Amid this economic calamity, Indians still represent fifteen percent of all international students in America, according to the Open Door’s 2009/2010 report from the Institute of International Education, a leading exchange program in the good ole’ USA. These young adults scrimp and sacrifice everything to leap to America, often reliant on their prosperity, and should be tremendously admired. They all land on American soil, pure, with glows of high hopes in their eyes, and can’t help infecting everyone they know with their contagious diligence during their struggles. I admire them, but as an ABCD trying to preserve my Indian culture, my jaw drops when all that’s recognizable are the features they were born with, after they’ve settled in comfortably.
On a sabbatical trip to India, I had the delight of meeting Deepika, whose innocent demeanor exuded through her smile. She was like most Indians, aspiring to leave her motherland, hoping to acquire a piece of the most desired, extraordinarily over rated, American Dream. Her parents decided it was best for her to first work towards a BE, a bachelor’s degree in Engineering. BE, BA, BCOM, BSC … whichever the degree, it was settled. Her parents convinced her it was the only way to be well versed as a possible candidate to apply abroad, so she could earn her Masters in computer science.
While I rented the room upstairs from her parents, for a mere fifty dollars, I grew more impressed with her each day. When her friends pressured her to walk the runway as a western fashionista, or sneak out after hours to a local pub, I was in awe at how respectful she remained towards her Indian culture. Maybe she was afraid of her parent’s ridicule, because she was still living under their roof. But wherever she took me in Hyderabad, whether it was a short trip to the vegetable market, the theater, NTR Park, or to GVK One Mall, in the scorching sun or torrential downpour, she always stepped out the house in the native south Indian cotton salvar (suit). And was she obsessed about covering up her chest with the coordinating duppatta (scarf).
She gasped at the idea of cutting her waist-length, black braided hair, no matter how many times it got caught in the car door. Like swatting a fly, she’d simply swing it out of her way, and say, “A long braid will look better in the wedding photos,” in her native Telugu dialect. (She wasn’t engaged, it was just wishful thinking). I would’ve taken a sheer and given myself a new hair-do.
As soon as I heard bangles chiming in unison with the charms on silver anklets, I knew Deepika was finally home, and before I left for the airport, I wanted to give her something in return for her hospitality. As soon as I handed her the make-up kit I’d brought from the states, she scattered all the contents on her bed. “I’ve never worn any make-up before. I don’t think make-up suits me,” she said in Telugu again, even though her English was usually grammatically perfect.
I leaned in to hug her, and she groaned, ineptly pushing her thick eyeglasses back into place, as they slid down the bridge of her nose. Before the auto peddled away, I promised her parents that Deepika could stay with me, for as long as she needed to, when she arrived in the states in a few months.
I held a handmade poster that read, “Welcome to America, Deepika!”, and paced the scuffed tiles outside the arrival gate of John F. Kennedy Airport, along with a crowd of roughly two hundred people. I turned in the direction of a familiar voice shouting in English, “Hi! Over here … I’m here!”
Poised, and lean in her slim-flit dark jeans, she flipped her shoulder length, bob haircut to one side, and incessantly adjusted a heavy, unbranded tote bag on her shoulder. The gold pendant of Lord Venkateswara [Lord who destroys sins of people] glimmered above her black crew neck, Indian-embroidered cotton shirt. It had only been three months since I’d seen her, but I hardly recognized her. And as she looked around at the crowd, I could tell she wasn’t sure if she’d made the right decision.
On the car ride, she complained the clothes her mother packed would make her look ridiculous, and made me promise I’d take her shopping. So, a few days later, we rode the escalator up to a popular department store in the mall, and browsed through spiral sale racks of designer clothes. She draped piles of garments over her arms, and twirled into the fitting room, positive she would love them all, but she wouldn’t step out to show me if the outfits complemented her or not. I listened to her sighs of disappointment, as she flung each piece of clothing over the door. She asked me to find a similar blouse with a higher scoop neckline, or a loose fitting t-shirt with at least a short sleeve. I think she realized most of the current fashions were less conservative than she still was. It takes a strong person to admit they don’t have to feel pressured, and change everything about themselves.
She’d come to visit a year into her Masters program, wrapped in a fitted designer jean jacket. Pink gloss shimmered on her lips when she smiled, and her eyelids were dusted with grey eye shadow. I guess she learned how to apply the make-up after all, without my help. Her eyeglasses had disappeared, along with the golden locket of God Venkateswara.
She giggled when her cell phone rang, and said in English, “Someone’s always callin’ me,” and leaned over the armrest to dig in her Dooney and Bourke tote bag, like a squirrel. The back of her midriff was bear. Her much-too- tight, white tank top that read, ‘babe’ across the chest rose high above the waistline of her skin-tight Calvin Klein jeans. Flicking open the cell, she answered the caller. “Thanks for checking up on me, babe. I’ll meet you at the bar. You know— the one we always go to.” I hoped she was talking to a girlfriend. “Talk to you later, babe.” Her English was perfect, and her accent was barely discernible.
During her visit, a very close aunt and uncle, who’ve lived in Connecticut for over forty years, invited Deepika and I for dinner that evening. Uncle is a well known, humble doctor and philanthropist, who migrated to America to a join a residency program about forty years ago, and Aunty is the compassionate CEO of the household. Though their home is filled with modern, luxurious décor and the latest, high-tech devices, they’ve managed to successfully raise three brilliant, culturally enriched children. They’re always intrigued and impressed to discover how students are able to weave their heritage into their hectic lives, and incessantly encourage young students from India to always join as many cultural associations. And since they met Deepika the first week she arrived, they were eager to learn of her progress, and how she was adjusting to the new lifestyle America thrashed at her.
She addressed them in English, and wouldn’t take her jacket off, and I noticed their confused looks as soon as we sat down. They were not impressed. She had changed, and had a sense of arrogance I could tell they didn’t appreciate.
Uncle’s mother, a sweet, seventy year old woman, who only understands Telugu, remembered meeting her a year ago, and tried to have a conversation with her. The mother asked Deepika if she was planning on getting married after graduation, but she couldn’t understand her response in English, and walked away in frustration. I guess you could say I was more than embarrassed by Deepika’s behavior.
I agree that during my pre-teen and adolescence years I was ambiguous at times, but I never abandoned the culture that is imbedded into my soul, and has fashioned who I am today. I’d be adrift without the knowledge, and the deep respect I’ve learned to possess for my heritage.
No matter how many degrees or how much money we earn, how far we succeed or travel, or how long we live in America or anywhere, it’s far more respectable to be true to ourselves, rather than trying so hard to change into or becoming someone else. And we should all remember that with every step we take, we are representing all Indians, across the nation and abroad. In everything we attempt and achieve we should be making “our people” proud of us. After all, no matter how much we try we can never escape our ethnicity to blend in. We’ll always be Indian.