Was showing my mother around Queens. Inevitably, Jackson Heights was visited. For those not in the know, Jackson Heights around Roosevelt Avenue is an Indian/South Asian neighborhood. There are grocery stores where you get, among other things, packaged lotus roots and mango ginger, and raw turmeric. There is a street called ‘Kalpana Chawla Way’. Palmistry signs dot the walls. Tons of jewelry stores abound, with old men with long beards handing you out coupons for stores or pamphlets for some cause or soliciting contributions towards some mandir or masjid somewhere.
There are tons of dress shops. All of them have some variations of clothes that look like this.
‘Imagine’, I said to mum, ‘your only exposure to Indian culture was through here’. In spite of all the nice things at Patel’s she wouldn’t find in a store in Bangalore itself, and chocolate dosa at a deli nearby, she wasn’t very pleased.
Now I’m not someone very experienced in Indian-American culture. But one thing I’ve always, always noticed is Indian neighborhoods are just so much dirtier, all over the US and in Singapore as well. Indian grocery stores are just so badly organized and maintained badly always. I’ve been told strongly by relatives who’ve lived here for a decade or two to never buy milk at Indian stores, because they shut off the fridges at night to save on costs. A Hyderabadi restaurateur somewhere in Connecticut told me Indian restaurants are ‘all dirty’, and he was trying to create restaurants with open kitchens.
In regions where there isn’t too large an Indian population, it gets worse. The only store of Indian spices is one lone Indian store somewhere, with stuff that’s gone out of date, and fake MTR mixes and pirated Maggi.
Where does this culture come from? India of the ’80s and ’90s? Because heck, I’ve seen Food World/More/Reliance Fresh be way cleaner. I assume American official standards and ratings for hygiene and worthiness of grocery stores are higher than ones in India, and the system less prone to subversion. And yet…
I’ve somehow never been able to reconcile a second-generation Indian-American’s view of India with mine. They either see disease, deprivation and red tape, or festivals, food and family values. Very few among the extremely few I’ve met actually have more evolved and thought-out ideas about India. What disturbs me is that these are the people giving the world a perspective of what it means to be Indian.
I’m not denying there’s much more to immigrant Indian culture than these two things. It’s just that these things stick out to me wherever I go, and I can’t quite help being offended in some way.
Strangely, I find myself not joining my expat brethren in celebrating Diwali and Holi too often, or being involved too heavily in any such events. It’s possible festivals aren’t festivals for me unless my family is around, but overall, I don’t seem to enjoy celebrating them too much with any Indian community I’ve been around. It’s the same sort of thing each time, held on the weekend before or after the festival, with some sort of a compromise between puja and party.
I completely appreciate the need to have such events, and the fact that only by doing so will you foster a sense of community, and keep people in touch with back home.
That said, I feel as alien with these events as I feel in, say, a gathering of standup comedians in New York (I prefer improv). The form the festival takes seems new to me, the ways they celebrate aren’t what I want, the food’s not the food my family makes for the festival, the conversations, the people….. in short, I don’t feel like running in pursuit of nostalgia after something that’s so obviously non-authentic to me.
This emphasis everyone there puts on ‘being Indian’, or ‘celebrating Indian culture’ and stuff like that puts me off completely. There’s hardly any honesty on how it’s a best-effort thing and not ‘THE’ thing you have to be looking out for. On occasion it feels like I have to put up with people and places and events I wouldn’t have to put up with in India ever, just for the sake of feeling connected to my community and roots.
Overall, I’ve begun to feel why should I have to try so hard to recreate a non-authentic replica of an idea of India I’ve never bought into, the India of Bollywood and bhangra and chicken tikka masala, when I might as well have whatever authentic experience this new country throws at me. Yes, an American tradition is anything that a babyboomer has done more than once, but atleast I can make what I want of it, and it’s more opt-in than opt-out at this stage of my life at least. And thanks to cheap communication, I can keep in touch with people back home more efficiently, so I’m not growing apart from where I’m from. Of course, it’s not an either-or choice, and I can have both, but usually the crowd that indulges in one doesn’t indulge in the other.
I know two years down the line I might be eating the words I said here, and possibly be found organizing some lame Diwali event in, dunno, Wyoming, but until then, I’m going to assert that there’s plenty more in the Indian community that needs to be done. We need some darned self-respect, we need to stop trying too hard to impress non-SouthAsians, we need to organize our events for us and not for some idea of India we want to communicate. That said, we need to pull up our socks on the cleanliness thing real quick. And yes, while it is great for all of us to come together under one banner, it sure is irksome to have one idea of what Indian culture is – the Bollywood-bhangra one – being imposed on everyone. It’d be a great idea to rethink what we as Indians have to contribute to the USA and realize that it’s greater than just ‘family values’ or ‘we invented spaceships in Mahabharatha times’. For example, why isn’t jowar being marketed as a gluten-free alternative to other grains? Please don’t tell me it’s because you don’t want what happened with quinoa to happen here; I doubt you thought of that before this. Also, it wouldn’t hurt if people thought a little more about their heritage and tried to get some real perspective on the goings-on in India, which is better than what we learn from Russel Peters, religious heads from other expat communities, visiting politicians with their own agendas, and Shah Rukh Khan films.