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Gen X vs. Gen Y: The ABC’s of the ABCD Experience

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December 2007
Gen X vs. Gen Y: The ABC’s of the ABCD Experience

In 1982, before terms like multiculturalism and political correctness entered the mainstream, the American film Annie, a feel-good movie about a scrappy American girl who hits it rich in the middle of the Great Depression, presented the anomalous side character of “Punjab,” a mystic bodyguard and healer who is the right-arm man to the millionaire hero of the film. “Punjab” was played by the visibly African American Geoffrey Holder, who despite his Trinidadian roots, is not Punjabi, or even Indian. This nonspecific representation of South Asian identity, along with Amrish Puri’s wildly stereotypical and only vaguely Indian character in The Temple of Doom, made up the 1980’s media possibilities for NRI children in the States to see themselves in American narratives. Shalini Parekh, a 32-year old American-born Health Analyst at the CDC states, however, “I do remember that little Indian guy from Short Circuit.” The little Indian guy was white American actor Fisher Stevens.

Twenty-five years later, American pop culture now makes room for what then seemed impossible—not only the Indian American actor, but the Indian American heartthrob in the form of “Sanjaya” (or his sister) and numerous nameless Indian American contestants on “America’s Next Top Model.” When asking today’s younger Indian American adults about visibly desi characters in television and film, they have multiple options. “Kal Penn is as close as they come,” says Amar Patel, a second generation Indian American consultant for IBM. These youth icons and figures populating the Generation Y universe sharply contrast with the invisibility faced by so many Generation X teenagers. Now adults, many of this now mostly thirty- and forty-something group of second generation Indian Americans (commonly called “ABCD’s”) clearly recall a time when being from India was perhaps more strange than exotic, more alien than cosmopolitan. Harin J. Contractor, a 24-year-old graduate student at the University of Chicago, deftly sums up the collective identity of older second generation Indian Americans, or Generation X: “This was the generation that started all the Indian-American student organizations that are vital for students today? this was the generation that could not look around at school or the work place to find someone that looks like them; this generation I believe is where the term ABCD originated from, your ‘Mississippi Masala’ youth.”

In many ways, first wave second generation Indian Americans, or Gen Xers, had childhoods that were drastically different from those of their younger counterparts today. Many of their parents came to the U.S. as student immigrants in the late 1960s, most often for graduate education in the sciences. Jhumpa Lahiri, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Namesake (from which the recent film was adapted) fictionalizes these pioneering years of professional Indian immigrants in her novel. This emigration was made possible by the 1965 lifting of country-specific immigration quotas, quotas which had severely limited Asian immigration for more than half a century. Most immigrants began to settle and start their own families in the Northeastern Corridor of the country, later moving into the Sunbelt and other areas when their professions called for relocations. For this reason, not only are there significant differences in the early experiences of the children who were born and grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s versus those who are growing up today, there are also wide gaps between the level of identification with Indian American culture on the part of those children who grew up (and are still growing up) in metropolitan areas versus those whose parents migrated to other areas of the country where the history of Indian America is not quite so established. “Growing up in the South was difficult at times,” explains Raj Kini, a 31-year-old attorney. “This led to a feeling of being different or an outsider at times.” Karishma (Kari) Parekh, a 23-year-old in Commercial Real Estate Banking and a member of the younger generation, nevertheless remarks how her upbringing in the southern United States contributed to her mild sense of “disconnect.” She admits, “I have a strong connection deep in my heart but I am different. I was born in Louisiana, grew up in the backyard of Alabama and was obsessed with McDonald's Happy Meals and Oreos.” Contrary to this experience, Abishek Pardeshi, a 24-year-old who works in Litigation Consulting and who was raised in New York, never felt like a foreigner while growing up, and instead considers himself to be a “regular American.”

A Tale of Two Generations

In the early 1990s, the phrase “Generation X” gained currency in mainstream American culture through music and literature, and it slowly became associated with then young adults who had been born and raised in the U.S., roughly between the late 1960s and the early 1980s. The label “Generation X” first became synonymous with a sort of “slacker” identity, an epithet that referred often negatively to an educated but somehow professionally paralyzed generation, a generation that grew up fearing nuclear war but found meaning in the shared pop culture of Saturday morning children’s television programming. Later, as with the evolution of the label “American Born Confused Desi,” “Generation X” lost much of its earlier negative meanings and instead became simply a label that marked some common experiences and a shared history. Today, with the arrival of another generation and subsequent label (Generation Y—children born roughly between the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s), it is clear that neither classification nor the traits associated with them satisfactorily sum up the differences between those born so many years apart. And yet, even within the Indian American community, people seem to want to assign general characteristics with those ABCD’s who are either a part of Generation X or Generation Y. “Generation Y, as our parents call us, seems to be much more aware and accepting of Indian culture,” claims Mika Jain, a 16-year-old at Atlanta’s Woodward Academy. Even more importantly, today’s more complex South Asian immigration patterns further problematize the older definitions of “first generation” or “second generation.” While “first generation” often refers to the original, emigrating generation, and “second” refers to American-born or raised children, today, as more NRI’s go back and forth between the motherland and the U.S. for extended residences, and as more people are coming to America with older children, it is becoming more and more difficult to categorize and classify desi groups with identity labels.

As Asia rises and immigration patterns diversify, it is becomingly increasingly obvious that the “cultural confusion” associated with the second generation may slowly become a thing of the past. Yet the stories of personal struggle to ultimate cultural integration shared by Gen Xers richly illustrate the private side of a now more global and evolved public history. For example, Dr. Suvrat Bhargave, a late thirty-something native of Atlanta and a child psychiatrist, relishes going to an Indian grocery store, a commonplace activity today that many contemporary Indian American youth may take for granted. Bhargave, whose parents are Indian American pioneers in Atlanta, appreciates the bicultural advantages his children have that he himself did not. “As a parent, I don’t have to work so hard to create that,” he explains. “I can go to the Global Mall.”

The creative lengths taken by Indian Americans to cultivate a sense of India back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s reveal simpler and more pan-Indian ideas of the motherland. Nija Meyer, 42, grew up attending Bollywood film screenings on Friday evenings in a student center at Georgia Tech, roughly between the years of 1972-1977. She remembers viewing and enjoying films such as Bobby (1973) and Aradhana (1969) even though she would have liked to have been allowed to “date and drive around” and to attend football games. Some first generation parents attempted to recreate a sense of Indian culture for their children by founding language schools or cultural camps to be attended by their second generation children for a few weeks each summer. Neelam (Patel) Varas, a 33-year-old Global Business Operations Manager who grew up in Rochester, NY, bemusedly discusses her time at the “Hindu Heritage Summer Camp” held in the Pocono Mountains, which was run by “Caucasian swamis.” These swamis were employed by Indian parents in order to “miraculously instill all the knowledge and wisdom of our Indian culture, our religion, and our motherland.” The camp’s activities were comprised of “barnyard yoga lessons,” “Hinduism lectures,” and “Ramayana play productions,” but Varas remembers “the agony of being away from our loving homes, our hot showers, our junk food, and our MTV.” Varas, who was recently married to a man from Mexico, notes that this parental effort may have been a “failed attempt to take young, ‘ABCD’ children out of their comfort zones.” Perhaps the most extreme illustration of early Indian American immigrants’ dedication to all things Indian is Suvrat Bhargave’s account of his Delta-employee father flying up the entire family in the 1970s for day-trips to New York Indian grocery stores. His family happily distributed these hard-won goods to their friends, who, like them, were anxious for “real daal—not split peas.” Many first generation parents also took pains to modify those aspects of Indian culture or practice they found to be outdated. Nina Worden Kulkarni, a Gen X school teacher in New York who is married with two children, remembers the ways in which her immigrant mother tried to subvert the usual gender roles associated with South Asian women. She recalls having to leave the room once when a close friend of the family began a birthday pooja for her husband. “Later we found out that the only thing we'd missed was that woman touching her husband's feet,” explains Kulkarni. “My mom didn't want us to see that because she hated that custom and didn't want us to see a woman ‘serving’ her husband in that way.”

Rites of Passage

About first generation parents, Shalini Parekh expounds, “They are some of the bravest people in the world. I can't imagine packing up from my homeland and moving to a completely foreign country in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, when there were relatively few Indians outside of the mother country.” Despite diligent efforts taken by first generation Indian parents to provide Indian culture for their offspring, many members of Generation X are conscious of some profound absences when it comes to culture, cultural understanding, or cultural exchange. Mallika Chakravarti, a 31-year-old in Interactive Marketing and Advertising, laughingly remarks on the “coconut” (“brown on the outside/white on the inside”) mentality of some of her Indian American peers during her youth. Despite being an active member of NetIP in her adulthood and having been a part of an Indian community growing up, the D.C. born Chakravarti never had a chance to attend a garba event until this past year. Her experience illustrates the perspective of compounded cultural alienation faced by young adults from under-represented parts of India, or those second generation children whose Indian region-based communities in the U.S. are smaller than those of Gujuratis or Punjabis. Chakravarti, whose parents are from Madras, remembers a particularly difficult year, 1989, when her family returned to the U.S. after residence in Egypt, when their once strong and unified Indian community in the D.C. area began to feel less inclusive due to newer immigration patterns and the increased numbers of Indian American mothers going to work. “I just became shy around Indian people,” she states. Her experiences serve as a contrast for today’s metropolitan youth who grow up with numerous ways of celebrating Navratri or Diwali, events that are now held in Indian owned halls and temples as opposed to the then rented spaces of American churches.

Chakravarti’s observations about her adolescence as an Indian American are not only candid (she chuckles about the fact that she and her female peers did not have much regard for Indian American boys during her youth), they seem to seek to explain many of the patterns found in the collective behavior of Generation X, such as continuous professional experimentation and a preference to marry later in life than previous generations. Nija Meyer, who is married to a non-Indian and who has two children, observes that today’s Indian American youth have greater freedom and scope socially when it comes to coeducational events. She recalls that when she was growing up, “there were not many Indian guys around at all,” and is heartened at the “dancing and flirting” that now occurs and seems more permissible today at cultural events. Many adult Gen Xers are also familiar with academic and professional pressure to seek out secure and not necessarily adventurous careers. Though he would have loved to pursue broadcast journalism, for example, Dr. Suvrat Bhargave became a physician due to his confidence that he could excel in a path that had been paved by more Indians. He remembers his father telling him as a means of encouraging him to find his calling, “It’s not good enough to be good—you have to be better.” “I think second generation Indian Americans are similar to many Americans who are also reshuffling their career paths. It’s a trend now that many people change 2 or 3 careers in their lifetime,” explains Ketna Mistry, a pediatrician in her late thirties. “That didn’t happen as much a generation ago among Indians or Americans; people are reinventing themselves as they learn more about themselves.”   

Scarcity to Abundant Consciousness

Naturally, some Gen Xers argue that younger Indian adults and children coming up today have an “easier” time culturally. Ketna Mistry discusses the advantages of “abundance consciousness” influencing the young NRI world today. She feels that she and others like her grew up with “scarcity consciousness,” or the feeling that “there are a few of us here, so you have to prove yourself.” Nija Meyer goes so far as to say that the teenagers who are now members of Generation Y probably experience “less of that rebellion” today that many of her own peers felt when they entered that “horrible age.” However, Rohit Chopra, a first generation professor who has taught courses in Identity Studies, points out that all of the “second generation are faced with an unfair choice of having to prove their ‘Indianness’ or ‘Americanness’.” Dr. Sanket Vyas, another second generation Gen Xer, argues that society today “encourages people to keep their identity rather than shed it,” ushering in a cultural sensitivity that, as Mallika Chakravarti claims, allows Indian youth today to be “more agnostic as far as Indian or non-Indian goes.” Her choice of words reveals the almost spiritual crisis-like battles fought by Gen Xers, who, unlike their Gen Y counterparts, may have thought twice about wearing Indian clothes, piercing their ears, or even taking part in cultural show dances that are so prevalent today. Chakravarti notes the popularity of the “kurti” blouse today. A seemingly frivolous item of Indian and American fashion, the kurti nevertheless reveals the extent to which American culture and the world have, at least in the world of style, cycled towards all things Indian, so much so that today, “Indian people can wear those things and no one expects them to talk in a funny accent.” Raj Kini remarks, “My perception of youngsters overall is that they are more interested not only in learning about different cultures but also experiencing those cultures and there are now more opportunities for doing so. I would think these factors create more of a feeling of inclusion for youngsters of Indian origin (and other origins as well).” As if in response to such a charge, Mika Jain, a Generation Y teenager maintains, “While our expectations of Generation X are not lowered, Generation Y is very much the opposite of their predecessors, most prominently in terms of religious involvement, culture, and tradition. As part of Generation Y, probably the most important trait in me and to me is my ‘Indianness’.” In fact, many younger second generation adults do not feel, as their older peers did, that being Indian made them significantly more foreign than other Americans, nor do they think that they faced more psychological challenges during their teenage years. Though he experienced post 9-11 discrimination against South Asian Americans “first hand” when a policeman searched his car for “weapons,” Harin Contractor, who was then on his way to visit his grandfather on his deathbed, sums up the experience as a profound lesson in civic rights. “I contend with this every day as I have taken this passion into my everyday life in policy and politics,” he explains. About the difference between his generation and the older one, he notes further, “I am lucky to have a large desi peer group, student groups, and mainstream role models.”

Finding a Cultural Equilibrium

Though many are familiar with the story of the cultural confusion arising from being American-born, it is clear from talking to many second generation adults that the struggle overwhelmingly results in advanced introspection and ultimate self-awareness, almost as if members of this generation unwittingly become fluent and articulate in discussing the complex forces informing ideas of culture. Dr. Suvrat Bhargave, who graduated from Atlanta’s Woodward Academy in 1986, conducted a social experiment for his first two years of college at the University of Georgia. He forced himself to disassociate from all things Indian on campus because he suddenly became conscious that he was more comfortable with himself in Indian settings as opposed to American ones. His goal was to try to be “the same person all the time,” and only after he accomplished it did he allow himself to reintegrate, with confidence, back into Indian American social settings. Also describing his social circles, the younger Harin Contractor claims, “I've made a strong effort to find a balance. I know it is sometimes awkward to go out and seek non-desi or desi friends, but I think the only way I remain myself is to keep this balance among my social network.” The responses of both Gen X and Gen Y Indian Americans to questions about identity are almost always sensitive and reflective as words like “hybrid,” “dichotomy,” and “consciousness” emerge in their descriptions of coming to terms with who they are. They are quick to speak of “the best of both worlds,” of combing cultures and philosophies; they seem to be active sociologists and cultural anthropologists by nature. They seem to understand that they should embody the most inclusive and multicultural American ideals.

Often, the experience of leaving home for the first time forces questions of “Indianness” or “Americanness” into the minds of young Indian Americans of both generations. Even those children who grew up going to India in some sense do not have a clear picture of their own ideas of who they are and how they relate to other second generation youths until they go to college or begin their professions. Most second generation young adults thus have stories like Suvrat Bhargave’s, stories about having to reconcile their fast-held notions of what it meant to be Indian America with the confusion arising when seeing more of their numbers. “I feel a little like an outsider around some Indian communities,” admits Karishma Parekh. “Although I have the skin color, I know the way I walk, talk, dress and smile, scream ABCD.” Nithya Desikan-Robertelli, 28, a Senior Manager for New Product Development at Johnson & Johnson in Beijing, China, and whose age puts her in the border territory between Gen X and Y, describes the frustration she faced as a college student when attempting to meet more South Asians: “I made a concerted effort to go to the Indian Association meetings and events. I found I didn't have much in common with them. Many had come from really wealthy families or were really repressed in their youth, so the rebellion was way too strong for me—lots of college drinking and promiscuity.”

What’s most apparent across the groups making up the second generation is that they reserve the right to reflect upon the consequences of their parents’ pursuit of the American Dream. “If you define success in material terms, I think Indians have done quite well,” says Ketna Mistry. “For me, the bigger question is: “Have we suffered spiritually and emotionally in the quest for the dollar?” While no one seems to want to criticize the first generation’s decision to emigrate, members of the second generation are cognizant that India’s middle class is now in a more advantageous position than thirty years ago. Still, young adults cite educational and professional opportunities, quality of life, and independence of spirit as some of American culture’s most compelling and unique features. Yet, even with the increased numbers of South Asians in America, and despite the now less intimidating distance between the Mother Country and the New World, some members of the second generation would not want to do again for themselves what their parents did all those years ago. Nithya Desikan-Robertelli sums it up: “I do not want to have my children grow up without their family and for my parents to grow up with their grandchildren oceans away. I see my cousins chasing ‘the dream’ with little consideration for the family challenges that will lie ahead as their parents age.”

Archith Seshadri shares the credit for reporting.

SIDEBAR

Millenials Charting New Course in Indian American Life

As the third generation—known variously as Gen Y, the Millenials, iGen—grows to consciousness within Indian American life, it is clear that several of the challenges faced by earlier immigrants will fade away. Technology and easier access to India, not to mention the ever changing face of America, will make anxieties of being different a thing of the past. While the children of some Gen Xers are confident in discussing who they are and seem almost at once to allay the myths about younger generations losing their “heritage,” many Generation X adults still have concerns that their parents’ culture will disappear. Nithya Desikin-Robertelli states matter-of-factly, “When my grandmother died last Christmas, I felt like the connection I had to India died. It was more painful than her death itself.” Dr. Sanket Vyas, a former resident of Atlanta, explains his drive to keep India’s identity everlasting in his life. He recollects his trip to Jamaica with his wife where they met an Indian girl who seemed lost about her cultural roots, being a third generation Indian. “It really shook me up as I basically saw what our grandkids would be like despite my love of my culture. I knew right then and there that just like all the other immigrant groups that had emigrated here, desis were going to be swallowed up by American culture and there was nothing we could do about it.” Vyas has since mediated his fears through his blog about Bollywood music, a cultural phenomenon that he feels will continue to provide common ground for people of Indian origin.

When you talk to the youngest members of Generation Y, it seems difficult to view them as born-confused. The insights and responses from teens and preteens about their identity belie first generation and even second generation fears that Indian culture will be lost in the New World. Suvrat Bhargave’s 12-year-old daughter, Avya, is enthusiastic about “choreographing songs” with her Indian friends, whom she calls “cousins.” Avya believes that she will not face more difficulties due to her heritage as she enters her teens because “different is not bad, it’s just who you are.” Although she feels that she and her parents’ generation are sometimes at odds due to their different cultures, and though she does think that her life is a bit more complicated because of her heritage, Avni Choski, 13, of Orlando, Fla., says honestly, “I don’t think about being Indian very often.” Her comment attests to the greater visibility of India that, as Gen Xers argue, makes it easier for Gen Y youth to not have to wear India on their sleeves. And yet, as with many second generation Indian Americans responding to questions about the presence of Indian culture and whether it is more of a frustrating or enriching factor in their lives, complexity has ensured more rewarding and unique experiences across the board. As Avni Chokski’s 11-year-old sister, Aditi, asserts, “I am actually proud of being Indian.... I like being from a different culture and to stand out from other people.”

By Reshmi Hebbar


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