Sunday, April 19, 2009

Schizoid Indentity

The racial stereotyping in children's literature Mitali Perkins refers to is possibly less evident in books at J's reading level but it is useful for me to learn this is something I should watch out for as she matures. I do like the questions Perkins challenges readers to think about as they read works of fiction set in multi-racial, multi-ethnic milieus. Who better qualified than a second generation immigrant to call attention for the need of a candid discussion about race.

She begins her article citing the oft-repeated manifestations of the schizoid identities that children of new immigrants have to live and deal with. Each time I read something that is at least in part provoked by this whole dichotomous existence business, I have to wonder why root cause is so seldom addressed. The problem is not with the kids growing up having to grapple with two disparate identities. Instead, it is about parents who have not been able or willing to reconcile two worlds and cultures for themselves and their families.

The way the kids turn out is a symptom of a malaise that has little to do with them and much to do with their parents. The idea is somehow that parents simply cannot make the attitudinal and cultural adjustments they must in order for their children to experience some homogeneity between the world inside and outside their homes.They have done their part by immigrating and suffering all consequent hardships - it seems one cannot in good conscience expect them to do any more than that.

It is therefore okay for them to shut their families into little enclaves of native community and culture rendering it impossible for the kids to feel at home in the country of their birth, less feel one with its culture. The kids are forced to over-extend and over-compensate to fit in working against the huge drag force created by their parents. As a result, these kids grow up fitting in (or not) with varying degrees of success depending on their individual characteristics.

Should the adults in the equation not be held to a higher standard ? If they make the conscious decision emigrate to a country whose culture is very dissimilar to their own, they might also want to take responsibility and go the necessary distance to make the experiment work out for their kids who had no part or vote in the decision. It is simply not adequate or even conscionable for parents to portray themselves as martyrs who scarified at the altar of a better life for their kids and be absolved of all further responsibility.

Yet that is exactly what a majority of new immigrants tend to do and transmit their racial, ethnic and cultural anxieties on to their children to resolve. When these kids grow up they end up writing angst-ridden dissertations and/or works of fiction on their condition of divided identities instead of asking the tough questions they should ask their parents. If their angst is significant enough they may even become a Russel Peters.

By doing any and all of these things, they become part of the problem instead of the solution.Instead of breaking the cycle, they help perpetuate it. By asking parents to take more responsibility and answering the question "How" they could do so, adult children of immigrant parents can effectively challenge every new immigrant to do what it takes to resolve the issues of race, culture and ethnicity with some coherency instead of placing the onus on young kids largely ill-equipped to deal with them.

Their schizoid identity is not some kind of fait accompli - there may have been ways to prevent it. As a FOB parent, I often feel I am the one most in need of help navigating the cultural differences between my countries of birth and domicile. If and when I have my act together, the matter of helping J find her way around her world should become a fairly simple matter.

Sadly, second generation immigrants have no interest in helping FOBs like myself learn the ropes - the community as a whole does not benefit incrementally from their growing-up experience and or their unique vantage point. The Indian stand-up comedian miming their parent's FOB foibles is useless commentary for my demographic as are tomes such as The Namesake.

Intentionally or otherwise, Perkins, Lahiri et al end up stereotyping us FOB parents as gauche, clueless retards with thick accents and odd mannerisms who are a source of acute embarrassment to our children. While this makes for good entertainment, it is hardly the education FOB parents could use to make life easier for their kids.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very good points!

As time goes on, my impatience with Lahiri and her ilk only increases.

But, I also blame the native culture that is too timid to question the self-segregating and self-exotifying choices of such authors.

It is as if the mainstream culture is saying - we want our society to be ethnically diverse AND inclusive. And to that end, we want you to be emphatically ethnic. For, if you blend in, then that will make us all bland. Plus, WE don't want the burden of having forced your assimilation. All in all, better you stay distinct even if that means you stay apart. In other words, the mainstream culture is the enabler of this particular dysfunction.

Even outlets like NPR are guilty of this.

Imagine a world in which narratives like Lahiri's languish in obscurity! And instead, we are offered reflections about finding the balance - a little of this and a little of that - and doing so with an organic rather than a contrived pursuit of authenticity.