Friday, November 16, 2007

Immigrant Voices - Reactions to Shoba Narayan's "Return to India" Article

If the number of blogs dedicated to the 'return to India experience' and the google searches that lead to my blog looking for schooling information and hospitals in India are any indication, returning to India is on the minds of a number of Indians (and those moving to India as expats for work reasons). So, when I came across Shoba Narayan's vividly descriptive article about her family's 'return to India' story, I sent it to a few friends who I thought might find it interesting and also posted it here as documentary proof of the kinds of struggles immigration, repatriation and parenting involve.

The anxieties she painstakingly chronicled, particularly about raising children so far away from grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, were familiar to me as a first-generation immigrant myself (as it is to Orchid). When my son was first born, finding no role models in my immediate family or circle of friends, and wanting to hear personal stories, I wrote about it for a local magazine and in doing so, took heart in the successful experiences of other immigrant mothers. Generations of immigrants have been raising children here, and while their issues may not be exactly those of parents raising children in their home countries, by no stretch of the imagination were these problems insurmountable.

We'd already lived with this issue for so long in all its complexity and devised what solutions we could as we went along - Indian friends became uncles and aunts, then their children became surrogate cousins, festivals and pujas and American holidays were all celebrated or commemorated together with them, we tried to go to India as much as we could, my parents and in-laws visited, we seized the completely unexpected opportunity to live in India for a couple of years and eventually we returned to the US - that I could not relate to Narayan's urgency and desperation. I chalked it up to differences in background and experience.

Growing up in India, our family led a rather migratory existence - we moved every two years every time my father got transferred at his job. That meant new homes, new schools (sometimes in the middle of the school year), new friends, new neighbors, new languages, no extended family nearby. My mother was the glue that held us together. We would move in to a new house, the lorry would come in, my dad would go off to take over his new assignment, my brother and I would go off to school and by the time we all came back, the house would be completely set up as if we'd lived there for ages. I'm not kidding. Within a few weeks, my mom would be fully involved in her neighborhood and my dad would acquire a gazillion "walking friends". I never heard my parents complain about having to start over every two years or having to move away from their siblings. Rather, there was an air of excitement. This taught us nothing if not resilience and the idea that when faced with a situation, you put your head down and did what needed to be done and moved on.

As a parent, I could completely understand Narayan's yearning to do what, in her mind, was the right thing for her children, but reading the essay reinforced my inkling that most decisions involving migration (those that are not influenced by compelling political or social reasons or natural disasters) are matters of the heart. Your bones know your decision long before your head backtracks to identify the justifications for it. In the end, her essay made it seem like it was a choice between two equally undesirable options, when in fact it is only a small subset of the populations of the two countries that are lucky enough to be presented with that choice at all - a choice between two of the more desirable destinations to boot.

Over the last couple of days, the article has elicited a few thoughtful and passionate discussions - some laudatory (commenters who said they identified with Narayan's confusion and anxiety and commended her honesty), some critical - from Indians bloggers living in India and abroad. I've lost track of all the issues that have come up in those posts, but they are all very interesting and relevant to those of us who are bringing up our children as second-generation Americans (or Brits or Australians or New Zealanders or South Americans, etc.) and to immigrants in general. So to make it easier on myself, I'm linking to the posts here so I can find them quickly. If you come across any that I've left out, please let me know.

Author Jawahara Saidullah takes umbrage at Narayan's employing the poverty in India as a parenting tool,

while it raised many excellent points about a family deciding to return to India after many years in the U.S., it also pissed me off. The author talks about how earlier she would tell her kid about not wasting food because there were starving children somewhere (how does eating when someone is starving help anyway?), but now (lucky her) she can actually show her child the starving children in person. Wow! Glad their starvation's helping her child-rearing skills.
DotMom found it unpalatable that despite her doubts about living on in the US, Narayan went ahead and did all the things necessary to obtain US citizenship,

You cannot want to be a U.S. citizen simply because having a U.S. passport makes travel hassle-free. Or simply as a fall back incase you decide to live elsewhere (then why acquire citizenship if you have no desire of living here?) There have to be better reasons if you are going to be a citizen. You cannot be a citizen and criticize the American people with a “these people have no ___ [insert suitable anything].” Because you are one of them now. “These people” must turn into “We people.” Because now, you are Americans of Indian origin.
DotMom's point reminded me of this essay by novelist and Booker contender Mohsin Hamid in The Independent earlier this year in which he says exactly what DotMom finds objectionable,

It is clear to me that I have much to gain by becoming a British citizen: the right to travel more easily, the right to be more free of the fear of a change in the public mood followed by sudden deportation, the right to exercise my vote to have some say in how the taxes I am paying will be spent and in how my new country will be governed, the right to be less self-conscious in calling my home, home.
but offers a compromise,

But then I remind myself that I am allowed dual citizenship. My situation is not analogous to that of a husband who is leaving his wife for another woman. No, I tell myself, I am more like a father who is about to have a second child. Of course I am nervous about neglecting my first-born. But surely I can find within me the affection and commitment to be true to both.
One of the threads that the discussion veered off into is the subject of assimilation in your adopted country. How much involvement should immigrants have in the countries they live in? Poppin's Mom (PM) makes the excellent point that no matter where immigrants choose to live, they should not merely hanker after the life they left back in their home countries, but actively try to celebrate and adopt the values of their host countries. She asks,

Let’s take festivals for example. By all means celebrate Deepavali in your local Indian Community Center. And if you don’t want to celebrate Christmas that’s fine, it’s a religious festival after all. But Thanksgiving? July 4th? Do Indians living abroad celebrate it at all. How many of you know the words to Stars and Stripes or teach it to your children at home.. It is your child’s national anthem, is that not enough reason for you to learn the lyrics?
I wouldn't have thought that this was an issue at all. Where ever you live, wouldn't you want to take a look around and jump in and get involved with all that your community has to offer? All of the Indian friends we have here seem to have figured out a way to do just that and celebrate Indian as well as American traditions - granted with tweaks here and there to allow for food preferences. But it did surprise me that there was some discussion about not celebrating Thanksgiving, presumably because they see it as an "American" holiday.

Well, nothing could be further from the truth. As Gawker commented on this Thanksgiving menu post from a couple of years ago, Thanksgiving is the holiday tailor-made for immigrants. If you are a non-vegetarian Thanksgiving doesn't have to be about Turkey at all. In fact, it is not just about Turkey. It is, as I describe to people who haven't heard about it, the American version of Sankranthi - just being thankful for the bounty of whatever happiness and good fortune has come your way during the year.

I couldn't say it any better than Beatriz, the single mother of three who emigrated from Bolivia when her children were very young,
"We did not have that [Thanksgiving] in Bolivia, but here there is a special day. We love that holiday," says Beatriz, obviously delighted at the concept. [...] She initially introduced that holiday to her family so that "when the children went back to school on Monday, they have something to talk about….They have to be a part of their school, our community; they have to belong somewhere."
PM's post also describes the "insular" lives that Indians lead in the US. To an extent, that is true of most immigrant communities (and so we have Chinatowns and Little Italys) and it is human nature to seek out the familiar in strange surroundings. Methinks it only empowers you to deal with the unknown and is not necessarily a negative.

Nikki's mom puts across her thoughts wonderfully about what assimilation means to her and how she might feel a few years down the road about where she might want to live,
I have been here only 3+ years but I think I have assimilated more than those who have lived here for 10 years. We celebrate Halloween & Thanksgiving understanding it's spirit fully. Thanksgiving is exactly similar to Pongal that we celebrate back in India, thanking Gods for the bountiful harvest. Our Thanksgiving feast did not have a Turkey though, we had a store bought chicken on our table. I am planning to throw a vegetarian Thanksgiving feast this year, adapting it to my style of living. [...] As Nikki grows and has American friends, I will start celebrating them too, because it is his country and I do not want him to feel alienated here. He is an American by birth and if he grows up here I will let him be an American, but one with Indian roots. American to the extent that it does not conflict with the ethics and values of our family.
In the comments to these posts, Noon, Kodi's Mom and Tharini expressed the wish that their children would grow up to be global citizens - comfortable in their country of birth or in any country they choose to live with strong roots in their heritage. This is something I fervently wish for my children as well. Children already seem to come with some kind of a finely-tuned barometer built into their systems that tells them how to adjust to a particular situation, particularly if they've been around people from different religions or areas of the country or the world. For the last couple of years, my son would adapt his conversations (accent, content) to suit who he was talking to - he would talk in an Indian accent with his Indian friends and with an American accent among his expat friends in Bangalore. A comment to the post (on our quest for identity) in which I described this filled me with hope that that wish is not far fetched,
the type of identity switching you've described in your son is common even amongst "true blue" Americans in America, not just immigrants.i'm an "ABCD", the first child of Indian immigrants to America, and I grew up in a small, conservative town in Oklahoma. i was a "smart" kid who wasn't content being labeled as the typical nerd. so i experienced first hand what it means to have multiple identities. Indian, American, intelligent, cool, ambitious, sexy. I aspired to be all these things in different contexts. and with each label came a different style of speaking, gesturing, and even thinking. but not all my identities were defined by my ethnicity. as karmic_jay points out, the desire for acceptance is a fundamental human trait. so i think 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.but, as you mentioned, we are all different people in different contexts, to some extent. i am a daughter, sister, friend, etc. And my personality adapts to the context, within the bounds of who i am. i don't think that type of adaptation constitutes hiding one's real identity. the question is, are we being true to ourselves? that's what matters most.
No matter what side of these issues we belong to - returning to India, staying on abroad, choosing which holidays to celebrate, having our kids go to tabla classes or ice-skating - we all, as parents, try our damnedest to do the things, make the decisions and adapt the strategies that we think, hope and wish will equip our children with the tools they need to lead the best lives they possibly can. Our reasoning might be screwed up sometimes or we may find out later that perhaps one or the other of our strategies did not work. But we tweak a little bit and we move on.

At the bottom of it all, when you clear the noise of who should do what, why and how, and which way is better, is this simple idea:
There is a place for my kind too in this world, however foolish I sound, as there is a place for all of us. All of us, who carry only one thing in our hearts. The well being of our children. And somewhere along the process of living, this simple intention will get cleansed and purified of all selfish associations and we will together raise the children of the world, the best way we know how.

Update 1

On a highly pertinent note, Ammani and Kowsalya both ponder the meaning of culture (via Kathambamaalai). Kowsalya says,
If as a parent, you don't want to celebrate certain things you can always explain that to your kids and when we do things consistently and confidently, Kids generally don't have any confusion. Even if we try to celebrate Thanksgiving or Haloween, it will not change the external color of your child, so why try so hard to change the internal color.
Ammani asks,
Indian culture. What is it to you? To me, it seems like a convenient and rather hazy area that covers everything from dress code to Bollywood to wedding ceremonies to prime time tv soaps.
Do read the comments to her post. They are illuminating and entertaining!


Praba Ram said...

Sujatha -

Appreciate your putting together everything into one single coherent piece with all the valid arguments. The adage Unity in diversity just popped in my head while reading - the unifying factor being "the well being of our children" that we are all striving to work toward.. In that process, we adopt different ways and strategies to work toward that goal.

The point about fine-tuned,self-adjusting barometer was excellent and very reassuring to hear. While all the love and support we give our children comes from home, I also believe that external stimulation from the environment our children grow up in - particularly, schools they attend play a very important role in shaping their identities, teach them how to adapt and assimilate - so they can devise their own strategies to deal with their identities. This is not to transfer responsibility - but really, most of it, whether we like it or not can come from schools and peer influence.

The key is to provide them with a balanced enviroment at home so values don't clash. I think the confusion arises when there is misjudgement on the part of the parents about the external environment they grow up in, and thereby, unintentionally we may end up creating an identity crisis.

This year, now that my daughter just started school (KG), it has helped me tremendously to feel connected and be part of a community. This connection has helped understand holidays and traditions at a deeper level, and not just celebrate them at a shallow level, which is only because you think you are depriving your kid of them if you don't do all that..

And also, we are overlooking in some ways is to understand each family's circumstances are very different and unique. For many immigrant families - from different ethnicities, there are so many things going on in their lives..i am not talking about the ones in the fringes, but even amongst us, so many with so many issues to deal with, and decide for yourself without anyone's support, it obviously becomes a challenge to sit back and relax over holidays.

I can keep going on and on and sorry for hogging your comment space..

Anyways - that was as long one. Thanks again for a wonderful round-up!

Unknown said...

1) Awesome header! Don't know how long it was there as I was only reading from side(blog)lines.

2) Great job on putting together these opinions, I only read the original article you linked earlier and thought it was well written.
The whole return to india (R2I, apparently ) issue is clearly not black and white. My latest trip to India made me wonder if the things I want to go back home to are even still there, in India; as it is getting more and more Americanised by the day.

3) I might try that recipe for thanksgiving. It looks yummy. thanks for posting it

Unknown said...

And also, I meant to say, while a large part of motivation to R2I comes from thinking of kids and their upbringing, what about thoughts about looking after ones' parents in their old days? It seems like a given these days- I don't see that many people discuss that.

Choxbox said...

you go girl.

Tharini said...

This is Suj at her very best! I loved the synopsis and the compilation.

One thing stuck in my mind in all that you personally wrote on this article...about how leading an insular life sometimes just empowers you to deal with the unknown and is not necessarily a negative. That sounds like a very balanced and realistic view.

Thanks for making what I said the bottom line. I loved the attention! :D

Sunita Venkatachalam said...

Never got around to commenting, thank you for the mention and the really nice comment you left at my post too. It's wonderful to argue and slam your point home, it's even more wonderful to actually change some of your hard-held thoughts and learn something new.

Anitha(Nikki's mom) said...

Good synopsis of all the articles at one place. That was a wonderful comment by Prabha. Your views on positive effects of insular living were refreshingly different streak of thought. Thanks for the mention Sujatha!

Unknown said...

Thanks Sujatha: I'm going to definitely read others' take on the article.

Sujatha said...

Hi all, just a quick note to say thank you for your wonderful comments. Will respond to them when I get back. Off for a few days. Have a great Thanksgiving holiday. Cheers!

Anonymous said...

I have an observation more than a comment. I found it odd how you kept referring to Shobha by her second name Narayan.

It is odd because it's likely to be her father's name and not her last name.

Sounds almost ironical that we are generalizing an issue when we evidently not understand background of all the people we are painting with that broad brush.

Squiggles Mom said...

I just did the Madrid post.

Sue said...

Did the tag at last.

I'm glad you put so many points together so wonderfully. So many of us have such different takes on this, it's easy to think we are disagreeing even when we aren't!

Anonymous said...

Namasthe Sujatha: Thanks for a very well written blog.

Talking about children, I agree with Praba...." The key is to provide them with a balanced enviroment at home so values don't clash. I think the confusion arises when there is misjudgement on the part of the parents about the external environment they grow up in, and thereby, unintentionally we may end up creating an identity crisis."

What Praba wrote is excellent.

After publishing my book, AM I A HINDU? []I have received several e-mails from boys and girls of Indian origin and to a very large extent, I find them "confused desis" since the parents failed to provide them a balanced environment by which they can mix and accept the very best aspects of east and west.

Sujatha Bagal said...

Praba, thank you for a very thoughtful comment. I agree wholeheartedly with you that we must recognize the influence the external environment plays in our children's lives and account for it. Please feel free to hog the comment space as and when you please. :))

TGFI, thanks! :) Your second point is something I've felt too - perhaps it's because the India we left is frozen in our memories while in reality it and us have both changed over the years. And DotMom did make the point about going back to take care of parents and I'm sure its on people's radars. Finally, how did the recipe turn out?

Sujatha Bagal said...

choxbox, thanks. :D

Tharini, thanks and you're welcome!

Poppin, awww, thanks and you're welcome. That's a lovely thing to say. :)

Anitha, thanks and you're welcome. :)

Jawahara, you're welcome. :)

Another confused Indian, that's the name she wrote the article under and as far as I'm concerned that's her name. There's no confusion there. As for your second point, not sure what it means.

Squiggles Mom, I've already done that one! Phew! And thanks for the Madrid post. I look forward to reading it in detail!

Sue, well said! And thanks for doing the tag.

Unknown said...

Hi Sujatha!

Congratulations on this wonderful post and engaging blog, and
thanks for stopping by my corner at

You asked if you could reach me. Of course! Please feel free to drop a line at

I would've emailed you directly, but couldn't figure out how to :)


chica said...

This is a really good article. Covers a lot of points.
Its been 2 years now since we moved back. The transition was tough but surprisingly less than we had built up in our minds. I would not like to spam, but since it is closely related to your post, if you are interested check it out. My husband blogged about our return, the details of it, telephone/house/bank and such on his blog

Anonymous said...

We moved back to India 6 months back. There are three things I miss about America, traffic, open spaces and grass everywhere. I meet my friends and family more often now when they visit India from US.

My two reasons to move back was my daughter and parents. Though I had my doubts when moving, I can say now that my daughter couldn't have had a better childhood and my parents and in-laws couldn't have been happier. It makes it all worth it!

Now with the Indian salary and stock market and an American citizenship, there is no limit to our options in the future. We can choose what where we want to live in retirement. Yes, the move is not bad at all.

Anonymous said...

"But then I remind myself that I am allowed dual citizenship. My situation is not analogous to that of a husband who is leaving his wife for another woman. No, I tell myself, ****I am more like a father who is about to have a second child. Of course I am nervous about neglecting my first-born. But surely I can find within me the affection and commitment to be true to both.****"

Ah, nice justification. However, not so practical. You see, the american citizenship oath makes sure that you agree to take up arms on behalf of america in the event of war. And that you denouce your loyalties to the country of your former citizenship.

So, the question then is, wil you decide to have that second child if you know that the moment he/she is born, or as a precondition to being born, he insists that you disown your firstborn publically (although you can visit him once in a while), and that you be ready to beat him/her up if the new son/daughter says so?

Ofcourse, in return, the second kid promises you that if you go with him/her, you can move around easily, you will be admitted into some pretty exclusive places etc.

Now I would like to know the answer of the author of the original piece..

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