The United States is commonly referred to as a “melting pot” because of its diverse mix of ethnic and racial groups. Read about the experiences of one young American whose parents immigrated to the United States from India in the 1970s. The dynamic of both Indian and American culture within the family was often a source of tension, and yet, ultimately, this Indian-American woman came to appreciate and understand the richness of her unique cultural heritage.
By S. Mani

was born and raised in America and therefore, by nationality, I am American. For many of us first-generation Indian-Americans, our parents were born in India and moved to the States in search of opportunity. With a student visa, a work visa, green cards in progress, and the beginning of a new family, my parents couldn’t afford to “search for their passions” like many of us twenty-somethings are encouraged to do these days.

Since we first-generation Indian-Americans don’t have these same sources of pressure, it seems that our parents have to create artificial pressure for us in the form of expectations. We are often expected to attend the best universities in the world, excel academically and artistically, choose a lucrative profession, by which our success is measured, and lastly, find a suitable mate within our same race and religious background who has followed the same aforementioned criteria. Many feel that these pressures are justified considering that their Indian parents have made sacrifices to ensure that their children have a very comfortable life in a developed nation as well as the academic and professional opportunities that they only dreamed of as children. Living in the U.S., my parents lacked the familiarity of their surroundings and a strong support system. These are sacrifices they made partly for themselves but also so my sister and I could have the opportunities that they never did.

Many of us want to follow our families’ wishes because we know they want what is best for us. A career in engineering, medicine, accounting, banking, information technology, consulting, and law are seemingly stable professions with above-average pay. When speaking to other members of the South Indian community, I often hear “I work for Price Waterhouse Coopers” or “I’ve been an Associate Consultant with Bain and Company for two years now”. These are approved responses when asking about jobs. If we say anything different, we run the risk of criticism and being judged for our “poor choices”. Although the Indian community is progressing, and international commerce and development are causing generation X to change these perceptions, to me, this seems like quite a slow process. According to many South Indian parents, we should choose one of these “successful” professions early on and dedicate our lives to it.

But, I ask, what if we need to find our own paths? What if we’re not satisfied with the cookie-cutter life that has been set forth for us and instead want to explore our passions?  What if we actually want to make mistakes, and learn from them? In making these decisions for our lives, do we cheat our families or do we cheat ourselves?

I grew up on an imaginary border that exists in the minds and hearts of many South Asian youth who were born and raised outside of South Asia. From the outside, apart from looking different with my brown skin and black hair, I seemed to have an ordinary life. I grew up in a typical, quiet, suburban neighborhood and attended the local public schools. During the summer, I had a babysitter, went to the pool with the neighbors, celebrated 4th of July with fireworks and barbecues, and even joined the swim team. However, at home, it was a different story.

All of the pressures of being a first generation Indian-American begin at a young age. It’s not just about the profession we choose. We are raised, first and foremost, with a rigid guideline as to the person we are supposed to be academically, and later, professionally. When I was in first grade, I began to see how seriously my parents took academics. It was sufficient that I learned how to read and tie my shoelaces in kindergarten, but for some reason, in first grade, the expectations sky-rocketed and the standards for spelling and math were unimaginable for me at that time. There were many nights I sat at the kitchen table, victim to the authoritative, dictatorial attitude of my parents, forced to learn mathematical concepts and to spell words repeatedly until I got them correct consistently. It could have been eleven or even midnight on a school night. It didn’t matter. Accuracy and perfection were always the goals, and while the consequences were physically painful, the anticipation of this pain was even worse. The physical abuse sometimes even amounted to bruising, but none of this would have been so painful if it weren’t for the harsh words that accompanied the abuse – being told by my father repeatedly that I would never amount to anything. Needless to say, due to fear, my spelling tests were almost always perfect and I ultimately excelled mathematically.

When the weekends came, it would feel like I was traveling to another country considering how different they were from the typical, American suburban life I led during the week. For example, my family often visited the temple on Sundays. Hinduism was supposed to be an aspect of my culture, but I would sit at the temple listening to Sanskrit slokas and prayers I didn’t understand, simply doing what I was taught to do. I only understood the significance behind my actions from a logical and knowledge-based perspective; I didn’t know how to emotionally experience the blessings I was supposedly receiving through religious ceremonies. There was never any comfort that I was with “my own kind”; I felt out of place at the temple, especially considering my lack of emotional connection to the rituals and my American accent. While I am thankful for the opportunity to have experienced the beauty of the events and prayers of the temple, it was challenging to experience all of this in a predominantly Christian neighborhood and city in the Southern part of the United States.

My weekends were most defined, however, by my weekly dance classes. On Saturday mornings, I woke up around seven or eight o’clock for dance practice. For thirteen years, I learned Bharatanatyam (an ancient, traditional and religious dance that was first performed in Hindu temples as a way of worshipping the Gods). My sister and I both have performed in numerous cultural programs and venues around Atlanta, including the Hindu Temple of Atlanta and the Indian American Cultural Association.

Unlike many who have read and studied the Bhagavad Gita (the primary religious text of Hinduism), most of my learning of Hinduism has been through dance. Many of the dances tell a story through gestures and intricate, detailed movements. For example, in the dance, Varnam, I learned about the sad story of one devoted woman who dedicated much of her life to loving Krishna, the eighth reincarnation of the Hindu God, Vishnu. She loved him so much and would often see him appear from time to time, but he never stayed for more than a few moments at a time before disappearing once again. It seemed as if Krishna would only appear as her angel to support her in life or as her tormenter by ensuring that her longing for his love never died even though it could not be obtained. Through gestures and facial expressions in dance, I depicted how this beloved devotee couldn’t enjoy the simple pleasures of life due to her pain for an unattainable love.

Although I had the opportunity to learn a beautiful, traditional art form of India, to wear incredibly ornate costumes, and to perform what I believe to be the most aesthetically-pleasing dance in the world, I didn’t appreciate this when I was younger. As a child growing up in America, especially in the South, where cultural knowledge and integration wasn’t as progressive as one may have thought, none of my classmates knew or understood what I was doing. I barely understood it myself at the time. I hated waking up early every Saturday morning, and I didn’t like missing out on the fun activities that my friends were doing. I saw all the other little girls going for slumber parties on Friday nights, visiting family and friends, going to the park for a picnic or riding roller coasters at an amusement park. This was a dramatic contrast to my Saturday mornings, which consisted of me tapping my bare feet hard onto concrete floor with movements that were in accordance with the wooden stick and block that my dance instructor used to guide the beat. Before performances, dance practice was even more draining and time consuming because, in addition to Saturday morning practice, I often had Sunday practice at home and after-school practices. While growing up, I saw Bharatanatyam as a hindrance to experiencing my youth as opposed to an enhancement of the richness of my childhood.

While in high school, I participated in both soccer and dance. However, soccer was always stalled by the time commitment dance involved. After experiencing a minor injury in dance class, I made the rebellious decision to quit dance completely! It was truly devastating to my mother, but I decided to prioritize my own desires over hers. In the summer of 2001, the year after I made this considerably drastic decision, I traveled to Madurai, a city in the southern part of India, where most of my family is from. My grandfather was ill and he was the last of the grandparents that I had. This was not a visit for pleasure but rather a critically important visit, as I knew this was going to be the last time I would see him. One of the things he had asked for, just days before he passed away was that I continue with dance. My mother pleaded with me as well. Doing Bharatanatyam wasn’t just about doing any extra-curricular activity like dance class is for most people in the United States; this was about a commitment to my culture, heritage, and most importantly, my family.

I was seventeen at the time when my grandfather made this request, and in my bitterness, I still refused. I thought about all the other activities I had wished to pursue growing up and about the pressure I had felt at being forced to take dance classes. My refusal sparked a flame of anger within my mother and she threatened to never support me in any extra-curricular activity ever again unless I completed my Arangetram, a kind of graduation of Bharatanatyam. This threat, while probably untrue, caused me to resist even further. Nevertheless, while on the plane, returning to the States, I saw the hopeful look in my mother’s eyes when she sincerely requested once again that I continue with dance. If not for her, she hoped I would at least change my mind for my recently deceased grandfather. This is when I realized that continuing my learning and eventually doing my Arangetram wasn’t about me anymore. It hurt to see my mother’s face and it hurt even more to look into her eyes. She had just lost her last parent, and I couldn’t bear to see her in any more pain.

Needless to say, when my final year of high school began, I started going to dance practice multiple times a week for intensive training for my Arangetram. The tables had turned due to the time commitment and physical intensity that this training involved – two-hour practices with hardly any breaks, no air conditioning and no fan. I had to give up soccer completely.

My Arangetram took place on July 28, 2002, the day before my mother’s birthday. It was my gift to my mother and a dedication to my grandfather. I performed at the Roswell Cultural Arts Center with a live orchestra in front of about 400 people. In addition to dance practice, this entire year of training for the event involved several ceremonies at the temple to ask for blessings for my physical endurance, strength and for the success of the performance. The odd thing is that once it was all over and there were no more pressures, I felt like a part of me was gone, a sort of emptiness that I hoped wouldn’t last forever. Regardless of whether or not I liked Bharatanatyam, it was a significant part of my life, and now it was all over.

When I entered university, I attempted to fill this void by trying out different kinds of dance – belly-dancing, salsa, swing, ballroom, and even hip hop. I also had opportunities to do Bharatanatyam performances at a couple of wedding receptions. I learned Kathak, a north Indian style of dance, at a dance academy for about six months after graduating. I came to realize the beauty and dedication Bharatanatyam requires, and I have since learned to appreciate and accept it as the most intriguing style of dance in the world.

While I often felt different and out of place as a child, now as an adult, I feel that these differences only enhance my personal history and background. I’m no longer afraid to be unique. With respect to my parents’ views of academics, I can see how my upbringing affected my academic skills since I first started learning math. Over the years, I continually performed well in math classes, and I possess sharp logical behavior and problem-solving skills. Considering the illogical spelling of many words in the English language, I truly believe that the memorization skills I developed in first grade have enhanced my ability to learn foreign languages in school, another subject in which I always excelled. There are, in fact, positive outcomes from the way I was brought up, and yet I feel like nothing in life comes for free and that I had to suffer for my success. While I am thankful for the person that I have become, it is still painful to remember certain times of my past. As an adult, it is difficult to observe education in America and how it seems to incorporate so many “fun” activities and a sensitivity to learning difficulties and disabilities. I wish this had existed in my home.

I have decided to view all that has happened with a different perspective than the one I had growing up. I can’t change the way I was raised. I feel like I received the stereotypical Indian, possibly even generally “Asian” upbringing. Instead of positive reinforcement and “fun”, which is what the American public school education heavily incorporates, my upbringing often involved harsh, negative reinforcement and the instilment of the element of fear. However, I can see how this upbringing has made me into the person I am today; I am capable of dedicating myself to what I want in life and have the discipline to follow my goals. I am analytical and detail-oriented, two characteristics that I attained from the way I was taught by my parents. Lastly, whether I agreed with the method or not, my parents played an active role in my education, for which I am very fortunate. As an adult, I can make the best of both worlds; I can take these attributes and experience the world through my own eyes and actions. I know that following a cookie-cutter path like engineering or law has its benefits, and I can certainly admire people who pursue those professions. However, I have created my own definition of success and decided to use my passion for languages to pursue completely atypical jobs for my South Indian community regardless of whether or not they are accepted. Ultimately, I will only have a chance of being accepted by my family and fellow community once I can fully accept myself, and that is exactly what I’m working on right now.

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