I am angry – acknowledging the price of assimilation

I’m angry.

I think it is an anger that was seeded many moons ago. With each moon, it has been steadily growing.

I didn’t know it was there, until recently.

What am I angry about?

My assimilated life.

My parents migrated here from India in the 1960s. Their’s is a common story. Frustrated with his job in Mysore, India, my father applied for a scholarship to go to university in the United States. He got accepted and after passing the hat around to friends and family to raise the airfare, he went to Rutgers University to do an MSc. This quickly turned into a PhD. He did both degrees in a total of 4 years. He was the first person in his family to leave the country. While emotionally he didn’t want to stay in the US, he did so because he saw opportunity. He saw the chance to help his family financially.

My father left India the day after my sister was born, in August 1961. He was separated from my mother and sister for five years. This was a time of no phones. They could only write letters to each other.

I could tell you story of the student who lived on vegetable soup and bread. It would be true. The story of the bright immigrant who finished an MSc and a PhD in four years. It would be true. The story of how when he, my mom and my sister moved to the town where I grew up they couldn’t find a place to live because no one would rent to a brown-skinnned man. It would be true.

Instead, I want to tell you a different (though entwined) part of this immigrant story.

My mom and my sister arrived in the US in 1966. One day, my sister came home from school and declared: “I’m just going to speak English. That’s what they speak here.” She stopped speaking her mother tongue, Kannada (the language of the Indian state of Karnataka). My parents weren’t sure how to respond.

My brother was born in the summer of 1967, in Glenview IL where we would all grow up. I don’t think they tried to teach him Kannada. Glenview, at the time, had a population of about 25-30,000 people. it was probably ninety-nine per cent white  and Christian.

I was born three years after my brother. Our parents definitely didn’t try to teach me their language.

The story, as I understand, is that my parents thought it would be better for us to grow up speaking English in the house. For some time, we belonged to something called Kannada Kuta. This was a society of Kannada-speakers who lived within a radius of about 50 miles of each other. We stopped going because my brother and I didn’t really fit in (my sister was off in another state at university while all this was going on). We didn’t speak the language, we didn’t play the instruments, we didn’t sing the music, we didn’t do the dance. The culture was alien to us. We felt like outsiders.

We were assimilated. We were, as I now call it, coconuts. Brown on the outside and White on the inside.

I fully believe my parents thought they were doing the right thing by raising us in English. When I was eight, my mother started working. I know that both my parents experienced discrimination in their workplaces, based on their foreignness to the cultural norms of the Chicago suburbs. They thought it would make life easier for us to be assimilated – to be speaking English all the time, to be eating meat despite their own vegetarian ways.

I do not have any blame or anger towards my parents for our assimilation. I can hardly imagine how hard their lives have been as immigrant parents to the midwest United States, raising us in the 60s and 70s.

My parents had Indian friends and we would go to their houses and they would come to ours. In these gatherings, they spoke their language, listened to their music, ate their food. Our food. In our house, though we had some non-Indian foods, we tended mainly to eat the food of my parents’ families. I never had a problem with that. My mom is a fabulous cook.

Sometimes, gatherings would be centered around religious rituals/ceremony – pujas. My father would try to explain to us the purpose of the happenings. He tried to tell us in English the Hindu myths that we would often hear people reciting in Sanskrit. I do remember being vaguely interested. I also remember my brother being very uninterested.

In-awe-younger-sister that I was, I followed big brother’s lead.

Okay, so we didn’t grow up speaking the language, understanding the religion or learning the music and dance of our relatives – all of whom were in India. What’s the big deal?

Right now, I am thinking that the big deal is that as a family we lost out. I think of language as the portal to culture. And in a family where  the majority of the elders didn’t speak English, it was also the language of familial connection. Sure, these elders were all in India, and this anyway limited connection. Yet, over time,  it would become easier to go to India – distance wouldn’t be such a a barrier to creating ties of kinship.  Rather, as a result of cultural assimilation. we lost out on being meaningfully connected with a huge extended family (my mom has nine brothers and sisters, my dad has six).

We also lost out on, I believe, being meaningfully connected with each other. I remember phone calls with my mother when I was in my twenties (I’m now in my forties). She would comment on how she and my father were not understood by us children. I would react to this by saying it works both ways – we children felt that they didn’t understand us.

This exchange was a sort of an emotional stand off.

Now, I have started feeling angry and sad for all of us. Well perhaps, more accurately for myself and my parents. I’ve not discussed these issues with my siblings. Who am I to presume that they feel or have felt a similar sense of loss?

Because that’s what this is about for me. I am angry at the lives not lived – the loss of lives, as it were. I am angry for the spaces and distances created. For the gaps unfilled.  For the stories about my family I’ll never know. Stories that are also stories about me. I believe I came into this world with many inheritances from different parts of my family, from different generations. I am angry for the parts of who I am that I cannot know or understand.

Mostly, I am angry and sad for the feelings of isolation and disconnect that I and my parents have experienced over the years in different manifestations.

I once heard that our mother tongue is our emotional language. I once heard that my father speaks Kannada like a poet.

I’ve always felt distant from my parents emotionally. Mutual non-understanding, as both my mother and I were expressing.

I never got to know the poet in my father. Though I do remember making fun of the way he said the word ‘poetry’ when I was a child.

Just yesterday, my mother was trying to describe something to me over the phone, and she couldn’t find the English words for it. How many moments like that have there been over the years – years where my mother felt unable to give words to what she wanted to say to me or my siblings?

Imagine the frustration of it. Imagine the lost possibility for connection.

I am angry at the price we have paid in my family for assimilation.

I won’t let this anger overtake me. Nor will I hang onto it.

I am letting myself acknowledge and feel it fully for the first time.

I need to do this – to feel the anger openly.

This anger is part of a grieving process. I am grieving for the loss of the richness of my parents’ and my ancestors’ memories, stories, inheritances, different ways of understanding the world. I am grieving for the loss of what that richness could have added to my relationship with my parents and to all our lives. I am grieving for what right now feels like the loss of a world within me.

And I know that I’m not alone or unique in this experience.

I feel sad.

I feel angry.

I feel sad and angry for all of us who have lost precious and rich worlds within us.

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