I was four and a half when we moved to Allentown, Pennsylvania. Though my memories of that age are dim, one powerful image sticks out in my mind. The week we moved in, a “welcome wagon” came by. The majority of our neighbors stopped in to say hello and welcome our family to the neighborhood. Some brought dishes, others just came to say, “welcome to Fairway Lane”. Though we never really connected with these neighbors much after that first encounter (for many reasons (see my story from Sulekha)) the welcome wagon stuck in my mind.
I don’t remember a strong Indian community in Allentown when I was young either – though we did often go to the “new” Pittsburgh temple, which was beautiful and brought us together with our fellow Indians. And we frequently visited and were visited by my Mom’s second cousin and her family who lived in upstate New York. I imagine that being in Pennsylvania, where the snow fell for months at a time in the winter, without other Indians, was probably difficult for my parents who had only been in America for five short years. I know that my Mother suffered – she had nine siblings back home and missed them desperately. She didn’t have many Indian friends, and the American friends that she had were nice but ate meat, were Christian, and probably had a hard time understanding her and her cultural values.
We also need to remember that this was the time before email, Facebook, Twitter, and all of those easy avenues that we have now to keep in touch. The aerograms that she sent back home took weeks to get there, and then months for a return message. And phone calls on the land line (no cell phones) were hard to hear and had the feedback wherein as you spoke you could hear your own voice again as the person on the other end thousands of miles away heard you.
And my parents weren’t rolling in the dough so it took years for them to save the money to buy the tickets to India and travel there for a hot summer of reconnecting.
Five years after our move to Allentown, we came to California, and while there was no neighborhood welcome wagon, there was an Indian community in our new State. I remember the first night, bleary eyed, when we stayed at the Murthi’s house in Cupertino. I had never met them before, but they were close friends with my Uncle and Aunt who we spent lots of time with in upstate New York. So therefore, they were our first stop in California. Their kids and I had an awkward meeting, but soon (after many years) became close, as during the rest of our time in California, we would frequently go and visit them.
Once we moved into our house near Sacramento, and got settled in, I remember suddenly having an Indian community where we would host “parties” and lots of Indian families from the area would come for potluck dinners, and we would go to their homes as well. Each time, the kids would all be in someone’s bedroom awkwardly hanging out, while the adults laughed, and relished in speaking their native tongue for hours at a stretch. Sometimes I would bring a book and just lose myself in a corner, and other times I’d bite the bullet and play games with the kids.
I’m not sure if you can tell by this story so far but: a) I lived in homogeneous communities – mostly Caucasian; and b) This was in the late 1970s early 1980s when Indian communities were more spread out and there were fewer East Indians in the US.
Back then, since Indians did not have temples all over (they still don’t) to find their communities – they found each other through word of mouth. When moving to a new place a friend would know someone who lived there and “connect” the families together. And they would make an effort to go and spend time with each other- even if their careers were different, or they were from different parts of the Indian subcontinent. The point was to come together and share the cultural values and speak their languages, and feel like they were a part of a like minded group.Though interestingly enough -they weren’t really like minded all the time – some were much stricter than others, and just because they were all Indian did not mean that they were all the same. But that was the best there was back then.
Living in America thirty years ago as an Indian immigrant was harder- there was no “yoga craze” or Indian restaurants in most towns, no easy way to keep in touch or dotcom industry to bring more people into the States. We had to travel one and a half hours to Berkeley to eat Indian food at a restaurant – and believe me, we did that!
I remember being a bit envious of my friends who lived in the Bay Area, which was more progressive even then and had Bharatanatyam dance lessons and singing lessons, and all kinds of Indian cultural events. But still, compared to today – even in the Bay Area, you had to scout it all out.
Now we come to my part of the story. I’m the daughter of immigrants – so in a class of my own – I was raised very Indian, in a mostly Caucasian and Christian community. I was one of a few Indians in my high school of almost 1900 students. I remember it being hard – not having a Christmas tree, having people tell me that my house smelled funny – from the incense, and an overall feeling of not belonging because I longed for a country that I never lived in (again, another story altogether).
But when I left high school I didn’t do much to integrate into an Indian community later in life. My first year at UCLA, I felt totally overwhelmed. How do I break into an Indian group? I probably could have just gone to a meeting, but I just didn’t – my own fault. I also inherently thought it was strange to have to “join a society” to make friends. So I just didn’t connect with many Indians in college. I met a few in the “brain lab” where I used to study with my big German Med student boyfriend. But they weren’t interested in me – it felt like they thought that since I’d already chosen a non Indian boyfriend, I wasn’t really Indian enough for them.
As you read this you are probably thinking: She didn’t really want to be a part of an Indian community, she had non-Indian boyfriends (now a non-Indian husband), and didn’t go out of her way to meet Indians. Maybe you are right. But I am very Indian in many ways – I’ve read the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata so many times that they are memorized (and I read volumes, not just abridged versions); I have Indian tapestries and statues all over my home along with a prayer area; I have done yoga for much of my life; and I eat and make Indian food. Plus I try to speak gutter Tamil to my kids to teach them some of the language. India and all things Indian pull on me constantly.
I admit, I tried to find some Indian friends by making sure most of my doctors and dentists were Indian. But it’s kind of awkward to ask your dentist to come to your house for dinner – just because your Indian. Or is it? My parents would have done it.
For those of us born and raised in the US – maybe married to a non Indian, it seems hard to break into an Indian community.
Or is it just me?
Or is there NO real Indian community where I live?
There is one. This year, the Indian society of the Monterey Peninsula held their Diwali celebration on Halloween night. Of course I could not attend since my kids wanted to go trick or treating. I’ve yet to make one of these events, because of timing and because I just don’t know anyone in the community. So there is that awkward thing again.
About two months ago I had a colleague and his wife over for dinner. She’s Indian, he’s not. We had a wonderful time and connected on a number of levels – even though she is Indian from Africa, not India. Perhaps for me, that is my Indian community? The other half and halves?
I’m not sure what the answer is, but I do know that I would like to have some Indian friends.
However, I truly believe that friendships have to form organically. One of my best friends is from Detroit. She and I look as different as night and day. Our parents are really different. But we support each other, and love each other. Isn’t that what it’s all about? She is spiritual, and can talk with me about Buddhism and meditation, and also clearly understands the American side of me.
As I write this I realize that the thing that is missing is that connection with India that maybe an Indian friend can bring. I’ve been to India eight times in my lifetime. Each time I loved it for a different reason. Then I came back to the US and felt isolated, misunderstood, because I didn’t belong quite anywhere. In America I was born here, but raised very Indian, in India, I wasn’t born there, and raised very American. I think that is what I am looking for – others who can relate to the strings that pull us toward India and all things Indian, but are distinctly American.
Are you out there?