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Disjunctured Identity of Indian Americans: Part - II

-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao

Disjunctured Selves: Features of Indian Identity

There are three groups of Indians in the US: the first group arrived here in the early 1900s and before and faced intense and widespread discrimination. Many of the men in that group married Hispanic women, as laws prohibited their bringing Indian women to the US The descendants of these early immigrants still constitute a fairly substantial group in north and central California. Having been there long, their concerns are slightly different from the other two groups. My focus in this essay is on the latter two groups: the first of these two, consists of first generation immigrants who came to the US after the immigration laws were relaxed; the second group is constituted by the children of these first generation immigrants. To set the ground for a discussion and an analysis of the two groups' identity concerns I will refer to a letter by a 16 year-old, second generation Indian American, published in India Abroad (December 1, 1995) and some of the responses to that letter published in the paper later. The 16 year-old preferred to remain anonymous:

I am a 16 year old Indo-American and I have just returned from a two month visit to India with my parents. I was two years old when my parents came to the States and this was my second visit.

I am very disappointed with my visit. We traveled by Air India and the stewardesses rarely smiled at the passengers and they all had a no care attitude. At Bombay airport I was appalled by the smell of urine and the crudity of the customs and airport officials.

I was shocked by the appearance of Bombay. The buildings were run down and the entire city looked like a slum. Garbage and human refuse was piled up everywhere. I saw people living on the streets bathing and defecating on the streets. The roads were atrocious and there was dirt and slime everywhere.

The air was so polluted that I coughed throughout my stay. Worst still nobody seemed to have any civic sense or a feel for responsibility. I think it is ridiculous if Indians think this to be a world class financial center.

I was extremely shocked by the attitude of the so-called educated people in India. They were loud, argumentative and indulged in irrelevant discussions of other countries, especially the USA, while they were oblivious to the filth that piled up on their streets.

It was clear to me that these people had all kinds of degrees but they had no civic sense nor civility and I was shocked at their unhygienic ways, their apathy and arrogant attitude. It is obvious that in India education means the accumulation of worthless degrees. I personally see no future for that country and now understand why my parents and so many Indians wanted badly to leave (italics mine).

I went to India as an Indo-American but I have returned as a proud American. I have decided to embrace this great nation completely and severe (sic) my Indian heritage completely. After all that is assimilation - the American way (italics mine).

A close reading of this letter reveals in stark detail many of the disjunctures that second generation Indian Americans face. We may respond to his distress by saying that he was just suffering from culture shock (and not reverse culture shock, because this was really his first visit to India; the earlier visit was when he was only two). Oberg (1960) mentions six aspects of culture shock: a) strain; b) a sense of loss and feelings of deprivation; c) rejection by and/or rejection of members of the new culture; d) confusion about roles, etc.; e) experiencing surprise, anxiety, disgust and indignation and f) feelings of impotence. We see how the letter reflects so many of the symptoms of such shock. Also, the rejection of "Home" country (India) and the glorification of "Home" country (the United States) indicates one of the stages of culture shock where the individual is trying to cope with his experience by filtering his experience. But is that all there is to the letter? How does the letter reflect the kind of identity crises that many second generation Indian-Americans experience? Let me return to those aspects after I summarize the responses to the letter. Those responses (India Abroad, January 5th, 1996), I hope, will provide the kinds of insights that take us beyond the culture shock debate to one of an identity issues debate.

A 17 year-old, Yamini Naidu, wrote: "I could not believe what I read in the letter. It was so full of blatant stereotypes and misconceptions that I felt I had to write in response to it. India has so much to offer - a richer culture, history and heritage than perhaps any other country in the world. You need only to open your eyes and leave your stereotypes behind to realize what all you have missed. So, if this person's facile, superficial treatment of India is a reflection of their character, then their renunciation of their Indian heritage is no great loss to India". Yet another 17 year-old, Rahul Rajkumar, wrote: "I was deeply disturbed by the letter. I myself, as a 17 year-old Indian-American, have seen the streets of New Delhi with its 'Garbage and human refuse piled up everywhere'. I must say that I have been moved, rather than repulsed, by these sights. To use the author's words, I 'Feel Responsible'. I say this because poverty is the state of over three-fifths of humanity. What I see in India compels me to make some effort, be it large or small, to work toward the improvement of the state of humanity. Much of what I have seen in India is tragic". Ajay Mathew, a 16 year-old, wrote that "we have rundown buildings and homeless people in New York, just like Bombay. No matter what you see or do, you will always be an Indian (italics mine). And finally, yet another 16 year-old, Anila Nadkarni, wrote: "(I) have been fortunate enough to be able to visit India several times (italics mine) while growing up. Throughout my visits I was not blind to India's poverty; however, I was also not blind to India's riches, either. As for the 'Loud, Argumentative, Unhygienic' ways of these people with 'Apathy and Arrogant Attitudes, ' I offer only this suggestion: Just because they are not American ways does not mean they are wrong ways. The people of Bombay are like those of any other major city. They are not wrong, just different. I am sorry that the writer prefers to be called American. I, for one, am proud of my Indian heritage and insist on being called Indian". These excerpts do not reflect the tone of despair, anger and disjuncture of the anonymous letter writer.

Indeed the only letter that supports the thesis of the anonymous teenager is from a first generation Indian American, Anil Sarkar (India Abroad, January 12th, 1996), rebutting a different letter. In that response, he enthusiastically supports the stand of the anonymous 16 year-old: "India, which is the land of utmost human degradation where 120 million are homeless and live on the streets, tens of millions of children are working as laborers, thousands of brides are murdered for not bringing enough dowries, a large segment of people are untouchable, naked holy men and bulls wander freely around and some Harijans are made to carry human excreta and 70 percent of Indians do not have sanitary latrines, (will)... without a social revolution (have) no hope". He goes on to say that "I have traveled to most countries of the world and nowhere did I find a place as filthy as India where men pull rickshaws, bullocks draw carts, loudspeakers deaden ears, posters of every sort deface every available wall space and tons of garbage piles (sic) up. Like many NRIs (Non Resident Indians) I sent dollars to India for various benefits. What help did I get? Nothing but red tape, apathy, if not hostility". I will conclude this section with a long excerpt from Vivek Golikeri's (a second generation Indian American) letter published in India Abroadon January 12th, 1996. This letter both extends the themes apparent in the earlier letters and provides a different analysis of the second generation's identity and experiences in this country. He writes: As far as I am concerned, I am basically a Western mind in an Asian body, not an Indian living outside India like my parents' generation. Thus I admit that I can't completely relate to the viewpoint of first generation Indian Americans, let alone a rank, short-time visitor.

I love my parents dearly because they are my parents. Yet to me even they, like all Indians who have not become Western in thinking and lifestyle, feel somewhat like creatures from an alien planet despite the fact that we may have the same blood and color of skin.

People of color have traditionally suffered second-class status in a White-dominated world. Though we have far to go, things are changing and among second and third generation Asian Americans, intermarriage is one the rise. The real criterion is not whether one is of Indian background or even where they were born and raised.

Rather, being Indian is a question of the heart and the mind. A blond, blue-eyed person of German or Irish descent who has adopted the Hare Krishna religion (sic), for example, is far more truly Indian in spirit and ways than I am.

And that's the way I prefer it, because what we are really talking about is exactly the same difference between the secular Jew and the Hasidic Jew. The secular Jew only cares about being Jewish when it comes to anti-semitism. Sure, he still occasionally enjoys his grandmother's gefilte fish or a little Hava Nagila music, just as I occasionally enjoy Rabindranath Tagore's poems or whatever cultural item....

My life, for better or worse, is here and I'd much rather be a secure but very average middle-class American of Indian extraction than a maharaja in abizarre (italics mine) country where I thoroughly dislike the sights, sounds, smells, food, music or customs and feel homesick.

What can we make of the second generation Indian Americans' response to their parents' homeland? Unlike most other immigrants into this country, the post 1965 first generation Indian immigrants were not refugees, economic or political and did not establish Indian ghettos. They were in fact welcomed because of their professional skills and potential contributions and they settled down in different parts of the country. In this regard they are distinctly different from the earlier waves of European immigrants as well as the more recent other immigrant groups. Despite their professional standing and success, Indian Americans have not made a dent in the social, civic and political scene of the US While they intend to remain in the US permanently (except for occasional desultory plans to settle down in India after retirement), they have not broken their ties with India. Most of them have their large and extended families in India, visit India often (depending on their economic status and family ties) and talk about India and Indian affairs, belong to India clubs in their town or neighborhood, see Indian movies or attend Indian music recitals and to quite an extent still speak their native language at home. All these clearly have a profound effect on not only the first generation Indians in the US but also on their children.

In some interesting composites that she has drawn of Indian Americans, both first and second generation, Agarwal (1991) has her first generation Indian male professional composite (Bharat) say, "...in a foreign country, one is always treated like a second-class citizen". This indicates the unease that still afflicts many (and may be most) first generation Indian Americans. He is insecure about his future and claims that "One never knows when people will get so jealous of us that they will want to throw us out". Usha, Bharat's wife and also a composite of Agarwal, got married to Bharat in India on one of his visits home. Coming to the US and after the first year of novelty, she begins to have a "Deep, Sinking Feeling", a feeling more profound and disturbing than mere homesickness. "Usha understood that she and Bharat were going to make this land of plenty and opportunity their permanent home. She also saw that as their chances of returning to India were nil, their right to call India their 'Home' would soon be non-existent" (P. 10). Usha and Bharat take pride in their three children - Shilpa, Dinesh and Arun - but are afraid of "Losing" them to the larger forces of American Society. This unease that the first generation Indians experience and their struggle to construct a new identity while clinging on to their old brings dissonance to their children's lives. Thus Shilpa, the twenty three year-old, first born of Bharat and Usha, envies her white American friends who "Seemingly can tell their parents, their mothers especially, virtually anything" (P. 13) and feels a terrible guilt lying to her parents about a white American man she has begun dating. Shilpa has also decided that her mother takes all the frustrations of being an immigrant out on her. Dinesh, the second child of our composite couple, is nineteen years old and "Shunned everything even remotely related to India" when in high school, but has recently begun to wear his "Indianness" on his sleeve. "He gladly volunteers to explain the difference between Mahatma and Indira Gandhi as well as the sacredness of the cow and the structure of the Hindu caste system to his peers and professors" (P. 14). However, he feels that his parents see only the bad in the US and give the country a bad rap. Finally, Arun, the youngest of the household "Seems a bit befuddled by Hinduism. He hears terms like 'Hairy Krishnas' and 'Voodoo Hindus' on television and in the movies and wonders if he should take it personally. He also cannot figure out whether or not to feel offended by the numerous parodies of Indian drugstore clerks he sees in the media" (P. 16). Lately, he has started asking his parents, when they speak of the greatness of India, "If India is so great, why are we here?" The parents are hurt and confounded by their son's question, for they too are struggling with that same question. Agarwal (1991) tells the story of her composites well and asks if their story may not mesh with those of other professional families in a post-industrial society.

Originally published on Tuesday, October 5, 1999.

 
     
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