Grow Up Dad
How does one bridge generations that grew up oceans apart?
Bringing up children is never easy; but even harder is bringing up parents! For Indian immigrants and their American-born children, life sometimes seems to be running on two parallel rail tracks with a lot of shouting, arguing and explaining and no connecting.
The parents’ world was a sepia toned universe of deference to elders, living by the rules, letting the extended family and society decide when you married, had children, worked, or lived. The children of these immigrants have been flung into neon lit, fast-paced America where rules exist only to be challenged and where the individual is king and master of his own destiny.
For Indian parents, brought up with a certain worldview and expectations, it has been disconcerting to bring up American children. Many a soap opera has played out in desi homes across the United States as parents have encountered in their children the American traits of questioning authority, speaking up and doing your own thing.
And then there are the thoroughly American rituals of dating and mating, of moving out to your own apartment or even moving in with a “significant other.” Enough to give desi parents many a sleepless night!
Yet a sizable number of Indian immigrant parents have been in the United States for 20 or 30 or 40 years, surely enough time to readjust and realign – and Indians are nothing if not adaptable. So in all the ensuing years have parents and children made their peace and found themselves on a common track?
Then of course there are the children of the new immigrants in the past decade. How do these children, some of whom do not even speak English, fit into America and how do they interpret this bewildering country for their parents?
Some families are able to pass on their cultural and social traditions to their children even as they assimilate into the mainstream, while others hold back on their Indian-ness so that their children may find a peace in their the new world. Each family tries to find its own way through the maze of America so each story is different, albiet with some common threads.
Satya Chheda has been on both sides of the fence, as child and future parent. She was born in America to parents who journeyed here from Kutch, Gujarat, in the 70’s, and now that she is married, hopes to start her own family here. Her father came to the United States for his MBA and stayed on in Springfield, Ohio, to teach at a community college.
“There were very few Indians there,” says Satya. ” The school was all white and my brother and I were the only people from another country. People didn’t even know where India was, and they assumed we were Native Americans.”
She says, “Most of my friends in high school were non-Indians. Growing up, I definitely had a hard time. I wished I were more like my white friends. When I was in school, I didn’t want to be around Indian people or associated with the Indian culture.”
Her mother Pushpa was undergoing her own cultural adjustments, learning to drive and cope with housework. A staunch vegetarian, she gradually learnt to eat meat in America: “In India we come from the Jain community where we had never even seen eggs or meat. We didn’t even know where to buy those things!”
The changes in the long run were certainly bigger than learning to crack an egg for breakfast: as Satya and her brother absorbed America, there were often family tensions. “My dad was always telling us to have Kutchi friends, and that we needed to go to India. So there was always a conflict about what it meant to be Indian,” says Satya. “Funny thing is that when I got older I started coming more to my Indian culture and most of my friends in college were Indian.”
When Satya met a young Indian American in college and he moved in with her after a month, it was a shock for everyone, and though it was an issue with her parents for a while, her mother was much more open-minded. The couple later got engaged and married three years later.
Says Satya, “I think just being here for 30 years and not entrenched in the Indian community, it’s made them assimilate and their values are now more American than Indian. My mom says she couldn’t go back to live in India, she wouldn’t be able to fit into the culture there anymore.”
“In India, if you’re even just going out with someone and you’re seen, their mouths are going to tell another ten, another hundred, another thousand. And it spreads so quickly and half is true, half is not true sometimes.”
She believes that mothers are generally more willing than fathers to give daughters freedom to choose careers, spouses and lifestyles. “Mothers are more adaptable to this kind of thinking. Even in India, women are more liberal with their daughters than are the fathers.”
Meenal Pandya, who writes books on Indian culture for her Massachusetts-based publishing company Meera Publications, agrees.
Pandya, who came to America almost 25 years ago, has seen the change in herself and in many of the people of her generation who came to a new country with certain fixed ideas: “Almost everybody has been changed by the contact with America and sometimes I think they themselves don’t realize it because the change has crept in so slowly into the entire community. It’s only when you step back and hreflect on who you were when you came here do you realize how much you’ve changed.”
For women the freedom to be themselves without having to think about societal disapproval all the time is liberating. When it is 95 degrees in Ohio, Pushpa Chedda dons shorts for her morning walk, something she would not dare do in India for fear of raising eyebrows. The shorts, for her, are a symbol of a lifestyle change, freeing women to be more outspoken, take risks and try new things. And this certainly filters down to the daughters too.
But many other parents dread these changes are that stubborness is a source of friction with their American born children. Pandya finds that some Indian parents believe that everything Indian is good and everything American is not acceptable. “But there is Indian junk too. Sometimes Hindi films are no better than American ones in dishing out trash, but some of the parents I’ve known are much more willing to let their children watch them than American films.”
Pandya raised her two girls, Shirali and Amoli, in Wellesley, Mass., which has a very small Indian community, but was careful to keep the lines of communication open. The children haven’t been force-fed their Indian roots but were taken every few years to meet their grandparents in India, and introduced to Indian culture in many different ways. Last year Shirali, who is a junior at MIT, volunteered at SEWA in Ahmedabad.
“That might be the trick to get the best of both cultures,” says Pandya. She cites a study of Japanese immigrants which found that kids who were more into their Japanese culture and language were also much better Americans: “I am pretty sure if someone did a similar survey amongst Indian Americans they would find similar results.”
As the years have gone by, Indian parents seem to have mellowed. Yes, they are still pushy parents, driving their children to Spelling Bee success and Ivy League colleges, but they seem to be willing to look at their children’s dreams too, now. This also finds hreflection in the number of young Indian Americans entering non-traditional careers, like acting, singing, deejaying and journalism. But delve a little deeper, and you find many of these young people have MBA’s or law degrees under their belt. Indian parents’ insurance!
However, while parents might have tolerated their children’s sleep-overs, heavy metal concerts, late nights and even given in to their impractical career choices, matrimony still remains a major tension point.
Pandya says, “I have a Patel friend who’s very conservative, but when her daughter went to college, she told her, ‘You can marry anybody from college as long as he’s Vanya, Brahmin or Patel.’ These were the three options she gave her daughter and I thought; ‘Now that’s some option!'”
By a miracle, the girl actually did find a Brahmin boy on campus and made her mother very happy.
Neverthless, parents are changing and sometimes it’s because the change has been thrust upon them. Intercultural marriages are growing within the Indian community and faced with the question of their children’s happiness many parents first resist, agonize but finally give in. And many of them are pleasantly surprised when they get to know the non Indian families and find their new son or daughter-in-law adapting to their culture.
Says Pandya, “I think what they are looking for is how Indian these people become. They want that validation.”
Indeed, Indians bring so much baggage to the wedding scene, that it’s almost a relief for them to find that there are no in-law hassles to face, no complicated giving and taking and of course, American boys have no maharaja airs.
When a family took their newly married daughter to India, her American bridegroom won everyone’s hearts by doing ‘pranam’ to the elders and acting more dutiful than most Indian grooms!
Yet another young Caucasian who accompanied his fiancée’s family to India for their wedding awed the entire extended family by insisting on sweeping the floor that was to be decorated with rungoli. He had no princely ‘damad’ attitude and endeared himself to everyone with his hands-on informality. While matrimonial ads and wedding fairs still hope to find the ideal spouse from the same region and community, many Indian parents have also seen weddings within the community that have not turned out happily. They are more willing to be more open-minded about their children’s choices, be it from a different region of India or a different race altogether.
So are Indian immigrants finally becoming American? Observes Pandya, “More than becoming Americanized, I think the fear is gone. The very first generation that came was very fearful of western culture. They were trying to guide their children very strictly, because they didn’t know what was out there. As their comfort level has increased, they have begun to let their guard down.”
The story of Ajit and Lata Mody of New York illustrates how immigrants negotiate their way through two cultures and pick the best of both. Mody came to study mechanical engineering at Pratt in 1968, and went on to become an engineer with the city of New York. In 1990, aware of the burgeoning South Asian population, the couple turned entrepreneurs and opened Rajbhog Sweets.
The Modys raised their two sons Sanjiv and Sachin here: the boys went on American colleges and non-Indian wives while still retaining their Indian culture and connections. The closeness between parents and children remains, with not even a day passing by without frequent phone calls.
Would Mody have been a very different parent had be lived in India? “Yes, because the surroundings are diehard and customary and people have to stay within the boundaries,” he says. “Here your next door neighbor could be Spanish, Greek or Italian, and when you see other people, you learn something and go through a real practical life change where you start adjusting your thinking and your lifestyle. It’s not like back home where you live always with the same group of people.”
Television and print media also have an influence and then, he says, gradually you figure out the right way to live in a world which is getting smaller and smaller because of globalization. Although belonging to a vast Gujarati clan where 60 immediate family members can turn up for a get-together, Sanjiv and Sachin turned tradition on its head by marrying Caucasian women. Were there expectations that they would marry Gujarati brides? Says Sachin, “Initially yes. When I got married five years ago, there wasn’t such a big Indian population in the schools I went to and where we lived. So my parents came to the understanding that so long as we were happy, so be it.”
Says Mody, “We participate in each other’s festivals, their families are happy and so are we. Both sides are happy because without parental blessing I don’t think any marriage can survive ideally.”
In a way, Sanjiv and Sachin, with degrees in accounting and electrical engineering from prestigious universities, have paid the supreme compliment to their parents by giving up their jobs in Corporate America to tend to the traditional business that started out as a mom and pop venture. They’ve taken the all-Indian mithai shop and turned it into a corporate semi-mechanized business.
Says Sachin, “Our parents put a lot of hard work into creating it and as we were growing up we often spent the summers helping them out in the business. Basically it became a part of our blood.” They’ve used their American education and know how to mechanize the sweets business and take it national, distributing in 40 states.
The modern machinery for meatballs now churns out gulab jamuns after Mody modified it to fit their needs for producing ethnic food. It’s almost a metaphor for immigrant life, which has to be retooled to succeed in America. Says Mody, “Basically when you come to America or any foreign country, you have to modify your life to local norms, be it practical daily life, married life or business.”
He believes the young student who came here 30 years ago is very different from the man he is today. Previously, he says, it was a diehard attitude of “I’m perfectly right and you’re perfectly wrong,” but age and experience have taught him to see both sides of the picture. This nuanced thinking of allowing space and respecting opinions has resulted in a happy family life.
While the early Indian immigrants from the 1960’s and 1970’s may have clashed with their children on career choices and marriage plans – or lack of them – or falling in love with non-Indians, the children of the new immigrants wrestle with some new issues.
Satya Chheda, who grew up in Springfield, Ohio, teaches social studies at the 9th grade level in New York, about five classes a day totaling 170 students. Since two of the classes she teaches are ESL classes, the majority of her students are South Asian, newer immigrants from Punjab region in India and Pakistan and Bangladesh. She points out that the parents who have lived here longer are more in touch with the education system, have better English language skills and so are able to be involved with the school. The new immigrants generally don’t speak English and mostly don’t attend parent teacher conferences.
One thing she’s noticed is that the children of new immigrants have a community in school, with many children from similar ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds and similar experiences to share. She recalls growing up in a small, largely white community in Ohio: “When I grew up the other Indian families were richer families and my family was middle to lower class.”
New immigrants, caught in the vortex of making a living, often have financial pressures, language barriers and immigration woes. All these spill into the lives of the children who have been flung into an American world, but expected to be Indian by their traditional parents who have so freshly left their homeland. Many are from the lower socio-economic strata, the children of cab drivers, restaurant workers, domestic workers and newsstand owners.
Annetta Seecharran, executive director of SAYA!, South Asian Youth Action, based in Elmhurst, Queens, works with the children of new immigrants in career preparation, leadership development and counseling.
While children of earlier immigrants had no choice but to immerse with the mainstream, because they were so few in numbers, the burgeoning South Asian population means there is critical mass: “In urban settings the larger numbers translate to more support for maintaining the culture and so a greater expectation on the part of parents that the children will maintain the culture,” says Seecharran. “There’s not so much pressure for young people to assimilate, there’s support for their Indianness, if you will.” Having a large community can be both a blessing and a hindrance to assimilation.
But it also means their experiences are much more complex, because when they are thrust into urban settings, they are also exposed to the negative influences of drugs and gangs, creating greater conflict with parents. In her work, Seecharran sees the communication gap between parents and children: “The lives of these young people are so complex. They are struggling with their identity in the school system or with the difficulties of getting a summer job. They have pressures to fit in, pressures to have the latest fashion. All these factors create a very difficult emotional life for young people.”
Immigrant parents, on the other hand, have straightforward goals of economic well-being and expect their children to do well in school and get a well-paying career and there’s friction when they feel they are getting side-tracked.
Says Seecharran, “The kids really feel that they are not heard by their parents and that some parents can’t even begin to understand that their children may have an emotional or psychological life that warrants support. Children often feel they cannot discuss their lives with their parents.” SAYA’s program director Deepali Bagati has seen enough of the lives of her own extended family in the United States to realize that the assimilation happens at different levels: “With any immigrant group that comes in, there is a certain number of years that have to go by for acculturation to happen, and sometimes some groups tend to hold on to their culture, because they think they will lose it if they become all-American.”
She adds, “At the end of the day, they are living here and they are American.. The people who came in the 60’s and 70’s were generally from the affluent section of society and so their struggles were very different from the struggles the parents of the young people who come here are facing on a day-to-day basis. So when you’re trapped at that level what do you hold on to? Your culture and your tradition. I think that’s what grounds you.”
Deepa Patel is one young woman who grew up as the child of new immigrants and has seen the ups and downs of the immigrant life. Her mother first came here as a nurse and then called the rest of the family. But making a living was hard and her father could not find a job so the children were sent to India to relatives.
Her father found work with the city eventually and called the children back to New York. She says, “Yes, my parents are definitely very traditional. My entire family, my uncles and aunts they all came in the 80’s, and I can say that each and every one of my family who is in America is much more traditional than the families that are in India.”
She’s started a leadership program called Awaaz at SAYA! which organizes social activities for South Asian teens: “A lot of the families are lower middle class and they do have financial problems so it’s really a place for the youth to get away and our main goal is for them to have fun.”
The dynamics between Indian parents and their American children continue to change and evolve as each finds their own comfort level in America. Satya Chheda, for one, has long since reconciled with her roots and in fact is keen to put her children in closer touch with the Indian culture than her parents had.
“Being raised in America, they will already be exposed to the influences in school,” she says. ” I want them to learn a language, Hindi or Gujarati, because I don’t speak my own language and I can’t communicate with my grandparents and my relatives in India and that’s really frustrating.” She also plans to take them to India more often and get them involved in community events so that they have a full identity and an appreciation of their Indian culture too.
Loss and gain. That’s what the immigrant experience is all about. The first generation was enmeshed in the struggle of making it in America, often changing their names and beliefs to fit in. Now their children have the luxury of choices, of creating their own template for what it means to be Indian American.