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Born in the USA: Raising the Third Generation

By Sindya Bhanoo Email By Sindya Bhanoo
November 2016
Born in the USA: Raising the Third Generation

We immigrants often fret about the constant conflict between assimilation in America versus the need to retain our traditions and culture. With each generation, the link to the mother country gets weaker and more unfamiliar. Even as we make an attempt to pass on the baton of age-old traditions to the next generation, however superficially, we are only too aware that the context in which they were practiced has virtually disappeared. Does it matter?

During Krishna Jayanthi this year, I dressed my son up as Baby Krishna and my daughter put on one of her Indian outfits. The weekend almost slid by with us doing nothing. We had recently moved to a new house in a new city and while recovering from the week, we also had to catch up on cooking, cleaning, and destroying those lingering moving boxes.

But I had promised myself I would do something.

On Sunday evening, I quickly dressed our one-and-a-half-year-old son in the blue Krishna outfit my cousin had sent us from Bangalore. I handed him the wooden flute that came with it and he started marching around the house with it in his mouth. My daughter changed into her outfit and then spent 30 minutes picking out bangles along with the perfect red bottu.

“Can I wear a chitti, too?” she asked, as she looked through the box of head ornaments. She picked a small one and I attached it to the parting in her hair with a bobby pin.

We did a puja, though we were not sure exactly what we were doing. My husband and daughter washed the idols, decorated them and said the shlokas that we know. I prepared a sweet that consisted of rice, milk, sugar, and ghee. I added some almonds. I suppose it could be called payasam.

“This is so fun, Amma!” my daughter said. “Can we please do this more often?”

I wish we did.

I grew up in America, but growing up, Indian culture was inextricable from our daily lives. We ate Indian food every day. On special occasions, my mother would fry puris and make murukku or vadas. She did pujas on full moon nights. On weekends, we went to parties at the homes of Indian friends and dressed up in Indian clothes. My parents always spoke Tamil to one another and we naturally absorbed the language.

Now, 30 years later, with a five-year-old daughter and a one-and-a-half-year-old son, I find myself wondering how I can pass on some small part of our Indian culture and heritage to my children.

When we were young, there were the regular goings-on of an American family. Between the four of us siblings, there was a slew of activities: soccer, tennis, track, karate, debate team, violin lessons, Boy Scouts, French Club, and marching band. My parents easily spent thousands of hours shuttling us kids.

But there was also Tamil class, Balavihar, Bharatanatyam, and Carnatic music lessons. My parents invested their time and money in these activities because it was important to them, and it provided them with a social network that substituted for the family network we were far away from.

For several years, we lived in a small town in Eastern Washington called Pullman and there was no Indian store nearby. My mother mail ordered different daals and dry goods from Patel Brothers. I still remember their Diwali sale flyers. Sometimes, her uncle in Atlanta would also send us care packages of hard-to-find items. I opened these boxes like they were Christmas presents. When friends traveled to bigger cities, they would bring back things like fresh tindora or taro roots—vegetables we could not easily find in Pullman. During one especially hot summer, my mother and another aunty made batches of vathal. We made enormous amounts, dried them on sheets in our backyard, and traded varieties with the other aunty.

Despite the fact that we were living in a town with a population of only 30,000, my mother found a graduate student who had studied Bharatanatyam. The student hesitated to teach us since she was doing doctoral research but my mother made a convincing case about the importance of passing on the tradition. Soon, my two sisters and I, along with nearly every other Indian child in town (a total of only 10 or so kids) were learning dance from her. My mother and her friends also organized a weekly bhajan group, and occasionally we also gathered to watch episodes of Doordarshan’s Mahabharat series.

Even though there were limited options and resources, my parents found ways not just to expose us to Indian culture and traditions but also to make it a lasting part of the people we have become. When they moved to Atlanta, they took advantage of what the larger Indian community offered.

With my own kids, I have many options. There are more Indians in America now and I live in a large city with multiple temples, Indian dance classes of every style, and at least three different options for Balavihar.

My daughter turned five this year and started Kindergarten. The magical years of unstructured preschool life ended abruptly and are slowly being replaced with structured learning. Outside of school, she has started classes. She plays the violin and attends a theater program. We considered and then decided against enrolling her in a Balavihar program on the weekends. It was too big of a weekend commitment and it would have meant giving up a chunk of our weekend that we like to use to hike, bike, and explore the city. These activities are important to us, and we want to pass our love for them on to our kids.

However, I did sign my daughter up for a Bharatanatyam class and I enrolled myself in one as well. It has been 20 years since I danced, and as difficult as it is, there is a wonderful comfort in the familiarity of the motions.

And I’ll keep trying to do what I can at home. A month after Krishna Jayanthi, it was Ganesh Chathurthi. Volunteers at the local temple in Austin were making beautiful clay Ganeshas and selling them as a fundraiser. I ordered a small one and it was delivered to our home. My kids had a lovely time painting it and after about an hour of work, we had a beautiful rainbow-colored Ganesha. The following day, ​my husband made kora kottai, rice dumplings stuffed with coconut, brown sugar, and ghee. He steamed them, and we did a small puja for Ganesha.

“These are amazing,” my daughter said. “Can I have more?”

Also, thank goodness for grandparents. As much as I try, I feel that they are the real thing, always one generation closer to India.

This Thanksgiving, we will visit my parents in Atlanta. I will wake up to the comforting sound of my father saying a prayer to Lord Muruga. When I come downstairs, in my pajamas, my father will be dressed and already getting ready to start his day. My mother will be steaming hot idlis and blending mint chutney. She will surely be making something special, too, for her visiting grandchildren.

“Do you want to help me?” she will ask my daughter in Tamil. “I saved some cardamom for you to crush.”

I wonder, sometimes, what ​my little ones will tell their kids and grandkids about India and Indian culture. What will be lost and what will persist? Will it soon become the loosest of connections, remembered only through an annual lighting of a candle on Diwali and maybe an Indian meal at some place called Taj Palace or Star of India?

My friend Nilesh Dosooye, whose family left India for Mauritius in the 1800s, says that while much is lost, much is also retained. His great-great-grandparents were brought to Mauritius as indentured laborers.

“As a child, I heard my father and other family members speak in Bhojpuri. So I totally understand it, but cannot speak a word of it,” Nilesh said. “So that’ll be 100 percent lost for me passing down. Also, with each generation, people know less about the whys of doing things and it gets more lost each generation. So that’s the main thing getting lost … doing for the sake of doing without too much understanding.”

He also added though, “We have retained most aspects of the Indian subculture from Bihar ... lots of the cultural and religious rituals are still being celebrated the same way as probably ha​ve been back when our ancestors came to Mauritius. Culture and religion has evolved in India, but stayed in a fixated state in Mauritius, as that was one of the precious things people could still maintain to link back to their origin.”

It is interesting that Nilesh has the same concerns as me, though he is several more generations removed from India.

“Yes, I definitely think about it,” he said. “I worry that not being with the social and family group, I will not be able to pass on much of my cultural upbringing. It keeps on thinning down with the newer generation, as culture and religion are not usually the main pillars of our life these days as it was in the generation prior to me.”

Already, within a single generation, things are different for ​my children. We do not dress up in Indian clothes every weekend and go to the homes of Indian friends like my parents did. We cook Indian food frequently but not daily. My cooking is simpler than my mom’s. I do not grind my own idli batter. I rarely fry vadas or puris. I make the basics: sambar, rasam, rice, sabzi and once in a while, on weekends, dosa and chutney or upma. When I do, the kids love it and I get tremendous pleasure out of knowing that I am making the same food that my family has prepared and eaten for hundreds of years.

My husband and I do the best we can though, while still incorporating what we love into our lives—a naturally broader set of activities and pursuits than my parents’. There is also something to be said for what is preserved—regardless of what happens to language, culture, and ritual—a set of values that transcends everything. We inherited our values from our parents. If we can pass them on to our kids, I think we will have done the most important job of preserving a legacy. The rest is just gravy—err, curry.

Sindya Bhanoo is a fiction fellow at UT Austin’s Michener Center for Writers. She was formerly a reporter for The New York Times.

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