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The Dynamics of Belonging MAG
This began as a note to myself. I had transcribed my name into Sanskrit on a Post-It note in a valiant attempt to prepare for a cultural heritage class. The sight of myself phonetically contained in the resplendent visual poetry of the Devnagiri script stirred something in me. The flowing strokes of ancient calligraphy were like mysterious arabesques. They were the codes to ancestral memory, and I was consumed with the urge to excavate those unexplored frontiers of my existence. The Post-It was a hypnotic sign that seemed to shoot arrows of light into the recesses of my brain. It was loaded with epiphanies I felt powerless to decipher. My mother's call from the kitchen broke my thoughts and I emerged from my bubble to attend to the prosaic business of family dinner.
Amid the clutter of crockery and cutlery, the aroma of curry rose up and the guttural sounds of Hindi filled the room. A sudden excitement draped me like a cloak. Then came a moment of pure zen: like when “the self settles finally upon the self.” This moment was a culmination of awareness that began when I was in first grade.
I was asked to write about an Asian tradition as a homework assignment. It was a deeply unsettling experience. I had been raised on peanut butter, apple pie, Elmo, and Santa Claus, and all of a sudden I felt foreign and different. I hadn't realized until that point that temple visits and Diwali festivities were markers of ethnic origin. This sense of unease initiated my exploration of the Asian component that was supposedly a major part of my identity. It also forced a confrontation with the concept of otherness.
I discovered that the ABCD brotherhood was teaming with young people like me. We, the American Born Confused Desis, had all temporarily lost our moorings when we were cast onto the image of exoticism and strangeness. Being American with parents of Indian descent is a complex destiny. It has compelled me to create a kind of fluidity of personhood depending on the situation. In Indian gatherings I often have to join a bunch of vocally challenged desis in chanting prayers or native songs or enacting skits of Indian mythological characters created from accessories obtained from Michael's or The Home Depot. The line between the sublime and the ridiculous gets very blurred at these events.
ABCDs often have to grapple with the Asian notions of masculinity and strength of character versus the American construct of maleness. Indian definitions tend to focus on reserve, resilience, and deference, but these very qualities may be viewed by American youth as attributes of a self-deprecating wuss. Then there are the times when ABCDs are perceived as a kind of knock-off of the West who are obliged to be caged into a stereotype that makes others comfortable. We have to prove that we are not all about auras or chakras, levitations or feng-shui. Nor are we part of the social elite with guaranteed acceptance. This leaves us with a difficult question: Where do I fit in? Well-honed survival mechanisms have taught us to inhabit the space in between.
The challenge of being viewed as outsiders in the workplace or social settings becomes burdensome for some immigrant families, since this sense of rejection sometimes filters down to the children. I am fortunate to have been saved from the fermenting resentment in which some Asian teens are mired. They have to encounter pressures from within their own communities as well. This is because within ethnic enclaves themselves, there are trends that help as well as hinder the integration process. The expectation of high standards, the fear of failure, and the need to attain professional success become obsessive to the degree that many become depressed or ill. Fierce guardianship of outdated traditions creates generational tensions. Some younger Asians struggle to blend the worlds of ritual and tradition with the pleasures of the text and the tweet, and so virtual worlds often become a refuge.
The pan-ethnic digital universe is a great equalizer, but in the real world there are tough challenges because of rigid social constructs of the “ethnic other.” These can become a driving force of divisiveness, conflict, and myopia based on rigid stereotypes of what it is to be legitimately American. So the lure of being nameless in the cyber-world is great, but its downside is that it encourages a herd mentality. Some young people get so absorbed in mindless venting that they don't take ownership of their identities and lives, leaving them without any anchor or direction.
The genesis of shifting homes, perspectives, and mindsets is fascinating. The story of immigrants in America provides me with historical insight and a deeper understanding of roots. With the loosening of immigration regulations in the 1960s, waves of American Dream aspirants arrived here, swiftly becoming part of the social landscape and establishing roots while still celebrating their individual ethnicities.
While this scenario is somewhat rosy, it does hold some truth for immigrants hailing from India. In fact, Indians were considered the model minority because of their high achievers and pacifist beliefs. Situated well socio-economically as successful professionals, they ranked high in home-ownership and excelled as lawyers, doctors, academics, scientists, and engineers. They posed no security threat and were a viable source of intellectual capital. This background helps me to understand my parents' journey and how it has influenced mine.
My parents inherited these opportunities and became part of academia in the U.S. They assimilated quite easily and were in a position to channel their dual cultural perspectives in an organic way. They have raised me and my brother to be inclusive in our vision. This enables us to define our place in this culture and helps us deal with exciting, mystifying, frustrating, and sometimes comical situations involving our belief systems, way of life, and priorities.
The dynamics of belonging has been the subject of much literature, art, music, and scholarly debate that has arisen from the immigrant experience. Among the narratives that have dominated the American imagination, the place of immigrants has not been very significant up to now. They simply have not met the critical mass necessary for relevance in the national conversation until the last decade or so. It is only recently that this demographic has begun to excel in the fields of innovative entrepreneurship, vocabulary, philosophy, cuisine, music, writing, and fashion.
Within different ethnic groups, revolutions are taking place. The second generation of Indian Americans for example, is making forays into politics and art, signaling a move away from stereotypes and expectations. The ABCD is now breaking free from the unflattering trap of perpetual confusion. He has begun to recognize that the diaspora is actually a process of improvisation. It involves constant reinventing of the self. The convergence of the inner life of the mind with the external inhabited space does not necessarily have to be confusing. It can be an exciting and empowering adventure.
Nevertheless, there is one group to which we all belong: the human race. No cultural differences can exclude someone from their own humanity. Therefore, I use the Cartesian notion “I think, therefore I am” as an inspirational springboard to contend that my very existence is a gesture of belonging – I am, therefore I belong.