, now you know what a FOB feels like.”

Well, if you think Thanksgiving is a strict no-no in Indian families, read the responses to Anna's post. Here's a sample from Lusterbee:

Anna, come to my house! We have open "Indian" Thanksgiving, which is basically anyone who doesn't have somewhere to go comes to our house and eats whatever we decide to make. This year, I'm in charge and I'm making vegetarian Italian, but last year my mom was in charge and it was vegetarian Mexican, vegetarian Indian, and vegetarian Thai. I think she just uses tomorrow as an excuse to make all the weird recipes that she finds in those little cookbooks they sell in the checkout aisle at the grocery store. :P

By now you must have got a sense of how we, at some level, live in different country called India-America, a very unstable state that has for some reason survived. Sometimes I wonder, with a chuckle, if we are being watched and judged. By the “others”, the non-Indian Americans.

I feel I am too young in this country and too unfettered to have to choose one way or the other with any urgency. But for as long as I live in this country, Thanksgiving is one holiday I want to be part of. The spirit of it is so simple and straightforward. Being thankful. Good enough for me :)

Happy Holidays everybody.

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