“Can you talk like Appu in The Simpsons?”
“Does your dad work in a quicky mart?”
It was amazing to think that the culture of our motherland – a culture of many geographies, languages, histories, and rich traditions which developed over the centuries – can all be consumed by one (and only one) Indian fictional cartoon character. For a long time, the most famous Indian in America was a convenience store owner.
His nationwide celebrity led to define the identity of myself and thousands of young Indian-Americans who all heard the many comments of “Appu from The Simpsons” in their school hallways. Questions about culture, where my parents work, and if I smell like Indian food all belonged to the category of “this foreign kid with the weird culture.” When I approached my parents on what I thought was one of the greatest social life crises that could ever impact a middle school student, I was reminded that this was one of many mis-characterizations of Indians within the United States. It was a cartoon – couldn’t start lower than that as an effective channel to communicate culture.
I don’t fault my peers who did ask questions about “Appu”. Indians in America are still a recent phenomenon. We’re one of the newest immigrant groups in United States with major migration trends as early as the 1980s. For many, Indian culture was relatively new to their exposure of Asian foreign cultures. This exposure, however, led to a serious challenge for me and many Indian Americans around the country. We were labeled “Indian” at school and an “American” among our Indian peers and even at home. I was convinced I had to pick one over the other as I didn’t even consider balancing two cultures as an option. Or more accurately, it was never explained.
It is obvious we were not prepared. We were too young to understand and our recently emigrated parents didn’t know what was the best course of action. It was obvious: a lack of dialogue. The lack of the “South Asian American” dream.
For the many immigrant groups in the United States, there was natural points to enter into American community life. The Irish, Italians, Polish and other cultural groups attended religious services at well-established Catholic parishes which had been around for decades. This eventually led to organization of their own communities through ethnic parishes, schools and unions. Through these community platforms a new sense of community unity, identity and dialogue was created that naturally flourished over time. They had their own version of the American Dream which was practiced through multiple platforms.
While many South Asians took on incredible sacrifices in organizing their own religious communities (churches, mosques, temples, etc), we were still separated in many silos. In Chicago, there was a lack of much dialogue between North Indian Hindus, South Indian Catholics, and any other subset. Relationships were formed sporadically. Since the community was naturally divided according to religious or ethnic lines, there was always a lack of constructive dialogue for a new South Asian American dream. It was limited to our own micro communities which often had many intra-challenges of their own.
Almost every community sought to be an oasis of culture in America – a home away from home. But this wasn’t necessarily the most effective vision for a first generation Indian American like myself. If I was “100% Indian” in the United States, I would struggle in everyday America – at school, work, and my social life. If I was “100% American”, there would be a gap from my Indian roots that would grow wider over time and a natural frustration that would form with my parents and community. What dream my community had back in the day didn’t add up for many young people. This led a few generations of Indian-Americans to “leave” their respective communities – a painful experience for parents, a stressful experience for the young people that left, and a moment of contention for the wider community.
There was always the American dream, but many needed the South Asian American dream. Visionaries behind this dream are not going to be found through local Indian associations or religious congregations. It has to be personal – it has be understood and lived by a 25 year old South Indian Catholic from Chicago.
How does the American dream intertwine with our motherland roots? The motherland is a fascinating pluralistic society. We’re home to both one of the world’s largest Hindu and Muslim populations and ancient Christian roots in India dating back as old as Jesus himself. In recent history, India’s political system included a Catholic Indian woman of Italian descent who led a parliamentary majority (Sonia Gandhi), a Sikh Prime Minister (Manmohan Singh), and a Muslim President (APJ Abdul Kalam) elected by a Hindu majority population (80%). India is a country of many geographies, histories and languages all happening at the same time. Saying someone is “Indian” is a big word – it can mean many things.
This is also true about the fabric of the American Dream – it’s now multicolor. And the orange, white, and green streaks are distinct by the impact of our Indiaspora community. The American Dream has also the South Asian American edition: embrace our Indian-American heritage and see the blessings of our identity. This is what Sundar Pichai (Google) and Satya Nadella (Microsoft) has accomplished. This is not necessarily what Bobby Jindal believes in.
Let’s celebrate the beautiful intersection of these two great cultures. For young people: it’s okay that we don’t know everything about the motherland, but let’s grow on the little things we do know and have. For parents: kids have a lot of respect for their Indian culture – let’s make sure we keep exposing them to what we can through family events, community functions, and trips back home. For the larger community: let us in no way diminish but build community life through our relationships, our hospitality and the common thread of Indian culture that binds us. For our American peers: we are Indian and American and we are proud of both identities. We would love for you to join us at our weddings, our family events, and as friend to our homes anytime. For everyone else: we’re South Asians of many faiths and cultures – not you’re definition of what “Indian” is.
The more we believe and build the South Asian American dream, the stronger the American dream has become. And the the growing impact we have on the American Dream, the more it contributes to the success of our own Indian-American community. We must become the new generation, the new innovators, the next thought leaders of what the American Dreams means in this century.
The South Asian American Dream now includes many high profile success stories – making their mark on almost every segment of American life, Appu lost some of his stardom to some real celebrities: our CEOs, our Surgeon General, our Congressman, our doctors, our engineers, our policy makers, and our many professionals of leadership and influence.
Most importantly, we finally have a better quip next time we get the questions:
“Do you talk like Appu in The Simpsons?”
“Does your dad work in a quicky mart?”
“No. He’s the CEO of Google”