The Juxtaposition of Indian-American Culture

The issues I will talk about are both temporal (generational, tradition vs. modernity) and spatial (geography, environment). First & Second Generation Indian-Americans are Indian and American, trying to balance one foot in each world.

The world “bi-cultural” has been thrown around to describe this group, which is accurate, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. Indian and American cultures do not come together neatly in every way, and even as someone that confronts both Indian and American culture in everyday life, I find that I, more or less subconsciously, try to compartmentalize those two parts of my identity rather than integrate them.

There are ways in which Indians tend to assimilate easily (professionally, linguistically) and less easily (politically, religiously).

Many Indian-Americans I know resolve this problem by separating the private sphere, where they can be “Indian” (through religion, social life, culture) and the public sphere, where they are “American” (business, politics, different aspects of culture). Have I been called a “brown girl”? Certainly, but most of my white acquaintances know very little about me as an Indian, aside from the model minority and perpetual foreigner stereotypes – and that’s fine. They shouldn’t have to care about my being Indian all the time. That said, the question I often ponder is whether one can ever really know me without knowing the Indian half of my identity.

So here’s a little about me: I’m a proud Keralite (a Malayalee to be exact) who loves her red fish curry. I don’t watch Bollywood movies. I don’t care for cricket (even though I played for a bit). But then again, I don’t really care for most sports. I don’t plan to become a doctor or an engineer and I’m having a bit of a crisis about what I should do to meet my parents’ expectations regarding income and education and save face in their community. I love Indian clothes and opportunities to dress up. I’m a classically trained dancer (bharathanatyam), but I’m one of the few that I know who likes to blend the traditional with the contemporary modern day aspects of dance.

And this is only my case, just one person out of hundreds of thousands of Indian-Americans. And it’s not even all of me. I don’t think I fit all that easily into models of what Americans conceptualize as “Indian” or what Indians conceptualize as “American”. I’m simply me.

As a woman, Indian-American identity can be even more difficult to negotiate because we are often expected to be protectors and defenders of Indian culture – traditional, religious, modest, even submissive. I’m fortunate enough to have a relatively progressive family and community. I rarely encounter outright sexism, but I still experience it subtly on both “American” and “Indian” fronts. Women are treated as nurturers, caretakers, and are responsible for housework and children in additional to working part or full-time. (This is true in the United States as well, but the attitude is far stronger among first-generation immigrants from India.)

First/Second-generation girls and women experience the cultural battle more potently than anyone because they’ve been raised in a public sphere that has experienced Second-Wave feminism and are simultaneously raised in a private sphere where they are expected to embody traditional Indian femininity.

Many Indian women are not independent. They are extensions of their husbands – or at least that’s the mask they wear in public even if they wear the pants in private. As an American that values feminism and individualism, this sits very uncomfortably with me.

American individualism and Indian communitarianism (terms used broadly and loosely here), come into conflict in other ways as well. There’s a pressure that Indian-American children face in school and in the high expectations that extend to career choices, which more or less come down to doctor, engineer, lawyer or businessperson. Aside from their professional lives, many Indian-Americans face additional pressure in their personal lives as well. No dating. No premarital sex. I’m sure that some of the more conservative groups still practice arranged marriage. (My parents joke about that frighteningly too often.)

It’s no secret that Indians value wealth, education, and religion – perhaps to an unhealthy degree at times, and those are the qualities they (or their parents) often seek in potential spouses. And sometimes, when you want to make an independent choice, you get written off as a child that doesn’t know better, or an ABCD (thus the creation of the term ‘ABPD‘).

While in most cases parents aren’t as dominant or heavy-handed as you see in the movies, there’s still this wormy, constraining expectation that’s almost as bad. You rarely fear that your parents will hate you or disown you for choosing your own path professionally or personally. Instead, you worry that you will upset them, disappoint them, that you will lose face in the community, that your parents will be ashamed of you when their friends talk about how their kids are going to Harvard Medical School while you’re earning a fine arts degree in a prestigious program that no Indian has ever heard of.

Sometimes you feel like you lack opportunities to develop your own hobbies, interests, and passions because you’re so convinced on a fundamental level that what your parents want is what you want. I fought with myself quite a bit about deciding to pursue a pair of communications and non-profit degrees, (and I consider myself to be one of the more independent Indians I know) but some Indian-Americans lead lives of delusion, having convinced themselves that they really, truly want to be doctors or engineers when it’s plain as day to anyone else that they don’t. It may seem simple for a lot of Americans to say “Just follow your dreams!” or “It’s your life!” but it’s not that simple for me.

Of course, the pressure isn’t entirely one-sided. In the United States there is a historical culture of assimilation (melting pot?) and “Welcome to America” has usually carried the unmentioned connotation of “Leave your cultural baggage at the door!” In order to fit in, to be treated as “normal” and as a cultural peer and equal, I have to “act white” in public, and when I don’t act white enough, I get called out for it.

So basically, as an Indian-American, you have all kinds of balls in the air: race, religion, class/caste (which I didn’t discuss), gender, nationality, career. And you have to juggle them. Sometimes you let a ball drop because you can’t put the rest of your life, your dreams, your passions on hold to keep it up in the air. You feel terrible about it. You feel like you’ve let down your parents, your community, your nationality. It distracts you from the other balls, but you have to keep going and try desperately to keep the rest of the balls in the air. Most often, in time, you find a balance. You learn to get the hang of it, even if it means performing Indian-ness or American-ness at times.

For me, an important subtlety is the felt experience of just how fluid, impermanent and even illusory the notion of “identity” can be, being able to gradually recognize both American and Indian cultural conditioning as constructs, and not as fixed traits.

I don’t mean to downplay the influence that both cultures have had on me — on the contrary, a lot of what I think of as “me” has been constructed and conditioned by these cultures. From the very language I’m using here, to the way I speak, the way I think, the way I feel — the hallmarks are everywhere. But over time this “me” has become more transparent; there’s less of a need to prop it up over “not me”. There’s an expanding sense that whatever “I” am, it can’t be that which is limited by concepts or percepts, even though concepts and percepts can provide helpful guideposts.

The question “Who am I?” can be a compelling one on so many levels for Indians who grow up in the U.S. Whether we approach it mystically or secularly, it influences our lives in profound ways.

As an Indian who was raised in India and currently spends a good portion of time in the U.S. and India, I have come to the following observations:

  • Indians in the U.S. follow the Indian cultural traditions and religious aspects (regardless of religion) more than most Indians do in urban India. (I don’t know about rural India, so I cannot speak to that.)
  • Indians in the U.S. cling to the image of what it was like when they left India and are thus frozen in time. India has changed in the meantime and they seem quite oblivious to this fact.
  • Indians in America are more Indian than the Indians in India and likewise, the Indians in urban India are more American than the Indians in America.

To the credit of Indian-Americans, a plausible explanation of why they follow their cultural traditions more rigorously may be that they feel as though if they don’t celebrate the holidays (say Diwali or Onam) the way they do, their children will never know of them. Whereas in India, even if you don’t celebrate a holiday, you are most certainly aware of it because everyone around you is doing it.


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