Integration Over Assimilation: Kala and Pathy’s Experience of Maintaining their Indian Cultural Identity While Living in the United States

“We never expected,” Kala explained. “If we were in India, we would not let her marry like this. But after I moved here, I learned a lot. [One] should not be…,” Kala paused, searching for a word, “so narrow-minded,” Pathy, Kala’s husband, finished the sentence for her. My cousin Dan is marrying their daughter Vyjoo in May. He will be the first non-Indian person to marry into the Lakshmipathy family. “People are same everywhere,” Kala continued, “If a guy is a good person, then you’re set for life”. The warm smell of fresh sambar, a South Indian vegetable soup, permeates the first floor of the Lakshmipathy household as it heats up on the stovetop. Its aroma reaches the dining room, where we converse during our interview. It’s an unusually cold March Friday night in Atlanta, and Kala is preparing a traditional Indian meal for dinner.

Life as a member of the Indian diaspora community in America can come with many challenges. Among them are feelings of nostalgia. Moving from India to the United States means leaving one’s friends and family behind. After coming to the U.S, many Indian immigrants must build an entirely new social network. In a Public Radio International podcast about her immigration story, journalist and public relations professional Naazish YarKhan talks about the feelings of isolation she experienced after coming from Bombay to the Chicago area. Although YarKhan recounts that it was difficult at first for her to adjust to American life, she eventually did so successfully. The process of constructing a new life for oneself in the U.S. can be difficult for recent immigrants, but it is possible with time. Kala and Pathy serve as an example of this. They have worked hard to preserve their traditions while also being open to hearing new ideas. Because of this, both Kala and Pathy have managed to integrate themselves into American society and thrive while also maintaining their Indian culture.

In 1997, Kala and Pathy emigrated from Thanjavur in Southern India to the Atlanta area, along with their three children. In Thanjavur, Kala and Pathy worked as accountants. They came to the U.S. as skilled workers, which Pathy remarked was “quite easy to do” at that time. Both Kala and Pathy had green cards. Although Kala and Pathy were content with their lives in India, they were never fully satisfied. In India, only the “basic things” were available, Pathy explained, “Even though I worked very hard, I could not enjoy the luxuries and a peaceful life over there.” By moving to the U.S., Kala and Pathy hoped to allow their family to enjoy a higher standard of living. Although Kala and Pathy left India primarily for the welfare of their kids, they worried that their children might lose touch with their Tamil heritage while growing up in America.

Although Kala and Pathy have described their experience of living in America as overwhelmingly positive, they mentioned facing some challenges upon first coming to the U.S. For example, Kala and Pathy did not know how to drive before coming to the Atlanta, a notoriously car-dependent city. This made it hard for them to find jobs. Additionally, Kala and Pathy had difficulty understanding spoken American English for a long time. “The way we speak English, is different,” Kala explained. Tamil is their mother tongue, and English is their second language. Lastly, Kala and Pathy both missed the social life in India, which they described as more “common” and vibrant. In coming to the U.S., Pathy explained that they left their social safety net behind: “In India, everyone would come over to help us, but here the situation and scenery is different”.

Both Kala and Pathy have worked hard to continue upholding their Indian culture since moving to Atlanta, as well as to pass down its traditions to their children. At first, the local Indian community in their area was quite small. To prevent their children from losing touch with their Tamil culture, Kala and Pathy had to make a conscientious effort to preserve it. There were no schools for Tamil language in Atlanta at that time, so Kala and Pathy taught their children themselves. Moreover, there was only one Indian grocery store in the entire city when they first came (called “Cherians”), which they had to drive a far distance to reach. For Kala and Pathy, cooking traditional Indian foods for their children was important to them. Kala and Pathy’s efforts to maintain their Indian culture appear to be successful. Their youngest daughter Vyjoo expressed that she values her Tamil culture because “It defines who I am and where I am from.” Vyjoo’s accepting worldview towards her culture was in no small part due to the diligent efforts of her parents to preserve it after moving to the U.S. “We speak Tamil in the house, and celebrate every holiday together as a family,” Vyjoo explained.

For Kala and Pathy, religion also plays a significant role in their lives. According to my cousin Dan, Kala and Pathy go to their local Hindu temple every Thursday at 5PM “like clockwork.” Religion is especially important to Kala, and she believes that “there is some power beyond us.” “In Hinduism, we have gods and goddesses for everything,” Kala joked. As a mother, Kala constantly worries about the welfare of her children. She fasts at various times on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and through fasting and prayer, Kala feels that she is making an offering to help protect her family. She devotes time each day to pray for her family’s health, happiness, and continued wellbeing. Kala is acutely aware of our current political climate, and this awareness makes her feel that it is even more important that she continues to pray daily for her children’s safety. “We look at the TV and a lot of bad things are going around, so we have to be careful,” Kala explained, “Something like that we are praying all the time, you know?”.

Kala and Pathy have managed to thrive in the U.S. because they are accepting of change. They have maintained their Hindu religious culture while also being open to new ideas. While Kala and Pathy uphold their own values, they recognize that their children may hold different ones, and above all they want them to be happy. Kala and Pathy’s views on many social issues have evolved significantly since coming to the U.S. This has shown in their willingness to let their daughter Vyjoo marry a non-Indian man.

Now, Kala and Pathy’s neighborhood has become increasingly more Indian. All three of their children live nearby, and there is a large Hindu community center a five-minute drive from their house. Their grandchildren are fully immersed within the local Indian community – they take Tamil language classes and engage in traditional Indian dance. Kala and Pathy’s conscientious efforts to preserve their family’s Tamil culture at a time when there was little community around to assist them were remarkable. Rather than choosing to assimilate into mainstream American culture at the expense of their family’s heritage, Kala and Pathy integrated into American society on their own terms. By actively working to preserve their Tamil language and cultural traditions while living in the U.S., Kala and Pathy served as the bridge between India and the U.S. that allowed their family to keep up its unique Tamil culture.

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