The other day I was reading a piece in the local newspaper written by an Indian woman, who’s an émigré to the U.S. She was describing her first couple of years in the U.S, the culture shock, and the adjustments that she had had to make in her new surroundings. What set me thinking was her conclusion that she had now finally come to feel at home in her adopted land. It was a sensitive and humorous piece, yet the conclusion left me feeling unsettled. Is it that simple? Can a first generation immigrant be completely assimilated or, more importantly, feel that way? Is it just a question of giving it time, say 5, 10, 20 or X number of years? Is adaptation a generic problem or is it culture specific? Would I have felt more at home in the U.S had I been from Europe instead of India? The questions are numerous; the answers are out there, somewhere, waiting to be pulled by the fishnets of introspection. Or so I hope.
The last question is one that can be debated either way. Yes, most immigrant communities stay closely huddled together and the Indian community is no different. Despite its external malleability, the internal resistance in the émigré to change in traditional conventions is huge. The arrival in a new abode triggers euphoria and culture-shock in cycles, the remnants of which continue to stake their claim even after years.
From a personal perspective, I am still an infant here, if my stay here is to be counted chronologically … yet even I have evolved in subtle ways. The other day I called my alma mater in India for a certificate. The gentleman on the other end of the phone asked my name. I started to spell it—habituated as I am to spelling my name out for phone orders, doctors’ clinics, and what have you! Yet with each subtle change, I become more aware of where I came from and how things were different at home. In India.
There is a blissfulness and chaos that characterizes a typical town in India. The constant intermingling hum of the noises of the honking motorists, screaming vendors, and people going about their lives is a sound that one gets used to. Only its absence then, registers its one-time presence.
Cut to a new world, a new country.
Here our concept of space expands to fill more space … quite literally. People talk differently, the color of my skin is different, my religion is different. My world has changed in many small ways—the dates are written differently, the switches are switched on the “wrong” way and the traffic goes in the “wrong” direction.
The lack of a support system, as vibrant as the one back home, hits hard. No more domestic help, no more neighborhood tailor to pick mock fights with, no more help in ironing clothes, no more relatives to comfort and throng in your house when you are sick. There is no Republic Day Parade on Jan. 26, and no Independence Day speech on television on Aug. 15. There is no Holi or Diwali and if you want fireworks on Diwali, you will have to save them on the Fourth of July. Each day in my new country is a day of learning, a day in a saga of adaptation where my understanding of the nuances of life in my adopted country is constantly challenged.
Though we do adapt, it seems that immigrants have multiple personalities. For the first generation immigrant, external adaptation proceeds with the creation of Little Indias in their homes. India as they know it. India as they remember it. This renders it hard for the second generation to piece their identities together into a coherent whole, due to the inconsistencies that have been pumped into their lifestyle by seeing different worlds at home and outside. To call them ABCD (American Born Confused Desis) is to make light of the gravity of their situation. But this piece is not about them. This piece is about the FOBs (Fresh Off the Boat) who eventually do not remain fresh, but whether they have been totally welcomed aboard is a debatable point.
I have often wondered why so few among the Indians here have close friends in other ethnic communities. I wondered what it was that did not make us fit in. For a while I mistakenly attributed that to racism or apathy. It was something simpler. It was the fear of the unknown. It is human nature to minimize the effort to learn new things. We stick to the familiar and stay away from the unknown.
For most, friendship is a question of finding common ground. The place where you have spent the major part of your growing years are of paramount importance simply because a lot about you is your geography. It is this geography that supplies friendships with common ground: the school you went to, the park you played in, the movies playing when you were growing up. To others we seem a little strange sometimes, and different most of the time. It is hard to explain the subtleties of our culture; the vibrancy that diversity brings to the psyche of the community and how there is no one epitome of Indian-ness.
The other day I was in a writing class, and we were reading scripts from a screenplay. I was to read a part for a character that had a southern accent. “That’s going to be hard,” I joked. “South of India, honey!” a woman next to me said dismissively. “Even that is going to be hard for me,” I said. She just looked puzzled. She could not understand why even that would be hard for me.
The truth is, human beings are like a presentation template—you can change what you fill in, but not what is already there. Which means never forgetting where we came from. We miss something here, we don’t quite know what. Is it the language? The cinema? So we compensate. Try to stick to the familiar. Go to Indian doctors, Indian grocery stores, stick to Indian friends and make them our surrogate family, play cricket and antakshari. For the bonds must not be broken.
A major player in this artificial and long distance bonding process is cinema. Cinema serves as a reminder of the land where we came from. We watch more Indian movies here, than while we lived in India. No wonder producers vie to sell foreign rights of Hindi movies for the highest amounts, and most Bollywood stars make more money in star shows here than they do in a few movies put together.
We long for home. We try to visit home on a regular basis. For the bonds must not be broken. Which sometimes brings a share of disillusionment. For the expatriate, the India which they have long left has changed and grown and when every now and then when they visit the country which gave birth to them, this change pricks their time-warp balloon. That idyllic utopian India that we long for never existed in the first place, even when we left it, whenever that might have been.
Of course it is not all bad. There are great rewards in learning and personal growth. Immigrants have a very rich life because of their exposure to different cultures. Coming to the U.S. has made me an Indian, above and beyond my fragmented regional identity in India. Yet where I differ from the woman who wrote that article is in my belief that it is not all rosy and feeling at home is not synonymous with having the knowledge to navigate the system. For the unwavering truth is that you cannot feel completely at home away from home.
Radhika Sharma writes from Milpitas, CA.