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Growing Up Indian in America

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March 2004
Growing Up Indian in America

A look at the various challenges, triumphs, and facets of the bicultural childhood of Indian-American progeny. A vast difference is evident in the

experiences of those who grew up here in the pioneering days of the ?70s and early ?80s, compared to those from recent times.

By DEEPA AGARWAL

_____________________________________________________________

Suvrat Bhargave, a psychiatrist in solo practice from Fayetteville, Georgia, must have been ten years of age in 1978, when an African-American boy from his elementary school, asked him a question that left him flummoxed. "What are you?" the boy asked Bhargave with apparent intrigue. "Are you black or white?" Not quite sure of the "right answer," Bhargave, surreptitiously double-checked the color of his skin and answered, "I guess I am brown."

Such guileless ignorance of Indian Americans and other foreigners was commonplace in those early days when the local population had yet to savor the winds of multiethnicity that is now in full blast. Worse still, were the apathy and nonchalance towards India and Indians. According to Maya Chandiramani, a graphic designer from Atlanta, "It was tough growing up in the South in the ?70s. People didn't know how to categorize you. So they didn't know what to do with you."

"I used to have classmates ask me if India was in Africa," recalls Swati Fuller, a marketing manager with IBM Corporation, who came to America in 1971 at the impressionable age of six. "My friends would have to find their own ways to relate to me and would confuse me with American-Indians. I mean, there was absolutely no awareness of India or Asia in general," she adds.

Few of the recent immigrants can appreciate the magnitude of transformation of the socio-cultural environment that has taken place in the region in just the last two decades. In the 70s, when the Indian American community was barely starting to take roots, Atlanta was still considered quite modest in the realm of "International" cities. It was a largely homogeneous society where, as we saw, skin colors other than black and white were a rarity.

Whereas today John Kessler, the food critic at Atlanta Journal Constitution revels in the most obscure of world cuisines, if he were around in those days, he'd probably have little more to do than judge barbeques and chili competitions, with perhaps a little Tex Mex thrown in for international measure. Needless to say, dal and roti were hopelessly alien.

It is such a local environ that children of the first wave of Indian immigrants found themselves in; Southern and American outside, Indian at home.

From then till now, the metamorphosis of Atlanta from a sleepy, albeit, an important Southern city, to a bustling metropolitan that boasts some of the highest percentages of international population amongst American cities ? has made all the difference in the experience of growing up Indian here.

If on one the hand the local socio-cultural landscape has changed, what further dramatizes the difference in this experience, is that on the other hand, the Indian community itself has grown manifolds. Compared to the estimated five-thousand Indian-Americans in 1960, today, there are close to two million. Indian-Americans constitute the 4th largest immigrant community in the country. With the increased numbers come comfort, familiarity, a cultural footing, and much more that was unavailable to the brave souls who emigrated here in those pioneering times.

Moreover, with the M. Knight Shyamalans, Bobby Jindals, Kalpana Chawlas, Sanjay Guptas, Jhumpa Lahiris, Deepak Chopras, and Bikram Choudharis making small dents in the American society, it is now "cool" to have ethnic Indian roots. Movies such as Monsoon Wedding and Bend it like Beckham have helped us put our foot inside the door of the host culture.

Further, the rampant mushrooming of Indian classical dance studios, restaurants, beauty salons, grocery stores, video shops, and clothing and jewelry stores, and the coming up of community centers such as the Global Mall in Norcross have lent an "Indianness" to our lives in America, that was starkly absent even a decade ago.

What has all this transformation meant for our children growing up here? For one, it has rendered a vastly different quality to the childhood experiences of those growing up in the early days compared to those from recent times.

Logic would suggest that assimilation or "Americanization" would come more naturally for our children these days ? now that we have had a couple of generations of experience in the country. But surprisingly, the reverse appears to be true.

This is because earlier the Indian-American children were, by default, forced to fuse into the mainstream culture; these days children growing up here at least have the option to remain insulated in their ethnic heritage ? thanks to the availability of food, clothing, customs, festivals, events and an abundance of fellow Indians.

As we continue to replicate here the culture and traditions that we left behind, the identity of our growing progeny is shifting from primarily ?American' to a more dual ?Indian-American' one.

Growing up Indian in America:

IN THE EARLY DAYS

So then how was it growing up in the early days of the ?70s and ?80s? Being engulfed by a larger popular culture vastly different from your inherited one? Being the only Indian kid in school? Having a name nobody can make sense of? Living a life at home that seems alien to your friends?

With "fitting in" being such a compelling need of a growing child, it is no surprise that most of them in those times grew up quite immersed in Americana and quite devoid of "Indian-ness". Pizza and apple pie were staple; tandoori chicken unheard of. MLK and JFK were familiar; Gandhi and Nehru were distant ? even if somewhat inevitable within their homes (Thanks to the freshly migrated parents, of course).

According to Swati Fuller, under the circumstances, it was tough to have any semblance of Indian identity: "There wasn't a whole lot of support structure of the Indian community to fall back upon, so it was very hard to retain any of the Indian religion or culture. I think that was one reason why we spent more time blending in and adopting the American culture."

Arp Trivedi, a self-employed financial consultant who came to the United States in 1971 when he was a just over one year of age, says, "I tried hard to be an American. Nothing about me ? my clothes, my accent, my eating habits and even the movies I watched, would give away the Indian influence."

From a child's perspective, being the odd one out is the pits. They can't be blamed for naturally gravitating towards the dominant majority. Devan Udeshi, a 26-year old analyst who was born here, elaborates, "Most of my schoolmates were white, Anglo-Saxon Americans. There was probably one Indian other than myself in the school. We pretended we didn't know each other, because we didn't want to be known as the two Indians hanging out together. So majority of my friends were white."

Though, when you are inherently different at the core, such blending doesn't come easy. More so for young children who were born in India and came here at a tender age, but with their native identity firmly established.

That was the case for Jaya Patel, an engineer-MBA, who is now a successful entrepreneur. In her formative years in the U.S., the struggle to fit in was a constant battle: "I had moved here when I was eight, so I still had my Indian roots. It was always a struggle to fit in. In middle school, I got picked on a lot. At that age, difference is not really appreciated. So, I would get cornered because I talked different, looked different and also because I couldn't submerge myself into the American culture. Even through my high school years I remember being very angry; partly about things that were happening at home, and partly about not "fitting in" at school.

While today multiethnicity is the norm and the local population has matured thanks to the exposure to a panorama of international cultures that are taking roots, it was not always so. Different wasn't necessarily cool. Maya, the graphic designer, recalls how embarrassed she was to invite her American friends over; especially when she had family visiting from India. "I would have aunties come over from India. I didn't understand the language. I didn't understand why they dressed differently, and especially why they would want to pinch my cheeks. I had no answers to my friends who would want to know why my house smelled different or why my dad looked different."

Traditional or Liberal Parents?

In those days, the quality of your assimilation depended a lot on the kind of parents you had: traditional or liberal and cosmopolitan. Those with liberal parents grew up with ease and finesse as Americans; albeit with peripheral Indian influences. Others lived dual lives with a clear demarcation between their lives at home and outside.

For Raghu Singh who was in elementary school in Tennessee in the ?70s, such duality was the defining experience of his childhood. His parents, who were originally from rural Punjab, were as traditional as they came. Mrs. Singh barely spoke English. For Raghu it was most frustrating that he'd have to explain to his mom the most rudimentary aspects of American life ? those that form the basis of a child's schooling experience: social and cultural nuances, festivals and celebrations, and?sleepovers! Today, he can reflect humorously upon an incident from those days. At a time from his early teens, a friend of his was visiting and asked Mrs. Singh if Raghu could come to his place for a "sleepover". Not quite sure what was asked, Mrs. Singh vehemently denied permission saying "No, no!"

To date, Raghu is not sure what his mom understood about this simple question. This, according to him, was just one of the many "hopeless" situations where he'd have to do his best to either resign to his fate or constantly attempt to bridge the communication gap between his parents and his American life outside the home. From food and clothing to just about all formative experiences, Raghu admits that he was indeed a strong case of "a fish out of water."

Harin Contractor, a 20-year-old senior at University of Georgia can relate. He shares, "In elementary and middle school, my parents were very protective of me. I didn't get to do some of the things which regular American kids did. Sleepovers, boy scouts, and proms were all alien to me."

It is evident that having parents who were an island onto themselves relative to the mainstream, made it that much more difficult for the kids.

For others, it was smoother sailing. Kannan Parekh, a successful IT professional in her mid-twenties, was born and raised in Atlanta. Kannan never experienced the "Fish out of water" syndrome. Both her parents were quite Western in their outlook even from the times in their native Mumbai (Bombay). Kannan's mother, an English teacher in a convent school from back home was "just like the other moms".

Indeed, the Parekh residence was a whirlwind of school related activities. Mrs. Parekh was both, a PTA president as well as a Girl Scouts leader. On International Day at school as well as at various extension programs at churches, she would serve as an "ambassador" for India. "My dad too is an incurable extrovert and would participate in various school programs; if nothing else, as a turban clad fortune teller," says Kannan.

"When your parents are so grooved into the mainstream and at the same time can represent well the native culture, it diffuses possibilities of conflict for the child," she adds. For Kannan, her Indian identity was a welcome respite rather than a source of conflict.

Growing pains related to a cultural gap

Liberal or conservative, some challenges affected them all. Indeed the story of human migration through the ages and around the globe is one of differences, discoveries and cultural conflicts ? more so for children in a bicultural environment.

By many accounts, one of the most persistent and challenging issues was that of dating. It was a particularly daunting affair for some of the earliest Indian-American children. To most of their parents "boy friend" and "girl friend" were terms of hush-hush, associated with the hedonistic hippies of the counter-culture of the decadent ?60s.

For Swati Fuller, "dating was one big challenge." "I was 13 and there was this boy who wanted to take me to the movies. I really wanted to go. But when I mentioned it at home, it caused the biggest scene. I was crying and trying so hard to convince. But eventually they got around it, and I guess, in time, they just learnt to trust me. Nevertheless, I don't think that they were ever completely comfortable with dating. Also it was not in their favor that we were the first of our kind growing up here. They really had no benchmark to go by."

"Dating was non-existent for me in high school," says Devan. "I had several friends who were girls but was never really into the boyfriend-girlfriend thing. My parents never did explicitly ask me not to date, but I guess I just didn't do it out of respect for them. It was more like an unspoken thing. I did date, though, once I went to college. And though initially, I hid it from them, after a while, I was more open with them."

Nija Meyer, a Harvard graduate, who has been living in Atlanta since age five, explains, "With my parents' generation, dating was almost like an announcement that you are committed to this person. For us though, dating was a way of getting to know somebody and forming a friendship. Whether you end up spending your life with that person, who knows?" "Not being allowed to date definitely sets you apart. At 16, when I wasn't allowed to date, I felt it was the end of the world. The subject wasn't even broached because I knew it was not allowed," she explains.

Another pesky problem, perhaps not as sensationalized as dating, was that of names. Here, the villains were not the parents at home, but peers at school.

Few things shout "foreigner" more than the local masses' inability to say your name right. For school kids, such unfamiliar and tongue-twisting names are an invitation that screams, "Go ahead, give me a hard time."

Says Sangini Majmudar, who grew up in Atlanta and is now an actress based in Los Angeles, "I remember sitting in class in elementary school, dreading the roll call. As the teacher would get close to my name, my heartbeat would increase and my throat would go dry. I knew the teacher was going to destroy my name."

Like Sangini, Devan Udeshi used to dread teachers calling out his last name because he knew that they would butcher it and everyone would have a good laugh. "At that age, it is never fun when people cannot say your name right."

Arp Trivedi had it worse. "My Indian name, Arpit, has a beautiful meaning. But at school, the kids would add an "m" to it and call me "Armpit". So there was a time when I was extremely uncomfortable with my name. A friend in high school named me Arp and I just stuck with it."

All in all, the first of our generation that grew up here certainly had more obstacles to overcome simply because there was no beaten path to follow ? for both, themselves and the locals. While it may have been challenging in many ways, it also resulted in a more complete integration and assimilation of them in the American society ? perhaps much more so than their counterparts today.

Growing up Indian in America:

IN RECENT TIMES

The signature contrast between the experience of growing up in the early days compared to that of recent times is: in those days, most of these children grew up primarily as Americans ? with a varying degree of Indian influences. Today's growing generation, on the other hand seems to gravitate towards an identity grounded in the fused duality of Indian-American. They prefer, or at least have the option, to straddle both sides thanks to the ?Indianization' that was previously absent in America. Unlike the previous generation, it seems that the proverbial "Best of both worlds" is truly available to them.

Meet Tania Aurora. Born in Detroit, Michigan, 16-year-old Tania personifies the current breed of Indian-Americans growing up in America. A resident of Georgia since 1994, she is a trained Bharatnatyam dancer. A member of the dance group, Desi Hawa, she has performed at the Robert Ferst Center during the Baisakhi festival, the Atlanta Civic Center during the Festival of India, and the Sheraton Hotel during Governor Sonny Purdue's welcome function. Classical, Bhangda, folk?she has done them all. At times, Tania even fantasizes about being a choreographer in Bollywood. She is fluent in Hindi and Punjabi, but admits that occasionally she gets them mixed up.

"I am so in-touch with the Indian culture. I love wearing Indian outfits. I enjoy performing both, Indian classical and folk dance. I love watching Bollywood movies. Though I haven't been to India since 1992, somewhere deep in my heart, I feel Indian. My American friends enjoy the henna parties at my house. They are very curious about our culture and teaching them about it makes me really happy," gushes Tania. "I think it is fun having two lives. If I don't like something in one life I can go to my other life."

Agreeing with Tania, Swati adds, "Culturally, there is definitely a lot more acceptance today. In my daughter's school, they are constantly asking us to do things on Diwali and are truly encouraging of the Indian culture, religion, songs, music, and dance. But in the ?70s, when I went to elementary school, the teachers didn't really appreciate the difference. They did not try to expand the cultural knowledge."

Moreover, opportunities that are now available to Tania were largely absent in Swati's times. She feels she missed out on many aspects of her Indian heritage. The inability to speak her mother-tongue, Marathi, fluently, and cook a variety of Indian dishes is one of Fuller's regrets. "Though I understand Marathi, I am unable to read or write the language and cannot articulate myself as well in Marathi as in English. The same goes for Indian cooking. Though I can make some Indian dishes, I wish I had learnt more. I guess all this while, I was so busy assimilating in the American culture that I didn't focus much on the Indian.

Like Swati, many who grew up in those early times feel that today's children have it good that they don't have to miss out on either ends. Besides, there is also another significant advantage enjoyed by them. One of the hardest hang-ups that the old timers constantly had to deal with was the feeling of being the ?odd one out'. As Raghu explains it, the mainstream here is now much more acclimated to various foreign cultures. "Even in schools children are now taught multiculturalism and acceptance. A wide range of food and customs are common. Moreover, these days, there are not only many more Indians but also other immigrants of all hues. So you are not the only one in school who is different," he says.

Tanu Basher, a dentist who grew up here seconds that, "I think the children now are lucky because now there is more awareness of various cultures. There is a larger variety of people now. You get to see more color, hear different languages. I think that difference is appreciated a lot more now than it was earlier, because it is the norm."

Affirming their childhood

For all its struggles of growing up in a bicultural environment, most who have grown up and are growing up here give a resounding thumbs up to the experience. Raghu Singh is one of those who, in retrospect, cherish the struggles towards assimilation and finding an identity. If not for having lived on the periphery of normalcy

for a short phase in life, he would not have acquired half the depth, introspection, character and wisdom that he now enjoys. "I really feel that such experiences are what make a person inventive, driven, and attuned to problem solving. It fosters understanding."

Harin Contractor is also quite thankful that Indian children here are able to enjoy all that America has to offer and at the same time retain Indian culture ? more so than even the young in India itself. Talking about a recent visit to India he says, "We went to a club and I was taken aback because the people there were even more westernized than I was. It's only a little over 50 years after independence and they are already criticizing Gandhi."

Maya Chandiramani, who didn't know much about the Indian culture growing up, says, "Since the last few years, I have been trying to get closer to my culture. Learning about it makes me happy. But I recently went to India and I was sad at the Americanization of the culture. It's as if they are drifting away from their roots, while here I am trying to get closer to them."


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