Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Social Lynching

Each time I return from a desi do where I've had to feel like an outcast because I don't come packaged like a "normal" family, I have wondered how many more times I have do this for J's benefit. At what point would the cultural assimilation be complete so I did not have to put up with desis being their desi-est worst on their own turf. I have gone into these things knowing fully well what to expect but they presented the only opportunities for J to learn about Indian festivals and social customs, meet a bunch of people who looked like her and spoke Indian languages.

It felt wrong to deprive her of the opportunity and risk her growing up with a distorted view of her cultural roots. But my patience is running thin and each time it is a little bit harder to bite the bullet and show up with my child when every pore of me wants to run away. Most often the hosts and a few other close to them already know that there is no husband in my domesticity.

Apparently, word passes around quickly. I have the more cultivated among the guests refrain from any inquiries about my spouse or the lack of one. Invariably, the wife will engage me in conversation alone in the corner of the living room farthest from where the action of the party is and the husband will not be introduced - I guess the standards of decency that apply to normal people do not translate to pariahs of desi society.

The rest make it a point to hear about the missing spouse from the horses mouth. Nothing less will satisfy them. All roads lead to Rome as they say. We could be talking about the recipe for the tasty dhokla someone's brought to the party but a detour will emerge from that conversation leading on to questions such as "Where does your husband work ?"

The moral of the story is when you are divorced and desi, all conversations are minefields and there will be no respite until the all important question of the absent spouse is laid to rest in unequivocal terms. Thereafter, you become the leper of desi society left to lick your wounds by the fringes.

Its no different in the workplace either. I have spent close to a year with a group of American co-workers of various ethnicities and colors and never had anyone ask me one question about my marital status. Along comes a desi new hire and it takes her all of two days to ask me about my husband.

Even after all these years, the incorrigible desi does not cease to amaze me. Home or abroad they just don't know how to mind their own business, maintain a friendly but professional relationship with another desi in the workplace. I have been lucky in that everywhere I have worked, I have been able to get my job done with minimal desi interactions. It helps that in the American workplace it is acceptable to be polite but refuse to engage with a co-worker at a personal level.

What irks me most is that I left India to live and work in the States in large part due to such oppressive social mores. I did not want to be treated like an outcast for the rest of my life. It is almost masochistic going into these desi gatherings in America only to receive the kind of treatment I have worked very hard to avoid. I believe there is a point of diminishing return - the gains in the form J's cultural acclimatization weighed against me volunteering to be made to feel like a pile of trash. Something's got to give.

An older desi gentleman had some words of wisdom for me on this very subject - namely my struggles to give J a sense of what her desi identity without getting socially mauled and lynched in the process. In his opinion, desis were being desis when they behaved the way they did. J's understanding of the culture would be quite incomplete - even incorrect without having observed that the average desi treated her divorced mother like she was a contagious disease.

Participating in community Diwali and Holi celebrations did not quite cut the mustard when it came to understanding desis and how their minds worked. Was I not interested in giving J an opportunity to see the real desi deal ? To that end, he thought that my situation was an unique gift in as far as the perspectives if offered my child into the world of desis. I should be grateful for that.

What's more, if I remarried the same people who treat me like an untouchable now would roll out the welcome mat for my "family". Unless I was a self-hating desi I should welcome this change of heart as a natural transition that is expected to happen in my culture. J would have known both sides of the story and come to a true understanding of the desi. According to him, I was foolish in complaining about what was really a lifetime learning opportunity for my child. Trying to cherry-pick the desi experience is actually counterproductive. I should just go with the flow, muck and all knowing its best for J's greater edification.

I was not able to take this lemon to lemonade harangue too seriously but increasingly I think he was on to something there. Other advice I have received has ranged from "Mothers have to sacrifice a lot for their children. This is only about swallowing your pride for J's sake and only for a few hours. Don't think too much about it" to "Chuck the desis. Cultural assimilation is way overrated anyway. J will turn out to be a good kid. Why get so hung up on making a desi out of her and deal with all that crap ?"

My biggest fear is as J grows older and understands all the negativity I have to put up with from people of my own color and culture, she will develop a lasting distaste for all things desi.

That was definitely not what I was setting out to achieve and it would be a sad thing if it did happen. But the only way I know to prevent the worst is to insulate and isolate her from desidom and that I know is not the right answer either. It might turn her into one of those kids who hate being identified with India and Indianness.

I want her to know that I am proud of my cultural heritage and have desi friends who are not anything like what she sees at the average Holi celebration. That there is a subculture worth identifying with and one that defines home and who I am. As my friend T would say "If you can't even identify with a certain brand of desi culture, what's the point of introducing J to it ?" I still hope there is a happy medium that I just haven't found yet.


oneandonly said...

You write really well.. The reader can pretty much feel your feelings.

ggop said...

This morning my coworker said "My parents divorced years ago" in the middle of a conversation. I wish desi men and women can be this casual while discussing their marital status.

Single wo/men above 30, (maybe age is relaxed a bit for guys), divorcees, child free couples, childless couples all are sitting ducks in desi parties.

Heartcrossings said...

oneandonly - Thanks !

ggop - I hear you. The golden rule for fitting in as a desi is to be "normal" by the exacting desi standards. The rest as you rightly say are sitting ducks.

Suchi said...

ggop and hc, as a childfree and slightly unconventional couple, we get a lot of this. I often think this is because I haven't found the right kind of desi friends. But maybe this isn't the case.

I find every conversation, in my case, leading to children. I wouldn't mind so much if there wasn't the assumption that it is some kind of a tragedy (that I haven't had kids). There's alternately false sympathy, a sense of envy, and unwanted advice!

wanderlust said...

Hi HC,

I empathise a lot with your writings. While, I am usually not subjected as trying a situation as yours in desi dos, as single woman in my 30s I have started feeling a duck out of the water many times. The desis I socialise with are usually close friends I knew from the time we were all in our 20s, so those relationships are intact and since I like kids and bond with their kids, I feel comfortable there.

However, when these same friends have bigger dos (birthday parties etc.) where I have to meet their extended circle it is very trying. As you said, the men and women segregate, the men discuss green cards and prices of commodities in walmart and the women their families and the kids. I don't mind that sort of thing in small doses but after a point it gets very boring.

Sometimes, you have people who would very patronisingly characterise you as a 'bachelor' and add their two bit opinions on your situation. By and large, those parties are a pain.

However, I have a music passion and through music activity groups I meet interesting desis who are far more engaging company. By and large the average desi you meet here in the US is quite trying.