On Duty, Culture and Tradition – What Does It Mean to be South Asian?

Students at Washington University, St. Louis Celebrate Diwali (Photo: Whitney Curtis)

Students at Washington University, St. Louis Celebrate Diwali (Photo: Whitney Curtis)

I recently went to see the South Asian cultural show at my alma mater, although I graduated last year. The show was comprised of three vocal acts and eight dance acts.  The first two vocal acts consisted of no South Asian music but rather renditions of American R&B and pop songs. One dance act was a traditional raas-garba dance, while the other was a bhangra piece, performed by the bhangra team. The remaining dances were Bollywood dances that consisted almost entirely of hip-hop dance steps (the other parts containing some version of bhangra steps). The two aforementioned vocal acts certainly were performed by talented musicians and were very entertaining, but I could not help but think that those acts did not belong in a larger production the intent of which was to showcase South Asian culture. As for the dances, I felt that South Asian culture certainly has more to it than raas, bhangra and Bollywood.  I asked myself whether that was all our generation of South Asians (at large) living in America had to show for our culture?  I certainly hoped not.

Northwestern Bhangra and Northwestern Raas Compete in Iowa (Photo: Courtney Sargent/The Gazette)

I discussed my concerns with a couple of my South Asian friends who were also in attendance. One of them quickly remarked that she would rather watch ten Bollywood dances than sit through one bharatanatyam performance. Others did not seem to feel that it was all that important that the performances were largely Bollywood in nature, but that many people participated and the show was sold out.  Such responses made me wonder:

What does it mean to be South Asian in America?

Conversations with several South Asians of my generation as well as those of the older generation have left me thinking that perhaps being a South Asian outside of the subcontinent means less for my generation than it does for older generations.

When I began college, I noticed that an Indian (and I use the term loosely to mean South Asian) clique had formed among my classmates within the second or third day of moving into the dorms. I would be wrong to not admit that I was also part of this group. Over the next four years, I observed what it was about the Indians that made them want to be mostly exclusive to other Indians. By that, I mean that — aside from a few exceptions — everyone else in the group was Indian. None of them spoke in any Indian language together, although this I cannot blame anyone for, since our families are from different parts of India, and thus it was not certain that we speak the same language, except for English.  However, it was not limited to the lack of linguistic unity. There were almost no Indian cultural interactions within the group.

After the first year of college, almost none of us, and even none of the Indians from the years below us, attended functions like garbas, Diwali functions, or other cultural celebrations. Unlike many other cultural demographics at my college, the Indians did not go out of their way to celebrate Indian culture in any specific way, whether it was a New Year’s festival or Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday. There was no appreciation of any traditional South Asian art, dance or music (even though a great number of my classmates were well versed in the many arts). A great many expressed a distaste with discussing any kind of Indian philosophy or tradition. When I asked why that was the case, most said that they did not want to discuss it simply because they had no knowledge of it.

I once was in a cab headed to the airport when my cab driver, Ahmed, muttered something in Hindi. When I replied back in Hindi, he was astonished that I understood what he said and that I was even able to reply. I asked him why it was such a surprise that I should know Hindi, and he proceeded to give a lengthy explanation that his own kids and their friends were reluctant to learn their parents’ language. But then he went on to say that Indians of my generation have little regard for Indian culture and traditions in this country. I asked him to explain what that meant, and he explained that when he tried to get his children interested in Indian culture, they would get bored and would not listen to what he was trying to teach them. Frustrated, he said that they were more interested in Britney Spears and Brad Pitt than in learning about their cultural traditions and why they practice them. Aside from all of that, he was even more upset that there was no longer that Indian sense of community that bonds the older generation. In his view, Indians of his generation would help out another Indian simply because he was Indian.

Last July, a Jain temple opened in Cleveland. It was the concerted effort by people of my grandfather’s generation for more than five years, but it had been their dream for more than 40 years.  The temple was opened with great fanfare, and it was one of the few times that I saw tears in my grandfather’s eyes. They were tears of joy that such a dream was finally achieved, but they were also tears of sadness for those who also shared the same dream but were no longer there to see it come to fruition. My dadosa (paternal grandfather) mentioned that the temple would be a wonderful service to the Indian community because, even if it is a Jain temple, it is open to everyone. I told him that I was not so optimistic, because I could not see people of my generation taking up the reins in maintaining the temple after his generation was gone. I explained that such was the plight of the India Community Center in Cleveland.

India Community Center in Cleveland (Photo: Christopher Busta-Peck)

The ICC has existed in Cleveland for almost 35 years and was originally maintained and used for every Indian gathering happening in town, whatever the size. Both my and my sister’s first birthday parties were held at the center back in the ’80s. But now, the center is used mostly by the older generation — the younger generations have opted not to use the center because they either prefer to have their functions at their homes or at country clubs or party halls. As a result, the India Community Center, which was a secular nexus of unity among the Indian community, has become nothing more than a relic which our American friends ask about every now and then when we drive by it.  Similarly, I fear that our generation will not be involved with the temple because that connection to the temple that older generations have is not there with us.

My issue is that for all our lives, many of our generation have engaged in cultural traditions and rituals blindly, not really knowing why we do them or what they’re for.

For many of us, our lives are less concerned with preserving traditions and more about establishing ourselves in our work, finances and families. I find it hard to believe that we would suddenly want to or be able to change our priorities and put a higher value on preserving traditions when it has been more of a secondary aspect in our lives compared to school or work.

Of course being a South Asian consists of more than going to the temple or masjid or church, but it is important to realize that our culture is very integrated with whichever religion we practice, so it is very difficult to separate the two into distinct entities. And as I write this, I realize that all I’ve done so far is talk about the negatives – that we have little connection to our parents’ country, that we blindly follow tradition and do not understand it, and therefore could not effectively be able to convey that culture to future generations of South Asians in America. 

But there is an important characteristic that defines South Asians in America.  That characteristic is unity.

I know it sounds extremely hokey to say that, but it is certainly true. There is a fundamental difference between the older generations and our generation. What I have noticed about the older generation is that different linguistic and cultural groups tend to stick together. That is, Punjabis with Punjabis, Bengalis with Bengalis, Gujaratis with Gujaratis, Tamils with Tamils, etc. But Americans view South Asians as simply that – South Asians. Those cultural divisions cannot be upheld in American society, because that is exactly what prevents the older generations from having a collective voice and identity. But from personal experience, I can say that my generation of South Asians in America is far more united and has a greater collective identity than our parents do. We form bonds that cross regional and linguistic barriers and is characterized by the fact that we all have one thing in common – our parents come from the same place. Maybe that means we will do away with or forget a few traditions. And maybe we will form some new traditions that will be distinctly unique to South Asians in this country. As long as this type of unity remains and strengthens, I can confidently say that our collective identity will be far stronger and our community far more mobilized than ever before.

So going back to my main question: What does it mean to be South Asian in America?

I think it means that we are unique, that we descend from one of the oldest civilizations in the world, and that we have a duty to preserve that heritage. But it also means that we have a duty to embrace the culture of where we live as well. It would be incorrect to say that as a community, we should separate ourselves, because that would be an injustice to ourselves and to others. We have a great deal of cultural wealth to share with our countrymen, and while we certainly have and continue to contribute in many fields to global progress, it should also be a duty to share our heritage or at least make it available to everyone. When we cease to be able to do that, we cease to be unique and we lose our identity.

But this poses another question:  Do you want to be unique or do you want to be just like everyone else?