My Indo-American Odyssey

By Kollengode S Venkataraman (Published in January 1996)

We have never republished articles written by its editor.  But we make an exception.  When we published this article 11 years ago, our circulation was barely 400. When I blogged the same article, the feedback was unexpected, which prompted us to reprint this article.  If you are a desi male, and if you, or your wife or your children,  find that the “I” in what follows refers to you personally, I am not responsible.

Honestly, the “I” in this article does not refer to me personally, simply because I came to the US as a grad student already married, and to make it more challenging, also with a kid on our heels. –KSV

I have been an Indian for 25 years. Now, in the next several years, I’ll try to become an American. I will quickly learn American expressions, but my Indian accent will not go away no matter how hard I try. I will go to a university to earn my MS, MBA, or PhD or take a fellowship in a US hospital to become legit. The kids of Indian immigrants I see around I will derisively call ABCDs (American-Born Confused Desis), but little will I realize that I will be as confused, if not more.

I will hang around with other Indian boys. During weekends, we will eat masala paratha and watch good “bad” masala Hindi movies, which is good. You may call us ParathE Kids. I will watch X-rated films and think that Indians are ignorant and prudish about sex. Then, I will read Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra, and feel embarrassed about my ignorance. This will prompt me to read more about India over the next several years, and I will feel even more ashamed of my ignorance on India’s social, political, literary and artistic history and philosophical traditions and contribution to science.

Meanwhile, I will get a job or start my practice. I will buy expensive cars with lots of gadgets, bells and whistles. Even though I will have a well-paying job or a good practice, I will always be looking for a better one that I never seem to have and everyone else seems to easily get. I will always be comparing myself with other Indians who are better off than I am, and feel miserable. Even when I am wealthy, I will still compare myself with those Indians who are successful, or have other talents. And looking at my inadequacy, I will feel miserable all the same, notwithstanding my wealth.

I will think that the Indian arranged marriage system sucks. Therefore, I will date women at school, at work, or in the hospital. But when it is time for my marriage, I will chicken out, and willingly get sucked into the very system that I gleefully derided.

I will go to India and “see” many “girls” arranged by my parents — engineers, scientists, accountants, and doctors. Particularly doctors. I will want to get married to someone who is modern outside, but traditional inside. But in the whirlwind tour of seeing twenty “girls” in fifteen days, I will have no time to get to know them. So,I will end up marrying someone who seemed to me to be traditional outside, but she will turn out to be modern, sometimes, even radical, inside. 

Worse still, in choosing my spouse, I will mistake modern outfit for modern outlook, and forever, I will regret my mistake.

I will go to professional meetings in big cities. I will meet other Indians, and we will talk not about professional issues, but about Indian social life in our cities. But, when I will meet other Indians in social gatherings in my hometown, we will talk about our professions. There will be language-, religion-, and caste-based subgroups among us. I will make no attempt to understand others. I will become more parochial, and be proud of it.

Then I will buy a home. It will be mine, except for the 90% mortgage. I will buy a house that I cannot afford, because other Indians I want to ape live in big homes. I will buy fancy gadgets. I will buy extra warranty for the gadgets not knowing what the warranty buys. I will misplace them so that when I will I need them, I will not find them.

I will drive a lot. I will take my family to many touristy cities, and stay with my extended family and friends. I will give them only half an hour notice before we land even though I have a cell phone. When they do this to me, I will be irate, not at them, but at my wife and kids.

I will buy both Indian and American junk food and gorge it watching TV. I will buy digital video recorder and DVD  set with fancy features. I will try to record. The recorder’s instruction manuals will be written in Chinese, Mexican, Korean, or Japanese English that will be confusing. If it will be in equally confusing Indian English, I will at least understand. Then I will swear. I will mix American swear words and the choicest swear words in my native language and make them even better.

I will continue to see “bad” Hindi movies. They are now worse, which is better. But I will now also see equally worse regional language movies. However, I will stop X-rated movies because 1) Indian feature films are almost there, and 2) my kids are growing.

In God we trust, I will say piously in social gatherings. But just to be safe, I will also trust in gold, IRAs, and mutual funds. I will work hard, because I want to be rich. I will be always in a hurry. I will believe “Time is money and money is God.” Then I will see my friends getting laid off. They will have lots of time, but not enough money. Then I will question the wisdom in my belief. And as I grow old, I will find that even as I have considerable assets, and I will realize that I should have also expanded my horizon beyond my profession into other fields to savor my leisure.

I will go to India on frequent-flyer miles. There I will see many of my classmates in senior positions, and I will find that in the States I have hit a very low glass ceiling in my career. But I will be sophisticated enough not to reveal my torture inside, and I will think that people in India are jealous of my American lifestyle. That will make me happy.

I will surf the Internet and constantly be visiting the websites of my choice from work. I will read about Indian millionaires in Silicon Valley, not in the Silicon Valley newspapers, but in Times of India and Hindustan Times on the web. That will make me jealous.

Now I have one more reason to be unhappy — many of my Indian contemporaries in the US are several folds wealthier than I am. And my classmates in India are in important positions in Indian companies. Some have become very powerful politically. That won’t make me feel good.

While in India, I will criticize the Indian system, but will use it to my advantage. And back in the US, I will hate the American system, but will acquiesce in it. I will do little to change either.

I will smoke, drink, and enjoy beef and pork. Then I will read about cancer, cirrhosis, the high-tech plumbing jobs people need because of high cholesterol. I will try to give up smoking, become a teetotaler, and a shudh vegetarian. It will not be easy. I will become a health nut and an exercise maniac.

I will try to change my life and my lifestyle. I will see divorce as a legal option, but will not follow through. I will endure in my marriage, and I will harass my wife and kids. Then I will hit middle age, and with recalcitrant teenage children, I will think that I should have divorced my wife and my children, and taken early sanyasam (the voluntary withdrawal from worldly pursuits).

My kids will go to college and they will major in subjects that fascinate them, about which I will know very little. I will be embarrassed about my total lack of familiarity in those subjects. Then, they will marry someone of their choice. For my kids, who are now adults, the whole idea of languages, religions, castes, subcastes that we parents are so obsessed with, will make no sense or meaning. They will choose someone who will be very different from my caste, language, and from my “proudly parochial” subethnic identity. Or they will marry someone from the American Mainstream. 

I will then become fanatically religious. I will see no difference between religiosity and spirituality. I will make no attempt to understand the evolution of spiritual, religious and social ideas even within my own religion. I will see no inconsistency between what my religion preaches and how I and others practice it. I will dislike people who aren’t exactly as religious as I am.

I will think that I have become detached. Little will I realize that in reality, people around me have detached and jettisoned me — they will take the cue from Wall Street. Like American corporations giving involuntary retirement to their employees, my family will involuntarily give me sanyasam precisely when I will not want it.

Then, I will go through a period of intense soul-searching. I will then recognize that America, like India, is quite diverse, and thrives on diversity. Diversity is what has made the society great. With this recognition, eventually I will be comfortable with my identity of who I am and what I am.

I will finally realize that in trying to become an American, I imbibed the values of the some of the people around me.

I absorbed some of their values — not all of them good though; and I discarded some of the values of my ancestral land — not all of them bad though.

In my psyche, I will become a hybridized species, having made a unique synthesis of values taken from my old world and my new world. I will be a hyphenated American.

And there will be nobody else like me, even among the desis. (The central idea for this sketch is an article by Mikalos Vamose, a Hungarian American that I came across sometime back.)  — END


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