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Focus on Florida: The cultural transition of second-generation Indian Americans: bridging gap of understanding between continents and generations

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Focus on Florida: The cultural transition of second-generation Indian Americans: bridging gap of understanding between continents and generations
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Aneja, Geeta A.
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Gainesville, Fla.
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University of Florida
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English

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We constantly recreate our universe due to the bias inherent in our perceptual abilities. Cross-cultural misunderstandings occur when we try to apply the standards of our native culture to a different society. Borderlanders, in this case Indian-American children being raised by Indian parents in the United States, bridge the gap between two cultures. Because we are Indian by American standards but unquestionably American by Indian standards, my generation has a unique worldview separate from that of both other cultures, but which often results in misinterpretations of intentions and actions. The primary purpose of this study is to analyze cross-cultural interactions between second-generation Indian-American children and their Indian parents and the misunderstandings and misinterpretations that result from this clash of cultures. In order to accomplish this, I spent thirteen weeks traveling to various parts of India, reading widely on the roots of social interaction, discussing controversial topics, and keeping a careful journal of observations. Once I returned to the United States, I used similar observation and record-keeping techniques to observe interactions there as well. Generally, the roots of intercultural confusion lie in differing standards of personal possession, independence, appropriate family interaction, and modesty, not from deliberate animosity.

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The Cultural Transition of Second-Generation Indian

Americans: Bridging Gap of Understanding between

Continents and Generations


Geeta A. Aneja


College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, University of Florida


We constantly recreate our universe due to the bias inherent in our perceptual abilities. Cross-cultural misunderstandings occur
when we try to apply the standards of our native culture to a different society. Borderlanders, in this case Indian-American children
being raised by Indian parents in the United States, bridge the gap between two cultures. Because we are Indian by American
standards but unquestionably American by Indian standards, my generation has a unique worldview separate from that of both other
cultures, but which often results in misinterpretations of intentions and actions. The primary purpose of this study is to analyze
cross-cultural interactions between second-generation Indian-American children and their Indian parents and the misunderstandings
and misinterpretations that result from this clash of cultures. In order to accomplish this, I spent thirteen weeks traveling to various
parts of India, reading widely on the roots of social interaction, discussing controversial topics, and keeping a careful journal of
observations. Once I returned to the United States, I used similar observation and record-keeping techniques to observe interactions
there as well. Generally, the roots of intercultural confusion lie in differing standards of personal possession, independence,
appropriate family interaction, and modesty, not from deliberate animosity.


She told me my name was meaningless. I felt like she
had erased my identity. I tearfully tried to convince my
first-grade teacher that the dictionary was wrong. Every
single one of my classmates' names was there, even the
weird ones like Charity and Faith, so mine had to be also.
The dictionary could not be right, I insisted. As the aid
escorted me to the principal's office as punishment for my
impudence, I clung desperately to the last remaining shred
of who I was. My name means Song of God.
When I was five years old, this teacher sowed the seed
of an idea that would slowly spread in the undercurrents of
my life: you are not one of us. After nearly two decades of
struggling to classify myself by the strict criteria of
ethnicity, I stilled long enough to perceive the truth. I am a
Borderlander.' I am not wholly Indian, nor am I wholly
American. I have never called the Subcontinent my home,
but I still stand out from my pale-skinned friends and
colleagues. I live in the in-between where India and
America meet and meld into a novel reality that
incorporates aspects of both worlds. My heritages are not
mutually exclusive, regardless of how disjointed they
might seem, and by attempting to impose the standards of
one on the other I was stifling a part of myself.
This paper is the culmination of a quest to recognize the
misunderstandings and misinterpretations that saturate
every aspect of my life. I spent nearly four months
traveling to various parts of India, reading widely on the
roots of social interaction, and discussing controversial
topics with everyone who was willing to speak to me. I
needed to comprehend how I misinterpreted both Indian
and American culture and also to glimpse who I might
have been had my family never immigrated to America. By


consciously trying to appreciate India, I hoped to better
understand myself, the world around me, and inevitable
cross-cultural interaction.
Before I went to India, I naively assumed that my
understanding of Indian food and clothing implied that I
would adapt to other aspects of culture as well. I thought
that because I already had one foot in Indian culture, diving
in headfirst would flow naturally. I could not have more
greatly underestimated my starting point.
In India, expectations of family and definitions of
independence differ greatly from those that I learned in the
US. While I was in Delhi, friends asked me about my
living arrangements and my plans for the future. They were
shocked when they discovered I moved out of the house at
17, and even more so when I said I only visit home once a
month, intend to live abroad, and do not anticipate ever
returning home for an extended duration. The adults to
whom I told this immediately assumed that I disliked my
parents and felt driven to leave them. On the contrary,
many Americans are surprised that I return home so
frequently and interpret my future plans as exciting, not
neglectful. Because I am 19, I am considered independent
in the US, and so being "tied" to my family through
obligations like visiting home periodically makes my
parents seem domineering. On the other hand, according to
Indian culture, these expectations show their familial
acceptance and caring.
Part of this confusion arises from the different
significance of age in each society. American culture
marks increasing age with a corresponding increase in
maturity and right to responsibility. The thirteenth birthday
marks the transition from child to adolescent. At sixteen


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GEETA A. ANEJA


one obtains a driver's license, at eighteen reaches legal
adulthood, and at 21 receives permission to consume
alcoholic beverages. If children still live with their parents
after college graduation, it is considered unusual and
representative of failing to become independent in a society
that highly values self-sufficiency. Therefore, when an
Indian parent does not conform to American standards of
freedom, the child being raised in the States interprets
controlling parents as oppressive or restraining.
On the other hand, Indian culture interprets the same
"growing away" as unnatural. Rather than the goal of
childrearing being to enable children to become separate
entities, there is instead a system of mutual nurturing in
which the goal is to become a closer family. A cousin who
lives in Germany was once asked about the Indian
infrastructure for caring for the very young and the elderly.
Her simple answer was "family." Day cares and nursing
homes are almost unheard of because parents and
grandparents care for children directly, and when the
children are grown they care for their parents. This system
of interdependence within the family strengthens the
family unit and makes it less dependent on the outside
world; American independence increases dependence on
the state and societal agencies. American society idealizes
individual independence, while Indians almost equate
individuality with isolation and loneliness.
As I entered my late teens, a time when most American
youths are branching out from their families, my parents
still maintained a strict curfew. They could not understand
the culturally nurtured desire of an American teenager to
be rid of adults for a time, just as I could not understand
why they tried so hard to stop me from having the fun I
thought I deserved. In Delhi, however, I learned that their
requests were completely unrelated to age. I learned that
although my mum is 60 and owns the house in which my
grandfather currently lives, she always was either home
before 10:00 pm or told her father where she was spending
the night. Rather than perceiving my grandfather's request
as a restriction on her activities, my mother interpreted it as
an expression of his love and care for her. There,
increasing age brings the right to command respect while
independence-the freedom from the control or influence
of others-reflects the lack of a support network.
Further, in Punjab, I learned that "a drop of blood is
worth an ocean of friendship."2 While in India there are
closely-knit communities, a person's deepest loyalty is
always to his or her family, not to friends. Indian families
are known for maintaining connections across continents
and generations in a way that many Americans find mind-
boggling. My mother is the eldest of four, my father is the
youngest of five, and even though they are spread over
three continents, I know all but one of my three dozen
cousins. I still have difficulty understanding how some
Americans either have no cousins or do not know them.
Many of mine are as close as siblings.


Even so, I never realized the true strength and richness
of a blood bond until I traveled to India and experienced it
personally. I never would have believed that it exists as
deeply as it does, so how could I give them the value it
deserved? I was in Ludhiana, Punjab for all of 48 hours
before finding myself drawing my maternal-grandfather's
family tree containing his six siblings and their children,
grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. My third-cousins
were helping me, and we spent at least three days talking to
our elders and tracing our lines. Cousins and second
cousins were running around the house without concern for
how they were related. I found myself in charge of
teaching a six-year old to write the Hindi and English
alphabets within hours of meeting her. Though I had never
met anyone in that household, I was immediately accepted
as my mother's daughter and was encouraged to participate
in every aspect of life.
Although at times I felt as different from my family in
India as I did from my friends in America, I was comforted
to find that I was not alone in the Borderlands. Rather than
forcing myself to identify either with being American or
being Indian, I could instead create a new reality for myself
that embraced both aspects of my history. Despite the
cultural and geographic distance, Borderlanders inherit
combinations of traditional values, which they then merge
with the culture of their new surroundings. Far from being
alone, I could now better relate to other cousins who also
dwelt in-between.
For instance, my second cousin Rishi, who was born in
India and raised in England, came to Delhi to prepare for
his wedding. He and his fiancee had decided to have a
small ceremony and invite only family and friends to
whom they were close. However, my mum, not
understanding the appeal of a small, private wedding,
thought this rude and exclusive. She staunchly believed
that if she merited an invitation then her siblings ought to
as well because they were related to Rishi in the same way
that she is. She perceives weddings not as merely the union
of two people but a celebration of two families. Since they
are such joyous occasions, Indians invite every family
member and friend they can afford. Even though she
acknowledged that her sisters were unlikely to attend due
to travel difficulties, she maintained that the gesture was
still important.
To the older members of my family, it would seem that
Rishi's modem values for relationships differed greatly
from those my mother exhibited. However, even though I
had spent less than fifteen minutes all together with him
while he was in India, not only was I invited to his
wedding in Banglore, but he also promised me the key to
his London flat whenever I find myself there. At first, I
was shocked by his generosity, but after a moment's
consideration I realized that he also had a dual heritage
(perhaps trial heritage because of his Indian ancestry,
British childhood, and American university education) and


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THE CULTURAL TRANSITION OF SECOND-GENERATION INDIAN AMERICANS


was combining aspects of each to form the distinct world-
view of a Borderlands resident.
I also realized that what an outsider perceives as
generosity could actually be a manifestation of different
definitions of possession that Indians have within families.
My mother and her sisters have traded some items for so
many years that no one is certain of their proper ownership.
My mum also owns a flat in New Delhi, and the family
automatically assumes that her father will live in it full-
time and that any visiting family members will have
complete use of its facilities. Even though technically the
flat is in her name, all it takes to utilize it is a metaphorical
knock on the door. The only payment ever asked for is that
the users contribute to utilities and repair any damage that
they directly cause. The door of any family member's
home is always open. All that is expected is reciprocation
in actions and participation in chores and social interaction.
Because my contributions to the household have always
been expected as part of belonging to the family, the
concept of an allowance confuses me-in my mind it
means being paid to belong. I have always been expected
to contribute to household duties in whatever capacity I
could, from delivering laundry to its proper room as a
toddler to cooking dinner as a teenager. Rather than having
a monetary medium of exchange within the house, my
parents enforced the importance of academics and their
expectation of high performance because they cared for me
physically and emotionally. They always gave me money
when I asked and instilled its value in me at an early age.
For this reason, I never made the distinction between "my
money" and "my parents' money." Regardless of who
worked for the income, someone had to, and that person's
time and effort is at least as valuable as my own, and so its
profit should be treated respectfully. My American friends
who did get an allowance were stunned and constantly
pressured me to take advantage of it. "Why do you care?"
they would ask me. "It's not your money." From their
perspective, I did not exploit an available resource, but
from my perspective they lacked respect for their parents'
labor. They thought my parents had given me freedom
without consequences, when in fact they had given me trust
and an accompanying sense of responsibility.
Like Rishi, I have absorbed individual aspects of Indian
culture, in spite of being raised in a primarily
individualistic society. For instance, my concept of
participation differs from both the Indian and the American
cultural perspectives and is instead a fusion of the two.
Even though my mother's openness with her Delhi flat
surprised me, somehow I still learned that monetary wealth
immediately becomes a resource on which any family
member can draw, which is why the concept of allowance
seems illogical to me. American culture is more
individualistic, and Indian culture is usually more
community oriented.
A similar miscommunication occurs in matters of
personal space. While not a physical commodity like a flat,


personal space is valued in the West. In Punjab, however,
children and adults alike freely walked around the house.
The only doors requiring knocks were to the lavatories;
even many bedroom doors were translucent glass. As a
child, even though I was doing nothing secretive, I often
felt that my parents invaded my privacy when they asked
me to keep my bedroom door open. My parents, on the
other hand, felt excluded from my life, as though the door
was a physical and emotional boundary between us.
Because the concept of personal space is non-native to
Indian culture, my parents applied foreign standards to
American culture, dwarfing it with the importance of
spending time with the family to strengthen its bonds. The
need for family trumps almost any other drive, including
that of romantic involvement.
Because India, unlike mainstream America, values
family significantly more than friendship, second-
generation Indian-American children often experience
cognitive dissonance concerning the importance of each
social group. Their families try to enforce the importance
of traditional values while their friends often contradict
them. Similar dissonance occurs when it comes to relations
between the sexes. India stresses modesty, propriety, and a
social separation of genders. Adults discourage physical
contact between young people of opposite sexes in the
same age group, even if they are related. They also limit
time spent together, especially one-on-one. As a young
teenager from suburban America, I rebelled against these
differing cultural values, since I perceived them as
outdated and unreasonable. Occasionally, older members
of my family reprimanded me for being inappropriately
close to my cousins, while from my perspective I had made
no mistake. However, I could not perceive that they were
operating from a different set of cultural axioms than I was,
and so they could not have the same standards of behavior.
For instance, when I was thirteen, an older aunt scolded
me for wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Although it was over
90 degrees outside, to her it was inappropriate to have bare
legs. Also, when I was in India, my grandfather
disapproved of Abhishek, my male cousin, and me taking a
walk alone after dark even though we are blood relatives.
At the time, I thought both my aunt and my grandfather
were lecturing me needlessly and being unfair and
paranoid. However, now I understand that they were acting
according to customary Indian standards.
Initially, I believed that this segregation was
characteristic of the older generations. However, in India
this theory was shattered. I noticed that young women of
my age would not shake hands with mutual male friends,
while I felt more than comfortable hugging them both. On
a different occasion, Abhishek expressed surprise and
disapproval when he saw two young women sitting next to
two young men on a rather small bench in a mall. In
America, such scenes are so common that I failed to even
notice. He was also incredulous that traditions like kissing
under mistletoe or on New Year's Eve actually exist.


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GEETA A. ANEJA


Similarly, while he and I were watching a movie, a young
female character spontaneously kissed the male
protagonist, whom she met just a few moments prior. He
immediately paused the movie, looked at me pointedly, and
asked if such behavior is common in America.
However, despite the social limitations between sexes of
the same age, physical expression of affection is both
expected and encouraged between generations and within
sexes, leading to misunderstandings on my part. Within my
first few days in Delhi, I noticed many men holding hands
while walking or sitting with their arms around each
other's shoulders. I innocently asked my cousin about the
prominence of homosexuality in India. He jokingly called
me an unexpressive American, but told me that he would
think nothing of holding a male friend's hand. I mistakenly
assumed that the American value of handholding, romantic
interest, also applied in India. However, Indian males are
free to express their friendship and fraternal affection
physically without a sexual or romantic implication.
Now that I better understand my parents' cultural values
and roots, I can make sense of some of their comments and
actions that previously have been incomprehensible.
Spending time in mixed groups is both expected and
encouraged even though physical contact is not. Until I was
in high school, my parents would question every male I


associated with on any level and prohibited any individual
interaction. I was not allowed to call male classmates or
visit their houses, even if our parents knew each other.
Because the majority of my American friends had fewer
restrictions, I initially perceived my parents' rules as
overbearing and constraining. As I grew older they
gradually granted me more freedom, but they still were
surprised when a seventeen-year-old boy came to them and
asked if he would be allowed to take me to dinner. Even
though they reluctantly agreed, I knew that my parents
would not accept major differences between my
relationship with him and my relationships with other
friends.
Regardless of how different my worlds are, I hope that I
have finally begun to perceive my heritage more honestly
than I have in the past. I cannot afford to blame my parents
for not fully introducing me to their world earlier; even if
they had, I may not have been able to hear them or absorb
its true significance at that time. However, I owe it to
myself and to them to try to understand, because now I
understand that to be a whole person, I need my whole
heritage. Without it, I will lose not just a piece of my
family but also my history and my self.


References
Anzalduia, Gloria E. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. 2nd ed. San
Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1999. Print


1 Gloria Anzalduia coined the term "borderlands" to describe the generation
transitioning from Mexican culture to the American culture unique to Texas.
"Borderlanders," the people who belong to this generation, rarely identify
completely with either culture and often feel cognitive dissonance about their true
affiliations. I have adopted her terms "borderlands" and "borderlander" to
describe an analogous transition of second-generation Indian Americans bridging
the gap between Indian and American cultures.
2 A common Punjabi saying.






















University of Florida I Journal of Undergraduate Research I Volume 12, Issue 2 | Spring 2011
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