Sunday, December 30, 2007

Virtually There

J is always brimming with questions about India and specially Kolkata because her grandparents live there. The memories of the time she spent in India as a baby have long since faded and no amount of reminiscing is enough to revive their vividness. She needs to go back once more, spend time so she can form new impressions that will stay on. In the meanwhile, I try to give her a virtual tour - pictures of Lake Market, Durga Puja and the concept of para (neighborhood).

J's yen for India could well be part of a larger trend unique to her generation. I hear about a lot of kids like her growing up in the West, who love the Indian experience to the point that they beg their parents to stay on forever, or in the least leave them behind to spend time with extended family. It is not surprising that some of choose attending high-school in India like this blogger reports.

Recently, I was with a bunch of first and second generation desi parents (and grandparents) and conversation turned to kids and how they cope with multiple cultural and national identities. One older gentleman had a theory that I found very intriguing. He said, in the 50s and 60s desis were a small minority in America and had to struggle very hard to fit in. They were anxious to acquire the accent and any other external trappings of the western world so they could blend and not stand out.

Such parents did not present a strong, positive role model for Indian identity to their kids. As such, the kids grew up confused and unsure of their relationship with India and everyone in their family who was still back there. It did not help that a lot of these parents were not highly qualified professionals that came in the later decades plus there were none of the IT jobs either. A bulk of them had to start out at low-paying jobs and struggle to make ends meet even as they kept up appearances of having made it in the land of milk and honey.

However from the 80s forward, the desi immigrant did not try nearly as hard fit in - there was no compelling need to do so. By then they had the strength of numbers. Increasingly, they had the qualifications to land high paying jobs and actually live the American dream without needing pretense and artifice. Secure in their social standing in America, they were able to instill pride and confidence about their ethnic identity among their kids.

As a result, these kids did not feel particularly confused or conflicted about growing up Indian in America. To them, the experience was not any different from that of a Tamil kid born in Chennai growing up in Delhi. They are equally at ease in both worlds and think of both as their homes. These are the kids who have grown up watching Hindi soaps on TV at home - they are excited about pairing kurtas with jeans to middle school. They are less likely go brunette with blond highlights to look "anything but desi".

Even if there are exceptions, there is some merit to this theory based on what we see around us.

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