Friday, April 22, 2005

Indian Flower Children

Estelle brought a whiff of fresh air into our sterile cubicle farm the moment she arrived. Much common ground was discovered as we started to get acquainted which is surprising given how different our cultural backgrounds are.

She is a Buddhist, flower child with a wild, colorful youth, practices Vipassana meditation and has backpacked to many obscure places around the world. From running away from home to be at Woodstock to trying mind-altering drugs and everything in between, Estelle has been there done that. Life in the 90s and the new millennium is incredibly staid and boring compared to the best years of her life. We were talking about how I typically enjoy the company of her generation much more than I do that of my own. Some of my best friends are decades older than I.

Estelle says (as do many others of her generation) that there was something magical about that time they were growing up. It was impossible to remain untouched by the winds of revolution all around. Young people believed that the world would change and that they could make a difference. Our generation is enervated in that we pursue our own dreams with a dogged determination but have no desire to start any fires. We have accepted status quo as the state of social reform.

I seem to see that pattern in Indian immigrants in America. The wave of the 60's brought immigrants of a particular stripe. They were dreamers who dared to take a chance on America leaving home and the secure confines of a government job or academia without the slightest idea of what future in their adopted country may hold.

Unlike today's immigrants they were setting foot where very few of their kind had been before. It called for a pioneering spirit - the mark of a true blue immigrant. These people worked unbelievably hard against unbelievable odds to make the American Dream come true.

With informational technology opening floodgates it did not take any strength of character or even special academic talent to come to America. While there still is a super-strata of highly-qualified and talented individuals who are in this country to achieve long cherished goals - professional, academic and personal, the vast majority of the 90's immigrants have no idea why they are where they are.

Like flotsam left ashore after a sea breaker they have been stranded in a country and culture they feel no real affinity to. They stay on in America almost only from inertia. This is the demographic of the immigrant sub-strata that lends color to the popular perceptions held about Indian immigrants.

The Indian American from the 60's may not technically be a flower child like E but it is amazing how much they have in common in thinking and value systems. To be around them is to breathe freedom as it once must have been.

In having flouted conventional wisdom of latching on to the man in my life and instead starting over as a single mother in an alien country, I have like the 60's generation made a leap in faith, believing that my life and J's will be better in a free country. Having made similar choices there is mutual empathy, something my peer group very rarely feels..


SeaSwallowMe said...

very interesting !

just my 2 cents, crossings. but i think that's a broad brush.

i've been here a little while now, and about the only thing i'm sure about is that the diversity in the indian-origin population in this country resists any attempt to line up convenient buckets. just as i'd be hesitant to do the same back in the home-country :)

just as an example, sarah iyers & the oreo-cookie-culture (apologies to any lovers of that particular snack :-P) are seen as much in the present generation as in the past. that really doesn't say much, does it ?

and a discussion about how much of that generation's expression was about "freedom", and how much was just lemmings-in-action (albeit a different flavor, but me-too-ism nevertheless) is probably for another day :-P

Heartcrossings said...

The only objective of a general observation is to understand a trend. Exceptions exist and in sizeable numbers but not quite enough to overturn the trend.

Cultural assimilation is one thing - it is a good thing in many ways. The shift today is towards a skin-deep immersion. That is almost inevitable with vernacular language sit-com recordings available at grocery stores.

The older generations did not have as much access to India in the US as we do. Their metamorphosis was forced by the environment they found themselves in. What better time for that to happen than the swinging sixties.

For those that made the best use of it the results have been exceptional. I have those people in mind as I write. I cannot help comparing them with the average body shopped from backwaters and set up in Edison, NJ along with six others in a cramped apartment with only known skill being VB programming . There is an inordinately high number of these and they cause a huge skew. It does not matter that there are a large number of people that do not fit this bill.

There is a strength in numbers alone. In the 60's there was no such glob of uniform blandness. Not everyone was exceptional but their effect was dispersed across professions and society– not every second guy was a lathe machinist.

asolorebel said...

I disagree with HC's analysis, but agree with her conclusions.

Of the people who came in the 60s, only the dominant person - the student or wage-earner who happened to be male managed to assmilate at a more than skin-deep level. The women did not. The children probably rebelled less as well (compared to the children of today's parents and those in India at the time).

But, my judgment of those people is more sympathetic rather than harsh because they came at a time when the dominant culture here was a lot more alien and the tools of communication (even fluency in English, forget about telephone and Internet) were just not available. So, they lived a "circle the wagons" existence and came into bloom only on the trips to ndia when they could finally show off their riches (and gloss over the emptiness of their lives).

What differentiates the later immigrants is this - they seem to wilfully stick their heads in the sand, resist even sampling (let alone accepting) anything that this society has to offer) and consider it glorious to be that way to the point of scorning anybody who steps out of the fold.

The above applies in a worse way to the "blond streaks" set, who seem to accept the most superficial and banal of influences and don't even realize there is anything else out there.

All this makes it that much harder for those of us who have been adventurous and celeberate how we have changed and grown, to be accepted in the desi set. AND, it takes that much more work to make ourselves understood by the Americans among whom we live.

Recently I was asked the purpose of a bindi. According to some "reconstructionists", it is the third eye or shiva's eye or something that protects blah blah blah.

When I said, it is cosmetic (like wearing lipstick) with a thin cultural association with one's marital status, my colleague was hard pressed to reconcile the two explanations.

A cousin was asked if he is a Brahmin. Yes he said. That means you must be from the high learned class. descended from ... ? No, he told his questioner. I don't beleive in such things. This is no more than an accident of birth. Again, confusion for the American and an uphill battle for the progressive desi!

asolorebel said...

For examples of the 60s immigrant life, read Lahiri's books, especially Namesake. Vapidness personified.

For a profile of recent H1B immigrants read "Suburban Sahibs". I found it disheartening to read how the young Assamese family from Mumbai became more Assamese and less pan-Indian after coming to America.

Heartcrossings said...

Asolorebel - Agree with your observations. I think you make an excellent point.

Mindsurfer said...

I agree completely with asolorebel, but let me supply a cconclusion to that comment :-)

The immigrant of the 60s may have been justified in living the "ring of wagons" life due to the circumstances in this culture at the time of his immigration. He/She might even be excused for still living in the India of the 60s (which most of them do). However, the same justifications may not apply for the immigrants of the 90s. As HC and asolorebel have so succintly put, current immigrants almost have it all on a platter, and yet, many don't want to think about what exactly they are doing here and why. There seems to be no purpose. At least in the 60s, there was a clear purpose in why people chose to immigrate, etc.

As to SSM, touche! my man! I could not agree more.