I got this email from J1289, a regular reader and commenter here and sharing this with her permission:
(In context of something someone said to her) “…… I feel there are only two options for all of us, be part of the herd and get all the joy sucked out of us where we are miserable, or be happy and do what you love to do and get rejected/ignored by others since your actions don’t fit their mold. It’s never a win-win situation IMO.
Indian culture (or perhaps most Asian cultures) can be very beautiful. There are certain aspects I love about it, however being pressured to be this ideal “Indian girl”, get married, have kids, live in servitude and act like a doormat where toxicity takes over, sucks all the positive vibes about being Indian and makes you have a strong disdain towards it.
Especially the fact that in Indian culture, non-Indians are inferior to Indians, we must “stick” with people of our caste and people from our state only (I HATE THAT!) so that we keep the “culture” alive where it will not lose its “purity”. (Emphasis mine)
I hear this all the time, and it makes you think, can we still keep a homogeneous culture? How come people from conservative places, despite living abroad and exploring the world will not look at any other perspective?
Also lack of equal respect is another factor I dislike about being Indian. I would never show I am superior or treat someone ill because I’m much older than them. I made it a point for myself that I’ll take a blend of cultures because I have equal respect for all, (not only Indian) and incorporate into my life. Sure I’ll keep some “Indianness”, but I will also make sure to get rid of some of the toxic aspects (arranged marriages, being a slave to in laws, and be firm when I have to). I will make sure my life is full of diversity and not just one sided.”
My reply to her:
“I think you have the right approach when you say you take a blend of cultures and incorporate them into your life. No culture is perfect; each one has strengths and failures. I agree with you on all those unpleasant aspects of Indian culture. I think we can reject those parts and take the parts we like. I think that makes logical sense – why should it be all or nothing? We take what makes sense, what feels right, what makes us comfortable. We reject regressive thinking and practices.”
But then, when I thought about it more, I was intrigued by this idea of “cultural purity” and “protecting one’s culture”. I could relate to so many parts of J1289’s email because I’ve been in her place many times.
I have often been accused of “becoming too American”.
Because I let my children disagree with me.
Because I let them make choices and decisions that impact their lives.
Because I don’t fall on elders’ feet at weddings.
Because I don’t cook up a feast in the kitchen while the men discuss “important things” in the living room.
Because I sit next to my husband on the couch.
Because I hold his hand when we walk.
Because I wear what I want.
Because I don’t fast or pray.
Because I like to run/hike in my shorts.
Because I read and write and express opinions.
Because I don’t need permission for a host of things.
Because I make choices.
Because I laugh aloud when I’m happy.
Because recently, I told my husband’s aunt who came to the US to visit her daughter, “No this is not a good time to visit. The children have exams. We will come and see you.”
Instead of “Yes, you are always welcome in our home.”
And with the predictability of sunrise, she pulled an Athidi Devo Bhava on me.
We are constantly told that this kind of behavior goes against Indian culture. That it is a betrayal of Indian culture. But then, what exactly is Indian culture? Allowing your elders to control your life – until it’s your turn to control your children’s lives?
More precisely, WHO gets to define Indian culture? Who ARE these dreaded guardians of Indian culture? Why should they be in charge of defining Indian culture and identity? Because what they are defining happens to suit them? Because “tradition” can be a great way to avoid the tough questions and accountability?
I’ve seen other Indian American families struggle with identity. Some (if not all) first generation immigrants keep a little nostalgic piece of India in their hearts. It is a soft-focus, rose tinted picture that ignores the negative aspects of our culture.
But not seeing the truth is unhelpful. This holding on to an “ideal Indian culture” never allows you to take a rational standpoint. It never allows changes. It is stifling, both for them, and for their children, whom they have chosen to raise in a different country.
It is a disservice both to their birth country (to hinder truth, learning and progress) as well as the country they’ve immigrated to (to reap the benefits of another culture while condemning it). It keeps them in a time capsule. India and many Indians living in India have moved on with the times in many respects, but some Indian immigrants still hold on to the past, afraid to let go.
To some extent, I can understand this love for one’s country of birth. It has a sort of magical pull.
I recently visited India for my niece’s wedding. I delighted in dressing up in kancheevarams and donning jhumkas. I re-watched 3 Idiots and laughed like one in some scenes. I sat on my brother’s balcony, watching the vendors below, as the evening darkened, cups of chai in hand, discussing Indian politics with fervor, knowing very well that governance in India is still a distant dream. I listened to my sister practice her Veena, her hands now faintly aging, but the music flowing strong and confident as ever.
I smelled coconut water and Aarti in the Ganesh temple my mother makes me go to, on every trip. My mother still sticks bits of turmeric to the new clothes she gifts to my children. I visited my childhood tailor, Arif, who must be in his 70s and can’t see well anymore but still seems to be turning out beautiful dresses with his old hands through sheer habit.
On my last evening there, I went to the Old Town – the most neglected part of my hometown and hiked up the highest peak (now I realize it is a small hill) that overlooks a rocky shore. At the foot of the hill sits my old convent school. I visited the strict nuns of my elementary school, now softened with age, their disapproving looks replaced with welcoming smiles. I sat peacefully in my school’s worn down church as they conducted their Catholic service, not really understanding their rituals, but calmed by the angelic singing.
To me, all of these things are uniquely Indian, or define the part of India I was raised in. Who can take away this Indianness from me? This “love” is about people and places and memories.
BUT, why does being Indian have to mean giving up the right to think, analyze, question, discuss, disagree, and express?
You don’t have to feel like you are betraying Indian culture when you think for yourself. Rabindranath Tagore thought for himself. So did Sarojini Naidu. And so did Gandhi. And those 3 eminent thinkers spoke and wrote their original, independent, rebellious thoughts eloquently in Indian languages as well as in English. They looked and sounded and felt Indian, but they were far from being subservient. They were certainly not part of the “log kya kahenge” crowd. So, let’s stop defining Indianness as conformity and fear. It isn’t nor does it have to be.
I love my country of birth – it is colorful, vibrant, unique, energetic, evolving, boundless. I love America too – my adopted country – it is a place of equality and respect for the individual and immense personal freedom. Neither country is perfect, and both have numerous problems. And I love them both.
No one has the right to tell us what parts of which culture we adopt. One’s identity is a complex combination of one’s background, nature, experiences, and influences. It is ever changing, growing, and developing as we undergo new experiences. It is not to be determined by one’s aunt, mother-in-law, neighbor, pastor, or politician. It is up to us to determine who we want to be and how we choose to define ourselves.
And perhaps the same thing goes for India too. Indians should stop defining their country in terms of their Vedic past, the colonial legacy, the Islamic influence, traditions and customs, and other hang ups – these burdens only serve to limit us. While our rich past undoubtedly makes a fascinating study and understanding it is crucial, dwelling there forever is a sad mistake. Maybe if we start looking forward, India can be as beautiful and boundless as she wants to be.