Friday, March 31, 2006

Identity: The Quest for Comfort Within Our Skins

Every year during summer break, our family visited my aunt and cousins who lived in Thiruvunnamalai in Tamil Nadu, home to the Ramana Maharishi Asharamam. Each visit to that town included numerous visits to the Ashram at which, for us kids, the free-roaming peacocks on the premises were the main attraction.

At the entrance to the main hall of the Ashram, a huge white metal board with light blue lettering laid out the Maharishi's manifesto that I diligently tried to read and grasp at every visit, but gave up somewhere between the second and the fourth sentences.

"Who am I?" the manifesto began and proceeded to try to answer that simple question.

To my young mind, that was a rather silly question to ask, to say the least. In the intervening years, although I've realized the import of that question, I have never felt the need to examine my life quite in that way.

But, surrogate queries do crop up often as my various identities try not to imitate a multi-car pile up on an icy interstate: daughter, sister, wife, mother, niece, cousin, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, aunt, student, employee, a Person of Indian Origin, Non-Resident Indian (as various institutions in India label me), a Resident Alien, Amerian citizen, a stay-at-home mom (improbably, American media has coined an acronym for this - SAHM), working mom, writer, radio jockey, lawyer, first-generation immigrant raising a native born American far away from the social structure of my upbringing, expat in my own hometown, Hindu who attended Catholic schools, woman, friend, colleague, someone who gets riled up at certain things that happen in society but hates labels (I really don't know if I'm a feminist or a liberal or a conservative, and I really don't care), non-vegetarian.

Needless to say, the list goes on.
In our normal lives, we see ourselves as members of a variety of groups - we belong to all of them....Each of these collectivities, to all of which this person simultaneously belongs, gives her a particular identity. None of them can be taken to be the person's only identity or singular membership category.
So says Amartya Sen in his collection of essays, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny.

"The essential plurality of human beings, and how the undermining of this plurality lies behind most of the world's conflicts, are the central themes," of Sen's book, writes Jai Arjun Singh in his excellent review.

I can already see these multiple identities taking shape in my young son. He's been in school in India for about a year and a half now, and his accent does the switcheroo as he moves between different social groups. Among his friends at school he puts on an Indian accent; among his expat friends, he's the true blue American.

At any one point in time, only one of these identities may come to the fore, while the others hang back, waiting to be pulled off the shelf, dusted off and worn.

But do we really ever succeed in shaking off any of these identities? Should we even want to shake off any one of them? If so, why?

These are questions that all of a sudden seem to be plaguing the literary world, the blogosphere, perhaps society in general. Or may be I'm just noticing these things because I'm thinking about these issues now, you can never tell (it's like when you learn a new word and that word seems to crop up everywhere all of a sudden).

In DESI Confusion, Parts 1 and 2, Vikas Chowdhry explores the "confusion" he says ails Indian immigrants which they then transfer to their children, the second-generation Americans. In Part I he gives us a hint of the problem,
Of course, we like to think that we have the ability to straddle both cultures and environments successfully - the culture of our birth and the culture of our adopted homeland but at every opportunity, life throws surprises and litmus tests that constantly prove that assumption false. We try to preserve our culture and our way of thinking and force them on our kids, in turn making them confused and clipping their wings.
Hilal Isler writes about two immigrant waiters at an Indian restaurant in Immigrant Dreams - Desis Everywhere Searching For Identity,
At one point last night, when Naseem (one of the waiters) was talking animatedly with V. about the upcoming World Cup, (soccer?) I caught myself staring at him. Here he was, this confident, 20-something guy, full of life, surely full of ambitions--or at least, dreams--stuck in this dimly-lit Indian restaurant with nothing much to look forward to. It just seemed so tragic. I felt my heart sink.
Hilal expresses frustration at attempts to "decide which group is more *confused*--those American-born, or their immigrant-equivalents,"
I wish folks would stop being so interested in passing judgment about one another and just recognize that, ultimately, minorities of color in this country--foreign-born or not--are peas in pretty much the same pod. I wish we would acknowledge, then embrace the similarities that link us all, and use those common experiences/sensibilities to form communities of strength.
A related question is how much does the land of our origin influence our identities? Is it the be all and end all, or are there other factors at play? Home is where the heart is, as the cliché goes. This also means that we identify ourselves most with places where we feel most comfortable. Shashi Tharoor in last Sunday's column in The Hindu says "... it little matters where you were born; what is important is where you belong, where your soul has its allegiance."

Aaman Lamba echoes that sentiment in Eastern Standard Tribe - Identity In A Place So Foreign and asks,
In the impermanent global flux, does it matter any more where I'm from, where I'm going?


Nowadays, who I am is related to where I am. My identity is formed by the history of my place of birth, and where I grew up, but my current location creates an affinity that I must adhere to, often at the cost of my place of naissance.
Sometimes, one aspect of our identity overtakes the rest despite attempts by family or friends, functioning under social pressure perhaps, to supress it. Perhaps that aspect asserts itself and becomes stronger than it would have been if only to survive in the face of all that opposition.

In Lakshya: The Farmer Prince Comes Out, Nitin Karani tells the story of Manavendra Singh Gohil.
The coming out of Manavendra Singh Gohil as a gay man has caused quite a stir in Gujarat within the circles of the erstwhile princely families: specifically in his native Rajpipla.


Manav is a royal by birth and an earthworm-farmer by profession...but his heart is with his organization, Lakshya [a registered public charitable trust, Gujarat's first and only community-based organization (CBO) working for HIV/AIDS prevention among men who have sex with men].
Sometimes though, our own attempts to supress parts of our history that make up our identity suffer the same fate - of actually showing up in all sorts of places. Anil Menon illustrates that point in his essay on William Makepeace Thackeray,
It's probable that Thackeray too was the product of a distant miscegenation; not so distant that people didn't remember but distant enough that it didn't matter. His maternal grandmother, Harriet Cowper — Anne Becher's mother — is thought to have been of Indian origin, perhaps twice or thrice removed.... Such doubts about pedigree, in that time and place, could be a heavy burden.


Thackeray's anxieties popped up in his conversations, letters, novels and essays.


Indeed, for someone with Thackeray's sensitivity — several peers referred to it as being almost "womanly" — his secret would've been like a convex mirror, distorting the familiar and revealing...
Richard Marcus, who, until recently, went by the name of Gypsyman, extolls the virtues of not revealing too much of one self in Exposing Gypsyman,
There's an incredible amount of freedom that you get from wearing a mask. When nobody can see your face, they aren't going to judge you by your appearance only by what thoughts you're willing to reveal. We all wear masks most days of the week anyway whether we know it or not.
But, as time wore on, he says, "I started to discover parts of myself that I actually like. Once that happened, I realized it was only a matter of time until it I would put the [masked identity] out to pasture".

Sure enough, Gypsyman threw off his mask and revealed his true identity.

In sharp contrast to this shaking off of identities or supressing them is the idea of embracing each one (potentially at odds with one another) as I alluded to above. And in this age of globalization and attendant immigration of people from their home countries to far corners of the world, not only is this desirable, but also necessary.

And in that sense, I'm very happy that my son has decided to jump in and bandy about expressions such as "ayyo!" and "abba!" with abandon (although I confess I cringe every time I hear them). This sort of adjustment seems very common among second-generation immigrants (or among children who've moved away from their countries of birth at a very early age), especially children who maintain contact with both their parents' country and their own country of birth.

Pico Iyer, the poster child for hyphenated, multicultural, identity if ever there was one, quotes Kazuo Ishiguro in his book The Global Soul,
The only "un-English" boy at all the schools where he found himself, he realized that his survival depended on impersonating an English boy, while also putting his exoticism to occasional good use. "Whenever it was convenient for me to become very Japanese, I could become very Japanese," [Ishiguro] says disarmingly. "And then, when I wanted to drop it, I would just become this ordinary Englishman."
That, I must say, as a parent, is a healthy attitude to adopt in the face of what is potentially a crippling situation for a child.

Iyer himself takes delight in recounting the myriad ways in which our multiple identities have converged in today's society,
Everywhere is made up of everywhere else--a polycentric anagram--that I hardly notice I'm [the British born son of Indian parents who grew up in California, but studied in England and now spends most of the year in rural Japan] sitting in a Parisian cafe just outside Chinatown (in San Francisco), talking to a Mexican-American friend about biculturalism while a Haitian woman stops off to congratulate him on a piece he's just delivered on TV on St. Patrick's we sip our Earl Grey tea near signs that say CITY OF HONG KONG, EMPRESS OF CHINA.
Not that all this coming together hasn't received its share of criticism from some quarters.

Recently, the blogosphere was buzzing with posts about whether Non-Resident Indians should be relabeled "Non-Returnable Indians". "Many desis, who are NRIs, suddenly find themselves having to defend their Indianness," says Kamla Bhatt.
Becoming an NRI, or being labelled as an NRI is somehow thought to be an overnight transformation and you are expected to have a different take, perception on everything, and your comments on India are no longer correct or valid. It is like some kind of switch is flipped and a whole version of software is downloaded into your OS when you move to another country. You are now expected to behave and interact differently, but that is not how it happens.
Neha Vishwanathan recently found herself having to defend her "Indianness" which came under attack because she lives in London.
It's interesting how often people try to shut me up by calling me an NRI (Non Resident Indian). What does she know? She's an NRI. How can she talk about issues in India? She's an NRI. What right does an NRI have to talk about development in India when she sits in London choking over her Starbucks Mocha? What does she know about the Gaza strip when she's never been to the Middle East. (Except for that damn hopping flight that touches base in Dubai). So what if she's spent 97.57% of her life in India, the minute she finds herself in an non-Indian postcode - she's an NRI.
While most of us may never find ourselves sipping Earl Grey tea in the kind of scenario Iyer describes, it is imperative to recognize that, unless you live in back of beyond somewhere, there is no way to escape the kind of multicultural existence that is the hallmark of globalization. Even if you've never left the country of your birth, you may still work for, may have eaten at, bought the products made by or services of a multinational corporation.

Restricting people to a single political identity may sound good to parochial ears, but it is of no use in a practical sense - unless that identity is that of global citizen, one I like to describe myself as.


Unknown said...

Really well written blog. Am sure you wouldnt have consciously noticed this, but you are doing a sterling job of marrying the thoughts of the country that you left a few years ago and the life-coordinates at which you came back.

Can you write a bit on how the Indian parent views parenting life as opposed to an American parent? I think somewhere the hand-off between dependence and independence happens defacto and at a really young age - point being that when this hand-off happens will comprehensively determine your attitude towards each of the things you have stated on your blog in this article.

Keep writing.


Anonymous said...

Very well written..makes for good reading!

Sujatha Bagal said...

Mahesh and Ravi, thank you very much for your comments.

FYI, I've added a few more paragraphs since you both read it last.

Mahesh, funny that you mention it, but I have written about Indian parents raising their kids in America. Here's a link to it:

Do let me know what you think. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

>>While restricting anyone to a single identity anymore may sound good to parochial ears, it is of no use in a practical sense

I agree with u.. but the reason why this doesnt seem to hold on many instances, is that Indians still have an element of insecurity about being in an 'alien' land.. overt religious beliefs, blinded obedience to what is laid in 'the book', an attitude where strict adherence to rituals even if present outside homeland entails a monumental proportion of respect.. and i could add more... all these only complicate things more and eventually amalgamate into a stress on ancestral identity even if they have been away from those ancestral homes for some eons... they find it safe to remain in such a comfort zone rather than call themselves a global citizen or attempting to be one. Well, make it "global citizen" within quotes.. :)

I feel, this requires a contemporary mindset, a mind that can accept change as it comes and a readiness to be out of their comfort zone.. once one is out of that comfort zone, orienting the mind towards being a global citizen would be that much easier. :)

Anonymous said...

Seriously Sujatha, tell me what u feel about the guy i'm referring to in this post..

He's 60+ and has spent a good part of the last 2 decades outside India. He's in India for a few weeks now, and I was over at his place last weekend when he passed those silly comments... no wonder he still has such an identity crisis.. :)

Nachiketa said...


Found you via Desicritics.

I am extremely curious bout your NRI and now expat experience. I have always been fascinated of our (Indians) ability to bury the cultural shocks and now I am kinda exploring it more.

I have even started an online collaborative novel but I have seem to hit a wall.

I would love to pick your brains and maybe visit your family when my wife and i come to India.



Anonymous said...

"Among his friends at school he puts on an Indian accent; among his expat friends, he's the true blue American."

If you dont mind my asking, what is the identity you are trying to inculcate in N ?


Sujatha Bagal said...

Jo, honestly, I don't think we are trying to inculcate any one identity in N. As long as he speaks correct English with the correct intonations, etc. we don't really mind. The point about that sentence was that he's trying to do what he needs to do to fit in (although I don't think this is a conscious decision on his part) and that he moves between disparate groups pretty nicely. Among his friends, he just sounds like them.

He is very aware of where he was born, where his family is from, that his grandparents use certain phrases (Indian) that he's not familiar with, that they pronounce certain words differently, etc. In fact, because of that, he notices different accents - British, Australian, etc.

He has a long way to go yet and who knows where else he'll live? The point about this essay was that all of that goes into making up our identities, and I hope to God I do not make the mistake of steering his sense of identity into what I want him to be. I just want him to feel comforatable whereever he is, whatever he is doing. :)) And so far, he's doing a pretty good job of it.

Sujatha Bagal said...

Hi Nachiketa, pick away at our brains! I've recorded some of our expat experiences here on my blog, but of course we could meet when you come to Bangalore. Just write to me when you make your plans. :)

Kishore, thank you for your comments. I agree that in order to feel like a "global citizen", you would need a completely different mindset and that requires some amount of effort, particularly from the older generations. Some part of it, though, just happens by them living abroad and even just traveling abroad or even being open to all the changes that are happening around them in their own cities.

I've commented on you post regarding your second comment.

Sujatha Bagal said...

Hilal, thank you.:)

Srinath Srinivasa said...

it is easy to call oneself a "global citizen" when you have an American passport. try doing the same with an Indian passport..

i learnt it the kind-of hard way myself. until we have a "global passport" and until we have one global currency, i'm firmly Indian.

remainconnected said...

Hi Sujatha,

A nifty read.

One statement says it all to me.

"... it little matters where you were born; what is important is where you belong, where your soul has its allegiance."

Thats what an international citizen is.I prefer the word "international" to the global one as it neatly says "the borders which identified me with such and such place" are declining and crumbling.

What you have written in this post is from the point of view of Indians,Indians who are settled outside India and Indians who left this country sometime back and are back home for some reason or the other. Even few of my relatives who are in US for close to 30 years now and my elder brother who left India just 7 years back,some times too have the same set of questions that crop in your mind like "why am I given so many synonyms, why I am looked upon as different person when I am the same person who left this place/country some years back, why do they consider my ideas as foreign".

I feel this topic has also triggered many people. Presently I am reading a book by Friedman "The Lexus and the Olive Tree" and it also tells why/how this is happening and what are the effects and related matter.

Try it if it tastes good to you.

Be the smart " global + international " citizen that you are and keep blogging.

Have a nice day.


Sujatha Bagal said...

Sri, thank you for visiting and commenting. I fully empathize with what you're saying, but what I was trying to say was (when I wrote "Even if you've never left the country of your birth, you may still work for, may have eaten at, bought the products made by or services of a multinational corporation.") that your geo-political identity (i.e., the kind of identity based on the country of your birth) is not the only one that will define you. My parents, for example, have left the country only once, but as far as I'm concerned, they are global citizens as well. Happenings around the world affect their lives, they buy products manufactured by multinationals, eat at restaurants that have global franchises.

Tanay, thank you for your comment and for sharing your perspective.

karmic said...

Great post. I guess this is an issue a lot of people have pondered about. Each one deals with it differently and then group think also comes into play. The idea of being uprooted and living in a foreign place/culture (often by choice), can be very unnerving as it threatens to chip away at one's identity. An identity that has been formed by where one is born, grown up and the experiences which are integral to this process.
A lot of people flit between these identities that they create to be comfortable. After all wanting to be accepted is a very basic human thing.
Some people don't let go and continue to be themselves and then congregate with like minded people. I have seen this happen with colleagues from India, who have not been here for that long. I wonder if they are missing some of the American experience (exposure to different cultures, thougts, ideas ways of doing things). I think time helps people integrate too.
And then there is moi. I am not sure what I would be labeled as, I don't care I guess at some level. I do consider myself comfortable in the US or anywhere else. But sometimes while visiting India, I have felt as if I were a stranger. Almost as if sometimes I don't belong (family ties aside). Some of this might be due to the fact that it's been quite a while since I moved away. I think differntly, react differently. Do I feel the same way when I am in the US? No not often, its been pretty rare. Maybe cos every one here is from someplace else.
Maybe I am just alienated at soem level from everything around me? ;-)
Anyways sorry about the long rant.
I have ever been to Bangalore, but I hear it no longer is what it used to be.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the comment sujatha :)

Sujatha Bagal said...

Jay, thank you for your comment. I understand what you're saying and many times I feel the same - this sense of detachment. Perversely, it helps you adjust to your surroundings in quick time! Now that I'm in India, I feel like this is life is perfectly normal even though I haven't been here for more than a decade and when I go back to the US I have a feeling things will fall into place the way they are supposed to. In this day and age, that's got to be a virtue.

Kishore, you're welcome.

karmic said...

PS: Like your blog will add it to my blogroll :)

Anonymous said...

"...our tendency to wear different masks for different occasions is not simply a cause of a cultural mismatch with our environment. rather, our cultural differences add to the number of masks we feel obliged to wear..."

Prerna - You nailed it! Excellent point!!!

Sujatha - Very well thought out post - as always.

Sujatha Bagal said...

Jay, thank you!

Prerna, thank you for visiting and commenting. As the mother of an "ABCD", it's great to hear your perspective. You seem to have the right approach - one that we all will do well to adapt.

P.S. I visited your blog, but there are no posts there yet. Hope you will start writing soon.

Mogolov, thank you!

Sujatha Bagal said...

Prerna, cool! You're welcome!:)

Sujatha Bagal said...

Thanks MG!