Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Why 'Not Very Indian'?

Where do I even start with this one?

First of all, I really am Indian. I promise. I may have some Portuguese and French-Lebanese blood (don't ask), but I'm still mostly Indian. (Definitely not pure-blood though.) However, my excuse for the following is of course the fact that India was a British colony for about three hundred years. Somewhere in my ancestry, my family became more British than Indian, and my very strange family culture is the result.

1. My first and only language is English. We speak 'the Queen's English', minus the accent. (Which is sad because I don't think it's racist to suggest that British accents seem cooler than Indian ones. Though less wise.) I did study Hindi and Marathi in school, but as my teachers assumed that OBVIOUSLY every Indian child in Maharashtra already KNEW Hindi and Marathi, they didn't actually teach the language, and I spent my entire school life faking my way through those classes.

2. ... Which means that I can't communicate with (or eavesdrop on) the man on the street unless he speaks some English, or very, very simple Hindi. (Actually as a female in India, I shouldn't communicate with the man on the street, but that's another post.) Yes, it's embarrassing. However, I promise I am working on it. I just started studying Hindi with an online language learning website. (Yeah, I know, real dedication.)

3. The kind of clothes that I grew up in, and feel the most normal in are 'Western' clothes- jeans, t-shirts, skirts, dresses, etc. My grandmother wore a saree for the first time at the age of sixty-something at her son's marriage to a Hindu girl. I do wear salwar kameezes sometimes, and sarees for very special occasions, but it definitely doesn't come naturally.

4. We haven't had an arranged marriage in three generations (and maybe more). The first thing you ask a new married friend in India is "Love or arranged?" When we tell people that not only did our parents but even our grandparents have 'love marriages', and that we don't even know HOW to arrange marriages, they immediately know us for what we are- fake Indians.

5. I wouldn't be able to name more than two or three old Bollywood movies, let alone quote them. On the other hand, I can sing most of the songs from Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof and Mary Poppins.

Okay, I'm sure you're convinced.

It's taken a while for me to work through this identity crisis of being Indian, but not feeling Indian, of feeling like a foreigner, but not having a foreign land to belong to (apart from British India). There is a lot of hostility towards the 'westernization' of India, so there is also a fair amount of guilt. Not to mention, I'm pretty sure my ancestors were the elite who didn't take part in India's freedom struggle.

But I've reached the stage where I realize my culture is both an inheritance, and a choice. I have received many good things from my ancestors (including my Catholic faith), which I want to keep, but I can also choose how I want my life to look and how integrated I want to be with the rest of India.

So, yes to Hindi lessons. No to arranged marriages.
Yes to a community-oriented life. No to dowry.
Yes to an interest in the details of other people's culture and traditions. No to polytheism.
Yes to working with and loving people who don't belong to the little group 'like' me. No to joining in on their poojas or going to their babus.
Yes to modesty. No to the caste system.
Yes to openness to spirituality. No to horoscopes.

There's so much more, but I'm still working on it. I'm only 27. I have my life ahead of me. It's going to be interesting.

Have you ever felt that you didn't quite fit in with the prevalent culture you grew up in?

22 comments:

  1. Yes, I have felt sandwiched between my parent's culture and USA. I think as one ages and time passes by you have a sense of gratitude to see in different lens.

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  2. That's a nice way to put it- a sense of gratitude.

    Thanks for commenting!

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  3. I dont think I had identity crisis per se. 100% Malayali, born and brought up in rural Kerala. Almost compeltely opposite to your background. Russell Peters mimics me to earn a living ;-) But we have some things in common. We are both Indian Catholics and I have also been reading Jen from her Et Tu days.

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  4. Indian Catholics who read Conversion Dairy... that can't be a large group.
    Malayalam accents are fun! :-D (Says the accentless Indian)

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  5. This is a great blog! Funny, I am an American born (full-blooded, Heinz 57 mix of everything) born in Bangladesh. So I always feel like a bit of a stranger no matter where I am, too.
    Oh, and I can sing almost every song from those movies you mentioned, too! Love them! :-). Although I do get to missing Bollywood movies and watch one every now and then.

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    1. Even though I have hardly watched Bollywood movies in the past, I watched a couple when I abroad, just for a taste of India, and they made me teary eyed :-)

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  6. this is so cool! I am also an Indian Catholic but I was born and raised in the states:) your background seems really interesting to me since I don't encounter that here in America!

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    1. I have a couple of cousins who grew up in the States, and they don't consider themselves Indian at all, maybe because of our strange family culture.

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  7. I am an American girl, white, living in the USA. Still, I have always felt out of place a little bit because my parents raised us conservatively, they homeschooled us, taught us philosophy and that relativity is impossible, and generally made us believe that there is some purpose to life and morality is important. I have learned to fold into the general populace with style and humor, but generally I always feel a little bit differently oriented in a philosophical and spiritual sense. I think this is actually a good thing, but at times it is lonely, so I can identify ways that I've tried to fit in better or be less different to keep the peace or even the flow of conversation. Not saying it's okay, but I'm glad you asked the question because it makes me think about being different, and why it could be good, bad or neither.

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    1. I guess a lot of committed Christians are going to feel out of place no matter where they live. But yes, I think style and humor help to lessen the divide.

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  8. Thanks sue. because i identify lot with u your blog has helped me grow a lot this pass one year. May God bless you greatly for that. with warmest regards

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    1. I know who you are :-) Thanks for being such a faithful reader!

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  9. My brother-in-law is from Kerala. His first language was Judeo-Malayalam, he now barely speaks it. He was 4 when his family made aliyah and settled in Jerusalem. His older siblings always share how weird it was to be Jews in India, especially because they belong to the "black" Jewish community, not the new comer "white" Jews. They look like the rest of the population, but they really had a different background. They also stand out here, because... well, because they are from Kerala.

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    1. Wow, that is definitely unusual. Judeo-Malayalam is a language? I've never met a Jew in India. (Or outside India). And I thought I was unusual!

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    2. Pune actually has a vibrant Jewish community, and it is pretty hard to miss "Lal Deval" (as it is popularly known) on Synagogue Street! :D

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  10. Hey Sue,

    You should come to Bandra, you would feel quite at home ...You wouldnt have to learn Hindi inorder to stay in Bandra as almost everyone speaks the "Queens English" over there.Plus the reason why you are not very indian is because you were brought up in a fully English manner in which the following must have been part of your upbringing :

    1.Spoke only English at home
    2.Watched only English movies and didnt even venture switching to the Indian channels
    3.Watched everyone at home wear "Western Clothes" , hence you also feel the need to wear western clothes and not sari and salwar
    4.Majority of the time , meals consisted of non veg items and veg items were considered as gaas phoos

    Dont worry SUE , the world still accepts you even though you have issue with your Indian Culture :)

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    1. Aree Joshua! I don't have issues with my Indian culture! You missed the point! My family has been like this for many generations... and I said "But I've reached the stage where I realize my culture is both an inheritance, and a choice."

      That means some time in my family's past, our Indian culture was rejected, which resulted in what my family considers OUR culture. I want to return to my roots... without necessarily giving up everything I grew up with.

      I value and appreciate the more authentic Indian culture, and I WANT to work at making it more my own. I don't want to live in a bubble... No Bandra for me!

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  11. 'Namaste' Sue,
    I guess I come into the 'not so Indian' category as well. It's really hard to explain to people why you're 1oo% Indian yet not Indian! But being a Catholic Indian is fun too. Right from the thousands of pronunciations of my name to the funny looks my friends give me when I tell them I don't speak Hindi I agree with each & every word you wrote & I read.
    I'll be reading & commenting on more of your posts a bit later but I really loved this one. Guess the main reason why I loved it is because I can relate to it - each & every word!

    -The Nameless Poet-

    P.S. - Punekar?

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    1. Guess I'm not as unique as I thought I was ;-) And yes being a Catholic Indian has its own perks... apart from the perks of being Catholic at all :-)

      Nice blog, btw.

      And yes, Punekar.

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  12. Oh my gosh, this is soo cool! I can totally relate to your situation of feeling "not fully Indian". I live in the USA and my parents never taught me Hindi when I was little, only English. My parents never taught me Hindi because when my older sister was a baby/infant/toddler they taught her both English and Hindi, and he'd mix up the languages. For example, she'd say half of a sentence in Hindi and the other half in English. Her teacher at school couldn't understand her & it became a major communication problem so the teacher told my parents to stop speaking Hindi at home. My parents stopped speaking the language and when I was born they decided not to teach because of 2 major reason. One is because they were worried the same thing would happen, and two is because if they taught me Hindi I would only be able to speak Hindi for a while and I would have to learn English a bit later, like a year later. For that whole year I wouldn't be able to talk to my sister because she and I would have been speaking different languages. My parents didn't want my sister and I to not speak with each other for a year, so they never taught me. Now I feel left out whenever I go to India or when I go to Indian cultural events in the USA and people are speaking Hindi and I don't understand. I remember when I told my relatives in India that I didn't know Hindi and they looked at me with shock. I've never seen anyone gossip about it but I know that in a lot of Indian's minds, they probably think I'm uncultured. I have a knack/talent for languages, and I think I would've been capable of being able to speak both Hindi and English without mixing them up. I've always had an above average reading level for my grade and age and I'm pretty good at spelling. I wish my parents had taught me Hindi and sometimes even wish that I was the older sibling so that things could have been different. I'm trying to learn Hindi using a CD set that I bought last year using my Christmas money, but learning it is so difficult because it's so different from English. It's frustrating and sometimes I am unable to make sounds of the Hindi alphabet which are not in the English alphabet. I truly feel like it would've been much easier to learn Hindi as a toddler as my native language. My father even admitted to me that it's easier for Hindi speakers to learn English than it is for English speakers to learn Hindi :(

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  13. In my personal opinion, being "Indian" is more of a fluid label.

    For example, I consider myself to be a similar situation - English as a first language, Portuguese last name, Catholic etc. And I used to detest not being Indian enough when I was younger. However now, as a 22 year old living in North America, I have come to terms with my identity, and proudly declare my Indian heritage. I was born in India, have lived there for most of my childhood and can identify with Indian values and traditions, so that makes me "very Indian". I would consider you, Sue, to be "very Indian" too :) Good luck, and keep posting!

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