Next week, Indians around the world will celebrate the Festival of Lights, aka Diwali, a holiday that’s as big to them as Christmas is to Americans. I haven’t celebrated it in over twenty-five years. I grew up in a rural American town where neighbors assumed our Diwali candles were for Halloween. The parties held by the ten or so local Indian families happened in windowless dance halls like clandestine meetings. The holiday was too ethnic for our neighbors, and after a while my family stopped celebrating it.
I’d long forgotten this until my son’s kindergarten teacher in Singapore emailed this week asking if I’d like to help the class celebrate.
My first reaction came from the American side of my brain: jokey, immediately distancing, and condescending: “I did a presentation on Pennsylvania for UN day. Doesn’t that explain everything?”
But that didn’t sound right. I deleted it and went to the Indian side of my brain. Those parties were actually good times. For one night a year, there were enough Indians in one room to actually feel I had heritage. My mom danced in a circle with other gold-laden ladies while the men drank enough to laugh.
Which lead to what I did write: “Sadly no. I’m really an American with Indian genetics and little else :-("
Then I beat myself up just a little more. Why the sadly? Why the frowning face? Why couldn’t I just been neutral? Sorry can’t help.
Because I’m an ABCD, American Born Confused Desi, someone who should hang on to her culture but didn’t. Shame on me. Right?
This past Spring, my photographer friend Alina Vlasova caught my dual heritage conflict on film. Her shoot captured me feeling “American” vs. feeling “Indian.”
The Asian in me is ambitious, conservative, pensive, guarded, analytical, perfectionist and insecure. The American is open, free, reckless, self-absorbed, passionate, and confident. The two are star-crossed lovers who write love letters to each other all day on my computer.
Why can’t they just meet and get it on?
Because they’re still busy judging each other, trying to decide if their beloved is really trustworthy. My Indian self fears if she surrenders her love to my American self, she’ll end up in Guam writing poetry. My American self loves the Indian, but finds all that family responsibility and perfectionism constraining.
To make matters tougher, I’ve learned to take comfort in having these two opposing mental caves. Whenever my American self is insecure, I tuck in to the things that feel “Indian” – working hard, keeping to myself, and putting my family in front of me. Likewise, when my “Indian” self has her panties too tight in a knot, my American side pulls her away for wine, a walk on the beach, and spiritual pep talk.
So truth be told, the prospect of letting the two actually live together has always felt a bit scary. What crazy things would they cook up? What would others think?
Better to keep them apart.
As usual, my eight year old is already ahead of me. This week, her American school celebrated Asia Fest by transforming classrooms into mini-countries. She came home with Korean nail polish, henna on her hand, and an Indian bindi on her forehead. She showed us a Filipino dance she learned, and told me her favorite country was Japan because the kimono was pretty and Daddy is there right now.
“What did you think of India?” I asked.
“Fine,” she said. She stared at me, her face saying: I know you want me to care about India more. But I don’t, at least not any more than anywhere else.
Ethnicities were like costumes to her – neutral objects of play. Take them on, take them off. Just have fun.
And why not? My cultural identity was important in America in a time when being brown was an oddity. But that isn't the case in today's multi-cultural world. So let love between my two selves blossom.
That was the attitude loosening I needed. That night, I listened to Jlo, ate mango pickles and Mexican casserole for dinner, read my son Indian bedtime tales, and said a Christian prayer over him before sleeping.
These combinations weren’t necessarily new; they happen all the time. But this time, I didn’t find them a strange confused mixture. They were interesting, creative and energizing, like some multimedia art project.
They also made me smile and feel like dancing. So I did. I sang my kids some silly little made up parody song and did a little jig. They were late to sleep but happy.
Look at me, I thought as I turned off the lights. I’m like a whole new acronym - American Born Cool Desi... at least to my kids, for one night.
Top Photo Credit: Ravi K. Jolly