Monday, January 26, 2009

last link in the chain

It's no secret that I love that I'm Indian. I can't get enough of the food, the cheesy movies and the sometimes inexplicable superstitions, and the culture has really shaped who I've grown to be. In recent years I've tried to absorb as much as I can, from learning Devanagari script to unlocking the secret of making a killer gujiya.

But is it all for nothing? Am I going to be the annoying person whose children roll their eyes whenever she tries to get them interested in some music or a movie? Does it make a difference that I can cook all this stuff if nobody wants to eat it? My own brother has never taken a liking to our culture--while we'd dine on dal and chawal or chicken curry and fresh roti, my mom would make him a separate meal of pizza, spaghetti or a hamburger. He's just not into it, and I can accept that, but I hope he'll be more interested when he's older. Because we don't have any family here; he's all I will have beyond my parents. And there won't be many family-friend get-togethers with long folding tables of aluminum vats full of food like those we had during our formative years; even the after-church tea receptions are rarer as time goes on. Besides, our family friends have their own extended networks with whom to share spicy Thanksgiving turkey and four different kinds of bhaji among the plates of mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce. Everyone has moved on, and the preferred path is the one of least resistance. One of my friends even says the reason she doesn't cook Indian food is because her parents do such a good job she just lets them do it.

I wasn't always this keen on the traditions of my culture. When I was in junior high, our family started going to this evening Hindi church service on top of the morning mass we'd attend every Sunday. Mom and Dad wanted to give us a sense of the community they'd left behind. It was a whole lot of praying for a kid, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't think it was a drag. However those sermons boosted my Hindi vocabulary exponentially, and I saw people my age who were actually into the culture. I looked up to them, noticing their pretty outfits and that they already knew how to do all the cool dances and cook complex dishes by the time we were in high school. I wanted in on all that, and for once I felt lame because I didn't embrace my heritage, after all those years among my school friends when the opposite was true. And after a little while, I started appreciating that stuff for its own merit, not only to fit in.

But all of those people have moved on and away. Our family doesn't attend that church anymore. I have several closets full of gorgeous outfits, but noplace to wear them. I can't even cook Indian food in my condo for fear that any lingering aromas might turn off potential buyers. I used to feel so confident saying it doesn't matter--that I'm Indian enough for everyone--but the truth is that holding onto a minority culture is a whole lot of work. And if you're the only one interested in keeping up with it, just doing something you enjoy once in awhile can quickly make you feel like an unwanted proselytizer preaching to deaf ears, even if all you want is some company during a cheesy movie.

When I go back to my parents' house, I can indulge in comfort food, binge on some bad soap operas and catch up with my family in grammatically questionable Hindi. But I won't be able to do that forever. And if enough time and resistance wears away at my enthusiasm, a big part of my identity will be relegated to the spice rack--busted out about as often as a non-Chinese family springs for dim sum or hot and sour soup. And that just makes me want to cry.


Becky said...

it makes me want to cry FOR you - i wish I knew how to prepare Indian food. then again, maybe it's better that I don't - curry breath, fat rolls, etc.

Anonymous said...

I think most first generation Americans are most likely to shed their parent's culture quickly - it is a sort way to declare your independence and this is natural. Woody Allen was actually convinced that as he got older he would start to spontaneously speak Yiddish. My own grandparents grew up speaking German like their immigrant parents, but were almost ashamed to do so in public. You see something like that now with the Hispanic kids here in SoCal.

The food is always the last thing to be lost as the generations become removed from the immigrants, so don't lose those receipes.

Syar said...

I had a bout of wanting to embrace my heritage last year. I was really inspired to at least find out about my family and where we came from and all that. Especially because my mom's gone and after here everyone just started well...passing on. My sister tried to teach me to cook a bunch of times and I keep resisting (I'm more of an eater). She's now the only one with all the recipes and I make stir fries with whatever's in the fridge.

You know what makes me want to cry? The bout has evaporated into nothing since I came home. I am actively trying not to go back to where my parents grow up. I have issues, obv.

That's my attempt to contribute to this, what I think is a great post. I think as sad as it is to possibly not to have people to share this with, you should be proud that you've held on to these things.

Alexandra said...

omg r u pregnant?????????

i think in order for you not to become 'that annoying person showeling culture unrequested down your kids throat' you and your partner who is of different culture then you, have to work together as a team.

I think when BOTH parents team up and present the culture to their children in an interesting way then the kids will accept it and want to know more. But i think it will only work if both parents work together, for example if your partner isnt eating the Borsht with sour cream at dinner your kids may rebell too, and worse be put in a situation of having to choose sides.

I'll be facing the same thing too, Vito being dutch, and me being... umm Not interested in anything Russian, except maybe for Borsht. We'll have to basically pow wow and decide how we're going to educate our kids, ex: some of his cultural things that both of us like, and some of "my" cultural things that both of us like.

I actually proposed that we raise our kids as South Americans, just to keep it a happy medium.

Lia said...

Yup, America's the melting pot. While it's wonderful in some ways, there are pieces of sadness in that.

This post really speaks to me, because I feel that way about my own background - like I'm the last one who cares. How will I pass on that pride to my own kids, when the time comes? And then I think to myself - does it really matter, as long as they're good people? But yes, it does. It would be wrong for a long and proud tradition to disappear just because people are too lazy or too afraid of looking different. Isn't that why America is so great - because we CAN be different without fear? Why do we all feel like we need to be exactly the same?

Noelle said...

I love Indian food, you can share your heritage with me if you want... But you're so right, the odor has an uncanny ability to linger. I worked on an Indian movie in 2004, and we had Indian food catered on set every day, and my old laptop still smells like curry.

Because I'm third and fourth generation American and so many different versions kinds of European, sometimes I feel a little sad that I don't have a little heritage to play with.

cadiz12 said...

becky: a little curry breath can always be cured with a little sonph (fennel) or some gum. easy!

anon: my old boss' parents are from germany and they never allowed him to speak it because they were being targeted in their neighborhood. he's sad about that now because the only thing is that his kids call them Oma and Opa. i stay it's never too late!

syar: it's always tough when there's issues involved, and i know it was hard for you to delve into that stuff last year. i think that's a success, not a failure. plus it's something you and your sister can bond over in the future.

ale: of course not, silly. but now i'm wondering if YOU might be pregnant! i'm not surprised that you have a plan, and i hope that plan includes making me some borscht when i come to visit. your momma's cooking was always so delicious. and then of course there will be samba, right?

Lia: I agree, I'd much rather have a good kid who's not interested than a little hellion who has masala dosa before a night of binge drinking.

noelle: yes, it does linger. and it never smells as good as the day it was cooking. and you're welcome to share mine, anytime.

omar said...

My brother and I are first generation Americans, and the scenario is very similar. He's the older one and the one who always had an interest in the culture, I'm the younger one who didn't. Getting married and having kids has definitely made me more interested, though.

Willowtree said...

I think it is similar for many first generation Americans Cadiz.
Ive felt it often. Visits me at 3am after chasing sleep away. You cant even cook rice and peas. How can you feed a family if you can't cook rice and peas??
Well where exactly am I to learn that now??

This post is about raising children, but it makes so much sense as to how sometimes things get unintentionally left behind. I think many of us are searching for the tourniquet. To keep some of out culture about us.

naechstehaltestelle said...

I was always pretty into my culture (excluding that time in junior high when I just wanted to be like everyone else). My sister has never been into being Chinese, but she's slowly coming around. Being different makes us feel special and a part of something bigger. That's really nice. Children are unpredictable, and you never know how they will embrace (or not embrace) their culture. As long as you talk to them, they'll get it eventually. And make them lots of Indian food, so at some point, they won't be able to live without it.

Librarian Girl said...

If we ever meet in real life, we are totally making four kinds of bhaji and dressing up in salwaar kameezes and the whole shebang.

Guyana-Gyal said...

I've watched movies, tv shows, that tell of the struggles between immigrant parents and their children growing up in places like Canada and America, they were painful, those movies.

It's interesting how much harder it seems to 'hold on' to one's cultures in places like America & Canada. I wonder what it's like for children in other 'big' countries.

I remember growing up 'cringing' against things Indian, but I was soon taught that 'cringing' is wrong. [The Aussies have this expression 'cultural cringe' which explains it all].