Second-Generation South Asian Indian American Identity

Something I constantly think about is how to pass down our traditions and culture to our children. I want my kids to know who they are and where they come from but it’s an interesting dilemma considering that my generation was raised differently than past generations. We were some of the first Asian Indian Americans growing up in the United States.

Being in America changed the way we would have traditionally grown up. I know a lot of people who grew up as close to the Indian culture as possible but even then, there were plenty of other influences affecting their childhood.

For me, growing up as a first-generation Asian Indian American in the United States allowed me and my siblings to define our own path. We chose whether or not to follow Hinduism. We chose which aspects of it we liked and didn’t like. Maybe it would have been the same in India. My mother’s side is pretty much a straight line of atheists. My dad’s side is religious but my dad never pressed us into following anything. He left everything open for our interpretations and let us make our own decisions on what we wanted to do.

Religion aside, being here in this “melting pot” gave us exposure to so many other cultures and religions. My family celebrates Holi which is traditionally a Hindu festival, Navratri which is traditionally a Gujarati festival, and spend Diwali at the Gurudwara since half of my family is Sikh although Diwali is also celebrated by Hindus and Jains. I am pretty sure that none of these are exclusive to their religions of origin. I know that garba during Navratri is well attended by people of all nationalities and religions.

Where does religion end and culture start? We are lucky to be in this area where everything isn’t so heavily based on religion but on our culture. I’ve never been really religious and if all of my family’s traditions were based on religion, I don’t know if I would feel as comfortable passing it down to my children. But since they have become much more based on Indian culture, we introduce our children to everything we possibly can so they are aware of our Indian traditions.

I feel lucky that Indian culture and religion can be separated as easily as it has. If our entire culture was rooted in religion, it would have been that much harder for me to accept this new identity that I have formed. It’s different now for my kids because they are learning second hand about our traditions. Whatever we have cultivated is what is being handed down. I have to accept they might never know our languages as well or the cultural norms that we grew up with.

How much can we expect our children to absorb? Is it possible that they will be as involved in the Indian culture as much as we were growing up. It honestly didn’t occur to me until my 30s that what we were doing was unprecedented. That means what our children are doing is unprecedented as well. I would like my children to take pride in the cultural traditions that we are able to pass down.

It will be interesting to see what our kids accept as and what they separate out from their cultural identity.

 

A Cultural Norm

For those of you who have grown up in America, we are taught to do everything ourselves. Our goal in life is to be independent. It actually can become a problem because we don’t tend to ask for help even when we do need it.

Something else I encountered on our trip to India which is very different than what we have here is the idea of having servants. Almost everyone has them. Someone cooks, someone cleans, someone helps you with the kids. It’s very much the cultural norm.

Every day I’d sit for breakfast and someone would bring me food and coffee just by my request. It was very weird. I’m sure, on some level, it would get easy to get used to having so much help but on my 2 week trip, it wasn’t. There was a day when we returned from a shopping trip and we had a lot of bags with us. I did what I’d normally do at home which was grab all the bags I could and take them to my room myself. I did notice that a few people tried to help me but it just didn’t feel right having someone else carry my stuff.

It’s one of those things that is just a part of the culture in India. I can see both the good and the bad sides of having servants. On one side, there is a class system in place and there are people working for you. On the other side, these are people who are getting a good job, food, and a roof over their head. They have the opportunity to make money for themselves and their families that they might not otherwise have.

I don’t know if there is a solution or a chance to change this or if it’s something that even should be changed. I just wanted to mention it because it was definitely something out of my comfort zone while we were traveling.

Where Do I Belong?

My family and I just got back from a 2 week trip to India. As you can imagine, I noticed so many things that I do want to talk about. Let’s start with this.

I was born and raised in America. My parents moved here before I was born but have done a great job teaching my about my heritage. I have a strong sense of cultural identity and am trying my best to make sure my kid learns as much as she can about her heritage as well.

On my trip, I did notice something interesting. Interesting might be the wrong word but it’s what I will use at the moment. I noticed that I’m not Indian in India. I’m American. The Indian people in India don’t consider me as one of them. (This is clearly a generalization. I’m sure there are people that consider me Indian.)

I can’t tell you how many times I heard people telling someone else that I am from America and I don’t understand or speak anything but English. The funny part was that I perfectly understood what that person was saying in whichever Indian language (Gujarati, Punjabi, Hindi) was being used. Yes, my spoken Indian language might not be perfect but I can understand most everything being said in whichever language you choose.

Why is that assumption being made? I feel as though some of the people who made these assumptions know that I can understand most of these languages so why do they need to feel like they have to mention that I’m from America? Is it an insecurity issue? Am I a worse person because my first language is English?

I met up with a friend who moved from California to Delhi. She was telling me that when she has something to say, no one really listens because she’s the American girl. How does where we are from even relate to the knowledge we have?

It’s also funny because growing up here as a first generation South Asian Indian American meant I stood out. I was Indian, not American. I didn’t assimilate into the typical American ideal at all. Luckily, I grew up in Southern California which meant I wasn’t alone and there were ways for me to fit in with others who were in the same boat I was.

So now, if I’m Indian in America and American in India, I’m not quite sure where that leaves me. The only place I really fit into is this westernized Indian culture that has been created here in America. I get to be as Indian as I want to be without having to be any less American than anyone else.

I hope one day that the people in India who think I’m too American realize that I can understand every word they are saying about me.

Where Will Our Traditions Go?

So here’s a question that has been on my mind for a while: who is going to perform the Hindu/Sikh/etc. weddings after all of the pandits (or corresponding religious leaders) in our area retire? The group I’ve grown up with has had this discussion before. Most of the people who perform weddings now have moved to America from India. And no one I know who is in my generation is practicing to become a pandit.

What happens to all of our cultural traditions in the future? Will there be someone who can help continue them?

I’ve been making sure that my parents and my husband’s parents talk to my kid in our respective languages so she learns that part of our culture. Unfortunately, it’s a second language for me as well and I tend to go to my first language when I speak to her. On occasion, when I do remember, I do speak to her in Gujarati. But it won’t be the way my parents spoke it to me. Language is still something easier to pass on than a few other aspects.

I grew up going to pujas, temples, parties that celebrated different festivals in India. When I got married, we had an event where our families and friends sang traditional songs in our respective languages. Will our generation be able to continue this? Who will be responsible so that our children learn all of this stuff? How do make sure that we don’t lose this part of us?

It’s a little bit scary. Is it okay that our traditions progress as the way we grow up changes? Did this happen to our parents or since they all were born in the same country, the traditions were able to be passed down much easier? I wonder if this really only affects us now because we are growing up here in America and raising our children here.

I want my child to know her cultures. I want her to be able to really understand where she comes from. I’m just not sure how I can make sure that happenĀ in the future.