Daddy

I watched Rajinikanth’s Kabali yesterday. Although, I personally do not like gangster stories I made an exception for the Superstar. I did not like the movie that much, but I do not regret making the exception. It was awesome to watch Rajini showcase his acting talents in this role. Punch dialogs and style aside, Rajini is inherently a great actor and you can see that clearly see that in this movie. Watching him in the role of an elderly father and husband was so authentic that it reminded me of my father and my recent time with him.

My dad visited me for four weeks this summer. It was the first real vacation he has had in years and I have never seen him relax as much as he did this time. I was so sad when it was time for him to go back to India that I spent the entire day with a big knot in my stomach. Before he left, he hugged me and told me that he had had a great time and made me promise to visit him next summer with my kids.

I don’t remember the last time my father hugged me. It must have been in my childhood. I have vague recollections of spending fun times with him when I was a really young child (less than seven years old). I remember being encouraged to call my parents “mummy” and “daddy” when I first started learning English. Over the years, I dropped “mummy” and called her “Amma” but daddy was always daddy – to this day.

When I was about eight years old, daddy quit his job to start up his own firm. Over the next ten years, I barely saw him. He’d come home from work after I went to bed and I would just see him for a few minutes in the morning. As a teenager, I hated that I never saw him. The teenage hormones robbed me of common sense and understanding like it does in all teenagers. All I could see was that he wasn’t there for me. He wasn’t physically or even verbally demonstrative of his affection. I resented him because I believed that money (that he was working so hard to earn) was more important to him than his daughter. My mother filled the emotional void and I grew up with her as my best friend.

Even in adulthood, my brother and I were always in the dark about his feelings towards us. Most of our interactions with him were through my mother. I came to re-evaluate my opinions about him only around the time of my marriage. I was taken aback by his attitude towards my interracial, inter-religious marriage. I am sure he had all kinds of dreams about my wedding, but he set all that aside and embraced my decision without reservations. It was a turning point in our relationship. Soon after that, I became a parent and gained a whole new understanding of parenthood and its challenges. Finally, I was able to put myself in his shoes and understand his actions. Suddenly, I was aware of the things that he had taught me even during those years when I thought he was absent. I recalled little moments here and there when he had told me things that had made an impression on me and molded me to be the person that I am today. I realized that the few memories that I had of him when I was growing up are some of my most favorite memories in all.

I can trace so many of my characteristics back to him. One of the first things he taught me was that everyone is a person and deserves to be treated as such, whether they sweep the floor or own the house. He told me to always ask people for their names, remember it and always address them by their names. So, I know the names of my neighborhood dhoti, the young lad who delivers tea to my dad’s office, my mother’s doctor’s assistant, the errand boy at the pharmacy, the watchman at the flat next door to my parents, the lady who cleans the bathrooms in their building and many such others. I love to see their smile when they realize that I know and remember their name. It breaks down barriers and makes it easier to get to know them. I know that the watchman next door is from Nepal and that he works in Chennai and sends money home for his sister’s marriage. I know how and why the tea lady at the office I worked at had burn scars on her hand. She told me one day when I asked her name and we stuck up a conversation. The simple thing that my dad taught me has opened worlds for me.

I learned the importance of charity from him. He told me that it is silly to drive hard bargains with someone to whom five or ten rupees means so much more than it does to me. I finally learned that it was not money that was important to him, it was the success, or rather the need to prove himself. With his actions, he emphasized to me the importance of honesty, education, reading, hard work, perseverance, and continuous self-improvement. He taught me interpersonal skills and the importance of good communication. I get my English skills from him and to this day I feel the best compliment that I receive on my writing is that it is on par with his.

Above all, I realized that he gave me something that I had taken so much for granted because I have never lived without it – freedom and independence. In the 80s and 90s in Chennai, India, I had so much more freedom than girls in Chennai have even today. He never made me feel that I couldn’t or shouldn’t do something just because I was a girl. All around me, I had friends who were treated differently than their brothers at home but I never felt that way. It was a shock to me when I grew up and realized that not all girls had the freedom that I took for granted. At age 20, he trusted me to go off to Australia by myself to study what I wanted.

In the past four years, I was blessed with the opportunity to live in his house once again. The experience brought us closer than we have ever been. We had long conversations that made me understand and learn so much more. I continue to learn from him every day. Someday, I hope to have the same simple and implicit faith that he has in the divine. A college friend of mine once told me that I would grow to change my opinion of my dad later in life and she was right about that. I am just glad that I got to know him and cherish him before it was too late. I know that I am incredibly blessed because I have some close friends who did not have that time with their dads. With all that I know now, I feel their loss even more deeply.

To my much-misunderstood father: I love you.

-AB

 

 

 

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The importance of respect

Raising your children in a different culture is a challenge in so many ways. As Indian immigrants living in the US, many of us struggle to teach our kids to speak our language, learn about religious practices and cultural values. For me, this challenge is amplified because my kids were not only born in the US, but they are also biologically half-American. As my husband is American (of European descent), Indian culture is only half their heritage. In some ways, it makes it easier for my kids because my husband and I understand that their identity is half-Indian, half-American. First-generation Indian Americans probably have a tougher time convincing their fully Indian parents that the American culture is also their heritage because they were born here.

Of all the things that we teach our kids in India, the one that is close to my heart is Respect. Growing up in India, I was taught to respect so many things around me. Firstly, to respect our parents for all that they do for us. Hinduism equates parents with God itself. Then to respect those elder to us, because wisdom comes with age. Yes, even those only a year or two older in India are addressed with respect. Everyone calls older people anna or akka (elder brother or sister) or auntie or uncle. No one older to you is ever addressed by their first name. We are also taught that special respect is due to teachers who go beyond their call of duty to teach us everything. Gurus or teachers are placed even higher than parents. Besides these, we were also taught to respect inanimate things like food, books, gadgets, the environment and pretty much everything around us for its contribution to our life. We are not allowed to waste food, touch our books with our feet, and once a year we worship during Auydha pooja – we worship all the inanimate objects (from cars to computers) that help us in our every day life.

The differences stemming from the collectivist philosophies of the East and the more individualistic ones of the West means that the emphasis for respect in the US is the individual. Here, children are taught to respect individuals no matter how big or small. Although completely commendable, this practice seems to have diluted to mean respecting just oneself. In the quest to teach children to respect everyone equally, the special respects due to a person because of their age, education, or experience is lost.  Of course, inanimate things are never considered deserving of respect in this culture.

When I was a graduate student here, I had to work with a physiotherapist to help ease my heel pain. The young man grabbed a couple of tall books (maybe they were phone books like the yellow pages) and asked me to stand on top of it. I was appalled! To me books, paper etc = knowledge = God. You do not touch them with your feet, let alone step on it! When I hesitated, the physiotherapist was confused. He had no idea what my problem was and I had to launch into a long explanation about it.

Today, I struggle to teach these concepts of respect to my American children. Living in India for a few years made a big difference because I had societal support in India. Everywhere they went in India, they were expected to address elders with respect. Everyone told them not to waste food and to respect their books and other things.  But, now that we are back here, I am alone in my efforts again and I worry that my children will forget those ways.

The hardest of these to teach American children is to not waste food. America is filled with an excess of food. Processed food is cheap and plentiful.  Kids in America do not think twice about wasting food. A few months ago, I saw a family get out of their car and throw half-eaten fast food into the trash nearby. There was a little boy, about 10 years old, who opened a bottle of “Simply Orange” orange juice, took a sip, replaced the cap and then threw it in the trash. One sip was all he took of the nearly 20 oz bottle! No matter how much I teach them otherwise, my children are constantly exposed to this culture of waste. Most American kids cannot wrap their heads around the fact that there are people in developing countries who do not get three square meals a day. Wasting food really upsets me because I myself have experienced what it feels like to not be able to afford food.

In the end, all I can do is to keep telling my kids about these things and hope that it will seep into their minds over time. My husband tells me that things were not so bad when he was young and that these values were also a part of the American culture some time ago. I believe that is true because of the compliments that I get from other American parents on the respectful behavior of my kids. Every time I go to a parent-teacher conference, the teachers never forget to tell me that both my kids are extremely respectful. It gives me hope and makes me proud. I guess we (my husband and I) must be doing something right after all.

“Show respect even to people who don’t deserve it; not as a reflection of their character but as a reflection of yours.” – Dave Willis

-AB

 

 

Sour grapes

This is the tale of the silent war that occurs in Chennai (and other parts of India I assume) every summer. When I was young I used to think this phenomenon was limited to just my family. But its not. As more and more Indians immigrate to the States, the summer war seems to be becoming more widespread. Its a war between resident Indians in one camp and the NRI (non-resident Indians) on the other side. It is a war between cousins, parents, in-laws, children, and even grandparents, and here is where it starts:

***

They come in May.That is when the school holidays start in the US. It doesn’t sync with the Indian school holidays which start sometime in April. They bring with them American chocolates (that are now easily available here), huge bottles of shampoo and various little gifts. They dress in shorts and t-shirts and complain about the heat in Chennai as if they were not  born here or have never lived here. They talk about the land they come from as if it was a sort of hell and describe the land they live in as a kind of heaven. They wonder how people manage to live in this country that has a population of nearly a billion people. Yet, they are our cousins, our family and it is good to see them again! and we do love receiving their little gifts. It came from the USA, of course it is better!

***

It is almost May, its time for a visit home. We are so excited! We are counting down the days. No matter how much we love America, sometimes it just feels so good to visit India. Too bad we can only go for 21 days. We have to squeeze in all the temple visits, meet all the family, eat our favorite foods and get all the shopping done,  even as we suffer from jet lag. Shopping! its so much fun in India, for our dollar goes a long way! Maybe the kids can take a summer class or a camp while they are there – learn their mother tongue, or some Carnatic music or take a Bharathanatyam class. We better get those huge family pack of mixed mini chocolates from Sam’s club. That will make a great gift. Ah and those t-shirts and baseball caps that we got at work. They will like those too. Just dreading the heat though… the heat, dust, dirt and germs, and the bad roads, and the bureaucracy…Man! I wonder how they live there. We’ll tell them, heck, we can even show them how things in America are so much better. Still, it will be good to be home, see our family, visit our old haunts and take a break from the mechanical life in the States.

***

These are the perspectives of resident Indians and NRIs towards the yearly family reunion in summer. I am a person who has been on both sides of this war. I became aware of this subtle war when I was much younger, when I was like the aforementioned resident Indian. Then I became an NRI. Now I back to camp I and will soon go back to camp II. Although I have been both a resident and non-resident Indian, I identify more with the resident Indian. I always have. Its got something to do with my intense sense of patriotism (something my daughter has inherited, albeit for another nation – USA).

But I do believe this tug-of-war springs from our pride that just won’t allow us to admit that we are a little jealous of the other side. The residents wish to see the splendor that is described to be America, but will not admit it. Instead, they tell themselves that life in the States is dull and mechanical. The NRIs miss their homeland, its unique customs, and culture. But they won’t admit it either. Both camps cover it up by pretending that they are better off than the other. The residents revel in the fact that they haven’t abandoned their country and culture and criticize the NRI’s for doing so. The NRI’s focus on their better opportunities and convince themselves that they would hate living in India, even though it is probably a subconscious desire.

I hope people can put aside their pride, step down from their pedestals and acknowledge the truths. After all, we are all family.

-AB