Last week I met my half American cousin at a wedding for the first time and the term American Born Confused Desi which we used often took a whole new meaning. It was Carol’s first visit to India and she was scrutinized under a microscope and each action was evaluated. The scandal in the family when her father married an American was relived and gasped at again. The girl was put in the worst possible situation. If she spoke in English she was ‘showing off’. If she attempted to speak in our mother tongue she was being artificial. If she wore a western outfit she was brought up without any idea of Indian culture, If she wore a sari or ghaghra like the rest of us it didn’t suit her indo-western looks.
All this brought a host of questions in my mind. Aren’t the poor kids being judged for their parents (ill)actions? Instead of being the proud bearers of two different cultures aren’t they being forced to justify each and in a way belong to neither?
In my cousin’s case her father’s inherent Indian-ness didn’t let him bring her up as a complete American kid. She was brought up with stories of India, our relatives, the same bedtimes stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata that we slept off to, yet she failed to be completely accepted by her Indian relatives. Though outwardly everything was peaceful there was a reserve and she could feel it. They always remembered at the back of their minds that she had an American mother, went to Church and read the Bible and feasted on beef too. That made her ‘not really acceptable’.
The main reason behind this kind of behavior in the Indian society is the deep rooted narrow mindedness which is prevalent even today. The only difference today as compared to earlier is that while earlier the differences were out in the open, nowadays it is hidden behind a smoke screen of civility and tolerance. Though undeniably the acceptance level is increasing it is never total acceptance. Inter-religious marriages are still frowned upon. And the ones on whom the axe falls is the second generation of people many of whom were born out of an inter-racial marriage.
Although the acronym ABCD used to describe second generation Indians is somewhat clever, it fails to explain the difficulties of being raised with two distinct cultures. Believe it or not, our biggest problem isn't trying to figure out how to do a dance fusing Indian and Western moves to the re-mixed version of Khaike Paan Benares (SP?) Vala. Unfortunately, though, people rarely address what makes my generation also "Confused Desis."
Why does this occur? Is it out of the difficulty of balancing two different cultures or is the pain due to the inability to be accepted in either? One problem is that we lack a dynamic and flexible definition of what it means to be Indian; instead, we are expected to fit into a narrow mold, and when you don't fit into that mold, problems arise. One characteristic that makes up this mold is religion. Most people of our parents generation, and even many who have recently immigrated, generally define Indians as Hindus. Non-Hindus, namely Muslims and Christians, are seen as people who aren't quite Indian enough even though Indians proudly boast about the religious and ethnic diversity quite visible on the sub-continent (the poster at the CAI booth at the International Bazaar that depicted all of the faiths represented in India is an example of this). Despite such boasting, how many CAI-sponsored celebrations have we had for Eid or Christmas? None that I can think of. Only passing on elements of Hindu culture gives people of my generation a skewed representation of who makes up the Indian community, deprives us of a well-rounded view of Indian culture and fails to recognize the contributions of non-Hindus.
Not only do we learn a one-sided view of history and culture, but parents usually pass on a rigid version of Indian culture that often makes demanding expectations on ABCDs. Being on the Dean's List, getting high SAT scores and excelling in math and science are seen as essential elements to an Indian's identity. Moreover, parents prohibit their children from heavily adopting American culture. Enjoying superficial things such as pizza, movies and music is ok, but when it comes to serious things such as dating and marriage, parents enforce strict Indian guidelines. Parents are shocked when/if they discover that their children are dating or that they've actually chosen to marry someone whose not only from a different state in India than your family, doesn't speak the same language, isn't the same religion, or worse, isn't even Indian, despite the fact that ABCDs imbibe American culture day in and day out. The scenario is even worse for people born out of what is termed as a ‘mixed marriage’. They are often brought up to know and recognize both cultures. They are as familiar with the Bible as with the Gita. Yet many conventional Indian families still hesitate in accepting a child who arises out of such a marriage. They have an ingrained notion that they would be wayward never mind that they might have been brought up more strictly than their peers back home.
Moreover, parents and the community pass on a sugar-coated version of Indian culture. ABCDs are encouraged to enjoy Hindi films, Bhangra and dance parties, but discussing or even acknowledging that social ills such as domestic violence, rape, teen pregnancy, drug abuse and communal and racial tension exist in the Indian community is rare. By avoiding these issues, the community creates a false impression that such issues don't affect the community, and if someone of my generation (or any Indian) experiences one of these problems, they know they will be ostracized by the community if others find out.
ABCDs create dual identities to balance the rigid values sanctioned by the Indian community with aspects of American culture. Indian children often lead two separate lives. For parents and the community, ABCDs show the ideal Indian child persona who excels in school, does Bharat Natyam and can recite Sanskrit Shlokas. For friends (and sometimes siblings), ABCDs show their hidden persona who dates, goes to bars and dance clubs and is obsessed about whom to go to prom with. ABCDs must lead these double lives to avoid incurring the wrath of their parents and to avoid becoming the subject of a gossip session that might go something like this.
The scene: A weekend dinner party where two aunties, bubbling with venom, are gossiping:
"So, did you hear?" says aunty number one.
"Jyotsna's daughter, Susie didn't get into medical school. Now she wants to move in with her boyfriend … and he's American, I always warned her to drum some Indian sense into her daughter. That’s what comes of giving your children these American names"
"Hai Ram!" exclaims aunty number two.
"I don't know what I would do if my daughter ever did such a thing."
Unfortunately, my generation is guilty of the same crime. In our close-knit cliques we gossip about a variety of topics even though we complain about the parents who do it.
Although the picture I'm painting for ABCDs might seem grim, there are a number of benefits in having your feet in two worlds, but for ABCDs to fully enjoy them, the Indian community must address the above issues. And parents, LIGHTEN UP. I'm sure your entire family's honor or the wellbeing of your family's future generations won't be jeopardized if your children bring home a date, receive phone calls from the opposite sex or even choose a profession in the arts. Until then, American Born Confused Desis will continue to walk the windy, difficult path between the Indian and American culture and remain confused souls.