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We are but Closet Indians

By: Mona Vijaykar Email By: Mona Vijaykar
August 2010
We are but Closet Indians

Joel Stein’s tongue-in-cheek article in the TIME magazine (My Own Private India, July 5, 2010) has had Indians everywhere crying “Foul!” A community page on Facebook protests the “lack of knowledge and ignorance towards Indians.” Every now and then some hustler makes a quick buck abusing sacred Hindu symbols on slippers or toilet seats and our sentiments are rattled. For a while we make resentful noises and then, just as quickly, everyone settles into a happy slumber of delusion until the next big jolt.

What makes this particular episode laughable is not the content of Stein’s article but the uproarious reaction to it. We Indians are great whiners and woeful protesters, easily touched to the quick by senseless provocation. Yet we remain consistently apathetic to the daily prejudice about Indian culture that is being perpetuated through misinformation, deliberate or accidental, in American public and private educational institutions.

As director of India in Classrooms, a teacher assistance program designed for 6 th grade history and social studies, I have visited over 200 Bay Area classrooms since 2003 in an effort to dispel stereotypes and misrepresentation about the Indian civilization. What I have observed is alarming, to say the least. Generations of students in middle schools have been given a skewed understanding of Hinduism, and India’s global role in shaping modern civilization has been acutely understated. Teachers emphasize negative stereotypes and Indian guest speakers reinforce the confusion. Middle school children in California get their first glimpse of Indian culture through a prescribed reader, The Homeless Bird, which describes the throwing of cow dung (!) at one another during Holi and how a young girl survives the ordeal of child marriage. Presumably this renders the Memoirs of a Geisha equally appropriate for 6 th grade exposure to Asian culture.

An editorial in India Currents rightly warns that children carry inherent prejudices but adults must bear the responsibility to nurture cultural sensitivity among children. Prejudice about the Indian culture prevails in schools with the blessings of Indian parents.

The Indian community in the US boasts of growing political clout, public representation, wealth, and respect. Yet, American society is no closer to substantial knowledge about India. Let’s face it—we lack the confidence to humor provocation or the dignity to correct wrong perceptions. We resort to legal battles, which just establish a cycle of hostility and alienate us from those whom we seek to connect with. Why take umbrage at their ignorance when we do little to patiently illuminate them?

Americans are ignorant about the Indian culture because we are ashamed to bring it out of the closet. We hesitate to correct the pronunciation of our names because we think they are “different.” If Americans can pronounce Schwarzenegger they can pronounce anything as long as we confidently and politely insist. We are embarrassed to have friends and colleagues witness our traditional ceremonies, the significance of which most of us do not care to understand. Rather than demonstrate our freedom to take the best of both worlds, we abandon these rich, meaningful rituals to adopt bland American customs for the “comfort” of our ignorant American friends. We are uneasy in casual Indian clothing and regard it as strange costumes to be worn strictly at community events. Thus we surrender the liberty to wear the garb of our choice. Sadly, our inhibition reinforces itself in our children who struggle to blend in. What they might discover, too late, is that it is our own disrespect for the Indian culture that draws well-deserved humiliation; that assimilation does not mean “to become similar” cultural clones but to recognize, appreciate, and integrate our similarities, for we are only as different as we perceive ourselves to be. We are only as vulnerable as we allow ourselves to be and prejudice towards Indian culture will remain as long as we allow false notions to flourish.

Granted, Americans in general are severely myopic in their vision of the world. I would best describe their ability to integrate new cultures as arrested development, for most Americans have been unable to expand their cultural bandwidth beyond the last wave of European immigrants. You might argue that your American friends think Bollywood is cool; that henna is in fashion and that your neighbors are into yoga and tandoori chicken. But let us not confuse cultural appreciation with cultural integration.

Cultural integration is to step into unfamiliar shoes; to exercise diversity in one’s regular life. As Indians we are conditioned to experience and embrace a variety of cultures, but it is inconceivable for most Americans to venture beyond their exclusive cultural zone. You could be neighbors for 20 years sharing happy backyard barbecues and Christmas celebrations, but invite your American neighbors for a puja and they will politely decline for fear of sacrilege! Most immigrants to the United States lost their freedom and liberty when they were bound by rigid social norms of dress, language, and customs set by early English invaders.

Assimilation is a two-way process when both immigrants and natives take the best from one another. America can take pride in freedom and liberty only when Americans loosen up, shed their blinders and be happily inclusive of different lifestyles. To be fair, American taste-buds must be credited for their remarkable cultural outreach. If culture could be embraced through the stomach, Americans would devour classical Indian music, dance, and art. They would gorge on saris and salwars…. even stuff themselves with mouthfuls of Sanskrit. Unfortunately, cultural awareness is not that alimentary … it requires certain guts to stomach change. Both natives and immigrants need the guts to support the unsteady bridge of intercultural exchange.

The prejudice that we lament so bitterly is the result of spinelessness among Indians. Many Indians are naïve to believe that political strength will change perceptions about the Indian culture. I was deeply struck by an observant remark from one local American authority that while Indians volunteer in hordes and have power, “they are not leaders, they are workers,” for they never seem to rock the boat. When influential Indians no longer feel compelled to compromise their Indian identity and have the courage to correct deep misperceptions will they truly empower the Indian community to firmly establish its roots in the garden of American multiculturalism.

[Mona Vijaykar, mother of two global citizens, is committed to intercultural understanding as founder-director of India in Classrooms teacher assistance program. Source: India Currents]

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