Like many Indian parents of my generation, I was dedicated to the preservation of Indian culture, traditions, and values. (And I still am!) As my children were growing up, I learned more about my culture through the process of imparting it to my children. I became the president of the Gujarati Samaj of Central Texas to preserve and promote the culture for the sake of our youth.
The first indication that something was amiss came when the first generation of our children went to college. Even though we had no comprehension of the actual problem, slowly and surely, many horror stories emerged from the grapevine.
During the school years, our children proved to be the most gifted and talented. Of course, we had good reason to believe that our Desi culture had a lot to do with their success. After graduating with high academic honors and many other accolades from high school, our youth were not doing as well as expected in college, and some of them shocked us with a total loss of focus and disregard for all the cultural values we had worked so hard to preserve.
Could our children be dating like Americans? Was it possible that they might become sexually active, or alcohol or drug dependent? Could they lose focus of their educational goals, in spite of their sharp minds? Our Desi culture was supposed to be an antidote against all these diversions. We wondered, yet we were afraid to find out what was really going on. Fortunately, my interaction with a wide variety of youth gave me an honest glimpse of the life of our college kids. My bone marrow project allowed me to travel all over the country, meeting youngsters from all walks of life, from all over the country, from different religions and originating from every part of the Asian subcontinent -- India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
It is amazing to see how similar the problems are between a Moslem family from Pakistan and a Hindu family from Kerala. It seems that our traditions, religions, and culture are being challenged by this Western way of life. Nevertheless, the reason for our loss has less to do with Western values than with the way we are approaching this struggle. It was soon obvious that when our children's love and dependence on us conflicted with our unrealistic expectations, most of them felt they had no choice but to live a double life. Desi children became the greatest actors in the world. They could easily convince us of their strong belief in our culture and values, yet, at the same time, live in a non-Desi way (for the lack of better world we call them Americanized: Where everything goes).
This double life has left many of them very isolated, lonely, and confused! It has caused them to despise the very culture that many of us are so interested in imparting to them. Many of them have found it impossible to find a reasonable way to express their feelings and views on life. They have found no room for their individuality, and they had to move away from Desi culture out of frustration. "My parents will never understand or change!" is the widespread sentiment. Parents, on the other hand, are in a state of denial. "My child is not like that, they proudly proclaim. Then, when reality finally hits home, their reaction is very irrational and sometimes explosive. This Desi melodrama is quite predictable and prevalent.
The conflict with our kids is probably is the single most challenging thing we have had to face since we came to this land. We have never failed like this before, whether the problem was education, jobs, immigration, or any other pursuit. In spite of all of the solid spiritual background we possess and the love we have for our children, we have failed to address the issue in a calm and rational manner. The Confused Desi! Who is really confused, the children or the parents? This is the question we have to ponder. Hopefully that will lead to open dialogue and more acceptance of the fact that, at the end of the day, our children will have to learn to make the smart choices and all of us will have to learn to live with the choices they make.
Our role as an Indian parent of an Americanized child is limited to being supportive and understanding rather than controlling. Whenever there is a clear conflict, the issue of paramount importance is to create the least amount of damage in order to keep our claim on our grandchild, even though it may seem that we have lost our child!
Desi culture is not some static way of life that has survived thousands of years because of rules laid down by our ancestors. It needs to be an ephemeral way of life, constantly being rediscovered. Our goal is to not just to survive, but, rather, to thrive in the society of the future. Our way of life is not only used to surviving in our homeland but in any location in this global village.
Being an ultimate optimist, I think this can be accomplished. I know, as rigid as we may seem to our children, that we can surprise them by being flexible and understanding. The time has come to lay claim to our children and grandchildren!
I also plan to propose some radical changes in our way of thinking and some practical lessons that we can all take from this discussion. I must admit at the outset, though, that so much of this information has come from various people who have shared their life with me.
The issues I am about to discuss touch our core values. In this diverse group of individuals we're a part of, it is natural that some may find few or all of the concepts unsuitable. Some of you might find this inspiring, and others might find it thought-provoking. At the same time, a few of you may find it offensive, and others may find it to be pure garbage. What this is really meant to do is open a dialogue that is long overdue. I do not claim to know the answers, but I can present to you what I have learned, and you are welcome to draw your own conclusions. I hope this presentation opens a nationwide dialogue, not so much to argue about whether Desi parents or children are at fault, but rather to make the parents and children realize that the time has come when we as a community can make a lot of progress by giving an open-minded look at the current situation.
What you are about to read is not supported by any controlled scientific experiment. I have not published any best selling book (yet). IndiaNest.com or their owners or I are not liable for any consequences of this presentation. The language may be politically incorrect. Some of you may find the content offensive. "Indian culture," "Pakistani culture," "Bangladeshi culture," "Hindu culture," etc., may just be called "Desi culture." Somehow, we all feel that our own culture is a notch better than the others. The reader's discretion is advised ... for mature readers only. The stories you will read are all true, but the names and locations have been changed to protect the privacy of these individuals. But any resemblance to your situation might be more than coincidence! You are encouraged to add your views to this site. The main goal of this presentation is to discuss this vital issue, a national town hall meeting!
I am highly indebted to more than 150 young students who have given me honest and open account of their life. Special thanks to IndiaNest.com for supporting all my community projects including Bone Marrow Drives and Desi Marriage Convention. My profound gratitude to countless people, who have shared their views with me to enable the understanding of this complex issue. Many organizations that have sponsored my seminar on this subject. Specially many parents who have agreed with me that as difficulty this may sound we are capable of changing.
Asian Born Compulsive Desi (the real ABCD!)
In late 60s and early 70s, in a land far, far away, there were Asian Born Compulsive Desis (ABCD!) who loved their culture and the country. This was the first generation of young people who were citizens of an independent nation; there was no struggling for freedom from the British. So their passion was diverted to self-fulfillment rather than to national struggle. Also, as much as they loved their motherland, the opportunity for jobs and promotion was very limited.
British rulers left the area, but they left slavery behind. "Foreign-made" and "foreign-trained" meant "better quality." No wonder success was equated with going to foreign soil. They were brought up with the mantra that getting the right degree from the right place was the most important thing in life. You cannot feed your family by playing sports or singing or dancing, they were told. Success was measured by class rank.
So these highly motivated ABCD's walked miles to go to school. As they were growing up, they were content with only a few pairs of pants and one pair of shoes. They had no radio, TV, VCR, Nintendo, or Internet to distract them. But they were happy and content.
Academic success, financial stability, family unity, cultural preservation, religious and spiritual foundation, etc., were the qualities that were admired. And thousands of years of culture and tradition could provide everything, but it was short on professional opportunities and material success. The poor motherland simply did not have resources to meet the expectation of this young generation.
The Land of Opportunity Opens the Gate
Fortunately for these Desis, the land of opportunity - the United States of America - opened its door to the brown people with a series of immigration bills that allowed Asians to come to this country and later on to reunify the family. The Desi concept of family led these immigrants to invite everyone possible.
While this may seem like a generous gesture on the part of the United States, it was partly dictated by an acute shortage of highly educated personnel in technical and medical fields. It served the dual purpose of quickly and efficiently meeting the demands of industry and health care. And the strongest democracy could not justify this racial immigration policy too long.
In addition to that, the repressive regime of Idi Amin also made it inevitable for the Desi people there to find another safe haven, and United States became the choice destination.
So they came by the planeload. Young, educated, energetic Desis came to this far away land determined to succeed. With eight dollars in their pocket and limited funds to spend, these mostly middle-class Desis were ready to do whatever it took to thrive. They dreamed of saving enough money in a few years and finishing their education or training and than going back home. As the time passed the vast majority never attempted this dream, as it became apparent that trying to settle back home might be more of a nightmare than a dream.
While most of us tell our children that the main reason for our staying here was the welfare and education of our children, I seriously doubt if many would actually be fit to go back and settle there. Honestly, we came in search of material gain, and we found it in amounts that most of us had never dreamed of.
Struggle for Survival
In the beginning, the life of a new Desi was not easy. With very limited Desi food, music, dances, movies, culture, and religion, just having a group of Desi to be with was a luxury. But the priority was educational or professional success. They had to fight the glass ceiling of discrimination, visa problems, language problems, culture problems, and so on. But Desi determination and hard work paid off. They broke the glass ceiling; they either ignored the discrimination or fought it, and, one way or another, they got the visa. If finding a job was a problem, we soon learned that this was the land of entrepreneurship.
The Desi culture of hard work, good money management, and determination to succeed laid the foundation of unparalleled success. If one Desi came to a hospital, soon a large number of the residents were Desi. If one Desi bought a motel or gas station, soon Desis took over the business. Desis helping Desis ignited quick success.
As America got used to thick accents, the Desis were increasing in the numbers. They introduced polyester pants to the beach and Sarees at work. They would even take homemade food to Disney World. After all, why pay more and eat bland food, they thought.
Their success was noticed from Wall Street to Main Street. The Wall Street Journal touted them to be the model minority, with the highest education rate, highest income of immigrant group, and lowest crime rate. The Desi success was used as proof that America truly is a land of opportunity. If these immigrants could succeed, it proved that anyone could realize the American Dream. There was the implication that if some other groups didn't succeed, they might have something to learn from Asians.
Of course, Desis could not agree more. It must be Desi culture.
The Arrival of American Born Cute Desi
As new Desis settled they married, mostly going back home and finding a mate of suitable type. Few years later they were greeted with the arrival of the American Born Cute Desis - the second generation of Desi Americans.
These were the children who were born here. Somehow, the kids were much cuter than parents. They were taller than their parents. They were also smarter than their parents. Of course they were more talented than their parents. It seemed like having Desi genes and breathing American oxygen was a fail-safe combination. God must be really smiling on all these deserving Desis.
Parents were thrilled. And, in spite of lots of time and energy consumed by their need to succeed professionally, they always had the time and energy to look after the cute kids. As a matter of fact, it became the number-one priority for them to make sure their kids got nothing but the best.
Desi success comes from the art of imitation. If one child in town was taking Bharat Natyam lessons, soon, everyone else there was, too. The same thing happened with piano lessons, violin lessons, swimming lessons or tennis lessons. There were simply too many things they wanted to teach their children.
So these cute Desis became smart Desis. They learned Bharat Natyam and performed till the audience fell asleep. If you went to dinner at someone's place you were entertained with a live performance on the piano or violin. With the advent of the video recorder, there were always those moments captured to share with the whole community.
All these extracurricular activities did not come at the expense of education. Cute Desis were expected to be perfect at studying. A child scoring a 98 had to figure out why he/she could not get a 100! Education was the prime factor in success in life. Being a Salutatorian in our community was not a matter of joy, unless, of course, you lost to your twin brother or sister. So it was no wonder that in spite of being only 0.4% of the population, more than 10 percent of Valedictorian, national merit scholars, spelling bee winners, math bee winner or science awards went to cute Desis.
The whole nation was amazed. What was the secret of the success? Was it something in the Curry, Chapati or idli Sambar? We credited our family and culture for having provided the nurturing environment. From the president down to the elementary school teacher, everyone said that we were the exemplary community.
And, just like Americans at the time of "Manifest Destiny," we started believing that we were destined for success. Desi Culture Zindabad!!
So their top priority became preservation of Desi Culture. Our dance, music, tradition, language, religion, food - our way of life - was what we wanted to preserve. No effort was spared. Different cultural and religious organizations thrived, all with the prime objective of preserving the culture for our children. Remember many of us claim that we settled here for the sake of our children!
ABCD (American Born Cute Desi) First eighteen years
Children born to Desi parents were the luckiest children in the world. With two parents sparing no effort to meet their needs, they got more attention than the average American child. Their needs were met. They received a tremendous amount of love and nurturing. Being different than the mainstream Americans did not create much of a problem. By and large they were well respected by the others as high achievers. So they loved being Desi.
Then between the ages of 10-13 the pituitary gland woke up and sent a message for the body and mind to prepare for adolescence. Suddenly, with new hormones flowing in the system, the Desi child started seeing things in a different manner. Suddenly the wonderful Desi parents did not seem so wonderful.
Youth is the time when other kids are enjoying freedom. In school, they see that others openly talk about dating and sex. Some of them are already pregnant in middle school. Smoking and drinking is not that unusual. Some of them are even on drugs. Partly in order to fit with the rest, but mostly due to curiosity or inner need, they gradually question all of the dictums coming from home.
The Desi Solution to American Nightmare
Parents were very aware of the problem of living in the western society. Even though they loved the professional success and independence they enjoyed, they wanted to make sure that the children were protected from all the bad western influences.
This reminds me of the story of Gautama Buddha. When the prophet predicted that young Gautama might renounce the world if he encountered an emotional situation, his parents shielded him from all the unhappy experiences in the life. One day, young Gautama had to confront the reality. And the rest is history. Similarly, Desi parents took an approach to shield their kids from all the bad influences rather than making them capable of handling them. I guess we did not learn much from history.
The basic technique used by parents was to keep children very busy with different activities (Dance lessons and Piano lessons came in handy). And they made it clear to their children that we were not American. And most of the kids never even dared to bring up the subject of dating or sex with their parents. It became the unspoken rule that there were certain things we simply did not do.
The Parents' Formula to Protect the Children
Of course all of this was meant only for the welfare of the children. Keep the children busy so they will have less time to be distracted. Monitor them constantly to prevent them from bad influences.
In order to avoid the influence of western culture, the children were discouraged from spending too much time with Americans, especially African Americans and Hispanic Americans. Spending time with the opposite sex was almost out of question. They were encouraged to spend more time with Desis of the same sex.
Most Desi kids did not have jobs like their high school peers. It might distract from studying, or the child might use the earned income to become more independent.
The parents were very active in encouraging their children to go to a high-power college to focus on academic success and choose a major such as premed or engineering, while discouraging majors in liberal arts or the social sciences.
Religion also became vital to the Desi way of life. Many of the parents who themselves never visited religious places suddenly were learning about and participating in religious functions.
How did the Desi Kids Cope with Desi Love?
While the parents were proud of their dedication to their children, the same was not being felt on children's side. Most of the kids were too polite to tell it to their parents, but it was evident in their behavior. And the few brave ones who ventured to point out this to parents or elders received long lectures. No one was interested in their views. The parents felt that they were too Americanized to see the advantage of our culture now, but would realize when they grew up.
The typical Desi teenager would come home. After a quick, "Hi mom, hi dad, " he/she would soon disappear to the safety of his/her room. Generally there were unwelcome signs on the teenager's door such as "stop," " Don't mess with Texas," "Keep Out." I have yet to see a teenager's room with a "Welcome" sign on it.
Within minutes of getting in the room, their favorite music would turn on. For some reason these kids love the music heavy in the rhythm and liberal in the use of profane language (for the lack of better word the parents call it Kalia music). It was a good thing that parents could not understand the profanity in the lyrics of these songs. Most of the youth have told me that they never listen to the words. They just like the music for the beat!
The next thing was to turn on America On Line. I think if it was not for Desi children the stock of America on Line would loose 50% of its value! Some of their screen names were thought-provoking. I have personally met Guju Pimp and Guju Pimpette (both of them are nice children!) It took me some time to figure out that 143 stood for "I Love You". The Internet provided an escape for Desi kids. While they were physically stuck at home, they could communicate with anyone in the world. I have seen so many 13- year-olds sign off at 10 pm and sign back on at midnight. I guess they waited for their parents to fall asleep to live their life again.
Desi teenagers felt as though they were held hostage in their homes. Their attitude at the dining table was not as warm as we expected. They had to be dragged to Desi parties and functions. There was very little we could do to excite them about participating in our activities. And even when they did come to religious or social events, most of them would huddle with their small cliques and would be happy as soon as the ordeal was over.
At these gatherings, the parents of teenage daughters also behaved in predictable manner. While they pretended to enjoy the conversation or socialization, their eyes were constantly on the lookout for their daughters. And no sooner was she missing from radar screen than they would excuse themselves to find out what was going on.
Children did not quite see all the parental efforts to protect academic excellence as a good thing. It was more like my parents do not trust me and want me to live their dream.
One thirteen year old wrote the following poem for her school assignment.
While you pretend to sleep you hear
Someone is going thru your backpack
All the pockets are checked and
All the books are opened
While you are at school you know
Someone is going thru your closet
They check under the bed and
Between the mattress too
When you get a call you wonder
If someone is listening in too?
When you get the mail you know
Some one has read it too
Is this privacy?
Typical complaints from teenagers were
- My parents do not trust me.
- I have no freedom.
- I am not allowed to be with my American friends or friends of the opposite sex.
- Smoking, drinking or dating was absolutely out of question.
- I am frequently reminded as to what they have done for me.
- There is always a veiled threat of disowning by them should we break the Desi rules.
- The males got preferential treatment and more freedom than female.
- No privacy.
- My parents do not understand anything about American life.
- We are forced to go to religious programs and Desi parties that we hate.
- If we are caught with opposite sex automatically the worst is assumed. And we are called names such as 'prostitute.' They have not concept of relationship.
- They are more worried about what would the other people say or think than what my needs are.
- They say they love me but they are controlling me.