My daughter is Indian. I forget this sometimes.
Our primary language at home is English. When I speak Gujarati, she laughs, and says, “What language are you speaking? That sounds like what Nani’s says (her reference to my mom).” When we watch a show or sitcom and a reference to India is made, I tell her that is where she is from, not convinced myself if I am saying the right thing. Despite my reservations, I’ve always said I am Indian for a reason. There is a reason my skin is brown. There is a reason why I am vegetarian. There is a reason why on my wedding day I wore a red and white panetar instead of a white wedding dress.
But what is that reason? And why I can’t I explain it to my daughter? I tell her she is Indian, but my every word and action betrays that truth. We celebrate Christmas more than Diwali. My daughter isn’t aware of the vast array of colors of rangoli or the sweets exchanged from house to house or that Diwali commemorates the return of Ram, Sita and Laxma from their fourteen year exile. But she celebrates Easter by coloring eggs and participating in Easter Egg hunts, but is unfamiliar with garba, one of the most popular staples of Indian dance.
The chasm between our born identity and the culture we choose to adopt announces itself in the most unsuspecting moments.
Last week for dress rehearsal for her Bollywood dance performance, I put on my daughter’s chaniya choli, a traditional skirt and blouse combo that is worn in India. We decide to grab breakfast right before. As she exited the car, there was a moment of hesitation. I tell her, “Hurry up. We are running late.” With one leg out of the car door and the other planted firmly inside, she said, “Momma, people are going to think I am weird because I am wearing this.” I tell her she is not weird. That the chaniya choli is fine and no one will say anything to her.
Her “I am weird comment” lingers with me. But at dress rehearsal, I watched how she mouths the words, “Bole Chudiya, Bole Kangana” and smiles. She extends her hands long and her fingers twirl and bend to the rhythm of of Indian instruments. The weirdness evaporates as she holds the hands of the other girls and they all move around in a circle.
As parents we witness the see-saw between assimilation and abandonment. There is a sense of being an in-between, where you are considered a non-resident Indian when you visit the place of your heritage, while in the country of your birthplace, you are an American with an asterick. There isn’t a place of absolute comfort, a tug of war between two opposite points. What do we want to convey to our children about their history?
For me, her Bollywood dance recital is more than about girls performing an Indian dance. It’s about learning Hindi, wearing lenghas and chudis, and eating Indian cuisine. It’s acknowledging a part of their history.
I look at my daughter. My mind yields. And I believe again.
She is Indian. I just needed a reminder.
I feel much the same way about adopting aspects of Romanian culture. We want to blend in and we don’t. More than that, we never will. We’ll always have the “expat” asterisk after our name. My experience is much more limited than yours, of course, since we’re only here for a year, but your emotions resonate with me.
And good luck to your daughter at her recital! Looks and sounds like it will be wonderful,
Your melding of cultures is giving your daughter a vast and beautiful experience. You is living the culture of her current lifestyle while you are teaching her your born culture and heritage…she will value this for her lifetime.
What a fascinating reflection, Rudri. And how interesting that your daughter’s experience is altering and solidifying your own ideas about culture.
Good luck to her at her dance recital!
I love how you describe the little details that have such cultural identity – beautiful.
I think it’s wonderful that you are encouraging her to explore these beautiful family roots and traditions.
A wonderful post, Rudri.
I am forever trying to incorporate my children’s heritage into our lives. Sometimes I am successful (read: they actually enjoy it and get something from it) and sometimes I fail (read: they whine and complain all the while). But I think, like you, in the end — we will all succeed. It’s critical that we know from which we came. We are all “Americans with an asterick.” 🙂
oops. Make that “from WHERE we came.”
This resonated deeply with me, though my parents were born in the US as were theirs. But, my parents moved from the place where their roots were ever present to Texas. I’ve never quite felt at home in either place, though where I grew up feels more solid within me as home. My mom still sometimes looks at me and says, but don’t you feel at home on the east coast (her home). There is a tug between what was and what is, where we are and who we are – which is tied inextricably to where our families are from.
The fact that you are willing to ask the questions, to think about it thoroughly, makes a huge difference I think. You should talk to her about it, be honest and open about the struggle. I suspect that kind of honesty would open a whole world of opportunity.
I grew up being too Mexican for the South but too Southern for Mexico. It’s a hard, strange position for a child … but it sounds as though you — being the person whose culture and ancestry is not the “norm” — are well-prepared to guide your big kid through the weirdness of figuring out who she is. For me, my mother was a white woman in the South; she just didn’t get it.