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I am Indian.
I am American.
Am I one? Am I the other? Am I both?
I think I started seriously thinking about it a few months ago, when the marriage talk took on a new level of urgency. I’m supposed to marry a Malayalee Nair guy. They prefer I marry someone from India. I prefer I marry someone from here. Does it make a difference? What do I want for my children?
I am of two minds. On one hand, I am in love with Malayalee culture, its uniqueness, its richness, and its resilience through millennia. I have learned both Carnatic music and two forms of classical dance. I am Hindu, and Hindu with a decidedly South Indian flair (and yes there are regional differences). I want to make sure my children are raised in that culture.
Yet on the other hand, I am in love with aspects of American culture, because it really is a portal to other cultures due to the proverbial melting pot of American society. I love baseball and football (no, not soccer), have decidedly multicultural culinary tastes, and have a doggedly American sense of independence and individuality. I’m a registered Democrat and have little to no idea about Indian politics. I know Shashi Tharoor won in Kerala, Kerala is no longer communist, and the Congress Party is still in power. Beyond that, I’m stumped. I understood cricket for a grand total of 2 weeks following watching “Lagaan” after which I returned to my original opinion (originally Robin Williams’) that “cricket is basically baseball on valium.” My music tastes are varied, but if I go to Pandora to pick a station, it is ultimately a rock station. Even as far as marriage goes, I’ve come to accept (heck, embrace) the idea that you really do need to get to know the person you’re going to marry, even if it is arranged. Perhaps it comes from living in a culture so devoted to dating.
Yet there are days where saying “our” with regard to India-related things feels right, and others where it feels awkward and foreign. Likewise for American. So what is the deciding factor that puts a person squarely in one world or another?
For me, I think I’m more comfortable being identified as an American of Indian origin, rather than an Indian. Yes, my skin is brown, my hair is black, I “look” Indian, but when I speak, I’m American. On most counts, I don’t feel comfortable when I go back to India. Culturally, I can hold my own in certain things. Yet there is one glaring exception: language. Perhaps that is the one thing that will keep me from really feeling…Indian. Yes, I can manage some conversation, but most is grammatically abysmal, and is done more for comic effect or satisfying my grandmother, whose English is about as good as my Malayalam. I can’t find linguistic common ground with my relatives when I go back. Most of them speak English very well, but there’s a certain level of cultural intimacy that only comes with speaking in one’s mother tongue. Maybe that’s what keeps me from being “fully Indian.”
I suppose I walk the line between Indian and American, though I’d like to think that perhaps, I’ve created my own cultural identity that happens to be squarely between both worlds. It is not set in stone, but fluid, sopping up whatever I find that is both rich and profound.
To those among you who are first-generation Americans, or were raised in a multicultural household, do you identify with your birth country’s culture, your parents’ culture(s), or do you fashion your own?
At least that’s what I think Betty Brown’s request to the Asian-American community was. Shorten your names, she says, so it’s easier for the rest of us to pronounce. How about learn to pronounce their names, Betty? It’s not as though American names are necessarily easy to pronounce if the people trying to pronounce them weren’t raised among people with those names.
I was born and brought up in New York, and in every single year of schooling, had to deal with a handful of colorful attempts at pronouncing my name. I didn’t give myself a nickname, though most of my friends did (and many were longer than my real name), and I didn’t Anglicize any part of my name (even though going from Saroj to Sarah isn’t a huge jump in letters). I love my name, I love what it means, I love its distinctively Hindu flair, and I won’t change it for anything just like I won’t change anything else about myself to meet someone else’s inability to pronounce my name and/or compromise with my cultural background.
Changing one’s name, especially from say, something Chinese or Sanskrit to something European, may not be a big deal for some people. Some people choose names that aren’t necessarily “part” of their culture, because the name sounds pretty or the meaning of the name is deep. That’s fine, since it is after all, a voluntary decision. Yet for me, being forced to change one’s name is akin to cultural castration. For me, it’s more than a change in name, it’s a change in identity. How would I be viewed if my name was forcibly changed to Sarah, and how would I view myself?
Betty, how about I ask you to change your name to say…Bhagyalakshmi. It’s certainly easier for some Indians to pronounce, and I know Texas has a lot of Indians. Your district also has a fair percentage of Hispanic people, a name change to Beatriz would certainly be appreciated by them. Perhaps, Bao-Zhai or another East-Asian name, to appease the Asian-American population not just in Texas, but around the country, that you have so offended.
Do you see how a name change can change more than just a few letters on a driver’s license or another piece of ID? Try learning to pronounce the names of your constituents, diverse though they may be, and take another step towards fully appreciating the melting pot that is American society.
Women doctors have made amazing strides in the field, where only half a century earlier, it was almost exclusively dominated by men. Yet while the doors have opened to women doctors in most aspects, there is one notable exception: motherhood.
My favorite story of women breaking into this, male-dominated field is the one of Agnodice, who disguised herself as a man so that she could study medicine in ancient Greece. Many girls want to grow up to be both well-regarded doctors and wonderful mothers, but it seems that for the most part, they can’t have their cake and eat it too. Men can enter whatever field they want with little consequence, women must make sacrifices. I acknowledge that this seems to be changing, but the pace is still painfully slow.
To paraphrase a professor of mine, the world is still cruel to women. They are encouraged to pursue their career and focus on it with razor sharp focus, while their biological clocks tick away, independent of any aspirations they may develop down the road to start a family. Once the residency and fellowship parade is over (as the case were for aspiring doctors), and a woman is ready to start a family, it may already be too late. I’m all for women being driven and seizing life by the horns, but sometimes the cost is pretty great.
And then, there is me and those like me, who are from immigrant families who insist upon marriage and having at least the first child before age 30. If I am lucky, I will enter medical school at 24, take four years, and enter whatever specialty I can. Depending on what specialty that is, the years devoted to residencies and fellowships may be as low as 3 or as high as 6-7. People can say “Rebel! Blaze your own trail, do what you need to do to get what you want.” Yet in cultures where filial piety is prized and expected, it is far harder to go against the grain, even when your own wishes may be at stake. How does one reconcile cultural and societal obligations with the rigors of medical school/further training?
From what I can gather (and please correct me if I’m wrong) but several residencies tend to not look kindly on women who are pregnant or who have very young children. Each specialty requires a certain number of years of training. It makes sense, of course, that the more high-stakes residencies (for example neurosurgery) would probably require more time to train physicians in that field. Obviously I’d want my neurosurgeon (heaven forbid that I need one) to have had rigorous training. Yet there are 194 certified women neurosurgeons, out of something like 3000 neurosurgeons in total in the U.S. The difference between those numbers is alarming. It’s enough to discourage most women from even entertaining the idea of going down that road, but I’m not like most women. Many women seem to end up vying for the more “family-friendly” positions like family physician or pediatrician, or at least ones that finish up training quickly.
I am not one of those people, I’m aiming for one of the neuro residencies (neurosurgery if I can help it).* I love the complicated nature of the field, and yes, I love the potentially maddening level of stress that’s involved. It’s a field I greatly respect and I want to be a part of, but could potentially be turned away because I want to devote the same kind of attention to my family.
I went to a seminar being conducted at SUNY Downstate, giving advice for medical students as to when they should get married and start families. Literally, the window of opportunity was a few months at best for both, where the birth of a child could potentially set students back a year. Clearly under these restrictions, days-long, traditional Indian weddings are out the window. If I were to get pregnant year 3 or 4, that could be potentially problematic, whereas the first two years were a bit better (but by no means ideal). Heaven forbid you wanted to take care of your child until they were at least more communicative or mobile, and when their fear of strangers was under control (Piagetian child psychology sets this at around 2 years of age). Then perhaps the babysitter could be introduced, if you don’t mind having a babysitter or nanny (I do mind). Children are for many people, a vital part of their lives, and they have the right to get as much time early on with their parents as they can. Yet as far as I can tell, the policy seems to be to leave everything to after you start practicing. That’s great for some people, but others are (still) bound by age-old traditions and (sometimes antiquated though biologically sound) cultural expectations regarding marriage and childbirth.
Hopefully, the domination by men that still seems to be inherent will continue to be addressed, and will encourage more women to live their lives a bit more easily while pursuing their dreams. If any women doctors come across this, I’d love to hear your perspective, given that mine is pretty limited.
*This is all contingent on my getting into medical school. I’m not going to crow about medicine without putting in that little point in there, I’m not in medical school yet. Hopefully I will be soon, gotta take it one step at a time. Even contemplating residencies is a long way off, but it can’t hurt to start contemplating a little now!
Slumdog did, in fact, clean shop, bagging eight of the ten Oscars for which it was nominated. The audience seemed to really like the song and dance number with A.R. Rahman and John Legend (small shout-out here to Archana, Anie, Lisa, and the other girls in Yuva, you were awesome!). Does that mean the U.S. will open its arms to all things Bollywood?
Yet Indian culture is slowly finding its way into people’s awareness. My friend recently showed me an exercise video structured around Bollywood dance and bhangra (both dance forms, by the way, are fantastic workouts). Indian cooking styles and spices have been warmly embraced by chefs across the board. I think there’s even a commercial for Emergen-C that features a Bollywood-esque dance number. I just don’t think Indian movies will be embraced as readily.
Case in point, A.R. Rahman (yes the one who got 2 Oscars) enjoyed immense success in London’s West End for his collaborative work with Andrew Lloyd Webber for “Bombay Dreams.” The same show closed after only a few months on Broadway, a few years ago. Granted this was before Slumdog Millionaire took the nation by storm, I don’t think we’ll be seeing people flocking to see films like “Dostana” or “Kal Ho Na Ho” anytime soon, for the songs, or anything else. I won’t deny, though, that there will be some increased interest in Bollywood overall, just not a lot.
Maybe American films may incorporate some of the glitz and lightheartedness that tends to characterize Bollywood films, though sparingly. In a time where we just need a chance to smile or laugh, a little Bollywood levity can’t hurt. Bollywood seems to have stuck with the musical style that was more reminiscent of American cinema from the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood. Perhaps through Bollywood, American cinema may return to the styles of those times, if but a little bit. That’s just a guess.
Slumdog Millionaire more likely represents the well-publicized start of America’s love affair with Indian culture, though in actuality it has been simmering steadily for a while. In Indian culture, there lies an exotic appeal that has sometimes been welcomed (the seemingly ubiquitous appeal of kurta tops) and sometimes shunned (yoga has been a touchy subject for some Christian groups, though most people have taken to it quite favorably).
Britain has already integrated Indian culture seamlessly into its own, oftentimes yielding a wonderful mix of East and West (chicken tikka masala, for those who may not know, was created by a South Asian chef working in Britain). It’s probably not surprising that Britain was more acquainted (and attracted to) Indian culture longer than the U.S., considering that India was the crown jewel of the British Empire for a little over two centuries.
Indians probably only started emigrating to the U.S. in respectable numbers after World War II, unlike most of the other immigrant groups in this country. Our culture was still being understood for the last three or four decades. Indian characters were a rarity in film and on TV until probably the last decade (Parminder Nagra in ER comes to mind, as well as Naveen Andrews in Lost, and Sendhil Ramamurthy in Heroes).
Now, though, we’re officially on our way to adding Indian culture to the proverbial melting pot of our cultural understanding and awareness. All it took was a little indie film about a young boy from the slums with an extraordinary story.
Let me set the stage for you:
The girl is a graduate student on her way to applying to medical school next year. She is not in a relationship at this point, and there seems to be no one that has expressed any real interest that would keep mom and dad placated…i.e. Malayalee and Nair. Therefore, the aforementioned parents want to put an ad up for the girl to be married within the next two years, something a la Shaadi.com. The general connotation of Shaadi.com and matrimonial ads of the sort is that of ridicule and considered a “last ditch attempt” by most. Others, however, have found great people (her parents included) through these methods. What is the girl to do?
Arranged marriage has tried to evolve to meet the times, no doubt. Back in the day, couples would be arranged perhaps within the village, but at least within a certain area. Marriages were alliances of families, not just the bonding of two people. It was about preserving one’s identity across generations. In Kerala, for example, cultural and religious practices even differed across the state. Those closer to Tamil Nadu have a culture that melded Malayalee with Tamil rituals. Those closer to the Malabar coast have their own. This is clearly evidenced with my parents, one of whom is from Palakkad, one of whom is from Ernakulam. That union was viewed as almost radical, I mean, a girl from Ernakulam marrying a boy from Palakkad? Insane! That too, they met through an advertisement.
Now it’s my turn.
Being born and raised in the United States my whole life brings about its own set of challenges. I am cynical, which may or may not be a function of my being raised here. I tend to be suspicious of people at first before warming up to them as I get to know them. It seems like my parents were much more open to ads than I am and many of my peers. I tend to think (not entirely erroneously) that half the ads on sites such as Shaadi.com are not made by the person who is being advertised (I’m not including sites like eHarmony and Chemistry because they’re a bit different). “Shaadi” for my non-Indian readers, means “marriage” in Hindi. A quick browse through some of the profiles seems like most were written by their parents, rather than the guys themselves, and that strikes me as duplicitous. Maybe the guys asked for their parents to put the ad in, but if they can’t even invest that much in finding a spouse, I’m not sure I’d want to even deal with them. Part of me still wants to see if I can find someone on my own, who my parents would like as well. Shaadi.com seems like a last resort, if I look at it that way.
Yet there are definitely benefits to this system. At least on Indian matrimonial sites, if you’re so inclined, you can search by region, religion, and caste, which theoretically makes life easier. The same can be said for newspaper matrimonial ads. While my parents are probably more vested in my ending up with a Malayalee, Nair guy, it can’t hurt to have that option available if I want to search for one myself. Like other dating sites (I think) there are the options of looking for profiles with photos and without photos (and praying the photos that are up are not heavily Photoshopped). What’s convenient about Indian matrimonial sites is that you can indicate whether you are vegetarian or nonvegetarian, drink or not, smoke or not, and other things. Me, I’m a pescatarian…yes it’s a word, and you’d be surprised at how things like diet can shape a relationship (there was a New York Times article on it a few months back). I myself am pretty lenient, but I’m just saying…it’s a factor to consider.
Nonetheless, it’s important to get to meet and know the person, regardless of how one found the other. Sometimes that’s a bit harder when the person you met on Shaadi.com lives in India and you live in the States. Even if you both live in the States, getting from New York to say Texas, is easier said than done. Yet the argument can be made that, if there is a legitimate connection between two people, distance shouldn’t matter, right? Still, for me, face-to-face contact is the best way for me to judge a person’s character. Denying me that makes things very difficult. Also (on a slightly lighter note) having my brother play “that brother-in-law to-be” a la Nick Portokalos in “My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding” would be very difficult if the guy’s not around too often before the wedding. It’s an inevitable, right of passage.
So for me at least, the jury is still out on the possibility of me utilizing a site like Shaadi.com, or just plain old matrimonial ads. I’m hoping I won’t have to, that I’ll find someone the “old-fashioned way” but I guess there could be someone special that may be found through an ad. I just hope his picture isn’t John Abraham’s when he actually looks like Mohanlal.
To say India is diverse is stating the obvious. There are thousands of dialects, each falling into a several different language families. For each dialect, there is its own unique culture. The food is different, the religious practices are different, heck the styles of song and dance are different. As Indians from these groups move abroad, they bring with them their own rich, cultural heritage. Oftentimes, they spawn cultural organizations based on their individual, cultural identities. Yet at the end of the day, the Punjabis stick with the Punjabis, the Malayalees with the Malayalees, the Maharashtrians with the Maharashtrians, and so on and so forth. There is TANA, there is FOKANA, there is (insert other Indian organization acronym of choice). There is very little cross-talk, except perhaps among the younger generations. Yet heaven forbid the South Indian child learns bhangra, or the North Indian child learns kuchipudi, or (even worse) if there is dating or (dare I say it) marriage across cultural lines…
Why are the individual Indian communities closed off from each other? There are a few reasons:
1) As Indian expatriates in a cultural environment completely different from the one left behind, people try to preserve the integrity of their own, individual, cultural identities. In order to pass it on seamlessly to the next generation, some communities may feel that they need to keep to themselves to prevent the culture from being mixed with other Indian cultures.
2) There is a certain degree of ego that exists among people in general, in this case, manifested by the “my culture is better than yours” attitude.
We are still “new” in terms of our presence in American, British, Australian, and other Western societies. Inevitably there will be a greater intermixing of the individual Indian cultures, as well as with Indian culture as a whole and those of the Western societies with whom they coexist. It happened with European immigrants to the United States, and it will happen with all the newer immigrant populations over the course of the next few decades. Each passing generation becomes more alienated from their roots and clings more strongly to the society into which they are born. That is just the way things go.
Indian-Americans (and Indian-Brits, Indo-Australians, etc.) are poised to be a powerful influence with if we can get past all these self-made boundaries. The youth is already getting the ball rolling, embracing other Indians (and other people from other backgrounds) in spite of supposed cultural and language barriers. In college, I had friends across all sorts of cultural lines. We all participated in different activities with which we may have not been familiar with while growing up. I am Malayalee but I was on the bhangra team. In HSC (Hindu Student’s Council) we would sing bhajans (devotional songs) in a whole host of languages (Hindi, Gujarati, Tamil, Sanskrit, etc.). We are all Indians. We are all Americans (or British…or Australian…etc.). We are all people. Now if only we can get the larger organizations to initiate some sort of dialogue across cultural lines. It is only to our benefit.
There is beauty in our own individual cultural identities, but even more in learning about another’s. For now, let’s all dance bhangra and eat dosa, or perhaps dance bharatnatyam and eat dhokla? Maybe do the tango and eat pizza. Whatever works!
To anyone who made life difficult for people because they are different,
Ten years ago, I stood behind my middle school, waiting for my mother to pick me up. As I was waiting, two girls from the same middle school who were maybe two years older than I was came up to me, each with an idily burning cigarette in hand. I didn’t know them. One of them sneered at me, her teeth already tobacco-stained, and smiled a cruel smile. “Smile,” she ordered, “smile you fucking Hindu bitch.” Laughing, she and her friend walked away. Ten years ago, I continued to stand there long after they left, confused and hurt. Ten years ago, for me, racism was but a theory that quickly became a stark reality.
Today, the scene is much the same. There is a strong constituent that prides itself on fear-mongering, on the cavalier tossing around of racist slurs, on justifying reasons to hate or ridicule another group of people because they are different. There are still those that believe, intuitively, that someone who is different is somehow inferior. I’m so sorry you all still think that.
Differences have always been present in society, that’s a fact, today though they’re being embraced more strongly…perhaps to the chagrin of many. Ethnic identity is a badge of honor rather than a mark of shame. Other sexual lifestyles are being viewed less as woefully deviant and more as beautifully different. You see this as a sign of the end of days, a change for the worse. You have been fiercely vocal in certain pockets. In the light of the current political climate, with an African American poised to (potentially) clinch this election, you have been especially vocal. You cannot see change such as this as good.
It is different, therefore, it is bad. It must be suppressed, and we must stick to the status quo. Islam is bad. Hinduism is bad. Anything anti-Christian is somehow odd, and perverted. Anything culturally alien is base, is backwards, and needs to be stamped out, if not somehow changed to meet your ideals. Have you considered perhaps learning about the cultures that are slowly melding with with American culture? Have you considered learning about the people, their backgrounds, their faith (or lack thereof), perhaps their rationale for seeing the world the way they do? Have you considered any of it? There is beauty in diversity, and I’m sorry you don’t see it.
You do not reflect America as a whole, thankfully, but unfortunately America’s image is slowly being colored by your clamoring few. America, as a whole, has started to extend its arms to new change, to new differences, and to new views. Yet there are some that are still scared, fiercely so, and you turn instead to put-downs and wild allegations about the people who are possibly bringing new perspectives and new possibilities to a country that right now, is sorely in need of a different direction.
I’m sorry to say, I did listen to that girl. I smiled then, and I smile now. I smile not because I was conquered. I smile because I will never be conquered by fear. I smile because I will work through all the remarks, all the jeers, all the comments. I smile because I see your racist remarks, I see your xenophobic attitude, I see your fear and I raise you…and ultimately I win. Ultimately, we all win. White, black, Asian, Latino, homosexual, heterosexual, religious, atheist, and any and all combination of groups, we all win. Once we accept the changes our country is undergoing–the increased diversity on so many levels and its slow spread into all eschelons–we all win. Then, maybe then, we’ll all have a reason to smile.