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The Tug of Roots

January 2006
The Tug of Roots

The experience of Anup Patel, one of the Indian American youngsters cited in the cover story of the month ("Giving Back to the Native Land"), is one that most in his demographic group--the second generation Indian American--will be able to relate with. Patel recalls shouting at his mother out of anger and embarrassment at times when she picked him up from school wearing a bindi on her forehead. At an age where even the wrong brand of sneakers is uncool, having the quaint "peculiarities" of one's ethnicity exposed amongst peers is an occasion to wish for the earth to split up and suck you in. Whether it is about bindis or sarees or heavy accents, it can be safely said that many an Indian American, growing up, must have cursed his or her native identity.

The theme of our cover story of the month appears to be about giving back, of serving. But it is also as much or more about Indian American youngsters connecting to their roots, of getting to know the land that is so much a part of their identity and heritage. The metamorphosis of their outlook to their Indian roots is an interesting one. To the extent that it can be generalized, the pattern involves an ever-so-slow transformation, with advancing age, from disowning and even hating their ethnic roots to developing curiosity and interest, to eventually accepting and taking pride in it--so that they finally settle comfortably into their hyphenated existence as an Indian-American.

It is one of those existential realities that growing generations of migrant communities cannot escape. More so when that community is one as deeply rooted in tradition as is the Indian community. With growing maturity, the second generation realizes that it is futile to shake off the phenomenal pull of centuries worth of heritage in a single generation--no matter how much it buries itself in the culture of the country of its birth.

As with most demographic groups, it is hard to peg down this second generation under sweeping generalizations. You have the fluent-in-the-native-language youngster who has made several trips to the old country, to the "can't name the President (or is it the Prime Minister?) of India" American who just happens to have an Indian lineage. Having said that, there are several distinct shifts that feed this tug of the roots that has more and more of these youngsters looking for a way to connect with the land of their ancestors:

1. Whereas at one time it was hard to stay connected to India across the oceans, today, thanks to the global village effect, the boundaries are much more porous despite the distance.

2. From a country that was once identified primarily with snake charmers and Third World poverty, to an IT superpower with a burgeoning economy and modernization, India has transformed itself and is continuing to do so at a rapid pace. While it still has a long way to go, it is now easier for Indian-American youngsters to take pride in their native land.

3. Same is true with the Indian-American community as a whole. Labeled the model minority, its statistics about being on the top rungs of income and education, are a clich�. What's more, it is also starting to make some inroads into American culture as well. So what, if our traditional customs may be poles apart, we are now an integral part of America, helping shape the future of the country. Our second generation can rest more comfortably in this notion.

These set of circumstances seems to be fueling a genuine sense of interest amongst the youngsters to take a closer look at their roots. The fact that those profiled in our cover story choose the high road of humanitarian service is just the icing on the cake.

-Parthiv N. Parekh

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