The Best of Both Worlds: On Being Indian

Author: Vidisha Patel, EdD 
Citation: From the SENG Update, March 2010

One of the blessings of living in sunny Florida at this time of year is that we host numerous visitors. This year has been particularly busy with visits from relatives coming to Florida for the first time. Having just returned from a trip to India with my own children, our conversations have centered around life as Indian immigrants: both the joys and the challenges.

Perspectives on Fitting In
My family immigrated to the United States over forty years ago in search of better job opportunities for my parents and educational opportunities for us, the children. This was also the case for many of my cousins. We were fortunate in that our parents taught us how to assimilate into the western culture while still maintaining our comfort and familiarity with our heritage. We returned to India on a regular basis, maintained a level of fluency in our native languages, and continued our cultural traditions. Unlike other immigrants, we did not reject our heritage, nor did we hang onto it to the exclusion of embracing western traditions. We thought we did a great job of assimilating into the United States.

Yet, we were different. We spent much of our lives trying to fit in with our peers, both in America and in India. In reality, we didn’t fit into either place.  In America, we looked different, ate different food, and lived with different rules from our peers. In India, we were singled out as having been “Americanized” with funny accents and an inability to speak Marathi and Gujarati correctly. It was only at a much older age that we were able to recognize and appreciate the benefits of growing up across two cultures.

Our parents were extremely protective of us. They always wanted to know where we were and what we were doing. There was no privacy in our home. At any given time, there would be several extra people in the house visiting for a few days. Our grandmothers came from India annually and stayed for several months at a time. Frequently, we would give up our rooms for relatives or share the room with them.
We ate traditional Indian food six nights out of seven. Indian food is typically eaten with your hands, so when we had friends over, not only were we explaining what the food was, but we also had to teach them how to eat with their hands. Some of our friends found it fascinating, and others chose not to come again!

Socially, when our friends were going to parties or out to the movies and having sleepovers, we were usually not allowed to go. Our parents didn’t see the need for us to go out on the weekends and certainly not until late at night.

For our parents, educating us was the most important gift they could provide. They wanted us to study hard, learn to think laterally, and do well. We were also expected to learn musical instruments, play sports, and read. In turn, they were willing to provide the support to ensure that we would be able to experience these things.
They would drive us to activities, help us to study if we needed it, and buy us supplies to ensure that we could complete projects successfully.

Spending money frivolously on fashionable clothes or toys was not considered a good use of funds. We were not encouraged to follow the trends of fashion, and we did not have the latest toys or games. If these games were educational, then it was a different matter.

Summer camp and summer jobs were not an option. Most summers, we went back to India and visited our relatives. We had private instruction in our native language, and we always had lots of books to read and summer homework. We also traveled throughout India to visit a few sites and many relatives. As we became older, we were told that we could get a summer job as long as it was educational. Our parents were not interested in our getting a job to earn money if we were not going to be learning something from the job. This limited our summer jobs to research fellowships and internships. Again, this was based on a firm belief that the parents’ role is to educate their children, and that work for the sake of “pocket money” was not acceptable.

From my parents’ perspective, they were sacrificing their lives to give us the best opportunities that they were capable of providing. From our perspective, we were struggling to fit in. It was challenging to try to fit in to a culture that valued independence when we lived half our lives in a culture that valued interdependence.
We found ourselves living a dual life. In school, we did our best to fit in by imitating our peers. As soon as we stepped into our homes, we were transported to India. We spoke Marathi and Gujarati at home much of the time, ate Indian food for almost all of our meals, and followed the cultures and traditions that our family was accustomed to.  Since we didn’t know anything else, we quickly adapted to this way of life.

Standing Outside the Candy Shop Window
Indian immigrant parents tend to be extremely protective of their children. Children are considered a gift of god and are to be nurtured, protected, and educated to the fullest extent. These parents, in turn, work hard to achieve the means to educate their children and to provide them with the best opportunities in life. It is expected that the children will study hard, be successful, and ultimately take care of their parents when they age. Socializing is frequently limited to family gatherings or parties where the entire family is invited. Rarely do Indian immigrant parents allow their children to go out late with friends on weekends, as might be typical for an American teenager. Marriages are often arranged or ‘introduced,” so dating is also not encouraged.

Academics are the primary focus of life for Indian children. They are expected to study and earn good grades. Diligence, time, and effort are rewarded, and laziness is not accepted.

The result is a lonely existence for an Indian immigrant adolescent in America. It is almost like standing outside the candy shop window, watching your peers buying and eating whatever they like. It accentuates the differences rather than bridging the cultural gap.

Benefits of Being Different
However, it is also important to recognize that there are benefits to being “different.” Indian immigrant families are usually extremely nurturing and supportive. The challenges that come with immigrating to a new country and planting roots create a strong bond within families and other members of the immigrant community.  The greater immigrant community provides an extended support network, both socially and during challenging times. This network extends across the country as well. Wherever we go, we can find family, friends, or friends of friends who are welcoming.

Education is highly valued and encouraged. If children demonstrate proficiency in any subject area, they are encouraged to pursue it further. Parents will go to great lengths to allow their children to excel in whatever area they show promise.

What I Have Learned
Giftedness adds another layer of challenges when combined with the Indian immigrant experience. Gifted children frequently feel different and misunderstood. Cultural differences only add to the sense of isolation. Indian parents typically don’t talk about feelings or worry about their child’s sense of isolation. The focus is primarily on success in academics. So, if a gifted Indian child shows signs of feeling depressed or frustrated, it will frequently be glossed over. Indian parents are less likely to seek assistance from outside professionals. There is a pride that prevents them from taking their child to receive outside help. They would rather solve the problem internally and quietly. Indian parents may be in denial that their child has a challenge, and these challenges would rarely be discussed outside the home. If only parents would speak to their peers, they might learn that they are not alone, that there are other children and families who experience similar difficulties. Even if they don’t want to speak to a professional, they can get some comfort from the knowledge that they are not alone.

As a first generation immigrant and the parent of two gifted children, I have learned several important lessons.

  • It’s okay to be different.
  • Everyone faces challenges.
  • Recognizing the need for help and asking for help shows strength of character.
  • Culture matters.
  • Retain your culture and integrate into the society in which you live.
  • As immigrants, we can and do have the best of both worlds.

We are extremely fortunate to have two cultures and traditions to draw from. We can choose the best of both worlds to live our lives to the fullest.

Dr. Vidisha Patel has a doctorate of Education in Counseling Psychology and practices as a therapist in Sarasota, Florida, where much of her work is with gifted children and their families, with a focus on stress and anxiety. She is licensed to teach stress management techniques. Dr. Patel is active in her local community and regularly speaks at conferences, schools, and parenting groups throughout the community and the state. As a consultant for Florida State University she trains primary caregivers on infant mental health. Dr. Patel’s professional affiliations include The American Counseling Association, The World Association of Infant Mental Health, The Zero to Three Society, Sarasota County Medical Society Alliance, and the Pine View School Board of Directors. Dr. Patel holds an MBA from Columbia University and worked in finance on Wall Street and overseas before obtaining her doctorate in psychology. Dr. Patel is the mother of two gifted children.

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