The word “culture” has its roots in the Latin word colere, meaning to tend or to cultivate. For me, my culture is a cultivation of seeds derived from the values, customs, and achievements of my two homes: the United States of America and the Republic of India. As the son of Indian immigrants, my culture is not only a representation of how I have been brought up but also a definition of how I choose to live. It is Indian ragas and American rock; it is Hollywood and Bollywood; it is an appreciation for the Hindu tradition of spiritual meditation and a respect for the Judeo-Christian ideals that are the foundation of the American identity. It is the best of two very different worlds.
As an Indian-American, I walk a path between two cultures, and I do so with a mix of pleasure and trepidation. As an American, I enjoy the vast benefits of life in a free society, but as an Indian, I am mindful of the oppression and violence that has long defined Indian history. When I interviewed my father, he recalled the difficulties his family faced in the years following India’s independence from Great Britain – a time of deep ethnic divisions marked by violence and suspicion between Hindus and Muslims. The situation was especially tense in 1947 – when India, which was mostly Hindu, and Pakistan, which was largely Muslim, were both scrambling to define their border – while my father’s parents were also scrambling to survive.
“My parents were just children when both sides of my grandparents were uprooted from their homes in the part of Punjab which went to Pakistan,” he solemnly recollects. “For years, they were forced to travel from refugee camp to refugee camp within India until they settled down in a two-room house in a friendly community filled with fellow Pakistani-migrants, the setting of my childhood.”
For years, my great grandparents and grandparents lived in a world of uncertainty, not knowing how they were going to get food for their family or where they were going to live, until they finally found refuge in a community in which they felt like they belonged. The community of migrants shared a common culture – a story of fleeing from religious persecution in order to safely raise a family. This tightly-knit community aided everyone’s survive and provided an environment that made my father “[feel] like [he was] growing up in one large joint family.” Thus, the seeds of my culture were planted – the preference towards having a large loving family, the tendency to “over-save” and ration possessions, and the determination to survive – they all became the values that I naturally inherited as a result of my family’s past.
Not long ago, my grandfather gave me a Kashmiri hat that he had saved from when he was a child. As I examine this hat, I wonder what it would have been like to be my grandfather, the adolescent wearing this hat during the voyages across the border and throughout India. The oval shape, itchy wool, and colorful zigzag designs never fail to fascinate me and remind me of the unique background my family has come from. As I look closer, I notice parts of the hat that have been stitched, re-stitched, or even hidden from view, and suddenly I can feel the warm, calloused hands of my great grandmother sewing the hat together, trying to save as much money as possible; I can feel the lengths to which she would go, the amount she was willing to sacrifice, in order to keep her children warm and safe. Even today, I can smell the hat’s comforting yet distinct scent of my grandfather, which helps me establish a close connection with a man living thousands of miles away. Personally, the cap, or “ṭōpī” as one would say in Hindi, a symbol for my ancestor’s migration from Pakistan to India, acts as a parallel to my own journey as an Indian-American trying to find the hat that truly defines me.
While my ideals of conservation are derived from my grandparents, education is a central focus of my culture. It came from the migration of my father from India to the United States. When my father was a child, my grandfather, who had an incomplete education as a result of the border migration, attempted to compensate by working three different jobs to provide for his family. Never feeling the need to complain about limited resources, my father grew up focusing “on the right things…without gambling, bunking school, or drinking alcohol” and soon became one of the top students in his class. His determination to attain perfection and search for more opportunity in order to give back to his loving family is what prompted him to pursue a life working in the technologically-advanced United States; luckily for my father, his first job helped him travel abroad on a business visa to what would later become his second home. Hopeful about “learning new ways to enrich [his] mind” and surprised about the abundance of opportunities in this new world, my father spent weeks completing practice books in order to perfect his English and months trying to adjust to the car-centric lifestyle of the Atlanta suburbs. His initial years abroad are what have shaped my culture in particular – everything from the determination to achieve success both in education and in life to the need to give back to my family.
Another major aspect of my culture has been influenced by the music and movies of both America and India. I particularly remember growing up with the constant presence of Indian ragas, ghazals, and other devotional music; everywhere we were, whether in the car or at home, my parents were passionate about the poetic nature of these songs and in turn, I too became passionate. Though the words are often too “Shakespearean” for me to understand, the aura of love and devoutness that I feel emanating from these beautiful melodies puts me in a calm and peaceful trance. Ironically, I am equally in love with American alternative rock – a genre filled with sex, money, and drugs. Together, both music styles have come to define who I am and what it means to be me; these completely different genres allow me to experience a wide range of emotions and to express myself using a wide pallet of options. It is a small metaphor for the way that I strive to balance both my spiritual life and my material life.
Additionally, Bollywood has existed in my life since before I could walk. My parents had decided from early on that they would only speak to me in the official language of India, Hindi, whenever I was home, and found that a perfect way of helping me learn the language was for the entire family to watch Indian films. In turn, Bollywood has not only given me the ability to speak proudly with an understandable Indian accent, its glamor has also taught me how to dream big. While Bollywood has been the dramatic grandmother I’ve had to learn to live with, my relationship with Hollywood has been a young budding love. Once I was able to watch the movies of my choice, I was opened to an entire era of American imagination and dreams. The Hollywood style of film has been about ideas and originality, a concept that, as shown by the name, Bollywood is not particularly an expert in. As a result, my culture has formed on the basis of harnessing my creativity and innovating alongside a desire to manifest those visions in a grandiose manner.
Aside from my education and creativity, my culture includes an ethic that is deeply rooted in spirituality. While being brought up in a primarily monotheistic Judeo-Christian country, having both a polytheistic and a spiritual background has helped bring a perspective on what life means to me and how it should be lived. Unlike the many other Indian Americans that live around me, my parents are no longer Hindus and rather than worship millions of gods, they have taken up the tradition of meditation in order to truly connect with themselves. This element of pursuing the spirit is what has steered me in the direction towards fulfilling a larger purpose in life and has helped me realize my inner self. On the subject of finding oneself, my mother would often read a short novella by Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, as a way of emphasizing the importance of keeping balance in one’s life. It is the story, which almost perfectly describes my culture, of a seagull that is obsessed with perfection, learning how to fly and be free in a world that seems to confine and limit its life to societal norms. Spiritually, the book has taught me the equal importance of love, respect, and forgiveness – the lessons that Jonathon Livingston Seagull himself learned from his teacher about flying with a Flock.
For me, culture has always been an accumulation of experiences and values. It is the shared elements among your family or friends and the cultivation of seeds planted by your predecessors. In a way, there are millions of seeds of culture waiting to be cultivated, but at the end of the day, it is up to each and every person to determine which plants he or she would like to grow; after all, in the words of Adele, “You reap just what you sow.” As a student at an American school, when I speak to my friends, many of them ask me about my Indian heritage. However, when I travel to India, I am bombarded with questions about my American culture. What I now realize is that I am truly a multi-faceted person with a unique culture that cannot be defined by either country. Each one has elements that have helped me bloom into the person I have become today, whether it is hardworking and dedicated, creative and passionate, or loving and forgiving.
Subscribe now to get future posts in your inbox!