Friday, January 27, 2006

"Showing Off"

one of my oldest artworks... a batik... done when I was 17...

gold (fall in NJ)

gold (fall in NJ)
Originally uploaded by IndianGirl.
I took this back in November... just got around to uploading it now...

Glorious, no?

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

my personal journey

My personal journey is a mirror, a small microcosm of the struggle for authenticity that American Desis face. Although I was born in India, I emigrated to the U.S. at the young age of one. As I began to attend nursery school and then kindergarten, my parents started to wonder and fear what an American education would do to me. They feared that I would not know India and wouldn't learn about my heritage, that I might be led astray in this strange land, in ways they couldn't even fathom. Therefore they decided to see if I would able to handle being sent to India for a long visit of three months--without my parents--their thinking being that if I were physically strong enough to handle this visit, then they might send me to boarding school in India the following year. I went to India at the age of six, right after first grade. In fact, my parents were so anxious about me spending an adequate amount of time there that they pulled me out of first grade a whole month early to send me off!

I was (perhaps surprisingly) quite excited and eager to make the journey; after all, at that age my parents were my gods and if they told me that going to India was a wonderful idea, then it was--and I was also looking forward to spending time with my grandmother. What I didn't know is the impact this journey would have on me. One could argue that when I emigrated to America at the age of one, I lost the authenticity of being truly Indian, at least in the eyes of my parents, first generation immigrants to whom nothing in the U.S. could match up to romanticized notions of the homeland. My parents were understandably concerned about this loss. To help me regain this lost authenticity, they sent me to India at age six.

But what happened is that now in India I lost whatever American authenticity I had gained in my first few years here. When I left America, my parents admonished me to speak only in Gujarati to my relatives, worried that most of my relatives didn't speak English. When I arrived in India, I missed my parents terribly (after all they were my gods at that time) and so I obeyed their dictate in a literal fashion; I refused to say a word of English. Looking back, I remember even being begged by a nun (my uncle's acquaintance) to speak to her in English, but terrified, I ran away, refusing to spout English. I know that I did this because the superstitious, magical-thinking child that I was, I believed that something terrible would happen to me or my parents if I disobeyed their order. Within three months I regained (arguably) much of my “lost” Indian authenticity, but at the cost of my American self. Upon my return to the States, I found it very difficult for many months to think or speak in English, though I was still able to read quite fluently. (My parents had not banned reading in English while I was gone!) I also looked very different, having lost a third of my body weight due to illness and lack of desire to eat in the hot climate of India. My American body had betrayed me in India and all of the germs of India gained a toehold within me, making me a reticent shadow of the bubbly girl that my parents had sent off with such great hopes. My parents, to their credit, immediately realized that Indian boarding school was not for me, and resolved to keep me with them. They did, however, keep a long-range plan in mind of eventually moving back to India, after saving “enough money.” (Ah, that typical immigrant dream!)

Slowly, I lost my aura of recently regained Indian authenticity, but curiously never quite felt at home here either. My parents had spent too much time reminding me (and reassuring themselves) that I wasn't American. Though I slowly--and with great difficulty--learned to adapt to American culture in school, I was mostly insulated from its effects when at home. Every day I woke up in India, and walked to school in America, bringing with me my chutney and cheese sandwiches and my trailing sense of authenticity. I simultaneously belonged to both places, and to neither. It wasn't until my freshman year of college, at age 18, that a college professor woke me up to the fact that I was indeed an American, when I wrote a paper about being Indian and he commented that since I lived in this country my whole life, I was indeed an American. And yet, while I knew in my heart that no one in India would truly accept me as an Indian either, I very much wanted to claim an Indian identity. After all, my childhood was staked on having that authentic Indian identity.

My experiences growing up straddling two cultures have taught me that categorizing someone as authentic or inauthentic can be a violent act in terms of identity formation, because this act of labeling has a visceral impact on one's psyche at such a young age. Not allowing a particular individual to develop and flower in the environment she is in, but telling her that she needs to be in another environment is not just unsettling, but can also be brutal to her sense of self. I am fortunate that, despite having undergone the violence of having my identity stripped from me in various ways, I have yet learned to reclaim my own sense of identity, my own stake on authenticity. Contrary to when I was a child and was told what and who I was, now I decide for myself. And I have decided over the years that I yield neither culture: I fully claim both American and Indian cultures as my birthright and my home. Now I create my own sense of authentic self, in my own image, as I see fit. Of course this sense of identity has been hard-won, but I am pleased, even at this late stage, to have finally grasped it for myself, especially in light of my beginnings in this realm.

These formative experiences have been instrumental in bringing me to my desire for graduate study. I wish to examine in a larger context the cultural aspects that try to strip authenticity from second generation immigrants. I would like to utilize what I learn, not just academically, but also to help young immigrants gain self-trust in the face of the struggle for identity that they must also face.

I believe this struggle that I have undergone has been the instigating factor in my decision to work as a teacher and a college admission counselor. In my chosen professions until now, I have been able to utilize my own hard-won self-knowledge to help students who may be going through similar struggles of their own. This has been gratifying--that I can help others in ways that I wished I had been helped while growing up. I wish to continue on this path of service to youth in my future as either an academic or school librarian, but I wish to do this after having gained a broad academic basis

Friday, January 06, 2006

middle school

my middle school years... i could write reams about those three years. or be utterly silent. there's almost no in-between way to describe that pain... it was a very lonely time. all that i wished for during those years is to have one friend in the world that i could really talk to. i did have a friend, but intellectually we weren't on the same plane. (there was a lot of affection, but we couldn't really communicate... that friendship was more about having a warm friendly person that you could go to the pool with, than about sharing your inner intellectual life/dreams/thoughts/ideas) I read all the time in middle school - Dickens was one of my favorites - while she barely read anything even for classes... you get the picture... of course this reading habit got me labelled weird... and boys would taunt me... it didn't help that i was one of a tiny sprinkling of Indian kids in our entire town of mostly Italian-Americans in New Jersey. Now that i think about it, i did have a couple of friends-- Mrs. Nover, the school librarian, and Mrs. Strauss (who was Mrs. N's sister!) my French teacher. Those two ladies saved me... in fact, when i decided to become a teacher a few years ago, i decided of all things to teach middle school probably to try to give to children some of what i was lacking back then, as these two wonderful women did for me.(i did it for 2 years, but then realized that while i loved many aspects of teaching, that big classroom with 30-odd kids you have to manage wasn't for me...) when i went back to my old middle school during the time i was preparing to become a teacher, i met some old teachers of mine, and one of them had something very interesting to share: she said that back then, i was pretty articulate and even gregarious with adults, but had a very tough time with my peers. i remember this, and the pain of it. i was one of those on the outskirt kids... all this slowly started to lift and get better in high school and much changed by college and beyond... but it took years to shake the feeling that, when people laughed, that they were laughing at me.