The Indian Immigrant Divide
April 17, 2013
There's a cultural schism between older and younger NRIs - not in music and clothing, but in humility.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, in both print and celluloid form, presents probably one of the best known portraits of the early Indian-American immigrant’s life. That is a welcome condition because the life of Ashima and Ashoke is also one of the most realistic of such depictions. I remember watching the film with my parents in high school; during the scenes in which Ashima tries to acclimate to frigid and clammy Cambridge, my parents smiled knowingly. And when they watched Ashoke chide Ashima for accidently shrinking his sweater in the laundry, my parents guffawed with nostalgic recognition. Most believe that the immigrant lifestyle is humbling and usually for reasons that include being away from family, learning to live independently, and so on. However, I contend that in the case of early Indian-American immigrants especially, the overlooked agent of humility is their assumption of a lifestyle that ridiculed any sense of entitlement to social privileges. The same cannot be said for recent Indian immigrants for whom this outlook may have been prodded and bothered but never turned inside out.
Before I plunge into any explanation of this idea, I must explain what I mean by “social privileges.” Social privileges, as I will discuss them, are not the tropes that we may likely predict, such as welfare, but rather cultural norms, as opposed to largely institutional ones, that benefit certain classes of people but not others. The favored classes feel entitled to these privileges, consciously or unconsciously, and these feelings of entitlement are duly satisfied. Social privileges manifest themselves in many forms and below, I will explain them particularly in the context of Indian society.
A well-known trend has characterized South Asian immigration to western countries such as the United States: the majority of new arrivals are well-educated students hailing from well-to-do families back home. These are people who have spent the entirety of lives living in a society that crutches on caste-class system hybrid. Just as the house servants and urban laborers know what their so-called place in society is, these future immigrants too know what social privileges they are entitled to in society: respect, wealth, and above all, the right to boundlessly dream. They believe that they have a right to ambition just as they have a right to their lifestyle and place in society - it is all very much the hallmark of the middle and upper-middle classes.
Of course, the natural step in that direction is to immigrate to the west - away from systemic corruption, low wages, uncleanliness in all facets and toward the the dreamland. Here is where the similarities end between the two generations of Indian immigrants. For the older generation, the problem was that the same social privileges that they took for granted in India, where they expected everything from the cultural deference of their servants to an immunity from doing menial jobs to make a living, were nonexistent in their new life in the United States. My parents’ generation and those before them found themselves tightly wound in a situation that could not care less about the fact that they were well-educated or came from a respected family. My parents, who lived everywhere from Minnesota in the northern United States to Mississippi in the deep south, tell me stories of walking miles in the snow to get dinner, working overtime on side jobs, and living in dangerous, blighted neighborhoods - a world away from the relatively comfortable life they expected and received in India. They were aware then and still are today that they are not entitled to the basics let alone social privileges.
Everything came slowly and quietly. The job, the kids, the money, the car - everything took its sweet, sweet time and was generously postponed by emergencies and a generally painful pacing that is absent from the lives of today’s newly minted immigrants (why this is the case, I think we all can speculate endlessly.) My parents often remark that new Indian immigrants (“kids,” my mother calls them) just don’t know what it means to struggle - things have come more hurriedly for them, they haven’t felt Hunger, and haven’t lived in general fear for their safety. That’s not to say that those recently arrived from India have it easy - no, the difficulty of making a living in a new land, surrounded by people who subscribe to a different culture is a timeless problem. Nevertheless, immigration to the United States or other western states hasn’t challenged their sense of entitlement like it has their older uncles and aunties. They have found a home in an established Indian-American community founded by the earlier generations. They still expect success. They still expect comfort. They still expect perfection. Perhaps, that is why there is an obvious cultural difference in modesty between the two generations - distinct from just differences between the young and the old.
Of course, whenever one characterizes peoples, cultures, or generations, one can only speak in terms of generalizations. It is impossible to capture all of the diversity within one group of people within an essay. And so, while I’ve made some blanket characterizations of two different generations of Indian immigrants, it is only fair that I acknowledge the world of immigrant experiences out there that escape any of my attempts to make sense of them. I’m not only saying that there are exceptions to the bifurcation that I have conceived , but that there are some immigrant histories that transcend any outside analysis. Some stories only the person who has experienced them can comprehend or even simply narrate. I’ve spent this whole essay trying to make sense of you all - the NRI’s readers - along the themes of social privileges and humility. Surely, it’s time for you to enlighten me. Please share your experiences, teachings, and comments below.