Asserting Identities

A more confident generation asserts its place in the American psyche.


It’s a typical weekend at the Jain household in Fremont, Calif. Working couple Preeti and Vaibhav Jain are busy preparing their grocery list and distributing duties on who would pick up their two young daughters, Ryka and Raya, from their weekly Jainshala classes, held at the nearby temple. The classes for young Indian American kids growing up in the United States aim to inculcate the religious, spiritual and cultural ethos of their faith ina distant land.

M Jay with his mother: “I took the shortened more American sounding name to make it easy for my colleagues to register my name.”

For the 4 million strong Indian Americans living in the United States, representing 1.25 percent of the country’s population, the big American dream is almost never complete without navigating acculturation, assimilation and now increasi ngly a sense of assertion of their own roots. As Indian Americans find their kin prominently sharing spaces everywhere from the Forbes list of richest Americans and cracking the country’s top 100 surnames, to the impressive number of high-tech start-up founders in the Silicon Valley, both professionally and socially, Indians are beginning to assert their ethnic identity.

 Second Largest Immigrant Group

The United States has nearly 42.4 million immigrants, according to 2014 American Community Survey (ACS) data. Indians now constitute the second largest immigrant group after Mexicans.

Inevitably, many first and second generation Indian Americans find themselves caught in the cultural whirlwinds, whiplashed by the forces of displacement and assimilation, even as they try to decipher how to balance bringing up their kids in an alien culture.

The dilemma is especially acute for the second generation, the children of immigrant parents. The terminologies, like many socio-cultural factors for immigrants, are fluid. Ruben G. Rumbaut, a Cuban-American sociologist and an expert on immigration in America, has coined the term 1.5 generation to describe immigrants who came to America at a very young age — teenage or younger. They bring with them many characteristics and understanding of the country of their origin, even as they imbibe their new culture.

Milton M. Gordon in Assimilation in American Life writes that the first generation is less likely to be assimilated with American culture than the second. The third generation becomes more mainstream American and exhibits a distinct departure from their parents’ outlook and practices.

California based Pankhuri Kohli seen here with mother Sujata and father Sandeep.

Surprisingly though, many first and second generation Indians, despite finding it easier to assimilate than their predecessors, are increasingly finding expressive ways to reflect and practice their original culture. This is in stark contrast with immigrant Indians from just a few decades earlier. The prominent markers of these assertive indicators range from choosing Indian, often Sanskrit, names for their children to celebrating their rituals more publicly, often involving their American neighbors, friends and colleagues.

Prof. Madhulika Khandelwal, director, Asian American Center, Queens College, says: “Post 1965, the first wave of Indian immigrants that arrived during the 1970s and the 1980s, were amongst the earliest Indians to start raising families here in the U.S. For both the parents and the children, it was the first time to go through that experience. It was new and they were trying to do their best and in the process experimenting a lot.

“The entire process of struggling to keep their Indian identity alive, establishing a community, building cultural places, say a temple or a mosque, and balancing the social aspects, were being done in an almost trial and error method. The only difference is perhaps the fact that the ones who came during the 1990s were able to just fit into an already created communal mold. It was natural for them to feel more at ease and hence there was a difference in attitude.”

Globalization has played a major part in bringing various cultures together. Khandelwal says: “Not only did the later generation of immigrants not have to start from the scratch, technology too has added another dimension in keeping the cultures alive.

So I would say, it wasn’t that the earlier immigrants were less confident, but definitely the new generation was a little more comforted in adjusting in a new place and following their practices.”

The American majority too has become more receptive to cultural identities, as is reflected by the celebration of Diwali at the White House, the issuance of the first Diwali postage stamp and the growing emergence of Hindi Lovers Clubs in Chicago.

Saif Shahin, assistant professor at Bowling Green State University, Ohio, who researches media, identity and politics, says: “There are two main reasons why Indians in the United States have become more assertive of their cultural identities in recent years. The first is the dramatic spurt in Indian-origin immigrants since the 1990s. As their numbers have increased, Indians have felt much more at home and much more comfortable with retaining cultural markers, such as names, eating habits and religious practices.”

While earlier Indians tried to hold on to their cultural values, they also felt an urgent need to fit in the majority culture. It is an obligation most Indians no longer feel given their professional and educational achievements and status.

Shahin explains: “Recent immigrants are typically well-paid white-collar professionals who feel more confident about their position in American society — and thus less of a need to make cultural adaptations to fit in.”

U.S. Census Bureau data reveals that second generation Americans are better off than immigrants on various socioeconomic scales. They have higher incomes and significantly higher proportion are college graduates and homeowners. On a wide range of social markers, their characteristics resemble the U.S. adult population. They are more likely to speak English and to have friends and spouses outside their ethnic or racial group.

Shahin adds: “The second reason is the growth of identity politics in the U.S. and around the world. This is both the result of and a response to cultural globalization. People living in cosmopolitan surroundings enjoy international cuisines in their neighborhoods, watch foreign movies on cable and have friends from around the world on social media. They are very much at ease with foreign names and cultures.

Harini Mittal with son Krishna Mittal: “Today in the U.S. there is hardly anything Indian that you can’t get or experience.”

“For the same reasons, people have also become more assertive of their own cultural identities to anchor themselves within their cosmopolitan surroundings. Thus being Indian has become much more acceptable in the U.S., even as Indian-origin immigrants have felt a greater need to maintain their Indianness.”

What’s In A Name?

While traditionally Indian Americans have maintained an affinity to their native names, it was not uncommon two decades ago for Indians to adopt an American moniker to make it easier at work or at school. So Bhairav would become Bob or Pradeep would become Peter. Parents often sought out shorter and easily pronounceable names for their children born in America. Social Security Administration data until 2000 saw the growing popularity of many Indian names, such as Jay and Maya in the community. Not only are these name shorter and easier to pronounce, but they can also pass as more universal.

However, in what may seem as a new trend, growing numbers of Indian Americans are choosing culturally unique, often Sanskrit, names for their kids in the United States, such as Aditya and Arjun.

Cleveland-based Rohini Sharda, who’s studying information technology, chose to name her six-year-old son Ananyay. The Sanskrit name, which means unique, constantly draws enquiries on pronunciation from schoolteachers and friends alike, but Sharda remains unfazed: “We liked this name and it was culturally relevant to us, so we decided to go ahead with it. Contrary to popular opinion, I have had many Americans getting interested in knowing the origin and history behind the name.”

Sharda, who also has a daughter named Ahana, says: “The society everywhere is now more receptive to culturally relevant aspects of other communities. I have seen so many American friends looking for Greek names for their babies. I am happy that my husband and I chose to retain our cultural identity in naming our kids and took no shortcuts in an effort to blend in.”

Many Indian children are celebrating their traditional names despite the pronunciation challenges. High school senior student Pankhuri Kohli, who lives in Cupertino, Calif., says her American friends have difficulty pronouncing her name. But that hasn’t deterred the budding artist from keeping her name on her artworks and for other official purposes. Her mother Sujata says that the new generation of Indian Americans is increasingly confident of both their origin and identity: “The name is a celebration of our roots, but does not indicate that we are trying to re-assert our identity.”

Rohit Agnihotri , seen in North Dakota with wife Shivani and daugter Aditi: “There are many changes in thoughts and processes that happen over time.”

Pankhuri Kohli, who grew up in this country, says: “Perhaps what may make growing up as a second or third generation Indian easier in the U.S. is the fact that in big cities, you are always exposed to a variety of cultures. In my school we had students from all over the world, so it was a given that many of us will have certain unique cultural identities.”

She adds, “I have lived in many states in the U.S. and while in Chicago I made a lot of White friends, in Midwest I made a lot of Hispanic friends and in St Louis I made a lot of Jewish friends.”

Her school experience was typical of any other American student, she says: “While culturally I felt no different than the White kids in my school, there were certain nuances my classmates wouldn’t understand, like my Indian tiffin. There was a time I requested my mom to pack me only sandwiches, but she was adamant that I retain my habit of eating Indian food and would still pack my roti-subzi into a roll. I got used to it and even introduced my American friends to our cuisine. I guess the more confident you feel about your roots, the easier it is to fit in.”

Prof. Khandelwal agrees that Indians today find it far simpler to retain their roots than earlier generations: “If you look into the community trends, Indians largely hold on to their native names. Keeping an English sounding name is far too common in other Asian communities. Amongst my Chinese and Korean students, almost everyone has an English name, along with their native names, and they prefer using the English name for social interactions.”

She adds: “While in the past, some Indians did use abbreviated names or some parents opted for simpler names, it never was a community trend. Also, Indians are way more individualistic and while one family may opt for a simpler name, the other may want to go for a very Indianized one. So this diversity in choices is almost like a part of Indian character.”

Not everyone accepts that tweaking the name diminishes their Indianness, however.

Muthurajan Jayakumar, who works with Intel in Santa Clara, Calif., is popularly known as M Jay. He says: “I took the shortened more American sounding name to make it easy for my colleagues to register my name. I often do not shy away from telling people that I have the same initials as Michael Jordan or Michael Jackson. Does it make me any less Indian?”

Preeti Vaibhav, seen here with her children Ryka and Raya Jain: “I never forced my girls to wear ethnic or Indian dresses for Diwali or other festivals.”

He explains: “While I was in India, I was variously known by nicknames given to me by friends and family that ranged from Jaya to Jayamma to Jay. Back there, no one questioned my Indianness. So just because now it’s happening in the U.S. should not mean that Indians are shying away from their roots.”

He adds: “When I was using my full name here, Americans were feeling obligated to pronounce my name correctly and were making a genuine effort to do so. I understood the linguistic barrier and chose to shorten it.”

Celebrating Diversity

Many Indian immigrants say they encourage healthy exchanges of cultural practices and try not to assert their identity on the children. Sujata says: “We do keep our daughter informed of our beliefs and values, but we never forced her to make Indian friends or to learn Indian customs.”

She discovered that many second and third generation Indians are identifying with their roots, even if sometimes inaccurately. She points to an example: “At the last Diwali festival I attended, my second generation neighbor introduced her daughter, a third generation Indian, on the stage and announced that she would perform a bhangra. When the little girl danced to a Bollywood number in a ghagra choli, I wondered about the bhangra, only to realize later that the mom, who was born and brought up in the United States, could not herself differentiate between bhangra and garba.

Sujata says: “Nonetheless, the fact remains that for many third generation Indians here, Bollywood becomes a cultural marker and I would say if that’s where they are preferring to draw ideas on traditionalism from, there’s nothing wrong in it too.”

Unlike earlier generations, which oftentimes pressured their children to familiarize themselves with Indian philosophy and customs, many Indian parents say they let their kids choose their hobbies and interests. Often the children embrace their cultural identity on their own. Preeti and Vaibhav Jain, who are based in Fremont, Calif., say their two daughters enjoy the Jainshalas and want to learn Indian history.

Says Preeti: “I never forced my girls to wear ethnic or Indian dresses for Diwali or other festivals. We always bought them new dresses for festivals, which were often Western too, but today the girls are choosing to wear a sari or salwar kameez on special occasions. So much so, that today I have to ask my visiting relatives from India to carry saris for my girls.”

Prof. Madhulika Khandelwal

Second and third generation Indian American children don’t think of their identity as acutely as their parents did. Possibly because they have a growing sense of belongingness to the country. Many also adapt very quickly. Krishna Mittal, who is studying engineering at Virginia Tech, says: “I was never bullied or made aware of my origin during the school years. Also what worked in my favor was that I was a tennis player and my game managed to cut across race and culture boundaries. Often on the field we were just an enthusiastic group of tennis players with a vision to play for America.”

Krishna’s mother Harini Mittal, who is an assistant professor at Bronx Community College, City University of New York, says: “Today in the U.S. there is hardly anything Indian that you can’t get or experience. If you want to attend a cultural club there are plenty; if you want to attend a festive event you have many choices. The point is for the new generation that will go on to become second or third generation, the experience will be very different as they would have grown with so much exposure to everything Indian over here.”

Krishna adds, “Honestly I sometimes did wonder what it would be for me to study in India in a class full of Indians, but honestly it was just a thought it did not stem from any serious issues I faced while studying here.”

Holding On, Letting Go

Khandelwal, who has authored a book Becoming American, Being Indian: An Immigrant Community in New York City, on the identity struggles of the current generation says: “The challenge on how to retain the culture and traditions amongst first and second generation Indians in the U.S. still remains. The difference is that now there is so much of a past experience to lean back upon.” She adds, “Also, while the old structures introduced to retain identities by earlier generations have not gone, the new immigrants have added new thoughts to it.”

Prof Saif Shahin: “As their numbers have increased, Indians have felt much more at home and much more comfortable with retaining cultural markers, such as names, eating habits and religious practices.”

Many recent immigrants also believe that the transition from overtly trying to preserve their identity to seamlessly adapting while still retaining their roots has not necessarily been a conscious effort, but a generational shift. Rohit Agnihotri, a hospitality professional in Bismark, North Dakota, says: “While how much one changes or retains their roots depends on individuals, but also every generation undergoes an attitudinal change.”

He offers an example: “I belong to Generation X, and I moved to the U.S. to study in 2001. A few years down the line, I agreed to get married to a girl of my parent’s choice back home. I was quite confident of their decision and happily agreed to settle in an arranged match. However, if you give the same scenario to a Generation Y youngster, they wouldn’t be convinced to go for an arranged marriage. Similarly, there are many changes in thoughts and processes that happen over time.”

First generation Indian Americans say the preferences of their children on asserting their ethnic identity vary widely. New Jersey based Anuradha Seshadri, who works as a consultant at Bristol Myers Squibb, has two boys, 20 and 14, who were born in this country. She says: “Though we instill the same values at home, my younger one, by choice, is more assertive of his Indian roots. For instance, for a long time my 20-year-old, whom we have named Lakshman Gopinath, did not have comfort with his last name, while the younger one Hayagriv Gopinath was totally at ease explaining his name to his American classmates. While my elder one refused to carry Indian lunch to high school, my younger one happily packed a tiffin of lemon rice just today.”

14-year-old Hayagriv, a student at Churchill Junior High School in New Jersey, says: “I believe in explaining my beliefs to my classmates who may not be aware of our culture and that makes a lot of difference.”

Rohini Sharda wiith husband Abhishek and kids Ananyay  and Ahana: ” The society everywhere is now more  receptive to  culturally relevant aspect of other communities.”

He offers an example: “Some time back a friend who was carrying a turkey sub in his tiffin tried to brush aside the turkey on me knowing that I am a vegetarian. Instead of being offended, I tried explaining him to respect my vegetarianism, as that’s a choice I made. After some time, the boy himself came and apologized to me about his snub.”

Sheshadri says, that she does not see any difference between her American kids and her nieces and nephews growing up in India: “It’s also got a lot to do with exposure to our culture we get here in the United States now. Where we stay in New Jersey, in some pockets Indians outnumber the locals. Today it’s not uncommon to see Americans coming to garba nights in chaniya cholis.”

The new generation is far more aware of cultural nuances. Rohini Sharda says: “My kids’ pediatrician, an American, advises us to speak with our kids in our mother tongue Hindi so that they do not forget their history and heritage.”

The location also matters. For the Jains, who live in the Bay Area, finding everything from a temple to a garba night was never difficult, because of the large Indian population. Says M Jay: “I grew up in Tamil Nadu where knowing Hindi was not a necessity, but my mother made sure that I studied Hindi and took diplomas to excel in the language. For my kid growing up in USA, I follow the same advice my mom gave me — It does not matter where you grow up, but what you want to learn.”

While this confident demeanor signals that Indian Americans are flourishing in the new world while retaining their ethnic identity, Prof. Shahin points to its limits: “Indians, while becoming more assertive of their own cultural identities, do not politically associate themselves with poorer immigrants or other minority communities. Content with their InfoTech jobs and H1B visas, they have little to say about the discrimination faced by blacks or the repression of Hispanics and Arabs in the U.S. The two most prominent Indian-origin political leaders, Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley, belong to the anti-immigrant, far right. That is why Indians, along with the Chinese, are viewed here as the ‘model minority’ — they are affluent, work hard, and do not cause any trouble for the ruling establishment.”

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