March 25, 2013

Dot, Not Feather: An American Desi in the Rocky Mountains

THEY CALL ME Indian. No, not that kind of Indian. Dot, not feather. This is the sort of thing a person of South Asian heritage gets used to being asked frequently in America. Insensitivity of those types of comments aside, there is certainly a lot one can hear about being Indian without knowing the reality, from stereotypes about gas stations to honor roll students. Even whilst being a member of the subculture that identifies as Indian, it is still incredibly difficult to analyze the roots of that particular community and identify just how one is part of it. I was raised in a household with a very traditional Indian immigrant family and as with any experience, it has shaped my worldview in ways that may even seem subconscious to me now.

The Indian subculture within the United States itself differs from region to region and in this part of the West where there are hardly any minorities in the smaller towns, there is an even more conscious effort on the part of the immigrants to preserve their culture in any way they know how. Typical boundaries that may arise within Indians in other parts of the country (North Indians vs. South Indians) are erased in these smaller communities. You are Indian. There is no North, South, East, or West attached as a prefix to the Indian context. Because of this phenomenon, a specific set of values and beliefs will define one as “Indian,” and are imparted from one generation to the next. These values are then bound together with the common thread of movies, music, and stories from India, all found universally within the nation, but not necessarily between each subgroup. Generally, these values include immense focus on the family, studiousness, filial piety, and unquestioning obedience to those older than oneself, as well as authority figures. On the flip side, these values also encourage an “Other” to balance this behavior against. Typically, this Other is “American” in that “they” are one fight away from a messy divorce, have unruly children who do not listen to their parents, and are generally involved in all things ‘bad’. Stereotypes abound.

There is a clear dichotomy formed within an Indian child’s mind as they are raised in a Western world to an Eastern family, a black and white view of “us” versus “them.” There are certain taboos that exist because of this: no mention of dating, sex, drugs, or anything considered remotely “bad.” Culture, it seems, is a zero-sum game when raising an Indian child in the West. There does not seem to be any middle ground, really. If they are more “Indian”, they will be less “American” and therefore more studious, quiet, well-mannered, etc. It is my belief that this zero-sum mentality stems from the very basic and understandable fear that if the other culture is acquired, the original culture will be lost to the ages. In short, this mentality makes sense when viewed through the lens of an immigrant trying to maintain a tight grip on what they feel is keeping them rooted in the new country.

This dichotomy is perhaps the most influential piece of Indian culture in terms of its lingering effects on me today. There is still an “us” versus “them” mentality in my mind in terms of what I will and will not do, even while attending college. To those who say my actions may just be a part of my personality, I would ask how much of myself is constructed of “me” only. Are we not all a combination of the various experiences and influences we have had in life? Unfortunately, one of the side effects of this gulf, I would say, is that generally, due to this push by parents towards “Indian” things, we grow up not feeling American. “American” becomes a word reviled by Indian culture in the West, because it symbolizes everything that “we” are not supposed to be. Being called “too American” is even considered an insult if spoken by a fellow Indian within the community. It has taken me years to even begin to call myself American first, and Indian second. I still cannot call myself American first without wanting to correct myself, due to some instinct derived from years of being told ‘American’ was synonymous with ‘bad’. It was not until I studied abroad last fall and began introducing myself as an American that I realized that I had never called myself American first, even in the US while with friends. I was always “Indian” to them, to myself, and perpetually on the other side of a cultural divide. The idea that maybe being American was not a “bad thing” for me began changing slowly since entering high school when I was beginning to think for myself in ways of which my parents might not have approved.

The most telling example of this from my own life would have to be my views on dating. Until my freshman year of college, I never even really considered the idea of dating. It just was not an option for me, being Indian, until one person changed that. For the first time, I questioned what I had been taught since birth about the existence of such taboos in Indian culture or their place in the Western world. The ‘relationship’ ended up culminating in him refusing to date me until he had permission from my parents and their firmly saying no to the idea, saying that I was not old enough or mature enough to “handle such things”. It may seem trivial to a Western reader, but this entire experience managed to shift my worldview from the framework of unquestioning obedience with which I had been brought up : I finally learned to question my own beliefs about who I really was or wanted to be. My parents have still not budged on the issue two years later, nor do I think they will ever do so, but it taught me an important lesson that perhaps they are not always right, that maybe rigidity is not the best path.

This experience eventually did lead to an honest conversation between my mother and me about the pitfalls that may arise due to the clash of Indian and American culture, and it was refreshing. Hiding this struggle within myself was only hurting me and talking about it with my mother, even if she did not agree with me, still managed to reinforce another aspect of Indian culture, and that was the idea of family.  It convinced me that maybe I do not have to battle myself (or my two selves) in order to be happy, but having the freedom to at least question what I had been taught was a crucial step in the right direction.

Due to my experiences with Indian culture growing up, there will always be a voice in my head chiding me when I cross a proverbial line, but it is quieter and less insistent now. I should not have to focus my life around the expectations of others, or at least not to the extent in which I was forced to do so in the past. Of course, there are still aspects of Indian culture that still influence my behavior and there always will be. Indian food, music, and movies will still be as much a part of me as ever, as will the values the culture instilled in me that focused on things like the family. I am still Indian and will continue to identify as such, even while accepting that I was not born there and accepting the fact that I can be American as well without losing my other culture. The cultural values of being Indian are important to me and still affect how I conduct myself today, what with calling home twice a day or maintaining close ties with extended family. What has gone and will forever stay away is the unquestioning aspect of the culture, and perhaps it is a good thing. Forcible acceptance of anything, be it culture, religion, etc., leads to dislike of the thing itself and questioning a belief allows one to embrace it – the good along with the bad. A balance has been struck between both worlds and maintaining that balance, while enjoying both cultures, will be key to my future.


1 comment to Dot, Not Feather: An American Desi in the Rocky Mountains

  • Guru Pai

    Thank you for sharing your experiences. I have always wanted to hear an honest account of what it is like to be born in the US to an immigrant parents! I have many questions for you, this is not the place for them, I think! Good job, please consider writing more!

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