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    An immigrant diary

    How much would be true for NRP's

    NRI's dilemma resolved

    BOSTON DIARY | Sunil Lala

    June 7, 2005

    As I sit here in an Italian restaurant on fashionable Newbury Street, watching Bostonians go about their daily business, I get into a thoughtful mood.

    Perhaps it's the wine, perhaps it's the sun. In any case, the big question haunts me. Who am I really?

    No, this is not that age old, midlife crisis driven, "Who am I and why am I here" question. This is more an immigrant's variation, if you will. It is a question that most NRIs ask themselves at one point or another. Am I an Indian living in Boston, or am I a Bostonian who is originally from India?

    And more importantly, as NRIs, what defines our Indian identity?

    We all left India in search of whatever it is that we were searching for more opportunities, a better career, the ability to travel around the world. A lot of us have achieved those objectives to a great extent. And yet, that elusive search for identity continues.

    The India that we know as it was back then, and that we so irrationally cling to, exists no more. And the India that we read about and visit occasionally, seems to be desperately trying to mimic our adopted country.

    Being an Indian seems to mean completely different things to us NRIs and to resident Indians. And therein lies our dilemna.

    I think about the many contradictions we face, and I am often baffled by our own hypocrisy. We expect our American born kids to be fluent in Hindi or Bangla or Tamil, while we ourselves try to fake American pronunciations of words likebathroom and craft.

    We fail miserably at both, of course. Our kids, sooner or later, forget the language of their parents, and probably snicker behind our backs at our pathetic attempts at sounding American.

    Then we hear Leno make fun of how folks in India are changing their names to John and Kathy, and are answering support calls in phony American accents, and we don't know whether to feel proud of India's IT accomplishments, or hang our heads in shame at this egregious insult to our national pride.

    On our trips to India, we love to complain loudly about the traffic, the pollution, the water quality and electricity shortage. And yet, we thoroughly enjoy the company of lifelong friends and the taste of authentic Indian food.

    We miss the privacy that we take for granted in America, yet we adore the genuine warmth behind Indian intrusiveness. We are frustrated by the still existing inefficiencies and corruption in the Indian socio-political system, and yet, we instinctively understand them and relate to them.

    Here in the US, we have adapted quite well, and are comfortable with most things American. We ski, we mow our lawns, we barbeque and we bake and stuff a turkey on Thanksgiving. And yet, there is that occasional joke by a stand up comic, that occasional reference to anold TV show or movie that we can't quite relate to.

    We can recall from memory all our favorite restaurants and the best desserts they serve. Yet, when the waitress tells us about the day's special, we do not really grasp the names of all the strange sounding ingredients.

    We remember the Star Spangled Banner by heart, and yet it doesn't make our heart pound and our pulse race, like Jana Gana Mana still does.

    In the absence of any exposure to real Indian culture, we saturate our children's minds with senseless and often vulgar Bollywood movies in the misplaced hopes of drilling some Indian-ness into them.

    We shuttle them from soccer practice to Kathak classes to apple picking trips to piano recitals to Asha Bhonsle concerts. No wonder they grow up confused.

    The constant stream of mixed messages that they get from us, cannot but lead them in that direction. A good friend's daughter, the cutest four year old you have ever seen, recently drew an adorable picture of Lord Krishna dressed in a T-shirt and boxer shorts!

    And so the question remains. What gives us our Indian identity? Are we more Indian than that call centre guy in India who changes his name from Billoo to Bill?

    Are we less patriotic than those other Indians in America, who pride themselves in refusing to adapt to the ways of the land, where they will spend the rest of their lives?

    If I don't go to satsangs offered by Indian Godmen flying first class to Boston, or do not feel a burning desire to quote the Bhagwad Gitaat the drop of a hat, does that make me any less Indian?

    If I really don't enjoy Bollywood movies, does that in some way dilute my Indian identity?

    I think I know the answer. India is in my blood and will always be, no matter where I reside. Meanwhile, I will do in Rome as Romans do. I will enjoy the great things that different cultures of the world have to offer, without guilt and without remorse.

    I will not succumb to group-think. I will continue to chew 'Paan Parag', while watching strange, subtitled French movies at Harvard Square.I will retain the option of distinguishing between good Indian things and bad Indian things, without the fear of being labelled a traitor.

    I will continue to be a Kishore Kumar fan and appreciate Beethoven's Ode to Joy. I will remain skeptical of Ayurveda till it proves itself in double-blind clinical trials. I will be firm in my belief that Bermuda shorts are something that all men, in the US and in India, should stay away from.

    Oh, and I will say "it's wicked cold" but I will continue to pronounce "aunt" and "half" the way I always have. If people don't understand my accent, well, I guess they'll just have to learn. I am from India. This is how I talk and this is how I live. This is my way.

    Get used to it.