Born and brought up in the United States, Rahul is a second generation Indian American in his forties working for a wall street firm in the heart of Manhattan. Siddharth, also in his forties, works for the same firm. But he is an Indian who just moved to the US on a work visa.
Can Rahul and Siddharth be the representation of the same thoughts and values? The experience of growing up in two different geographies would have shaped their characters differently. But how much of this difference is perceived by the onlooker remains a question, answer to which describes an immigrant’s life in America.
Without a doubt, the circumstances and opportunities that shaped the lives Rahul and Siddharth are not the same. The East-West divide will be evident in every aspect of their upbringing. Ironically, who we are is seldom reflected on the first look.
In this case, both Rahul and Siddharth are perceived to be Indians with an expected behaviour pattern. “We may dress differently, show different mannerisms and choose different accent that highlight the subtle differences. But not much of these differences are shown in the physical identity dominated by our skin tone,” feels many.
Thus, the Indian tag continues to remain over generations despite the westernisation we try to embrace. The facial features and looks designed by the DNA strands cannot be wiped off by the geography that grooms us.
Their looks alone cannot tell us who among Rahul and Siddharth holds US citizenship. But their citizenship status determines what would be their choices and actions in life in an immigrant land.
However shrinking the global space may be, there is a predetermined definition and expected behaviour linked to the colour of the skin. This is not unique to the Indian immigrants, but true with every other ethnicity. And these expectations tend to be the identity for anyone until there is an opportunity to open up a conversation. Does this matter? Yes. To a great extent, it challenges the life of immigrants.
In the hope of handling this challenge, many Santhanams in the US have adopted the name ‘Sam’. Same with Lakshiminarayanans who have turned to become ‘Lax ‘and Chandrasekar to ‘Charles’. In the past, many have chosen to change names legally to break the initial barrier of cultural identity and become an exception to the expectations that are linked to one’s country of origin. But their appearance always brings out the Santhanams and Chandrasekars covered under the veil. The face now becomes the index of who we are and the character we are supposed to embrace. It is here that scripting a positive image for the native country becomes relevant.
Labeling and characterisation based on the skin colour is applicable even back in India. Jonathan, wife Jenifer and two grown up boys, Sabastein and Chris, could easily enter a Hindu temple without any questions being asked because he who was originally Sundaresan before moving to the US 40 years ago. On the same day, ironically, a Caucasian female who waited along with the Jonathans, reciting aloud slokas, was refused entry as her face showed up to be a non-Hindu.
On careful observation, children born out of inter-ethnic marriages do have the looks that would fetch them the half Indian tag.
Travelling on a train to New York, an American stranger picks a conversation always assuming I am an Indian, religious, pious, with family values and cultural heritage, workaholic attaching importance to education to my children, etc., says a 35-year-old second generation Indian American born and raised in the US, for whom many of these values are alien. When applying to a job, it is easy to sell oneself as a technology guy than in other streams because it is expected that Indian brains are the best in IT world.
Second-generation immigrants born and brought up in the US live and embrace the local culture as their own. But often times, the lack of acknowledgement and endorsement causes trouble.
Their physical attributes will still be decided by their DNA. No matter the number of generations we live out of the country, the tag of a being a proud Indian American is set to remain forever, as God created DNA is powerful than the man dictated global integration.
— The writer is a journalist based in New York