Cultural Transitions… or Should That be Transmissions?

28 Apr

by Rajshree Solanki

Asking an Indian American what it’s like to be an Indian American, is like asking a fish what its like to be wet. I don’t know. How do you define yourself?

Is it the clothes with the matching bindis and bracelets?

The speaking of tongues … many, many tongues?

Maybe making that dish without ever calling your mother once for help – where you toss the mustard seeds in the pan and listen to them pop before you add any of the curry, tumeric, and garlic and then stir to make a paste?

Or knowing all the words to Kabhi Kabhie?

(Oh, check out Nelly Furtado’s version.)

I was reading the first post by imagine079. It was a beautiful post about her life as an Indoricuan (I love this word!) and that she “was at once Indian and Puerto Rican, Indian by ancestry and Puerto Rican by birth.” As for me, I am Indian by ancestry and American by birth.

I felt disconnected with my Indian side.

I did not know how to cook a chicken curry or even boil water to make rice. I have to watch a YouTube video in order to put on a sari. I am not versed in my parent’s language. I could not have a conversation with my grandmother before she passed away. And that troubles me the most.

Does that make me a bad Indian American!?! Because I am more American than Indian?

So I compensated.

I started book groups that read contemporary Indian writers like Rohinton Mistry, Arundhati Roy, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, or Bharati Mukherjee.

I collected Indian books, calendars, greeting cards, and spices. I even went to an Indian cooking class. But all that wasn’t enough.

So I thought riding in an auto rickshaw that consistently broke down from Chennai to Mumbai was the way to go.

Broken Down Rickshaw

I thought what a way to get back to my roots and, at the same time, give back to the local communities by raising funds for schools enroute. Every breakdown was a new challenge in communication and patience.

It’s funny. The journey made me realize that I am more an outsider to Indians. I definitely did not speak Tamil or Marathi, or Kannada. I definitely was not from around these parts.

So where am I now? Emotional Breakdown?

Perhaps writing in this blog may help me confront issues of my feeling like an outsider growing up in the ’80s in a predominantly white town, to my thoughts now as an adult, still feeling like an outsider, but to my own cultural group!

Ah, a new challenge in communication using the blogosphere. I think I require more patience.

So I want to hear from you: How do you define yourself as an Indian American? Is that too big of a question?

Broken down rickshaw

Oh. and if you know how to say, “I think my transmission fell off on the other side of the mountain,” in Tamil, Kannada, and Marathi … please let me know.


Posted by on April 28, 2010 in Identity


8 responses to “Cultural Transitions… or Should That be Transmissions?

  1. sarah

    April 28, 2010 at 12:56 pm

    I like curry as much as the next gal, but my favorite flavor is bittersweet and you are hitting all the right notes. Nicely put.

  2. Brent

    April 28, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    I think, on some level, we can all relate in some way. My ancestry is a mixture of Scottish, Irish, German and , according to my mom, a weeee bit of Native American in there somewhere. At some point, we all want to connect with our past/history. Heck, I still want to see the house I grew up in.

  3. Susan

    April 28, 2010 at 5:16 pm

    I can relate on a different level… as an American growing up ion Tokyo, Japan, and as that same person coming back to her “native land” of the USA. It is hard when you are “supposed” to be a part of a culture that you are not really a part of, except by title. I still try each day to be an assimilated American…

  4. Emily

    April 28, 2010 at 8:18 pm

    Thanks so much for this article! I can relate to this piece in so many ways… just substitute Persian American for Indian American and that’s my story too (oh, and minus auto rickshaw). I always try to explain to people my experience growing up caught between two cultures, but I’ve never been able to describe it as eloquently as you have in this article.

  5. M Raghavan

    April 30, 2010 at 9:50 am

    My formative years were in the 80’s too, and I also grew in what was then a small town with hardly any Indians (It is now the large city of Denver with nearly 35,000 Indian immigrants)

    My sense of Indian-ness though came not through a search for cultural belonging, but a quest for spiritual awakening. Through this journey, I married an India from India, a lady who teaches me every day how to truly love life. I also developed a circle of Indian friends.

    How did spirituality help me in this? By teaching me that it is not whether you are Indian or American, what counts is being a human being – someone in touch with with the fact that life is a gift, and that each day is a new opportunity to make yourself and others happy.

  6. Benita

    June 9, 2010 at 9:49 pm

    So much has been written on this very issue – growing up in America but trying to maintain the Indian cultural values our parents tried so hard to pass on.

    For me – my parents instilled pride in my culture so much so that growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, I preached tolerance to counter the intolerance directed towards me. I faced death threats, assaults via eggs, being called “dothead.” I took freedom of speech that seriously.

    My sister on the other hand never really spoke up or acknowledged our culture. She seemed to want to be more “American” than anything else. I remember one time someone asked me out in 5th grade and I of course turned him down since dating was absolutely prohibited. I explained why in part because I didn’t want people to get the wrong idea. My sister was mad at me for being honest.

    It was tough growing up with parents who clung on to their romanticized 1970’s view of India. Almost all the US born Indian-Americans I know are more “Indian” than American. We watch Indian movies, go to temple, eat Indian food, enjoy garba dancing during Navratri. But we missed American experiences of dating in our teen years, brownies/girl scouts as kids, sports (too much emphasis was put on education). Meanwhile India became more western and now dating is more acceptable there than here. I swear they even drink/smoke more there than here.

    I’ve taken the best of both worlds – the religious/family values from our culture and independent thinking, social life of my country. I also am trying to read every book by Indian/Indian-American authors.

  7. K

    September 30, 2010 at 12:43 pm
    You should add Neela Vaswani’s You have given me a country to your reading list.

  8. QueenRaj

    October 3, 2010 at 9:03 pm

    Thanks K! It is now on my list!
    Dang it! She did a talk at UMD! And I missed it. 😦


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