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Disjunctured Identity of Indian Americans: Part - III

-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao

Dealing with the new and managing the old: Ways of creating and coping.

Till the early 1980s the majority of Indian students coming to the US were male. Even now it happens to be so, though there are an increasing number of female students. Many of these post 1965 students were married in India and came to the US with their wives, or sent for their wives after they had established some security and stability or returned to India to get married and come back with their wives. A few of them married American women.

Compared to the general US population and even to other Asian American groups, Indian-Americans show the lowest divorce rate and the lowest proportion of female-headed families. Despite traditional gender roles still being followed by most Indian-American couples, wives were found to be more satisfied with their marriages than their husbands. Given the freedom from social control and authority of parents-in-law and other elders in the joint family system, it may be that Indian women here feel more happy and content with their married life (Ramola, 1992). This freedom and a much richer material life, plus the opportunities available to pursue further studies and to gain employment, gives the woman a much more stronger identity than the one she would have had back home. However, she has to cope with different kinds of stresses in this society: from worries about her children's safety to worries about their acquiring independent identities and from worries about her husband's job to a sense of loss and a longing for home.

Ethnic identity in the US is related to Race, National Origin, Religion, Language etc. However, Indian-Americans' identity and self-concept is tied to sub-ethnicity: Indians generally identify more closely to a particular linguistic-regional group (for example, Kannadiga, Tamilian, Gujarati, Punjabi etc.). Therefore the preferred pattern of association for many Indians are these regional and linguistic groups (thus, for example, in the greater Los Angeles area one could find fifty or more "Indian" associations, which many locals would not be able to immediately identify because they would have regional or language labels - Gujarati Association of LA or Los Angeles Kannada Koota etc.). However, there are changes one can observe now as with the internet and email there are "Virtual Communities" of Indian-Americans that have cut across the old linguistic and regional lines.

On the religious side too there are complications: The majority of Indians in the US are Hindus and there is a tendency to conflate Indian and Hindu by both the majority of Indians as well as the locals (Rocher, 1994). Also, Hindus have conflicts about North Indian and South Indian rituals and culture. Local temple committees, for example, have had to compromise by having two priests, one southern and one northern, in charge of conducting rituals in their temples. Sikhs have separate gurdwaras and a close-knit religious community that seeks to separate itself from other Indian religions (Given the political turmoil since the 1980s in the state of Punjab, home to the Sikhs, there has been increased tension among Sikh and Hindu groups even in the US). There are more intriguing and intricate divisions and issues pertaining to religion and thus to one's Indian identity in the US.

So, what does it take to be an Indian in the US? Rocher (1994) quotes Amitav Ghosh to argue that a monolithic Indian identity is a paradox. Ghosh writes, "It is impossible to be imperfectly Indian. Were it possible to be an imperfect Indian, everybody in India would be. This is not merely because India has failed to develop a national culture. It is not a lack; it is in itself the form of Indian culture. If there is any one pattern in Indian culture in the broadest sense it is simply this: that the culture seems to be constructed around the proliferation of differences (albeit with certain parameters). To be different in a world of differences is irrevocably to belong. Thus anybody anywhere who has even the most tenuous links with India is Indian; potentially a player within the culture. The mother country simply does not have the cultural means to cut him off". However, I have also heard from a visiting Indian professor of Sanskrit that it is impossible to be Hindu in the United States. He argued that to be Hindu is to be closely and intimately connected to the land, the land in which flows the sacred rivers of India, the land in which are the pilgrimage centers, the land on which trod the ancient rishis (sages) of India.

Having said all these, how does or should or can an Indian cope with his (non) identity in the US? R. Radhakrishnan, also quoted in Rocher (1994), says that "As diasporan citizens doing double duty (with accountability both here and there), we need to understand as rigorously as we can the political crises in India, both because they concern us and also because we have a duty to represent India to ourselves and to the United States as truthfully as we can". I agree. This "Both/ And" (both Indian and American) existence demands that the first generation Indian-American lock horns with his double identity in a vigorous and rigorous fashion, understanding of course that "India" itself is both a "Nation" and an "Idea". Depending upon a person's ability to construct a happy and continuing relationship between his/her past (India) and present (US residence and Indian connection), the children of this person will then establish their own connection to their Indianess and their Americaness. The disjucture and the distress that our 16 year-old Indian American expressed is clearly related (I believe) to his parents' inability to deal with their identity issues. The responses to his letter from other teenagers who, while recognizing the harshness of Indian reality, are more positive of their Indian experiences indicate that disjunctures in identity need not lead to fractured identities or to disavowal of one identity. As Rocher (1994) puts it, "At its best, the diasporan perspective is less that of a double distance than that of a double engagement" (P. 205).

A different note is struck by R. K. Narayan (1985), the well-known Indian author. He says in response to the migration of Indians to the US that, "In the final analysis America and India differ basically, though it would be wonderful if they could complement each other's values. Indian philosophy lays stress on austerity and unencumbered, uncomplicated day-to-day living. On the other hand, America's emphasis is on material acquisitions and a limitless pursuit of prosperity. The American has a robust indifference to eternity. The Indian who is not able to live on this basis wholeheartedly, finds himself in a half-way house; he is unable to overcome the inherited complexes while physically flourishing on the American soil...." In an aside, he quotes Ainslee Embree, noted scholar on India, saying: "Why not Indians as well? In course of time they will be Americans. The American citizen of today was once an expatriate, a foreigner who had come out of a European or African country. Why not from India too? We certainly love to have Indians in our country". Well there are a million of us now here!

To conclude, the struggle for identity is one of the most fundamental of human struggles. Identity and personhood concerns are pivotal issues for every immigrant. Nationality, Language, Religion, Food and Music, Marriage and Family, History - familial, local and regional - all are intimately tied to the construction of personhood. We are all caught in the web of culture, swim in its seas and perceive the world through its lenses: the immigrant, in a new country, is a fish out of water.

Much of humanity, even now, is closely tethered to a homeland. Despite the wanderings of larger and larger number of people for work, play and livelihood (in this postmodern world), the large majority of the world's peoples still identify certain geographical regions as home and to that regional identity is connected language, history etc. When people move, willingly or unwillingly, they have to face themselves anew. The dislocation brings about profound disjuncture in identity. It is our duty to learn about it and alleviate their pain if possible.

Originally published on Tuesday, October 5, 1999.

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