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A Rare Breed of Indian Parents

June 2007
A Rare Breed of Indian Parents

My mother and father, I've come to realize, are not your typical Indian parents. Growing up in a small American town the way I did, it took me years to realize that not all Indian Americans were raised in the more liberated and truly bicultural way that I was. My parents say words like "sucks" and "duh." They watch Saturday Night Live instead of Indian soap operas via satellite. They have amassed a collection of VHS tapes which preserve historic moments in American pop culture like Johnny Carson's last show and even the last episode of Friends. Their old seventies reel-to-reel collection of Beatles' songs is the best compilation of the band's music I've ever heard. My mother was familiar with the J. Lo song "Jenny from the Block" before I was.

This is not to suggest that my parents are wild—far from it. It is to point out that their engagement with the social realities around them and the zestful appreciation they have for both Indian and American culture has provided for, if I may say so, well adjusted children. And though they are singular, they are not alone. The tiny circle of pan-Indian families I grew up with was youthful, exuberant, and perhaps ahead of its time. The women were educated and, more importantly, strong and independent marriage partners. The men, many wielding degrees from places like IIT and having come to America as graduate students, did not expect to follow stringent and traditional Indian gender roles. Once a year, for example, my parents' friends held a potluck party event cooked entirely by the men. In this way, my parents and their like-minded peers differ most profoundly from the more Indian, Indian American parents some of my peers grew up with, parents who may be called "strict," parents who did not let their children socialize as freely with their American counterparts, parents who dictated choice of college major, parents who did not approve of and became estranged over dating partners (because of wanting their children to marry within the same Indian region and caste)—parents whom I did not know existed until I myself left home and realized that so many of them feared the power of the culture they had brought their children into.

And yet, my parents sacrificed nothing in their sensitivity towards biculturalism. My childhood home life was structured while being nurturing. My mother set up Kannada "camp" in the summers. She taught us about the regions and festivals of India, putting everything into a more interesting context and narrative while describing all of the members of our own diversified Indian community. My father sometimes left us math worksheets and handwriting exercises during the summer before leaving for work. Because my parents had taken the time to research children's magazines and to pay attention to our own interests, we saw opportunity instead of work. I, too, would like to be able to accomplish their own brand of a gentle insistence on excellence and self discipline.

Unlike the older Indian parenting tradition of laissez-faire and relegating responsibilities to the entire extended family household, a tradition that seems founded on the belief that children will turn out alright in the end, that not much involvement is necessary, my Indian American parents held discussions and made plans on how to raise their children. They invested in regular trips back to India, but also in Montessori education and cultural enrichment, city league baseball and ballet—all in a time before these types of activities became formulaic and necessary to keep up with the Joneses.

One crucial difference between people like my parents and those other parents who subscribe to another more rigid school of raising children is the sense of novelty and adventure. America, to my parents, is an adventure, and that includes those events that center around one's children. The death of a small family pet—a hamster—an animal not likely to be a pet in India—is an opportunity to share the practice of mourning and grieving with one's child. A speech and drama competition is an opportunity to discover the potential for one's child's self-expression, to encourage that child, while beaming in the audience, towards continuing self-exploration. In this way, both parents and children—all of us—were taking part in the adventure instead of being shielded from it.

I believe that families can create new worlds for themselves, even as they are limited by cultural isolation or overwhelmed by biculturalism. In a country where families are essentially nuclear and left to fend for themselves, it makes sense to bridge the gaps where they exist—whether between India and America, between Indian Americans and the mainstream, or between the generations.

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