At the India Day parade in New York
The planet has again circumnavigated the sun, and the solar system swung less than a 100 bil- lionth of its way around the Milky Way. Which makes it time for some hurried stocktaking — some measured and thought out, others just annual tics that result in involved narratives
being built around comparatively short-term changes.
What is not evident from yearly roundups is the slow but
definite changes in the Indian-American community and
across the generations over time, and some issues that
refuse to go away.
The first big wave of academically oriented professional
immigrants that hit the United States in the 1960s lacked
strong cultural support systems and had to put together
their own or strengthen the weak ones that existed. By 1977,
the first temple in an Indian tradition was built in Flushing,
Queens, New York, and others followed. These provided
some help for the first generation to hold onto one’s roots in
a way someone in the old country might not need to.
Unlike the first generation, the second generation could
not draw solace from memories
of a secure identity. They went to
schools, colleges and workplaces
here where they were unlikely to
run into other Indians and so
often had to swallow any pride
and learn to assimilate. Even
allowing for those who could
find some safe middle ground,
there were many who found this
polarized their families.
Because of a selection bias — the first big wave of immigrants consisted essentially of the highly educated that tended to encourage their children to study too — it was concluded that most Indians were better at nerdy activities and
ought to stick at being doctors, engineers and professors.
By the time of the second big wave in the 1990s — call
them the H1-B professionals though there were others
besides people with those visas — things were a little different. The professionals now came from a little more
Westernized India, their entry eased by more reading material, some preparation over the Internet, easier communication with family back home, and the availability of cheaper
air tickets. Their children were born in an America with
more Indians, where people were more used to the commu-
I for identity
nity, and where South Asian stores and culture —
Bollywood, salwars, etc — were not as exotic as in the 1960s.
But while reduced, there was still polarization: The second
generation still couched their ideas of reality in a different
context than the first.
the time a person left India can be gauged from the music
that s/he deems best.
There are those in the first generation who, despite their
numerous successes, still feel uncomfortable interacting
with those in the mainstream, a result of bad experiences,
natural awkwardness, or both.
Perhaps, the community could gain from the experience
of the high-achieving Jewish Diaspora in the US that has
been able to tease apart faith from culture, and thus ensure
that their children do not necessarily pull out their roots
altogether. That group is not much larger than the Indian
one and its original immigrants had often escaped bad situations in their countries of origin and to work their way
up from the bottom. But while that community has spent
much money on synagogues, it has invested far more on
universities, endowments, scholarships and cultural centers, such as the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan.
There are Indian counterparts to this. Consider the India
Community Center in Milpitas, California, which provides
non-religious camps, familiarizing children with Indian
history, geography, art, games and Vedic math. These may
not be free as some Jewish camps, but are a good first step
in cultural immersion without the stress.
Then there is the Upakar Foundation scholarships that
provide up to $2,000 for Indian Americans or Green Card
holders from India. Again a beginning, but nothing compared to the variety of scholarships and college seats available to Jewish students.
If a New Year resolution is to be made, why not one to
accept and support the growing community of people,
some not so young any more, that identify themselves as
Indian American or South Asian and not just as Indians?
Perhaps those born in a new land need to be informed of
where they come from without the often attendant defensive pride, be given an idea of one identity that does not
trample on the others that come with the territory. There
are many groups already helping communities back in the
home country. Perhaps in time there could be as many
nonprofit groups here nurturing those from the second
and later generations with roots in the subcontinent but
who do not identify themselves only by their country of
origin or religion.
Who knows, it may result in a stronger, long-lasting community that is less likely to be insular and yet be comfortably proud with itself.