Monday, July 27, 2009

India calling - 3

Arguing the Other Side

My brother was moving.

A month later, Shyam visited me from Chicago, where he and his wife then lived, to inform me that he was moving to India. His firm had openings in their Indian office and he was taking one of them. I was dismayed.

“Why are you doing this?” I asked.

“Don’t you like America? You want to leave me all alone here?”

Shyam chuckled at my aggrieved tone. “Look, in order to continue working in America, my firm requires that I have a green card, and I don’t.”

“I can fix that,” I said quickly. “I know Ann. She’s a great immigration lawyer.”

“I am not sure if I want to go through all that hassle,” he said.

“Not really,” I lied. “It’s mostly procedural.”

“That may be, but I am still not sure if I want to live in America forever. People work too hard here, and there is little time for family. India is more laidback. Home always is”

“But it is so far away,” I said, feeling strangely bereft, even betrayed.

“You know what your problem is?” Shyam said.“You are willing to put up with anything just to stay in America.”

“And you know what your problem is?” I shot back.

“You have a chip on your shoulder! You are so quick to see the bad side of things.”

Shyam was right, and I was, too…after all we are siblings.

In order to survive as a foreigner in a new country, you have to be willing to discount minor infractions, and I had become very good at that. When sales girls ignored me at department stores, I told myself it was because of my dowdy clothes, not my brown skin. When acquaintances asked questions like, “Do people still ride elephants in India?” or “Is India full of beggars?” I brushed them off as silly questions from well-meaning people. Shyam, on the other hand, would have called those people parochial and ignorant at best, racist at worst. He was a Leo. He had too much pride. He wanted America not just to accept him but also to adore him, to welcome him with open arms.

“Why does the INS treat everyone as criminals until proven otherwise?” he asked. “And why do you put up with it?”

“Because a hundred other people are waiting to take my place if I don’t,” I said. “Don’t you see? There are nuclear scientists and Nobel-prize winners standing in line to get into America.”

“Not me,” Shyam said. “I refuse to stand in line. If America wants me, it must accept me on my own terms.”

“Yeah, right. Like you’re some hot-shot who this country can’t do without,” I snarled. “The truth is that we need America more than it needs us. We have become dependent. We have laid our roots here”

“That’s not true,” Shyam said evenly. “America needs its immigrants just as much. And you think you have your roots here”

We glared at each other, upset and at an impasse. This always happened. I was desperate to get Shyam to live in America with me and couldn’t understand why he was being so dense and unrealistic about it. Why couldn’t he just focus on America’s rewards, instead of going on and on about transgressions — real and imagined? Shyam, on the other hand, couldn’t understand why I was glorifying America at all costs.

“Don’t you have any pride?” he often asked.

“I can’t afford to have pride,” I said. “Be practical. Until this year, I wasn’t even a citizen.”

“Well, I am not going down that route,” Shyam said. “I am going home.”

I paused and took a deep breath. Our conversations on this subject always disturbed me. For better or worse, I measured my life against my brother’s and when he made decisions that were the exact opposite of mine, I questioned my own choices. When Shyam talked about racism, it finally brought to mind all those instances when I had felt it but brushed it off — the patronizing Columbia journalism professor who assumed I couldn’t understand English, the rude salesclerk who enunciated every word when he spoke to me, the redneck in the pickup truck who had honked all the way while following me on a single-lane dirt road in Alabama, and many others.

Shyam had had enough of Chicago, of America, and was ready to flee to India. I, on the other hand, didn’t dislike America enough to pick up and leave. Living in New York was easy and stimulating, which was why it was so hardto consider anything else.

“Don’t you miss India?” Shyam asked. “Don’t you miss home?”

“Oh, get lost,” I replied.

Raising Indian Kids in America

There is a reason why so many immigrants who come to America never move back to their home countries, even if they — like me, the Nigerian cabdriver or Priscilla the pretzel lady — may long to. Many of us, even the ones who love our homelands, have gotten used to the ease and efficiency of America. I, for one, had lost the ability to copewith constant elbowing and jostling that living in a populous, resource-constrained society like India demanded.

New York was good practice but it was still not India. The combination of circumstances that facilitate moving back to India is so rare as to render it almost impossible: one spouse wants to move back but the other doesn’t; both spouses want to move but the children don’t; the family is dependent on an American income — not just for themselves but foran extended clan back home. Even if money were not a factor, uprooting a family involves numerous decisions — which city to move to, what job to take, whether to work or to live on American savings. By the time a husband and wife argue, agree and finally decide, time may have flown and the kids, too, may have flown the coop. We knew some friends in that situation who had talked for years about moving back and now talked about “retiring” to their hometown.

“Sometimes, I wish I were one of those lucky Indians who has no desire to move back, ever,” I told Ram. “I wish I were one of those people who are able to put the old country behind them and live happily ever after.”

“A lot of them don’t,” Ram replied. “Pierre goes back to France three times a year. Tomas still has his parents in Uruguay. Avi visits Israel with his American wife. But they’ve all figured out one thing.” He smiled. “Life really is better over here in America.”

I pushed the food around on my plate and nodded, unconvinced. We had just found out that I was pregnant with our second child, and were ecstatic. But the nausea had made me averse to all food.

“Come on,” Ram said. “We don’t have a bad life here. You love New York, we have a nice home, I have a decent job, we have friends, family. What’s not to love?”

“I am just worried about our kids growing up as Indian-Americans,” I said. “Hyphenated identities are tricky, especially ones where the two parts are as different as India and America.”

“They are not radically different.”

“Oh come on,” I said. “Americans eat sweet things for breakfast. Indians eat hot and spicy foods first thing in the morning. American kids sleep separately from when they are a month old. Ranjini sleeps in our bed and she is four.”

“What’s your point?”

“Indian parenting is all about hanging on to your kids and smothering them and preserving their innocence for as long as possible. In America, it is all about independence — separating them, teaching them to become strong and independent individuals.”

“Both ways have their merits.” “You can’t choose both,” I said.

“Best of both worlds,” Ram repeated.

I shook my head. The best of both worlds, he said, and it was hard to argue with that. Had I lived in Silicon Valley, I could see myself falling into the comfort and convenience of doing just that. But what was the point of living in America but shunning its culture? What was the point of living in America but socializing just with Indians?

When I met like-minded friends of a certain age with young kids, an oft-repeated lament amongst us all was how simple and great life was back in India and how confusing and difficult it was raising Indian kids in America. Part of this was nostalgia, part of it, amnesia — the kind that glosses over realities and assumes that the grass is always greener on the other side of the ocean. A lot of it was ignorance. Most of us had leapt across the precipice of youth and emerged in America as fully formed adults. The India we knew and remembered was devoid of adult responsibility. I, for instance, had never opened a bank account in India. Nor had I applied for a job, tried to get a telephone connection, bought a house or a car. I had done all these things in America with astonishing ease yet yearned for the “simple” life back home.

Several Indians I knew had made “firm” plans to go back home by a certain year. There were always postponements: to get a promotion, pay off a mortgage, finish a school year or wait for options to vest. There were always reasons to remain. And so I remained, a slave to opportunity, an Indian in New York, a paradox.

[to be continued..]

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