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From Hari to Harry

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March 2003
From Hari to Harry

?From many years back, as a child growing up in Mumbai, I remember distinctly a guest at one of our neighbors. He was a young boy named Sanjiv visiting from America. With a name as singularly Indian as this, and brown (albeit fair) skin to match, I was surprised and intrigued that Sanjiv was as much a foreigner as I had ever seen. His hefty built and the smart Adidas sneakers along with Wrangler jeans, were enough to set him world?s apart from us, the local munchkins. But what really bowled us over were his distinctly foreign mannerisms and accent.

To my impressionable mind, Sanjiv soon epitomized the ?American-return? as we used to refer to them. To me they were all distant, distinct, and perhaps even exotic. Their attempts at speaking their parent?s native language were both, funny and endearing.

Though, any such stereotypes that I had formed about the ?American-return? were smashed the very next summer, when we chanced upon hosting my distant cousins who had come from Chicago. Not only were they familial and homely, but they spoke fluent Gujarati, and said prayers in Sanskrit. What?s more, their Gujarati accent reminded me of my visits to the country sides!?

The above narration by friend and fellow writer sums up the enigma that is the 'Indian American.' The term encompasses a wide spectrum of the Indian Diaspora. In fact, the commingling of new waves of immigrants with those who have been here a generation or two has made the Indian Americans amongst the most diverse bunch that refuses to be pegged by singular stereotypes. Popular colloquial terms such as FOB (Fresh off the Boat) and ABCD (American Born Confused/Confident Desi) also point out to this spectrum with many hues in the middle.

Such a wide spectrum exists not only from one Indian American to another, but many times, also within the same individual, as that person goes through various phases of his or her American life.

From Somnath to Som

Somnath Chivukula was 14 years old when he and his family arrived in Salt Lake City, Utah, from Bombay. ?Junior high [school] was tough,? Chivukula, now 25, says as he recalls his first foray into the American life. ?One of the issues was about clothes. We didn't have much money back then. So the clothes were from India. We were younger and it was difficult.?

In high school, Chivukula made a greater effort to assimilate with his classmates. After a few years in America he unofficially shortened his first name to Som so that Americans could pronounce it more easily. And then he turned to sports. One night there was a basketball game on television. ?The Utah Jazz were playing the Philadelphia 76ers and I started enjoying the game,? Chivukula, a journalist and now a resident of Hoboken, NJ, says, with a touch of an American accent in his voice. ?It was a close game and I decided to pick up basketball.? From basketball he moved to football and later found out that college sports ? basketball and football ? were also big in the U.S.

?At first I was doing it to assimilate in school ? just to have something to say in a conversation ? that John Starks is good player or [about] the slam dunk he made. You need to have some sort of reference point to say that. You need to know what they are talking about.?

This was the pre-Internet era, but pretty soon Chivukula was reading up everything he could about American sports in the local newspapers. ?It was very helpful because within months everybody thought of me as an analyst.?

Now nearly 12 years later Chivukula watches Hollywood movies and golf tournaments on television, but in a lot of other ways, he still retains the essence of his Indian heritage. A devout Telugu Brahmin, Chivukula is a vegetarian. He had his first beer at a Super Bowl party this January and his first pizza, ten months ago.

?I guess I never ate pizza before because my palate never adjusted to it,? he says. ?I still find it bothersome when people say Italian food is the best. I say no way, because Indian food and spices have so many aromas and flavors.?

Chivukula should know. Since he began living on his own three years ago, he has honed his cooking skills to the point where he can make labor-intensive delicacies such as dosas and idlis.

A Spectrum of Solutions

Today there are thousands of Chivukulas spread all over the US, Indians who have migrated to the US in a process that began over a century ago. The records speak of early Indian migration in the beginning of the 1900s. They were mostly Sikh farmers who settled around the farming cities of California on the west coast. And since immigration laws did not allow these men to bring wives from India, they married Mexican and white American women. The descendents of these early immigrants still live in and around towns like Yuba City, CA.

Others came later, and like Som Chivukula, have grappled with many basic questions before making their choices ? balancing between their Indian lives and adapting in different degrees to an American way of living. In the process an entire spectrum of solutions has emerged.

Professor Parmatma Saran, the head of the sociology and anthropology department at Baruch College, New York City, distinguishes between three types of Indian immigrants as far as adaptation is concerned. The first are those married to Americans or non-Indians. ?They tend to see themselves completely assimilated,? he says, adding that this is a very small percentage of the total Indian population in the US.

The second category is that of Indians who are trying to find a balance, ?carefully maintaining their Indian heritage and traditions.? But then they are more realistic and they try and also adapt to the cultures of the new society.

The third group he defines as recent immigrants who have arrived in the past 10 to 15 years. ?They move in the opposite direction of the first,? he says. ?They are really gung ho about anything Indian and they tend to ridicule anything American. They only watch Indian movies and eat only Indian food. When these people came to America, there was already a built-in structure of restaurants and movie theaters and so they didn?t feel any pressure to assimilate.?

Somnath Chivukula

?Holding on to what I have is important?

In many ways Chivukula belongs to the second category. He remembers the time when his history teacher in high school asked the class about the three branches of US government. He replied correctly ? judiciary, legislative and executive ? but pronounced the last word as egzeequtive (the British-Indian way) and not as egzeketive (the American way). The class burst out laughing.

His initial reaction was one of confusion and shock, but then he responded back. ?My reply was that you guys were born here but you couldn?t even answer the question, yet you were laughing at me because I had screwed up on the pronunciation? I was pretty brash at that time. I would not take shit from anyone. I would stand up for myself.?

So, even while Chivukula watched sit-coms (the pre-Friends era, when American households were still glued to The Cosby Show and Cheers) to improve his accent, he would still take South Indian vegetarian food to school for lunch. And while he would flirt with his American female classmates, he never went out on dates. ?I had plenty of chances, but I just didn?t go out,? he says.

Chivukula had his thread ceremony before he left India. He still wears the thread to preserve the essential element of his life. When he gets married, it will have to be to a vegetarian Telugu Brahmin girl, he says. ?I have come to feel strongly over the years and I recognize the importance of holding on to what I have.?

Giri Raj Rao

Every bit Indian and American

Giri Raj Rao clearly belongs to the first category that Khandelwal refers to. He came to the US in 1946, married an Italian-American woman (his wife has since passed on), and they had two sons. Today at 78, Rao spends his time at his home in Atlanta ? very comfortable with both his Indian and his American self. He retired after years of service with Coca Cola and is closely affiliated with the Atlanta-based Gandhi Foundation.

?We have a Telugu proverb ? if you were to wash a leopard 1,001 times, it will still retain its spots,? Rao says in an accent that is reminiscent of the English spoken by an educated Indian who was born in Madras.

?There are certain inherent things about us that cannot be changed ? why change them?? he asks, adding that he never made any attempts to eliminate his Indian accent. ?That which is you is you. It would have been very easy for me to change my name for the convenience of those who are ignorant. My name is Giri Raj. I could hyphenate it or just call myself Giri. But why should I be called Gary? I never did that. This is the name that my parents went through a lot of trouble to pick.?

Rao and his wife brought up their two sons ? they are 39 and 36 ? as Catholics. ?I used to joke that I was in an ocean of Catholics,? he says. But he continued to practice his belief in Hinduism.

What attracted him to the U.S. is what he refers to as the American way of life. He defines that as the mobility and freedom that Americans feel in their ability to do whatever they want to do. He recalls that until he left India, he had never met a Sikh, nor did he know how to communicate with one. In Berkeley ? while he was student ? his first roommate was a Muslim from the North-West Frontier Province (India was not partitioned at that time). His second roommate was another Muslim, this time from Bengal, and later Bangladesh. Both men became good friends of Rao.

?The American way of life is also the way you select your friends and people you associate with ? they have a great impact on you,? he says.

?Every problem that you can think of exists in India in some form or another,? he adds. ?Because it is an old country, it was a subjugated country for a long period of time. Personal liberties may have existed, but there was no platform for you to express it. With the result we had a subject mentality ? a peon syndrome ? inflicted upon us.

?Here you can take a child to any hospital and get some treatment,? Rao says. ?Municipal hospitals in India are a horror. We have not been very kind to the poor and underprivileged.?

He remembers the time when teachers in India would act like despots (?They still do sometimes,? he says) and government officers would treat their clerks like sub human beings. ?There was no respect for human values. We talk about it in our literature and arts, but in practice a servant in India would be treated worse than a similar person in the same position in this country. In the 50 years that I have lived here, I never thought I was inferior to anybody.?

He acknowledges that there is racism in the US, but no less than the manner in which people from South India would be treated in the northern part of that country.?

Rao remembers his young days in Madras ? the walks he took along the beach and his close relationship with his family. But now in the US, he can get whatever he misses about India ? from masala dosas at exclusive restaurants to music.

?Today, the way I live in US, there is nothing that is not available to me that is not Indian,? he says.

Viju Rao

the good and bad of both lifestyles

The freedom that Giri Raj Rao talks about was the very thing that attracted Viju Rao (the two are not related) to the US. Viju started his career in hotel management and later became a food and restaurant consultant. He arrived in the US in 1993 with his wife and daughter. At 43, he went back to school to make a career switch. Now, at 51, he works from his home in Atlanta as an IT consultant for small businesses.

?One of the best things that happened to me was that I could learn and go back to school,? he says adding that in India he would have been locked out of the opportunity to make a career change. ?Here it is amazing that at 43 I could go to school and get myself a bachelor?s degree. And then I could go and get a master?s degree. Age is not a barrier in this country.?

While his 17-year-old daughter may be more entrenched in the American way of life, Viju and his wife also appreciate that in this country people are left on their own ? ?which is great because you don?t have people (or neighbors) meddling into your affairs.?

And although he misses the opportunity of visiting friends on the spur of a moment ? since in the US one needs to make appointments even with close associates, he appreciates the fact that Americans can compartmentalize their personal and public lives.

It was easy for Viju to settle down in the US ? having worked in a corporate atmosphere in India and grown up in an international environment in Delhi. His father was a doctor who had several diplomatic clients in India. And so Rao and his wife often entertain Americans at their home in Atlanta. He believes that his lifestyle back in India well prepared him for living in the US.

He admires the civic sense that exists in America ? from people standing in lines at banks to government officials not asking for bribes. And if there was a clincher that made the Raos decide to stay back in the US ? it was the mall culture.

?Of course my wife ? the Punjabi that she is ? the first thing she loved about this country was the malls,? he says with a laugh. ?She was not going back leaving the malls behind. Plus, the convenience of grocery shopping! It makes a huge difference in the quality of life.?

Mickey Desai

?In American society each

person is expected to

individuate?

Mickey Desai never had to confront the question of whether to stay on or not. Mickey is a second generation Indian ? born and raised in Atlanta. And although his parents were fairly liberal ? they opted for the arranged marriage set up in India. Desai, like Som Chivukula, grew up in a very Indian and sheltered household.

?In American society each person is expected to individuate, become their own people ? kids are supposed to move out of the house and do their own thing,,? Desai, 33, says in a clipped American accent that sets him apart from Indians who have migrated to the US in the recent years. In India, he adds, there is rarely a separation between individual and the family, and even now there might be a few generations living in the same house. ?Americans look at that and say ?Oh that is terrible, that is dysfunctional.? Indians look at that and say that is normal, which is great.?

So for Desai living in an Indian household meant that as a child and a teenager he never attended camp or went out on dates or dance parties. He maintains that he did not have a girlfriend or know much about American socialization until he was 19. When he graduated from high school and went to college he finally realized that world was much bigger and that he had the freedom to go out and mix with girls.

?But I had to teach myself how to interact with people,? he adds, adding that his parents did not like the changes in his personality. ?At the beginning my dad was very confused about my drive toward individualism, my ability to make my own decisions outside the realm of the family.?

His family wanted him to succeed in American society ? and yet when he started to integrate with his peers, they were puzzled by his behavior. ?They say to children here, ?OK go swim in the western world,? but they get mad when you get wet,? he says, referring to a dilemma for many Indian parents in the US.

But as times have changed, Desai has had a chance to further appreciate his Indian roots. Although he has never dated an Indian girl (?It is not out of choice,? he says), after his father?s death a few years ago, he moved back home with his mother and younger sister. He cooks Indian food (?Standard fare for a Gujarati table,? he says), but also enjoys Italian and other western cuisines.

And one more thing about Mickey Desai: His real name is Vinay Desai. But he insists that he did not change his name to Mickey ? to sound more American. Mickey was a nickname given to him as a child and it just stuck with him. ?I was Mickey before I was even aware that Vinay was my real name,? he says.

Rupa Gowale

?Being Indian is the respect you show to your parents?

Like Chivukula, Rupa Gowale also migrated to the US when she was 14. Though, the assimilation process for her was much more drastic. Gowale?s parents were divorced when she was young. So only she and her brother accompanied their father to Queens, New York.

?I led a very sheltered life in Bombay where I grew up, just like the average middle class Indian girl,? Gowale, 30 and a forecaster for Liz Claiborne says from her office in Manhattan. ?There were so many things I wasn?t exposed to.?

?It was a massive cultural shock for me,? she says about her first few months in the US. ?When I first I got here, I got picked on by school kids. I can?t say that I didn?t fit in, but I was definitely not from here. I had an accent.?

And so Gowale made great efforts to integrate, much to her father?s dismay. ?The hardest problem was what to wear everyday to school. In India we had uniforms. Here in high school, it is all about how you are accepted and how you look. Your entire world revolves around that and I think it was harder for my father to deal with it.

?It wasn?t so much what I was wearing, but the fact I was indulging in being an American and I think in hindsight, I look back and I completely understand his perspective,? she adds. ?He really wanted me to hold on to my childhood and not allow me to grow up.?

Things got so difficult for Gowale that after high school she moved out of home. ?I literally walked out, because I felt very stifled, like I was completely torn, and I now know that was a stupid thing to do when you are 17 years old.

?I completely shunned my Indian-ness,? she recalls. ?I didn?t want to be an Indian. I didn?t want to be my dad?s daughter. I walked away from that and for a good five years, all through college, all through getting settled, getting my feet wet, getting through my 20s, I did not acknowledge that I was an Indian. I didn?t see my father for a very long time. I didn?t speak to him. He really disowned me. There was a massive disconnect, a complete breakdown in our relationship during that time period.?

Now looking back she realizes that she was simply rebelling against her father and her past and not necessarily trying to become an American.

?That has nothing to with how you dress, or how you look, but it has everything to with how you think,? she says, adding that she understands her father?s perspective much better now. ?The bad things that my father warned me against are also the bad things even an American father would warn his daughter about. My father said ?Don?t do drugs. Well absolutely don?t do drugs.? Which father would not say that to his child??

Her relationship with her father has greatly improved. And she has also connected with her mother ? a doctor in the Middle East. ?I completely understand them now and they completely understand me. The communication is amazing.?

But she still resents it when people tell her that as an Indian girl she should behave in a certain manner. ?I am a girl before I am anything else and I am human before I am a girl,? she says. ?So I find it a problem when anyone tries to put limitations on me.?

When people tell Gowale that she does not know anything about being an Indian, her response is that one should not judge a book by its cover. ?A lot of people think being Indian means going for garba dances, etc. But to me being Indian is the respect you show to your parents. How you treat them. It?s so many complex things that you cannot verbalize or compartmentalize. It is the same as being an American. It is a state of mind. It?s not like you follow this path and you are guaranteed success that you are an American.?

Madhulika Khandelwal

?There are so many ways of becoming Americanized?

Dr Madhulika S. Khandelwal could not agree more. The director of the Asian American Center at New York City?s Queens College and author of the recently published book ? Becoming American, Being Indian: An Immigrant Community in New York City, Khandelwal believes that there are so many different ways in which people can become Americans ? not just in changing their accents and in the way they dress.

?There is a wide range of open areas for people,? says Khandelwal. ?I have seen people who are South Asian in their everyday life and have become Americanized because they identify with the issues other Americans face ? political, social issues. I feel that is Americanization also.?

Khandelwal has been in this country for 20 years. There are days when she wears saris and will hear Indians say that she is still very Indian. At other times when she wears western clothes ? business suits for instance ? she will be told that she has become too American. Or the time when someone commented that despite the number of years she had lived in America, her accent has not changed.

?It may be true that I am more resistant,? she says. ?I do not want to adopt an American accent or not wear American clothes. But nobody thinks of the many other ways that America has impacted me.?

Khandelwal speaks about the choices some Indians have in the U.S. as compared to others. She says that based on their skills, training and education, professional and educated people (perhaps more in line with the second category that Saran talks about) have the choice of adapting to the American way of life or not.

?They were ready for the change before they came here,? she says. ?Whereas some of the later arrivals who may not be that educated and may not come from urban centers in India, or from the urban middle classes, have had a more difficult time in trying to deal with becoming American.?

Kaushik Dave

?We have both cultures, Indian and American?

At the other end of the spectrum of Indian immigrants is Kaushik Dave. Listen to Dave speak in halting English, and you would mistake him for someone fresh-off-the-boat. But one should certainly not judge the book by its cover. Dave has lived in the US for 12 years and espouses fairly progressive views.

Originally from Umreth, Gujarat, this 38-year-old civil engineer by training is a successful businessman in the Atlanta area. He owns a large jewelry business as also Swagat Center ? a 7,000 sq. ft. strip mall. In 12 years he has lived in different parts of this country ? Gainesville, FL, New Jersey, Columbia, GA, and now Atlanta. And America has been good to him.

?It?s become like a hobby for me ? to do something new every two years,? he says, adding that he has had tremendous opportunities in this country. ?Here one can get easy loans if you have a good credit line. Ninety percent of the time here nobody cheats you. If you have a little bit of knowledge you can start a business. I have put so many family members in businesses.?

The Daves have two girls, ages six and three. The family is pure vegetarian and while they eat Gujarati food at home they often go out to fast food restaurants for pizza or tacos. The girls speak Gujarati and English and the parents take them to Hollywood movies ? although mostly Disney and other children oriented productions. At home the family watches Bollywood movies.

Dave adds that he will not have any problems if his daughters ? once they are older ? date American men. ?In my family, my sister-in-law is married to an American boy. We don?t mind these kinds of things. Whatever they (his daughters) like they will do. You can?t control the kids ? anywhere ? in the US or India.?

He also says that he interacts with different nationalities in Atlanta. He has African immigrants coming to the grocery store that he owns in Swagath Center and white Americans have bought 22 karat gold from his jewelry establishment. His wife ? a former technician at Smith Klein Beecham ? invites her American colleagues to their place for Diwali.

?We have both cultures, Indian and American,? Dave says.

Both Indian and American

The terrorist attacks of September 11 led a lot people to question what it meant to be an American. A lot of Indians bought American flags to avoid confrontations with confused or angry compatriots.

On September 11 Rupa Gowale donated blood. ?Not because I didn?t want to be targeted but because I really wanted to do it,? she says. ?I am an American and I think that (day) led me to assess the value of being an American. It?s your acts ? it?s the things you do.?

And fortunately this country gives immigrants from India like Gowale the choice of being Indian and American.

?That is the greatest thing about this country,? she says. ?With all the negativity it carries, it gives you the freedom to be so many things and the freedom to experience so many things.?


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