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


Shruthi said...

That was a very good post! Optmiist that I am, I am inclined to think, that you have got to know both worlds, and you can choose aspects of both, as you wish! ;) Anyway, all the best to you!

yetanother.softwarejunk said...

"Every day I woke up in India, and walked to school in America".

Cool. One way you are lucky.
I found it difficult to ask to my non-mallu roommate "What is the time, buddy" as a first thing the morning.

Teaching is the best profession I know. I was getting more satisfaction while I was teaching for a hour comparing to fixing one bug (it might take a week or more)

The Basic reason is
You know That You are Helping Somebody ...directly.

Keep going with your efforts!!!

aparna said...

WOW, your post made me cry...I cannot imagine the struggles that you've had. I just wanted to say that your strength blows me away and your idea of helping other people work through their problems is very commendable. It's heartening to know the spirit of any human being can rise even in the sense of things going wrong. I know your parents meant the best for u, every parent does and they should be very proud of you :) sorry for sounding like a sap but yr story really touched me ! best of luck

Joy said...

Beautiful essay. I love the "superstitious, magical-thinking child" bit.

The Desi Nole said...

An awesome post. Although my situation is not as complex as what you have been thro', I think I have a post on my blog. Will drop the link in here later.

Supremus said...


Beautiful post - and very lucidly put.

Reading this immediately reminded me of book "The Namesake" by Jhumpa Lahiri - its amazing how she's bought about the nuances of being here nor there, and being at both places at once.

This post made me feel as if I was reading the book again - beautiful! & I can understand why its so difficult...


HalfDesi said...

It is a strange path we follow as immigrant children.

My parents didn't seem to think that we would re-immigrate back eventually, but I held on to the idea for a long time.

My father immigrated for the first time before he met my mother. When I was 9, we immigrated to the US.

My strongest memory of indian gatherings was that I did not fit in. Unlike the other kids, I was not american-born, and I didn't know the language. (English was my "mother tongue. To some extent, I envy your knowledge of Gujarati.)

We are not immigrants like our parents, yet at the same time, we are not american like the second generation. It all adds to the challenge of finding your place in the world.

Thank you for sharing your experience (and for giving me a chance to reflect on my own).

Ganesh said...


I listened to your podcast very nice, and please do give a link to that in your site.

Regarding your experience, I can completely understand, this is something my daughter is going through.
When we where at docs place the other day the lady asked her where are you from to that she said
my parents are from india,but I was born here.
To that lady said well
'sweet heart you are an american with an indian accent'

Dinesh babu said...

As we move to a Type II civilization, Everyone will have to eventually accept the oneness as citizens of Earth as it used to be billions of years ago - The age of Gondwanaland.

CK said...

while i was reading this i was thinking 'wow' but i must say at the end i thought "this would make an excellent college admission essay". it rings of "I know me, and I know where I am going and why".

Its beautiful. I have newfound respect for you. (it was already there, this just gives it more weight and substance)