My daughter is more Indian than I am. Theoretically her generation should be completely white-washed; her name is Zoe Simon, she’s never been to India, we speak English at home, and she looks so white that I was sure they handed me the wrong baby after I gave birth. Here I was expecting a family of little brown children and the question, “Who’s that white guy with that Indian family?” Instead people think I’m the nanny.
So how does a girl like Zoe end up with a stronger Indian identity than her first-generation mother who was named after an Indian instrument, practiced classical Indian song and dance until the age of 12, speaks Telugu and used to have the first quarter of the Bhagavad Gita memorized in Sanskrit?
Okay, full disclosure: I’m losing my ability to speak Telugu.
To answer this question, let’s rewind to my childhood. I was basically docile and well-mannered until the age of eight, at which point I realized I was never going to be perfect enough to satisfy my parents and began methodically and meticulously rebelling against everything that had to do with them. The biggest part of this was Indian culture, something they were so desperate to retain hold of in a new world that they shoved it down my throat relentlessly.
For the longest time my relationship to everything Indian was no deeper than that: it was something that mattered to my parents, therefore it was something I hated. This reaction was so automatic and thorough that the first time I met another first-generation Indian kid my age that viewed Hinduism, vegetarianism or yoga with anything other than disgust, I was shocked. I’m not kidding. It baffled me. I legitimately did not understand how anyone in a similar position could tolerate these things.
There was another layer of hate added to the cake because I was always known as “that one Indian girl” to my classmates. Other people identified me as Indian because I was different, yet in my mind I was no more Indian than Mindy Kaling on The Office:
Michael: Diwali is a very important holiday for the Hindus. But, frankly, I’m a little appalled that none of you know very much about Indian culture. So, without further ado, Kelly you are on.
Kelly: Um… Diwali is awesome… and there’s food… and there’s going to be dancing… and… Oh! I got the raddest outfit. It has, um…
Michael: Um… why don’t you tell us a little bit about the origins of the holiday.
Kelly: Oh, um… I don’t know. It’s really old, I think.
Angela: How many gods do you have?
Kelly: Like hundreds, I think. Maybe more than that.
Angela: [points at picture on the wall] And that blue busty gal? What’s her story?
Kevin: She looks like Pam from the neck down.
Dwight: Pam wishes. [generalized laughing] Kelly, I’ll take this one. Diwali is a Celebration of the Coronation of the God-King Rama. After his epic battle with Ravana, the Demon King of Lanka. It symbolizes the battle between good and evil…
Michael: All right, all right, all right, all right. This isn’t ‘Lord of the Rings.’
That pretty much sums it up.
Everything is different with Zoe. I no longer have this Hating My Parents and Everything They Stand For problem. Zoe Skypes with my mom almost every day (begs for it, really) and I frequently visit my parents. My mom has been in town for several weeks helping out while I’ve been sick. She’s been living in our one bedroom apartment with us and taking care of Zoe while I’m passed out and/or comatose. People ask how my husband can stand living with his mother-in-law for so long.
Haa. Ha ha. Those people don’t understand anything about my family.
My husband gets along with my parents even better than I do now. So he and my mom have spent the past month blasting Bollywood songs in the kitchen and trying out new recipes for vegetable jalfrezie and spicy vindaloo. Oh, did I forget to mention? All that Indian culture I was trying to avoid? Guess who brought it back into my life full-force?
That’s right: my Manhattan-born, half-Jewish husband, Oliver. I’m not really sure how it started, but I spent my whole childhood complaining about terrible Bollywood movies and have spent the past three years rewatching all of them, plus just about every other Hindi film ever made. In fact, I’ve started learning Hindi on Roesttta Stone so that I’ll finally be able to enjoy my Saturday nights without subtitles.
So my family is very tight-knit. Zoe has an incredible bond with my mother that I never had growing up. It’s awesome. My mom takes Zoe to Hindu temples and together we teach her the meaning behind the traditions, answers to questions I’d never been bothered to ask. Zoe knows the names of all the famous Hindi actors and is already learning the dances to her favorite songs. With this level of intimacy and freedom to explore her own identity without pressure, I’m guessing that this will continue to be something important to Zoe– important to our whole family now, but to her more so and from the beginning.
I know there are a lot of heated conversations about cultural appropriation going on right now. I just want to say that learning more about other people, culturally or otherwise, is always a good thing. Oliver occasionally says ignorant things about Indian culture. I’m not worried about it. As close to perfection as he is, he occasionally says many other stupid things as well, as do I, as will Zoe. My parents occasionally say stupid things about American culture. What matters is not the number of mistakes that we make or the outlandishness of those mistakes; what matters is our willingness to learn more.