A Life of thinking globally, acting locally, and seeking peace internally.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Choices in a Topsy Turvy World

There was once an ezine which I wrote for - desijournal.com - and the article below was in response to Dr. M. Vidyasagar's article about India vs. America. Obviously, Bangalore-based Vidyasagar (who is now - I think - a VP at Tata Consultancy Services, aka TCS) came down in favor of India. In light of several families of Indian origin in the region - and possibly around the US - returning to India, I thought I would reexamine the issue. After all, we are living in a topsy-turvy world.

Who knows what choices lie before us in 2009 and beyond? I am quite surprised at my insight of 5 years ago, when I said: "My current situation directs me to choose the US - who knows what the future holds?" And my ignorance in saying that "We in America have everything in plenty." :(

Choice. It is the critical issue in the article by Dr. M Vidyasagar. He considers careers and the job market, the rupee and the standard of living, the economy and the entrepreneurial opportunities - and finds the choice of living in India a more viable option than immigrating to the US. He concedes that the US has the best universities in the world, but doesn't point out how that translates into a choice.

For many of us, there is no choice on the India vs. America issue. Once you have kids here, is it really feasible to ask them to pick up and move to a country to which their connections - through typical biannual visits - are, at best, tenuous? The difference in treatment they will face as residents, not visitors, is radical. I experienced this first-hand, when my parents moved our family to India in 1981 – and find it a no-choice issue given my American pragmatism.

Let us, for a moment, assume that there is a choice about whether to live in India or America. Let us also accept all of Dr. Vidyasagar's contentions. Now, look at the decision from other viewpoints - not from solely economic perspectives. As a parent, I want to provide my children the best opportunities in life. By my typically desi standards, this means the best education money can buy.

People in India tell me that secondary education is much better there. Having been schooled in the United States, I feel that education is fostering the love of learning in our children. For them, I am willing to forego the negatives of living in the US - that they don't have their grandparents nearby, that they may encounter racial prejudice, that we are not mainstream Americans, and that education is going to cost a lot of money. I see people like Governor (of Washington state) Gary Locke, and I believe in the American dream – and strive to help my children make the right choices.

As a person, I am concerned with tangible living conditions. I read Elisabeth Bumiller's book May You be the Mother of A Hundred Sons and felt validated. She points out that physical resources in India - mainly water - are in shortage, and there is no solution in sight. We in America have everything in plenty.

Last week, my father told my daughter in our weekly phone call to Hyderabad, "Don't let America spoil you." How can I disagree? But I get simple satisfaction from a long, hot shower, and choose the comforts of the USA.

As a woman, I am also concerned with intangible living conditions. In the US, I worry about teenage pregnancy, the rising popularity of reality shows and the related voyeurism. But is the sexual suppression that occurs in India acceptable? What about the lack of governance and the corruption inherent in the Indian system? Again, here is a choice - we in the US have freedom, and the responsibility to choose wisely.

As an immigrant of color, I am worried about the current racial climate in the US. There are prejudices one faces in every human situation – Bollywood is still so full of nepotism, the caste system is still cause for concern, there are still inter-religious tensions all over India. So this time it is a tradeoff - one kind of racism for another.

Although my choices seem so black and white on paper, the boundaries are blurred. My current situation directs me to choose the US - who knows what the future holds? Given the political climate here, I may have no choice. As long as my favorite premise on which the US stands - liberty and justice for all - holds true, I will stay an Indian American.
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Monday, March 16, 2009

A Parent's Struggle for Balance - part II

I wonder if my struggle with language and words will be handed down to my children? They love books and reading as much as I do, and each is developing interest in different genre(s). Again, I share a piece from years ago - a letter to myself on the inner struggle with parenting children who live with(in) more than one language.

Dear Myself,
You have a decent command over English and Telugu, but how is it that your preschool son’s question about language left you inarticulate and introspective?

His simple question about his friend Sahil’s “Indian language” and if he knows Telugu was the beginning of a complicated dialogue with him as well as within you.

Your mother tongue is Telugu, because your mother’s tongue is Telugu. You have been raised in the US but you are bilingual – your parents provided an environment so that you can now speak both Telugu and English fluently. You have desi and ABCD friends with whom your poor Hindi is the only way to make the Indian connection. Your primary mode of communication is English, since it’s the language of the land you live in. You make an effort to teach them your mother tongue but they are not bilingual.

You feel you are to blame. That you are not providing your son the proper language connection through the cultural exposure you give him. Do you feel justified that you are unable to teach him Telugu because your Indian cousins who grew up outside Andhra Pradesh speak to one another in Hindi. Or do you feel guilty that these same cousins can speak to your parents and others of that generation in fluent Telugu?

Celluloid is a great desi link. Didn’t a second generation guy you know once tell you that he learnt Tamil by watching movies? And you love your quota of Bollywood and Tollywood flicks, from which you selectively provide the kids their share. Now you are thinking of sending them to language classes. Learning how to read and write Telugu at a first grade level didn’t help you gain command over spoken Telugu. But hey, you already knew how to speak it when you took language classes. Doesn’t your son have enough to contend with, learning the English alphabet and being exposed to three or four spoken languages (if you add the school district’s weekly Spanish classes to Telugu, Hindi and English)?

So you wonder what the next generation “Indian language” will be. And how your kids will share desi culture concepts, with a multilingual Indian-American community and friends like Sahil (whose “Indian language” is Gujarati). While you may have lost the “acchu (pure) Telugu” your parents speak, you gain so much from living and communicating with people here – not just “Indian” language.

Your second grader is learning Spanish as part of the school curriculum, and has learnt some Chinese from one of her classmates. She’s picked up Tamil, Hindi and Gujarati words from her desi friends. Your kids know teeku and khaaram are both hot – the spicy version of hot, that is. Sahil and your son, like your daughter and her friends, will help each other spice up the Indian-American vocabulary, and also what makes up the American melting pot. Enjoy the results!



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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Parent's Struggle for Balance - part I

This is a blast from the past... An article I wrote for India Abroad years ago, about parenting American-desi style. Things haven't changed that much.

Finding the Balance
What's the best way to get your children to learn about Indian culture?

Dear Myself,

I know you missed reciting shlokas with your son at the Temple last Saturday. But what can you do? He was at swimming class with his father - a recent addition to his extracurricular activities and a change from your weekly ritual. Your mind was preoccupied with thoughts of this when your daughter started clamoring, "Ma, are you paying attention? I learn a new adavu today! Can I show you when we get home? Can I, can I, please?"

She loves the Saturday Bharata Natyam classes, her friends from class, her teachers; you want to encourage her interests. So as you drove out of the temple parking lot, you had to let go of your thoughts of him, and listen to her.

Life's gotten to be an even more difficult balancing act since you became a parent, hasn't it? The Hindu-Indian heritage, the American-pop lifestyle you are acculturated into - it can be a constant struggle, can't it.

With your daughter the dancer, it was easy - weekly dance classes compel you to the Hindu temple. She has a guru, someone who doesn't simply teach the basic adavus and dance movement but also the background of Bharata Natyam, Sanskrit shlokas, mythological stories and their underlying principles, and even yoga. The mythology she learns from reading Amar Chitra Kathas is reinforced by the stories her teacher tells through dance. She wears Indian clothing both to class and for dance performances. The girls in the class have a chance to share thoughts, feelings and experiences with others of similar background. The all-inclusive package deal involves a weekly visit to the local Hindu temple - a convenient venue. She hears the priest chant the daily prayers - better than hearing the tape-recorded voice of the priest reciting the annual pujas you do at home.

But getting a child (especially a boy) to learn classical dance is difficult unless s/he has a natural interest. There is no obvious role model for boys to learn classical dance - no Madhuri Dixit or Hema Malini who have formal training. Even in the West, ballet is not a popular art form for boys. Your [five year old] son would rather "jump as high as Hrithik Roshan" or "do the pee-pee song" like Amir Khan in Dil Chatha Hai. You could choose another performing art, either Hindustani or Carnatic, instrumental or vocal. But these don't have the same crowd appeal, flavor or robustness of dance - not to mention his indifference.

So now you are searching for something for your son to do to feel connected to his Indian and Hindu heritage. Why not an India trip? But you don't think that someone can really learn about Indian heritage as a young child visiting India.

The last time you went, you were flooded with Western images on television and in the movies - and no one wanted to talk to the children in your native tongue. Instead they were interested in testing their English out. There was no grandmother around to tell stories from the Ramayana or of days gone by - the way your grandmother had both the time and inclination decades ago. So the children must absorb what they can from the Indian ethos. They get a few weeks of the exposure that most Indians who immigrate here as adults have gotten over a lifetime.

Since, mainstream in the US is Caucasian and Christian, not Indian and Hindu, you do what you can. But how often have you taken the day off for Sivarathri or Ganesh Puja? You want a more consistent option... You plod on, teaching him a few shlokas, taking him to the Temple when you can, telling him stories. And in between, you continue to have doubts. Are you stressing about the whole Indian thing too much? Is it so important for him to learn about his heritage, when he - like you - will adapt and find his own balance? A few generations down the line, will our desi background become another "dx by dy" slice of the pizza pie that is America?

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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A Book about Children's Struggle for Balance

I recently read a book borrowed from my friend Michelle Haight, who is an educator par excellence in my book. She showed me The Inner World of the Immigrant Child by Christina Igoa, which I immediately asked if I could look at. It moved me deeply, reminding me of my own struggles...

“If there is one characteristic of the uprooting experience that appears to be shared by all immigrant children irrespective of nationality, economic status, family stability or any other factor, it is the silent stage when the children experience the school culture as different from their own and when their inability to communicate with their peers is cause by a language or cultural difference.”
- Christina Igoa in The Inner World of the Immigrant Child

The Inner World of the Immigrant Child by Christina Igoa tells the story of one teacher's journey to understand the inner workings of immigrant children, and to create an educational environment which is responsive to these students' needs. Christina Igoa, a second language/bilingual educator, helps the reader understand that academic achievement can not be divorced from the child’s context. The book captures the voices and artwork of many immigrant children, and portrays the immigrant experience of uprooting, culture shock, and adjustment to a new world. The author chronicles cultural, academic, and psychological interventions that facilitated learning as her immigrant students made the transition to a new language and culture.

This book is especially useful because it deals with multicultural and bilingual education, foundations of education, and literacy curriculum and instruction. It is highly relevant to anyone who works in today's school environment. Igoa speaks from experience as she lays out the stories of her students, “Immigrant children long to blend in… emotions, fears hold them back…[so] an immigrant child adopts the mechanism of silence. In that silence they develop listening skills… They do not take language for granted… and experience the sheer joy of breaking that silence.”

Igoa defines “culture shock” to be anxiety from losing all familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse. “Every culture has subtle signs by which people evaluate what they say and do. Losing these cues produces strain, uneasiness, and even emotional maladjustment if the person is received badly, because there is no longer a familiar foundation on which to stand.” Her statement was right on target in describing my experience of relocating to Hyderabad, India at the end of tenth grade in 1981 from the northeastern US where I had spent all my school years.

Igoa speaks prophetically, by saying that “one should stay connected to one’s own culture and also learn the cues of the new culture – a ‘both/and’ experience, not ‘or.’” This approach is critical to having a world view that is more accepting, moving beyond tolerance, and remembering that we all live together on one planet.

Igoa defines the uprooting stages where a child feels: 1) mixed emotions; 2) excitement/fear in adventure of new journey; 3) curiosity; 4) culture shock – depression and confusion; and 5) a need to assimilate/acculturate into the mainstream. She speaks to the cultural gap between the two cultures of the children she teaches, who often could not find support at home, and were left with a feeling of personal inadequacy. There are many differences in the experiences of immigrant children, but she shares many stories and reconnects with them in closure. She qualifies the students into three groups – those whose inner world is unintegrated, those whose inner world is culturally split and those who have an integrated inner world. Igoa explains that the students whose world is culturally split often close off their cultural selves and reawaken to them later – and begin a process of “regaining what had been lost… like a wound wanting to heal.” One point to be remembered is that a child maybe outwardly successful, but inwardly secure. Whatever the category, these children are all in need of support and counseling from the community in which they live and learn, as they struggle to find a balance and find a place at the table. Read more Entry>>

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

What I am learning as a Hindu Seminarian - part 3 - Revelations

Reading James Evans Jr.'s We Have Been Believers: an African-American Systematic Theology, which starts with the poem of the same name by Margaret Walker, I recalled the words of my friend Woody Adams who spoke about the connections between those of us who are brown and those who are black. One can take this partial passage from Evans and replace the black reference with one to the Hindu immigrant: Black religion was shaped in the midst of a profound cultural conflict between the inherited cosmology, value systems, and philosophical constructs that African slaves brought with them to the New World, and the protean culture of the colonies..." In Evans' evaluation of classical Protestant theologian Joseph Washington's analysis of black religion, he refers to "the interdependence of faith and practice in black religion" - I could again replace "black" with "Hindu" or probably any color or faith that makes up the rainbow of humanity. And below is my contextual reading assignment on revelation where I find more common ground...

A Black Theology of Liberation

by James. H. Cone

Chapter 3: The Meaning of Revelation

According to Cone, every community must ask “How do we know that our claims about God are valid?” In introducing the concept of revelation, he says that in our world with so many sharply divergent perspectives, it is not possible to know what constitutes superiority. He warns that the gospel offers no assurance of winning – and questions what winning really means. He maintains that the only real question for Christians is whether their actions are in harmony with their knowledge of God, and that one can know that their assertions of God are valid only because of revelation.

Quoting Tillich, Cone says “every epistemological assertion is implicitly ontological.” He chronicles the interpretations of revelation from the 20th century to African-American theological perspectives. He begins with the Protestant Christianity, the Barthian school and the radical reinterpretation of the idea of revelation. According to Barth, there is a “wholly other God descending on humankind,” and revelation is disclosure of God in the person of Jesus Christ. Prior to this, Schleiermacher, one of the most influential religious thinkers of the 19th century, said that theology was “an explication of the meaning of communal self-consciousness.” Cone points out that European theology of revelation didn’t help the American context, and that white theology ignores liberation. He says that revelation must mean more – where revelation is God’s self-disclosure in the context of liberation, a radical encounter with structures of power.

Considering the Bible, Cone points out that revelation is inseparable from history and faith, and that the God of the Bible makes divine will known through participation in human history. Revelation is inseparable from those with faith to perceive it. Cone differentiates between general and special revelation, and says that a theologian’s task is to point to God’s revelation in current events. According to black theology, to say that all persons know God means human oppression is contradictory to the idea of the holy. Barth defined the idea of special revelation, taking a stand against natural theology – Jesus is the revelation of God, and through Christ – but then his stand changed as the times changed: after WWII, Barth wrote [of the] Humanity of God. Black theology offers a different perspective on revelation: through Christ, blacks are able to perceive the nature of black being and destroy forces of non-being (white racism).

Cone then brings in Bultman’s form-critical school and his view of New Testament revelation, which made Jesus relevant for today, abandoning all attempts to find the historical Jesus. Revelation is “an occurrence that puts me in a new situation as a self,” where we know our authenticity and our limitations. Revelation is, to Bultman who was influenced by existentialism and the work of philosopher Martin Heidegger, a “personal address.” Again, Cone’s difficulty with this is that it fails to express the idea of liberation. He quotes Tillich, “the courage to be… is the key to self-understanding.” Revelation in black theology is both “my own individual self-understanding and self understanding of community which sees God at work in history… the courage to be black in spite of racists.”

I found harmony with this perspective on revelation from James Cone not only within my own belief and understanding of revelation but also in what Evans has to say in We Have Been Believers: that revelation is dynamic and multidimensional. Evans, of course, speaks to the biblical witness, and says that the revelation – where God has revealed Godself to the black community - is inseparable from the historic struggle of black people for liberation. Evans speaks to the call of Moses (Exod. 3:1-17) and the missiological declaration of Jesus (Luke 4:16-30) – the covenantal relationship between God and Israel, and the existential situation of the enslavement of Israel.

My own belief of revelation may not be found in Evans’ scriptural basis, but I fully agree with his statement that “God’s revelation is also contingent, partial, and incomplete… as human history is yet unfolding.” Revelation is not what I possess, but what possesses me, and there is dynamism in the revelatory moment. I also found agreement with Cone, when he states that the only real question is whether [our] actions are in harmony with [our] knowledge of God.

While revelation for me with my Hindu advaita (non-dualistic) perspective is a peeling of layers to Self-Realization, Evans lays out the differences in my understanding of revelation from that of African Americans. Evans states that “African-American Christians have consistently resisted the tendency to divorce the fact of God’s revelation from the identity and social location of those to whom it is given.” God’s revelation is a personal encounter, often with a date and time stamp. However, I couldn’t completely reconcile what I read about black theology of revelation and liberation from either Evans or Cone, to my experience of it in class. Some of my classmates in the group project on Revelation felt that revelation is an intervention, and in Marcia Bonds’ words, “Any revelation... comes from outside of oneself.” Revelation as multidimensional and dynamic includes my understanding of revelation as immanent and internal, unlike this viewpoint. Possibly this comes from a dualistic perception of God, but as Evans says, “God’s revelation is multidimensional because it is essentially a personal encounter.” So while we may not agree on what we perceive as revelation, black theology, like Hindu theology, accounts for all our views to be valid.

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