For those of us born in India and raising children in America, it is a challenge to pass on our cultural genes. The good news is that generations of Americans have transcended differences and found happiness in blending the unique, best-loved parts of both new and old worlds.
Interestingly, after 35 years in the U.S., I have learned to include and integrate both American and Indian cultures into my life. I work in both countries and have discovered that one of the things I do best is to facilitate an exchange of best practices between my two countries.
Having raising my own kids and now watching the parenting challenges of the next generation, I offer these bits of advice on how to raise Indian American children to have one foot in each country:
The biggest issue facing Indian American families is that we want our children to hold onto their Indian traditions but very often, our parental practices are very much American. Although our habits can be unconscious to us, they are readily visible to our children. Our values and beliefs on family, religion and culture are passed down through practices, rituals and habits. The kind of food we eat every day at home, how we spend our holidays, how we celebrate festivals, what music we listen to – all these basic factors shape the personality of our children.
As we experience daily home life, our likes and dislikes create polarities in our minds. For example, though my wife and I are vegetarians, one of our children ended up an omnivore and one is still a vegetarian (who even convinced her college roommates to avoid non-vegetarian dishes at home.) So though both were raised the same way, one of our kids found freedom in being a vegetarian while the other felt constricted and broke away. It is natural that such likes and dislikes subconsciously shape us. This doesn’t just involve eating – it could be drinking alcohol or practicing Hinduism or wearing a turban in public because you are a practicing Sikh. Liking such cultural practices can lead to recognizing that you are different and unique and proud of your heritage. On the other hand, disliking those practices may lead young people to move away from their culture and to want to fit in with the majority.
I have found that conscious awareness of one’s cultural identity often arises when you are on your own or about to enter a new phase of life. When I was living in Salt Lake City, I became friends with many Mormons. As I heard about their commitment to family values and pride in their faith, I realize many of their values are those I cherish as part of my upbringing in India. Indeed, such conscious awareness begins when one is away from their culture for a while.
Recently I met an Indian American woman who was pregnant with her first child. She and her U.S.-born husband were returning to California for a visit after living for a time in Germany. She told me that she had resented Indian-ness while being brought up in a Tamil home but had rediscovered her love for Indian culture as she prepared to have a child. Clearly, a large part of being a global leader requires one to understand, appreciate, communicate and integrate what is good in different cultures to be successful.
When young people are getting serious about a relationship with a person from another culture, I encourage them to spend a lot of time talking about each other’s beliefs, traditions and habits. While it might be uncomfortable, discussing each other’s favorite activities and habit patterns reduces conflict over time. The same is especially true when considering having a baby: Talk to each other about what you want to name the baby, what language you will use to speak to the baby, what food the baby will eat, and so on. One young couple decided that their children will have Indian names, wear Indian clothes, learn yoga, perform Indian dance and practice Judaism – and it works!
Even if your kids might complain about your cultural commitment today, they may thank you tomorrow. You don’t want your children to blame you later for not teaching them about their ethnic traditions or language. In the global society that we live in, diversity is very often a major advantage. A French and Cambodian couple in San Jose made sure that their children learned both Chinese and French languages from childhood. The kids went to French schools and grew up eating Chinese and American food in addition to French delicacies. They spent some years in Singapore and Cambodia before they returned to California. As a result, their two sons were multilingual, multicultural and enjoyed more success in college and the job market as a result.
The parents of one young family have instilled a love for Carnatic music in their children. The mother sings and father plays from his large collection. When you engage your kids in a cultural activity that you are passionate about, they absorb your enthusiasm and will tend to follow your passion until they pick up their own. On the other hand, if you force children to go to after-school dance classes because you want them to be good Indians but they see that you have no interest in dance yourself, then the chances of sticking to their cultural education are low. When children see duplicity in our behavior, they will typically do what you do instead of what we command.
Indeed, we become what we love. We are more a product of what we practice than what we preach. When we engage with multiple cultures, we become aware of our differences, pay attention to areas of conflict and become much more inclusive with our actions. Such reflection allows us to bring up our children to be Indian and American, while contributing greatly to our global society as open, curious, creative and multicultural individuals.