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Culture Culminations: Assimilating Holidays

By Anju Gattani Email By Anju Gattani
November 2011
Culture Culminations: Assimilating Holidays Ten years ago when Ajay Chopra, a consulting manager in a Fortune 50 company, and his wife, Anshu, a middle school teacher, arrived in USA, they knew little about the finer cultural nuances of this country. However, like many immigrants, they were determined to settle down, put down roots, and help their children, Arsh (13) and Avi (7), adjust and assimilate to the American lifestyle.

Ajay remembers the early years, when they continued celebrating major Indian festivals like they used to back home in Delhi, this time with their strong social network of Indian-American friends.

Anshu, who became a stay-at-home mom in the U.S, spent more time committing herself to the kids and instilling cultural values and bringing cohesiveness to them. She also focused on the boys’ education, extra-curricular activities, and keeping up with their growing network of friends in America and family back home. For Ajay, the demands of his travel-intensive job meant he was frequently away from the family for weeks.

According to Tamar Jacoby, author of Reinventing the Melting Pot, “the practical strategies they (immigrants) pursue to achieve their goals—a good education, a good job, a nice place to live, interesting friends and acquaintances—often result in assimilations as an unintended consequence.”

However, the Chopras went the extra mile to run the whole nine yards with their kids. Not only did they manage to keep up with Indian values and pass them on to their children, they recognized American festivals like Thanksgiving and Halloween, and joined in the traditions with a unique perspective.

Halloween, All Hallow’s Eve, is the day of the dead and the special night preceding All Hallow’s Day (November 1). For centuries it has been considered the most magical night of the year when the boundary that separates our world from the other (dark) world is at its thinnest. It originated as a day for honoring the ancestors.

Thanksgiving can be traced to the year 1623 after the harvest crops were gathered and Governor William Bradford of the pilgrim colony, Plymouth, Massachusetts, proclaimed it to be a day when all Americans should be thankful to God for a successful harvest.

Ajay found a whole new meaning in these two very American festivals. He describes Halloween as an extrovert celebration where he savors the moment of going out trick-or-treating with his children and watching their bags fill with candy while doing the same for other children who stop by his place. “Thanksgiving at its heart is a holiday,” he says. “It is more about introspection. It’s a time to share some thoughts, enjoy good food, good feelings and teach children how to be thankful for what they have.”

Anshu believes the transition from India to America was easy for her because Indians in India already recognize and celebrate almost every festival from Diwali to Eid to Christmas and many others. “We already have such a diversified culture,” she says.

She simplified the American festivals with a unique take and embraced it with zeal in her home. “Christmas is like Diwali and Thanksgiving is like Baisakhi.” Baisakhi marks a good harvest in Punjab and Haryana and is celebrated with gusto by farmers there. Halloween, according to Anshu, is similar to Shraad, a time when many Indians remember their ancestors; both the Indian and Western occasions always fall around the same time of the year. “If you look at the significance and history of any celebration,” she emphasizes, “they are somehow related to one another. It is the same values, the same concept but the ways of celebrating are different. “Celebrations are about spending time together as a family and giving kids the motto behind why we are celebrating something and what is behind it. It means looking into cultural values of different cultures and making kids aware of them.” Ajay takes it to basics: “You can celebrate something with a song, a party, good food, with friends, ceremonies or rituals.”

Tamar Jacoby observes that the reason why Asian immigrants adapt so quickly to new environments is because they are able to quickly form an ethnic community, wherein “goals for achievement and standards of behavior are set.” This is followed by economic and cultural institutions that are eventually founded to enforce those very rules.

Renee Blank and Sandra Slipp, in their book Voices of Diversity, explain that the acculturization process of immigrants “takes place along a continuum ranging from total identification with one’s original culture to the assimilation of some or all of the new culture.” The authors go on to say, “For many there is an attempt to hold onto a proud cultural heritage and at the same time become a mainstream American. The choice is not seen as either or, but as both.”

According to Ajay, settling in another country requires a conscious decision and strong understanding. “You have to have priorities very straight,” he says. I’m in USA right now… if I was somewhere else, I would have adopted their festival from their cultural perspective.”

Anshu explains that despite being raised in America, her kids are equally aware of the significance of Diwali, Halloween, Dusshera and Thanksgiving because both she and her husband have made efforts to help them comprehend the underlying values. “We want to increase the kids’ awareness of multiculturalism, build mutual respect, better understanding and develop strong bonds among people,” Ajay emphasizes.

“As America becomes increasingly multiethnic and as ethnic Americans become integral to our society,” states Tamar Jacoby, “it becomes more and more evident that there is no contradiction between an ethnic identity and an American identity.” He describes the American way as “diversity that does not threaten national identity and culture, but on the contrary, invigorates and enriches us all. The time is approaching,” he says, “when ‘the ethnic way’ will seem like an inextricable part of the American way.”

“As good citizens we want our children to take pride in their ancestry,” says Ajay, “yet at the same time have a strong sense of belonging to America where they are living.”

[Anju Gattani is a free-lance journalist and author of Winds of Fire, a women's fiction series that is currently being marketed.]

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