Musings: Daddy, What's It Like To Be Indian?
A chance question from her small, half-Indian son has an American mother musing over her years of marriage—and raising a large family—with a Gujarati doctor.
Our son sat at the breakfast bar, pencil poised in his tiny hand above a worksheet. A plate of chocolate chip cookies sat next to his glass of milk at the edge of the counter, and I instinctively moved it away from him. I have cleaned up spilled milk too many times as a parent, and at 8:30 p.m. on a busy school night, I was not about to do it now.
(Above) The Parbhoo family at their Acworth home.
Pushing his glasses up on his nose, with his tongue sticking out of his mouth, my son carefully printed his name at the top of his paper. The lines were dark and almost etched into the paper in places. I watched him (adored him, actually) as he worked like a big boy on his homework, “just like his big brothers.” His light brown hair, a perfect blend of his father’s jet-black hair and my blond tresses, was mussed up on one side, his eyes drooped, and his mouth gaped wide with a yawn. My baby…the one child who looked like me…was doing homework, growing so fast.
My husband patted him on the back, his own hair slightly mussed from a long day seeing patients.
“How ya doing buddy? Need any help here?”
“Nope. I’m good.”
I loaded the dishwasher while my husband ate his late dinner of fettucine slathered in mango achaar—because my American cooking is too bland for his taste—and we chatted about the day. Then, out of the blue, our son asked, “Daddy, what’s it like to be Indian?”
My husband and I stifled our laughter—big boys don’t like to be laughed at—and my husband answered with a squeeze of our son’s shoulders.
“Hmmm, hard to say. It’s all I know. You tell me—you’re half Indian. What’s it like to be you?”
“I know I am,” he groaned and rolled his eyes, just like his teenage brothers do, too often, at us. “But, I’ve never been to Africa or India. I only speak English. So, what’s it like?”
“Well, it’s different than being born here, I suppose.”
And with that, my son’s tongue slid back between his lips and he went back to work, bearing down his pencil with each perfect blocky letter. The cogs in his brain kept spinning on, and the subject was forgotten.
Ba and Dada left us for South Africa three months ago after the sudden passing of their son-in-law, and in that time, our children’s connection with their Indian side has been whittled away. And we have carried on with our daily lives…school, sports, homework, and work…and more school, sports, homework, and work. But, what I think our son was really asking is, “Daddy, who are you? I need to know so I can know myself.”
My children have always been curious and proud of their Indian side, and I have guilt that we haven’t fostered it more. Early in our marriage, I did not feel welcomed by some in the Gujarati community, which resulted in us not participating much in my husband’s culture as our family grew. But, although we live in Georgia, immersed in my Southern culture, my children don’t truly know where I come from either.
Daddy speaks several languages and he is browner than most people around us. As a child in South Africa, he played soccer and cricket, had servants, and has countless aunts and uncles and sisters and cousins around the world. Daddy bravely left his home at 13 to study in the U.S., and melded both Gujarati and Western cultures within himself, emerging into the unique man he is.
(Left) Author Sheryl Parbhoo.
Mommy only speaks English now, and burns like the dickens after 20 minutes in the summer sun. As a child, she cleaned her own bathroom and did her own laundry; no servants for her. But, underneath a vanilla coated life, Mommy has a unique story, too. Mommy traveled the country, living in regions of blizzards, and of tornadoes, and made countless new friends in the process. Mommy was a ballerina, a budding writer, and spoke German, too. Mommy wrote princess stories as a child, then a blog, and published books as an adult, all the while completing a second degree and raising five children.
Mommy, too, has a large family, out there somewhere, though she does not know many of their names. Mommy’s two brothers and parents alone were her life growing up, and they were…enough. And now with only her mother and one brother living today, Mommy’s small family was gold to her.
Attending a wedding in Orlando, Florida.
And when Mommy married Daddy, she melded aspects of his cultural values with hers in many ways, emerging into the unique woman she is today.
After my son was tucked into his bed, my husband and I stood a few moments at his side. I found myself gazing at his pink cheeks and closed feathery fringed eyes, just as I had done with each of my children when they were newborns, swaddled in their bassinets. My husband’s hand squeezed mine, and for the first time in many years, I noticed, really noticed, the deep contrast between our skin colors. We kissed and walked out of the room, hand in hand.
I then carried my story within myself to the laundry room and folded clothes. This is the image of me that my children will always have—caring for our family. I’m just Mommy. And Daddy wears scrubs and works every day—also caring for our family. He’s just Daddy. We are very different from each other and each of our children is a unique blend we created, in spite of many odds against us.
(Left) Her son’s “All About Me” portrait.
Later, when I went in the kitchen to turn off the lights, I glanced at the homework sheet that my son had been working on. The heading on the page read “All about Me,” and below it was a blank outline of child’s body—to be colored in as he saw fit.
On the first line, in perfect block letters, he’d written simply his full name. And the blank face had been filled in with a huge smile. I turned out the lights and slipped into my bed, with a smile on my own face.
Sheryl Parbhoo is an Atlanta-based novelist, blogger, and speaker, with a mission to bridge cultures. Her memoir Southern Life, Indian Wife is pending release.
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