Salon/Spice of Life/On raising Indian-American kids

Rohit Khare (
Thu, 21 Aug 1997 22:45:41 -0400

Call me parochial, but I've really enjoyed Chitra's columns on Salon... RK

BY CHITRA DIVAKARUNI | last week, when my sons and I were at the post
office, we took a detour to examine the pole in front and admire the big
red, white and blue flag flapping energetically in the wind. Like any good
mother of small children, I wanted to make this into a learning experience.

"Children, what flag is that?" I asked.

"American flag!" said Abhay, who is 3.

"Our flag," said Anand, who is 5. Then he looked at me questioningly.
"Right, Mama?"

It took me a moment to answer. I was remembering a very different flag,
orange and white and green, the Indian flag, the way it flew in the breeze
in front of my old school. It would appear on the theater screen at the end
of every movie we saw in Calcutta, and then we all stood up straight and
sang the national anthem. Every year on Aug. 15, we hand painted small
paper versions of this flag and proudly waved them at independence day

I love America. I've loved it for all of the 20 years I've been here. At
first it was a love laced with amazement and gratitude, so overwhelmed was
I by the many openings and freedoms America gave me. Later, after I chose
to become a citizen, I learned to love it more intimately and critically,
like one loves family. I learned to take on responsibilities, to push for
change, to be a part of the American people. I was happy to think I made a
difference, even if it was a small one.

But this morning, standing in the beautiful California sunshine, trying to
answer my son's question, I felt a surprising twinge in my heart, as though
I were losing something very dear all over again.

"Mama?" prompted Anand, a look of doubt in his eyes.

"Of course it is, sweetheart. Of course it's our flag," I assured him.
There was something else I needed to say, something important about the
complexities of culture and allegiance and patriotism and ancestry, how
they change and yet do not change, but I didn't have the words for it. So
we bought our stamps and aerograms, and then we went home.

That night I couldn't sleep. I sat at our dining table and thought about
what it had meant for me to be Indian, and what it meant for my children to
be American. I thought of the great gap -- mental as much as geographic --
that my moving to this country had created between the generations of my
family: my mother, who lives in a little Indian village, myself, balanced
precariously between two continents, and my children, whose primary ties
will always be to the Bay area. The language Anand and Abhay speak, both
literally and metaphorically, is so very different from the Bengali and
even the Indian English my mother and I grew up with. When I had blithely
boarded the Pan Am airplane that brought me to this country, I'd had no
premonition that any of this would happen.

Perhaps it was the upcoming 50th anniversary of India's independence that
prompted these dark night musings. But I believe all immigrant parents go
through them at some time or other, when they must weigh the gains of what
they have given their American children against the losses.

The gains are more immediately obvious, of course: a great education,
wonderful career opportunities, freedom of movement and speech and thought,
the ability to sample a vibrant multicultural world. But the losses are
there too.

First among them is the lack of extended family -- grandparents, uncles and
aunts, even cousins of cousins -- and the comfortable sense that your
parents' house is only one of the many homes in which you belong. Some of
my happiest early memories are of the times spent with my grandfather, who
taught me to read and to play chess and to love trees. Or of my aunt, who
used to comb my hair free of knots and tie it lovingly into double plaits
with red ribbons. Or of my third uncle's wife, who made the absolute best
fish-fries in all of Calcutta. My children will never have that same sense
of fitting with serendipitous ease into the pattern of other lives. We are
all too busy here, and family gatherings have to be carefully orchestrated.
When my children go to visit their grandmother in India -- perhaps once
every two years -- it is an exciting venture to an exotic place, not a
return to a dear, familiar one. As they grow older, I fear their excitement
will fade (I see this in the older children of friends), and they'll prefer
spending their vacations with their friends, Americans like themselves to
whom they won't have to explain, over and over, about Power Rangers and
Baskin-Robbins and Disneyland. And yet ... Will my children ever fit into
this country in the way a person of European background can? Even though
they were born in America no less than Bruce Springsteen, many people will
look at them and always see foreigners. "Where do you come from?" is a
question that the American children of my Indian friends routinely have to
deal with. Boston, they say, or San Francisco, or Dayton, Ohio. And the
questioner responds with, "No, I mean, where do you REALLY come from?" When
times are bad, and there's a recession, or a war, the question changes. It
becomes, "Why don't you go back where you came from?"

In my dark kitchen I bow my head to pray for strength -- for India, facing,
on her 50th anniversary of freedom, the severe challenges of poverty and
illiteracy and communal violence. And for us all, children of the Indian
diaspora, here on the other side of the world, who have our own challenges.
I pray that we may be able to preserve the values we've gained from our
past: love of family, of traditions, of spirituality and the simple life.
That we may combine them with what we've learned in our new home: energy
and enterprise and how to fight for our rights. This, perhaps, is the best
legacy we can leave our children: The art of being Indian-American.

Aug. 21, 1997

Rohit Khare /// MCI Internet Architecture (BOS) ///
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