There is a colloquial term that is used among the people from India and the Indian sub-continent. It is used to describe and/or identify children of Indian immigrants in America. The term is ABCD, and it stands for American Born Confused Desi. (Desi being a generic term for the people from the Indian sub-continent). For the most part, this term is used as a tool for mockery and satire. But from what I have seen, there is a lot of truth to what it stands for. And when I dug deeper into Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana Governor and 2016 President hopeful (!), and what he had to say about where his parents came from and how he identifies himself, this post began to write itself. But as I gave it more thought, this post took a different direction altogether (as is evident from below).
But first with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.
Just so the reader is aware, Bobby Jindal isn’t his birth name. His parents named him Piyush Jindal, but then he changed it to a more ‘American’ sounding name when he was 10 – based on a character from Brady Brunch. He then went on to renounce his religion – Hinduism – in favor of a more accepted American South’s Catholicism. Apparently, the Bible made a big impression on him when he read it under the sheets in his bed as a kid (since he had to hide it from his parents). On the other hand, I would like to know if he even made the effort to read a single Hinduism religious text, and if he did, then what he did or did not like about it. He has publicly made statements to the effect that he wants to be called American, and not Indian-American. (There is some validity to this, but that is a separate discussion in itself). He has a self portrait of a white man in his office. Yes, that is true. And his campaign slogan now appears to be ‘Tanned, Rested and Ready’.
Bobby Jindal’s Self Portrait featuring White Guy
Bobby Jindal Self Portrait featuring even Whiter Guy
Now here is something about an ABCD who was in my circle of friends a couple of years ago:
He told me I reminded him of Rajesh Koothrapalli (the ABCD character from Big Bang Theory) in front of a bunch of white people. (Oh the irony!) He actively distanced himself from where his parents were and about his (clearly forced) visits to India. He once pointed to an Indian origin anchor on TV to me and said, “Hey man! Look on TV. It is one of YOUR people.” He once pointed to other fellow Indian immigrants on the street and remarked they were ‘Akshay’s cousins’.
Apart from the fact that that was the only time anyone has ever made a racist comment to me here in America, it is extremely ironic and disappointing that it came from a guy with the same ethnicity. My first reaction was disbelief and anger. (Needless to say, I no longer have any contact with him). But over time, I have come to understand a far more fundamental issue in play among children born to Indian immigrants in general. It is what eventually manifests itself in racist remarks to one’s own kind, ridiculous campaign slogans, as an active distancing from one’s own community, and the ‘C’ in ABCD. I am not just referring to the simple case of the identity crisis, but more importantly, to how the ABCDs deal with and respond to them.
I cannot even begin to comprehend what children of Indian immigrants have to go through growing up with kids that have zero resemblance to how they look. What kind of bond do they form with the other kids? How do the other kids react when they see a non-white, non-black, non-Asian and non-Hispanic kid in their classroom? Are they curious? Or do they already have pre-conceived opinions and look at him weird? Do the other kids make fun of his/her skin color? How does the kid with Indian parents answer the question, “Where are you from”? And what do the parents tell the kid at home? How do the parents bring him up? Do they bring him up to be an American? Or have they decided that their kid is going to be brought up with what they have understood to be Indian values? How do they find a balancing act? What kind of resources do they have to guide them? Are they even aware of the impact their potential ignorance has on the kid?
Once we begin to find the answers to questions like these, only then can we claim to truly understand how it is to be the child of Indian immigrants. These are hard questions. And the answers to them generally point to a set of circumstances where the kid is the easy subject of ridicule, bullying and casual (if not explicit) racism to the point of being ashamed of his own skin color. It points to a situation where the parents have very little to no idea about what is happening or how to deal with it. It paints a picture where the kid is torn between what he is told at home and what he is expected to be at school. They tell us a story of the parents bringing up the kids in the same way they would if they were in India -and being blissfully unaware of the repercussions. They tell us the story of the brown kid who ultimately learnt that he needed to be an ‘American’ – in style, looks and thought, not just in passport – in order to fit in with the world around him.
And it is at this critical juncture that a lot rests on. More specifically, what does the kid do about all of this? The ultimate destination is clear – be more American so that you are considered part of the world around you instead of being seen as the stranger in a strange land. But the path to get there is less evident. The kid sees two major paths to get there: embrace all the things that America has to offer while remembering your own ethnic identity and heritage, or completely reject and deny your ethnic heritage and identity while going all out to prove to everyone around you that you are an American.
It is not too hard to see which path is more easy for the child to take. An adolescent kid with a natural propensity to rebel, with no real guidance around him, whose main priority is to be accepted among his school friends who are not his own skin color, and who has ‘decided’ to be more ‘American’ has very little to choose from. Rejecting and denying where his parents came from, what his ethnicity is, what his religion is, what he eats, and which languages he speaks is – in the child’s head – the easiest way to ‘become more American’. And thus the kid reaches his destination not by embracing what the American lifestyle and freedom has to offer, but by rejecting who he is, how he looks, and all the values his parents believed in.
Popular portrayal of the ABCD has not particularly helped matters. It has almost always involved showcasing a guy or a girl in their youth, having conservative Indian immigrants for parents, and is struggling to ‘break away’ from their conservative ways to explore the ‘freedom’ that America has to offer. This has pretty much been it. I am unaware of any popular portrayal of the ABCD where there are bigger questions – identity crisis, bullying, casual racism, alienation, lack of counselling – asked of being an American born to Indian immigrants. There is no ‘why’, just a ‘what’. And that is rather unfortunate.
And so we have a world where American kids born to Indian immigrants feel the need to reject the values taught at home in order to be accepted among friends at school. Over time, this manifests as a deeper hatred and shame towards people of one’s own kind and everything that is associated with them. And this is what leads to brown-skinned people believing they are white, changing their religions, finding Indian food too spicy or refusing to eat anything that doesn’t have beef in it, making racist remarks to people of their own skin color, and actively distancing themselves from anything remotely associated with India and other Indians.
When one looks at Bobby Jindal or my ex-friend through this frame of reference, the perspective changes from mockery and ridicule to one of sympathy and understanding. I may never actually change my opinion about what kind of a person they are now, but I do so with a better understanding of how they got to where they are. Without a shred of doubt, I am extremely glad that neither me nor my parents had to go through this daunting experience. Being born and raised in India until the age of 25, I had my identity and values well set before I made my move here. As I have slowly integrated myself with what America has to offer, I have embraced those aspects that do not conflict with my core values, and did so without forgetting where I came from. But I was able to do so only because I knew who I was and what I stood for before I got here.
I started writing this post sitting on my high horse passing judgment and mockery at a set of people whom I thought were just simply bad. But as I now conclude it, I am glad that I have a better understanding of why they are that way. I will even go to the extent of admitting that I myself may not have turned out any different than them if I was brought up here. So I can only hope that a lot more awareness is spread around on these aspects of growing up as children of Indian immigrants in this country. And at some point, maybe, we will have a generation of children who are indeed proud of where their parents came from and all the good things that India has to offer.
PS: It would be summarily incorrect to assume or stereotype that all children born to Indian immigrants end up this way. Or that all parents have no clue about how to deal with such situations. The point being made here is that more often than not, the conditions surrounding a kid growing up are conducive to such an outcome.