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Confessions of a grown-up ABCD

February 2007
Confessions of a grown-up ABCD

What happens when the biculturally raised ABCDs take on parenting in a multicultural world?

Sometimes I wonder if my eighteen-month-old daughter will be well-adjusted. I'm pregnant again, and I'm starting to have mild anxieties about raising fledgling third generation Indian Americans. Some years ago, my younger brother overheard my ABCD sister-in-law tell her daughter to go find her "Adidas soccer shorts." Although he was a college student at the time, my brother was inspired by this sign of a new (dare we say "hip" or "cool") breed of Indian parents—parents who knew what Adidas was (and who could say it without an accent). And though we can say "Adidas" and "Toyota" and all that just fine and normally, this same brother of mine now fears that my husband and I will raise "weird" kids. I suspect his concern comes from the fact that neither my husband nor I really shows signs of devoting ourselves to any singular cultural parenting strategy.

Parenting itself is such an overwhelming and complex endeavor to those of my generation that the question of getting the Indian culture stuff right, at least at this point, seems to go on the back burner. I wonder if this is because we're lazier or less "tolerant" (as my mother would say) than our parents. When I was pregnant for the first time, trips to Atlanta's Global Mall would fill my head with maternal fantasies of sending my daughter to the dance academy there. Now when I hear about the long wait-lists for such programs, and I understand exactly how many arangetrams metro Atlanta puts on every summer, I wonder if I'm ready for all the hype and fuss.

While waiting for my little one to talk, I have become quite attuned to her wildly syncretic cultural life. She has chosen to use body language and a few choice baby garble phrases instead of excelling in any one single language. And who can blame her? She has an English professor mother, a computer scientist father, and two sets of grandparents who speak to her in two different Indian tongues. After a holiday season filled with Gujarati words like "apo," Kannada instructions in potty training, and a steady stream of English Christmas carols over the radio, my daughter seems confused. When my parents shout loving Kannada terms of endearment at her through the phone, my daughter claps her hands and bends into the yoga position of "Downward Facing Dog." Like a computer system frozen by conflicting commands, she's moving forward slowly through her own rudimentary interpretations. She can't keep the enunciations straight, especially when a word like "Grandma" in Gujarati ("ba") is the same as "come" in Kannada. And, of course, "ba" happens to sound remarkably similar to the word "bottle."

My husband and I may make matters worse by seeming to revel in the chaos that is our daughter's cultural heritage. To get her to eat, my husband makes up gangsta-rap type ditties and sings them at her blank face. Seemingly oblivious to the fact that we should be steering her towards solid and unified language-training, we go around the house quoting lines from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "Trading Places." "Daddy ne' kiss kaddodo!" shouts my husband (and even one of the neighbors now). I have no idea what this phrase means. It's a little smattering of Gujarati and Kannada but mostly nonsense, inspired by our nascent memories of having parents who spoke to us in other languages. The truth of the matter is neither one of us feels provoked to get these languages exactly right. So a word like "kaddo"—or "give" in Kannada—ends up sounding, alarmingly, like "Dodo."

Recently, I called India to talk to my grandparents, and I held the phone up to my daughter who sat in her high chair and whispered "Hi, hi, hi." Naturally, they couldn't hear her. Or maybe it was that they were expecting her to say something else—something more translatable to the expectations of Indian great-grandparents living in Bangalore. I understand that in India, my toddler would probably be doing circus tricks by now, such is the power of constant familiar interaction and the competition that then ensues. Knowing all of this and remembering the loving yet sometimes desperate attempts my parents went through to keep my brother and me not only competitive but Indian (using a rolling pin to keep time for my Bharatanatyam practice, for example), the push and pull of expectation and memory seems to slow my own parenting efforts down.

So I've decided to allow my curiosity of exactly what can happen to pull me forward into our familial future. I remind myself that I'll be lucky if my children will continue to have diverse neighbors. I try to see the imaginative power and creative potential of a childhood filled with too many different languages and too many different types of music. I hope that a healthy dose of Mozart, Morrissey, and Mukesh will truly engender a rare confidence in my little ones, born and unborn, about the beauty of contradictions and inconsistencies coming together.

Reshmi Hebbar

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