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Bowling Alone but Still Together

By: Murali Kamma Email By: Murali Kamma
July 2010
Bowling Alone but Still Together

Americans are I-centric, and Indians We-centric. Perhaps few other characteristics account for a greater difference between the world’s two largest democracies. In the United States, to borrow the titles of three well-known books about being American, we have “the lonely crowd” that enjoys “bowling alone,” and such attributes are ingrained “habits of the heart.” Indian society, on the other hand, is group-oriented, and while caste may have loosened its considerable grip over time, the hold of clan remains tenacious.

How then do Indian Americans fit in, pulled as we are in separate directions? Quite well, one could argue, and with little conflict, because we live in what’s essentially a We-society, though the I-self is dominant here. This may seem paradoxical, but it isn’t.

Not long ago, a visitor from India had a question about this magazine. Why, he wondered, did we write about our Indian-American rather than our American experience. To put it another way, the gap between ‘Indian’ and ‘American’ (whether one uses the hyphen or not) puzzled him. Why be on the margins, he seemed to be implying, instead of being in the mainstream. “Isn’t America a melting pot, after all?” he asked.

Yes, it is. And as my fellow immigrants would attest, especially if they have U.S-born children, there is no contradiction between being Indian American and being American. Some would disagree. Following high levels of immigration, they might argue, America is undergoing such drastic shifts that it’s no longer a melting pot in the traditional sense.

There is a catchy, onomatopoeic word—‘fissiparous’—that Indian newspapers often used to describe the divisive forces threatening India’s unity. Are those fissiparous tendencies now becoming embedded in the U.S.? You would think so, judging by the rhetoric on the Web, TV and radio, where so-called pundits harp on how sharp divisions—political, economic, cultural, ethnic, religious and social—are tearing apart the fabric of this nation.

But even if the U.S. today is more of a salad bowl made up of diverse ingredients, the metaphor only goes so far. The centrifugal forces pulling us in various directions are balanced by, I believe, centripetal forces rooted in the intertwined legacy of citizenship and assimilation—a legacy that becomes more pronounced as we move down the generational chain. A second-generation citizen is, naturally, more ‘American’ than a first-generation immigrant. So while Americans are individualistic, they also have a national identity that’s anchored by constitutional and cultural rather than communal ties.

Of course, it’s not as if race, ethnicity, etc. don’t make a difference. They do. But the idea is that, given enough time, the impact of such primordial ties can dissipate—as indeed it does in the U.S. when compared to most other places. And that’s because of this shared national identity, though one hopes the nationalism is always tempered, not jingoistic.

Is America really so exceptional? Unlikely. The idea of American Exceptionalism, however generously defined, doesn’t sit well even with our friends. Not to forget, we have had an ugly past, in which groups seen as undesirable or inassimilable were ruthlessly excluded for a long time. That’s history now, fortunately. Progress comes with a capital ‘P’ in this ever-evolving nation, and the light on the horizon is always brighter. “Novus ordo seclorum,” says the one-dollar bill. Translation: “New Order of the Ages.”

Again, let’s take immigration—which has become such a hot potato that touching it can be perilous, even if one is cautious. Although the Arizona case focuses on illegal migrants, it is symptomatic of a larger, contentious debate about immigration that arouses intense passions. And the recent economic setbacks have only added to the anxiety. Nevertheless, if one digs deeper, it’s not hard to see the difference a generation can make.

As per a New York Times/CBS News poll this May, 41 percent of Americans between ages 45 and 64, along with 36 percent of older Americans, said that immigration levels should be reduced. However, when Americans under age 45 were asked the same question, the number drops to 24 percent. Not surprising, perhaps, since close to 25 percent of Americans under the age of 18 have at least one immigrant parent, according to a recent Brookings Institution report.

Last month, moreover, a Pew Research Center report pointed out that intermarriage rates in the U.S. are at a record high, having more than doubled since 1980. In 2008, 14.6 percent of all newlyweds married someone not from their own race or ethnicity. The children of these intermarriages “are even adopting mixed monikers like Mexipino (Mexican and Filipino) and Blaxican (black and Mexican),” notes The New York Times.

Change, in other words, can come swiftly, putting an end to rancorous conflicts.

E Pluribus Unum,” the nation’s original motto, means “one from many,” and it refers to the way the federal state was created from individual colonies. On this Fourth of July, 234 years after the Declaration of Independence was adopted, that motto is still relevant, for it encapsulates how our disparate I-selves come together to create a We-society.


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