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Second Gen Voices

April 2008
Second Gen Voices

As a child visiting India, MONICA PATEL was used to having her parents interpret and navigate the motherland for her. Now, as a mother of a 15-month old, her role had come full circle — during a recent visit, she learnt new truths about herself, her son and an ever-changing native country.

When I traveled to India as a young child during the 1970s and1980s, my parents were there to explain, translate, and sanitize the experience for us. We were traveling to the land of their childhood and youth, where they were on familiar turf. They knew the language and the culture, and could protect us from our clumsy ignorance of the more subtle nuances of Indian culture. They did the talking for us in stores, airports, and relatives’ homes, when we couldn’t find the right words in Gujarati or Hindi. They knew how to bargain with shopkeepers and which finger to do chaanlo with at temples. They knew exactly what and how to pack, and confidently stuffed blue jeans, packages of plastic barrettes and ponytail holders, economy-sized cans of Tang, and 10-packs of Wrigley’s chewing gum into the biggest-sized suitcases they could find.

Not only did our parents help us navigate our visits to India, but they also knew how to shelter us from the so-called hardships of life in India 25-30 years ago. They attempted to alleviate our longing for McDonalds and Taco Bell by packing a suitcase full of Kool-Aid, Pop Tarts, Chef Boy R Dee, and cereal. They softened the blow of our missing cartoons and the Cosby Show by letting us take our books, games, crayons and Cabbage Patch Kids. Despite their attempts to shelter us, however, they generally made it clear that we were to adapt to the food, bathrooms, and available entertainment, and that we were supposed to take interest in our “strange” surroundings.

Fast forward to 2007, when I took my 15-month-old son to India for the first time. This time, I was the one who was in the position of easing my son’s passage and transition to India, and in all honesty, I wasn’t sure of myself at all. I was not sure how and what to pack. I didn’t think I was savvy enough to get both of us through immigration and customs at the Mumbai airport. I was afraid of not being able to keep him healthy and entertained during our two-and-a-half-month stay. My Gujarati was rudimentary, at best, my Hindi non-existent, and even at the advanced age of 33, with my American demeanor and mannerisms, in India, I still felt as clumsy and awkward as an adolescent.

Even as I conscientiously shopped for my son’s India clothes at Target, packed his Gerber baby food and snacks, and remembered his Children’s Imodium and malaria medication, I still felt unqualified to take a young child to India. In some ways, I felt like a child myself, packing Imodium for my own American digestive tract and wondering if I had enough room in our suitcases for my own personal stash of Pop-Tarts and Chef Boy R Dee, before we reached the 50-lb limit. It was sort of like the blind leading the blind. Thank goodness my son was and still is too young to grasp just how shaky my confidence was about this trip.

After we went through the extended Savannah-Atlanta-NYC-Mumbai plane journey and customs and immigration at the Mumbai airport, without any of the catastrophes I had imagined, I began to relax a little and congratulated myself on getting my son to India in one piece. He didn’t throw up, cry, run around, or have ear problems on the plane. I didn’t run out of diapers, wipes, food, or toys. I was able to manage his stroller and our two handbags. We didn’t get lost at any of the airports. We made it to all our flights in time. Maybe I wasn’t so under qualified after all.

My feelings of competence were short-lived. The next challenge was taking my son to meet my husband’s relatives. I had met all of them during previous visits to India, and several of them had spent time with us in the States. However, I was still unsure of myself. I was racked by nausea, vomiting and diarrhea as I tried to call them to let them know that we had reached safely, and to make plans to meet them. It took me awhile to figure our which codes to dial, and when I did figure out how to dial those 12-15 digit numbers, I prayed that they would understand my halting Gujarati through the sometimes static-and-echo-filled telephone connection. However, I think the family members were so excited to see us and meet my son, that they probably overlooked my clumsiness.

The next challenge was food. It actually ended up being more of a challenge for me than for my son. My son loved everything — roti, pav bhaji, ondhvo, pulao, the Indian sweets, and all the vegetables and fruits that were in season during our visit. My grandmother scolded me a couple times that my son ate more than I did. I had packed Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and some other snacks for my son, but I ended up eating them myself. I made at least three trips to the local Subway. I even made a surreptitious e-mail request for Pop-Tarts to be sent with someone from Savannah who would be visiting India soon. I wondered what kind of example I was setting, but was grateful that at least my son was a better sport than I was about the food. I’m pretty sure my parents would have never considered helping themselves to my stash of American food during my childhood visits to India.

Finally, there was the issue of entertainment. I had dutifully packed board books, musical toys, and racecars for the slow days in India. They remained largely untouched, and I found out that I needn’t have brought them, because you can get Fisher Price everything in India. My son found the people, animals, and surroundings much more interesting. He still treats our friends and relatives in Savannah to his water buffalo-noise imitations. I was enjoying the different atmosphere myself, and tried my best to set a good example for my son by not hiding in a cocoon of American books, music and videos. However, I have to admit that I enjoyed all the great American shows you can get on Indian TV channels ¨D Dawson’s Creek, Friends, Army Wives. I watched CNN and the BBC. I even watched Home Alone and Titanic dubbed in Hindi.

I realized that through my feelings of unease and incompetence about being able to take my son to India, I had failed to grasp that India and America have both changed enough to accommodate my shortcomings as an ABCD parent, or at least make them less glaring. There was less need for me to translate “Indian culture” for my son, when “Indian culture” had become expansive enough to embrace Fisher Price, McDonalds, and Nickelodeon, and “American culture” has begun to embrace things like Bollywood, yoga, and Indian fashions. There was less need for the Chef Boy R Dee and Lucky Charms, because my son had already been exposed to a wide range of Indian foods through our extended family in Savannah, and also because now you can get American groceries in India. Furthermore, the sanitation and transport have improved to the point where both my son and I could be more comfortable visiting India. Finally, the Internet and ease of travel have made the world a much smaller place. Our trip to India was not the same mysterious trip that it may have been 25-30 years ago; we were e-mailing pictures from India to our relatives and friends back in the States on a weekly basis.

I find it gratifying that my son won’t be facing the same chasm between his Indian heritage and American life that many of my ABCD peers and I grappled with during our trips to India 25-30 years ago. Now when people like my son visit India, they can spend their entire visit cloistered in one of the modern NRI (nonresident Indian) subdivisions or flats, surfing the Internet, eating Subway, socializing almost exclusively with fellow NRIs and watching American shows and movies on Star Network and Zee Caf¨¦. Admittedly, those amenities made my life as a visiting NRI/ABCD parent much easier by removing my obligation to give my son the lessons in adaptation and flexibility that my generation had to learn. However, I still feel some nostalgia for the old days when going to India was a truly exotic journey.

As India modernizes and as my son’s generation becomes old enough to understand and remember their visits to India, we parents will have to find new ways to translate and explain what they see and experience there, and help them realize what India is really all about, underneath its new, modern trappings.

[Monica Patel lives in Savannah, Georgia. She frequently writes about second generation issues.]

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