“Are you Indian?”
A smile crosses my face. Looks like the star-spangled brainwash has begun.
“Are you American?”
“Well then, what are you?!”
I laugh heartily. This clarity of thought is just too much for me.
I fear for him too.
An innate human need is to belong. To something. A place, an ideal, a lineage. To have a history and heritage. It’s the anchor that moors us in stormy waters and offers respite from its roiling uncertainty. Appreciating and participating in cultural milestones is a part of retaining your bonds with that heritage, which is one of the reasons I’ve always considered myself to be willfully lacking any. I’m not very religious, I celebrate festivals sparingly and even when I do it’s not because it has a cultural significance, but because it reminds me of happy memories. That’s pretty much it. And yet, I find myself clinging to my values, decidedly Indian but tweaked over time to retain more global relevance, in moments of duress or decision. I can’t wish away the bonds to my country of birth and I won’t want to. There are small, perhaps silly signs I may never completely blend into a different culture. For example, I take pride in not having acquired an accent even after nearly four years in the US. I take pride because I have relatives who traveled the States on 15 day package
tours and returned with plastic statuettes of Liberty, garish handbags from the tour operator and a drawl. Or my instant revulsion to a relative who having decided that obtaining a green card after years of toil was his life’s singular achievement, visited us in India and proceeded to patronisingly lecture us on the opportunities in “emerging countries like India”. Dude, you used to shit out the same corner paani-puri and kathi roll as me, so get a grip.
I love what America is. I don’t know what it was and if I didn’t have a young child, I probably wouldn’t care. As my good friend Sumeet told me, the difference between Europe and America is that Europe cares about where you come from, America cares about where you want to go. Beautifully put. India is like Europe in that respect. Current reality is that I’m digging my heels into America for a while, because I’ve put my wife through enough shit, making her move with a child thousands of miles away from roots, family and a great career. America, like its USP, represents opportunity to me. Everyone who works hard gets a fair chance notwithstanding the occasionally xenophobic rhetoric of the far-right. That is all just political saber-rattling. This is a very comfortable mire to sink into because it’s very conveniently on the lower end of Maslow’s hierarchy. It does not require adherence to draconian edicts or a knowledge of complex cultural mores. I mean, yes, you need to learn to tip 15% here irrespective of the service but it’s nothing to commit seppuku over. I can probably sail through the next 10 years not voting, or learning the pledge of allegiance or about Custer’s Last Stand. Not just because I’m shallow, constrained for time and need a lot of selling to. It’s not central to my pursuit of opportunity. I do make it a point to inculcate American civic sense, responsibility and I hope eventually, a sense of community. Then one day I’ll book one-way tickets to India. I don’t know. It’s a possibility.
But what about my son? He’s not American. Unless I invest a lot of time explaining the very rich cultural intricacies of his country of birth, he’ll be in no-man’s land for the rest of his life. The missus pointed out that he doesn’t even look American. If he stays in America, his ABCD counterparts will probably be black belts in Bharatnatyam, Carnatic/Hindustani music and would know the operational details of organizing satsangs. I can’t teach him these things because I don’t know them. If we all go back to India, it’s going to be spectacularly unfair on him. India’s cultural heritage isn’t something to be scoffed at and it isn’t something you can just pick up as you “go along”. There is no “hit the ground running”. It’s a slow burn, melding into the fabric of the country one day at a time.
For decisions like these, I turn to the one place NO MAN SHOULD EVER GO – his gut. My gut says I should just let him be American. I want him to love, live and breathe America, football, tailgating, baseball. This country, like any other, has its flaws, its jingoism and values that may ring hollow. But I want him to completely belong to them, even if he does not “look” American or wasn’t born here. Who knows? In a couple of decades, “looking” American may be a subject of academic interest, what with the steady rise of minorities and racial intermingling. I’d much rather he have one place to call his own instead of a schizophrenic existence across two disparate worlds. I’ve seen Indians in that confused state in the US. They know so much of India without actually having grown up there, they hang onto what I believe is an inherently false sense of identity. I can’t bring myself to believe the lies they tell themselves about inculcating a more diverse, richer point of view. I don’t want to be one of those parents who forces his child to live a set of alien values without understanding the basis for those values.
If he does grow up in America, I need to steel myself for the moments when the influence of his adopted country and his peer group will clash with what I’ve been taught to dislike or disapprove. It won’t just be a generation gap I’ll battle, it will also be a cultural gap.
But I’d rather be the parent who accords his child the right to take a stand and then engage in debate, rather than obfuscate his sense of identity with a hybrid, meaningless amalgam of cultures and then be responsible for his disillusionment.
Surely, I don’t have all the answers. We’ll see how it goes.