Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The melting pot that is America

It is often said that America is one big melting pot, and I've often wondered what that means ?

Does it mean that as in a melting pot, everything must lose it's original shape/form.color etc, and become one, likewise those who choose to come here/live here, must lose their uniqueness, or cultural identity, in order to become one with the rest of the country .

I also grew up in a country with a lot of diversity, yes it wasn't people from different countries per se, but anyone who knows how India was formed after independence knows that most of the states now, were actually separate kingdom's or regions all together, so there was a lot of difference among them, this is one of the reason, why Indians still don't always identify themselves as one block (they do so politically, but on a micro level, among themselves, not quite).
If one Indians meets another, (especially if they are out of India) they are almost certain to ask the question which part of India are you from ? There's quite a bit of cultural diversity between different regions, also there are people practicing a whole variety of religions, Hinduism being the main one, but apart from that Christianity, Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, etc. So diversity is nothing new to me .So I thought that America wouldn't be all that different for me to adjust to either, it'll be diverse, just on a more widespread level .
Upon arriving in US, right at the airport, standing in line for immigration, I saw myself surrounded with people from every possible country in world, speaking different languages, etc. This was definitely a new sight. Part of me couldn't help but think like a refugee, waiting in line for aid of some sort, it was certainly weird . The immigration officer's stern line of questioning, didn't help the feeling either
As time passed, met people from many many different countries, some countries I didn't even knew existed. At my training program at work, there were people from countries like, laos, korea, egypt, kenya, etc. (didn't know a country named Laos then) .
I saw this largely as a positive thing, it meant that America is opening it's gates for anyone who can manage to get here, and is given an opportunity at life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

After living in America for over 2 years though, I started to realize another angle as well. I started to feel like I was too Indian for my own good (in America atleast). I felt like me, who was always considered rather westernized back home all her life, and who had thought that she'd fit right into the american mould, wasn't westernized enough for america, and wasn't gonna be able to fit in, unless she tried hard to. 
I don't have an Indian accent, I dunno how that is, since I was born and raised there, but I am able to speak in the American accent fluently, and rest assured it doesn't come across as fake (unlike one of those call center people from India), I've actually had people I worked with ask me if I was born in America, and how was it that I didn't have an accent, I really have no answer, other than that I picked it up after interacting with Americans, I can speak the Indian way too, if I want to, but find it easier to talk the American way.
Having a staple diet of hollywood flicks, and American television growing up, made sure that I knew several cultural nuances of America as well. But as I realized this was still not enough to make me feel like I assimilated in the general population.
For one thing, I used to be a vegetarian (ovo-lacto vegetarian) when I came here, so that made it kinda difficult to bond over food, I did prefer spicy food (less spicy than most Indians, but certainly more spicy than the average American), and no meat meant a severe restriction of what I could eat when out with my american acquaintances . Secondly, I don't drink alcohol,  that was a big challenge to overcome, and so I was pretty much left out of any bar get-togethers my office crowd would have after work. These 2 factors combined made me a little difficult to hang out with for my american co-workers, etc. I didn't follow any of the American sports either .
So, as a result, I never really found any real 'friends' in America. The only ones who I was able to befriend were other Indians like me, who had relocated to America. Contrasting this with a person, who made friends anywhere she went, prior to coming here, this was a sad turn of events . Sure, I had cordial relations with all my colleagues, but nothing beyond that, most didn't even stay in touch after me leaving the workplace .
I shared this experience with other Indian friends I had there, and they too shared similar experiences of theirs, not all but most, for the most part we felt like we were on the outside looking in, rather than a part of the mainstream .
Upon further pondering, I've come to a conclusion that, it has to do something with the Indian American population in general, that makes it difficult for them to assimilate. Maybe we tend to hold on our 'Indian-ness' very tightly, or maybe we don't pick up the local 'flavor' as much as we could . As a result, we tend to fall back on the Indian American community, and pretty much exclusively hang out with them, in turn making us even more separate from the general population. I've seen other Asian Americans, like chinese, koreans, etc, but to me atleast they seem much better adjusted, and more assimilated within the general fabric of the country. They seem to blend in without much effort (or so it seems), in most cases they even take on American names, on the other hand Indians don't take up American names, even second generation Indian-Americans, I've met tend to stick with Indian names for their children, unless they have a non-indian partner. Even though in most cases, this means going through the pain of spelling one's name out multiple times a day at times, since they appear like tongue twisters to most Americans.
So this begs the question, what does America the melting pot mean ?
Does this mean, that people like us, who wish to migrate, or have already migrated to America from a completely different part of the world, must leave our background or base in order to mingle with the general public ?  Does this mean that in order to thrive in America we must melt away our old life and take on the american way of life ? I know many families who have done exactly that and are still kinda on the outside sometimes, and then I've seen some other families, that are more Indian than most people in India, they clearly stick out like a sore thumb, making americans uncomfortable and difficult to relate to . A small percentage does seem to strike the right notes in case of mingling with the general public, but they are mostly single, maybe even dating an American, or have had an education here with close college buddies. Any other type of Indian, i.e those that come here for work, are married, have kids, etc, seem to have a tough time assimilating, in most cases.
I feel this is also partly the reason, that many asian communities have made their own havens within various parts of the US. There are china-towns etc, in many cities, also places like new-jersey, chicago, bay area have similar havens/islands that south asians have made for themselves. When I visit any of these desi havens in the US, I really question myself, whether I'm in India or the US. So clearly people have found their own way of dealing with the issue .
I had read somewhere, that US should be referred to as a salad bowl or a mosaic, and not as a melting pot, since there's no one way of being American, and people can carry their own cultural uniqueness while living here, but as someone who has been on the other side of this issue, I can say, that as of now USA is clearly a melting pot, where one feels the need to unlearn some/most cultural traits, in order to mix and mingle with the mainstream, else you just become a fringe, who seems like they're stuck in a cultural time warp.

My dream for my daughter and her contemporaries is that they grow up not even realizing the difference, and don't get torn between picking one culture over another . When that happens, America will truly move from being a melting pot to a salad bowl.


  1. 1. Every Desi thinks that he/she has an american accent ! I hope you are an exception.
    2. I faced the same problem, strict vegetarian and non drinker that prevented me from hanging out with Americans. I had been in Europe earlier and was a non-veg and used to drink then. Easily sneaked inside the European community, had girlfriends etc. But all alone in America. Trying to change myself. Lol
    3. Chinese stick to chinese community, Indians stick to desi for another reason: there is no NEED to try hard to integrate when you have so many of your kind. Unless you are on a girlfriend hunt like me !
    4. Try to raise your daughter Indian at least till she is in grad school. Else be ready to face horrible things like child hood pregnancy. Sorry to be harsh but US high schools are horrible in that respect.

  2. This is such a deep topic. Some of my relationship struggles have been around areas where A had drawn deep boundaries to protect his differences. Our first Christmas as a true couple, he staunchly refused to exchange gifts. At the time I was in flux about identity (both religiously before I met A and as a result of planning to marry someone culturally different), so I didn't complain -- I don't like the over-commercialization of Christmas anyway. It was actually A's mom who talked to him and said that he needed to be involved in American holidays to connect with other people (they did trees and a gift when A was little, and they always participate in workplace holiday traditions), and to be fair to me.

    Similarly, he decided mid-way through our relationship that he couldn't marry someone who wasn't veg, so I became veg (octo-lavo). We now both agree that it was inappropriate for him to make that demand (i.e., I believe it was his responsibility to know what his standards were before the relationship began, and that it was evidence of a power imbalance that he could demand that, and that many couples co-exist with different eating habits...I'm already veg for almost 3 years and don't care to change at this point, but we've agreed that what I put in my body is 100% my choice now, and I fudge on gelatin when I'm outside the home). He later realized that he had always felt like an outsider by being veg, and he feared that, if he married a non-veg, that feeling of isolation would continue -- he'd still be "the only one," even within his own home. I think that really speaks to that division and pressure to conform or be on the outside.

    We were talking about where we'd want to live (city/suburbs) and how the quality of schools would influence our decisions. For the first time, it really hit us how much of a struggle our kids will have to "be normal." A struggled as a 2nd-gen Indian, and now our kids will be 3rd-gen Indian PLUS multiracial. They will be veg and will identify as both Unitarian Universalist and Hindu, both difficult religious affiliations for most Americans to grasp (at least until they're old enough to make their own decisions about food and religion). They will have two PhD-holding parents; their father will tutor them in business and logic, while their mother will tutor them in empathy and boundaries. All this means...we need to be committed to giving our kids the BEST SHOT possible at going to a school with kids as similar to them as possible.

    So many other thoughts...like a cousin who watched sports for years before really understanding them, just so he could talk sports with his coworkers...and a family friend who has lived in the US with few efforts to learn to drive or speak English and thus had to retire early from a manual labor job and is dependent on others for rides. I wonder how Indian culture interacts with American (or other) culture to contribute to the isolation -- how much is it Indians holding back, and how much Americans? I know an Indian woman who very much wants to marry another Indian, but has mostly American friends in the US and feels like most of the Indian men she meets are "too Indian" and too isolated to be a good fit. There's also the question of how technology affects assimilation/acculturation -- someone can Skype daily with family/friends back home and can thus avoid needing any local social contacts at all!

    OK, I'm not making any actual contributions now -- just rambling. Dissertation calls. :)

  3. @ Anonymous : Firstly welcome to the blog, thanks for sharing your views .
    Now, to what you said :
    I know many desis live in a belief that they can speak the American way, I'm not one of them, there's no way for me to convince you of it, unless you hear me speak, so for now you'll just have to take my word for it :)
    I think that food habits do pose as a barrier in most cases, for people trying to fit in within the American mainstream.
    Even though now I eat chicken and 1 or 2 types of fish, yet, there's still some restriction, since i don't eat beef or pork,and can't just go and have a hotdog with my friends, so yes food is a big problem.

    I agree with the reasons why desis hang out with other desis, it's the fact that they don't feel the need to be any different than
    what they are with them, that's the main reason behind all the different groups like Kannada association, Gujarati samaj, Malayalam association etc.
    About raising my daughter, I shall be covering all of the topics related to raising a kid in US, in a completely different topic, so I'll save my remarks for now .

  4. Gosh Sara, such nice comments, thanks .
    A's reaction to christmas kinda surprises me, because many of the Indians , me included do celebrate christmas in our own way (we don't attend mass or other religious services), like having a christmas tree, exhanging gifts, we've even attended christmas dinners at some Indian friends' homes, where each and every guest was Indian. And, I too have always participated in workplace christmas celebration . So being a 2nd generation Indian-American, his reaction puzzles me a bit, I think it came more out of insecurities from dating a non-Indian than anything else, but that was nice of his mom to step in and help him figure things out.
    About the veg-nonveg thing, WOW!! I would have never done that for someone, but I'm stubborn like that :), I didn't eat nonveg (other than eggs) growing up, but everyone in my family eats chicken and fish, so I wasn't averse to it, like some other strict vegetarians, like Gujaratis, jains or tamilians, etc. My husband on the other hand comes from a family that eats absolutely no non-veg, not even eggs, (though he did eat eggs before he met me), but I'd made it clear to him, that even though i'm a vegetarian, and like being one, I'm not averse to non-veg and could maybe even eat some at some point, and he was fine with it, fast-forward to 3 years after coming to US, and starting to eat chicken, he loves it, and doesn't wanna go back to being just a vegetarian again (though we still eat vegetarian food for the most part). So, it's possible for people to have different food habits in the same home, but yea, i can understand some of the underlying insecurities of his, regarding feeling like an outsider, anybody who's faced those issues can relate, but asking you to conform...nah uh...wrong, IMO.
    Yes, when your kids arrive on the scene, you will certainly face some difficulties, but to be honest, your kids will have it a lot easier fitting in ,than kids whose both parents are Indian, I think they will find it easier to embrace their American-ness wholeheartedly, and the Indian-ness will be this kind of exotic little detail about themselves, they can brag occassionally about to their dates or something, this is the most realistic scenario in my view.
    I know many people like the cousin who watched sports just to have a common ground, so it's not an isolated case...driving very rightly is another issue, since quite a few Indians are reluctant to drive here (especially women) so that too contributes in holding them back.
    Good point about who holds back more, I would say it's pretty much even, in most cases, some are way off the end with being either too Indian or too American, but most people I know, do try their best to fit in, but find it difficult at times to overcome some of the hurdles. I too have a few single Indian friends, who wanna date Indians, but don't find anything in common with the Indian guys who are single, and hence go out with an American, so that's gonna be a big problem for the next generation I'm sure .
    Technology, while good, can never take the place of actual human interaction, when I first came here I'd call my family and friends back home pretty much everyday (this was before the vonage : free India calling too), just because I was so lonely here, now we use skype and such avenues, and it helps in having closer connections with people back home, but can never replace the need to make local connections wherever you are, IMO.
    Thanks again for your comments, just a lot of good comments and views overall.

  5. I think A's first close White/Christian friend scared him off from Christmas...their family buys a LOT of gifts, to the point that they don't even get excited about the gifts anymore, and way beyond their means. Like I said, his family did a tree and a few presents when they were kids; I think it was definitely related to dating an American and being afraid of being swallowed hole if he didn't protect what's "Indian."

    I agree they'll blend in easier, but I also think that they'll have a LOT going on, even just considering the Christian and Hindu holidays. A lot of A's family are in the US, and we fully expect that my in-laws will live with us for at least part of the year (or will live in the neighborhood.

    Technology is definitely not the same -- that's the downside. A friend of mine does research on international student adjustment, and it's an issue that students think they don't need to branch out because they can rely on contacts from home with Skype, etc., but then when they need in-person supports, they're not there, and they feel completely isolated within the university/country.

    When you write about raising children in the US/Canada, *please* address myths that all Americans are sluts and whores and lazy bums. I know, White privilege, I freak out any time I see something bad about my own ethnicity because it's such a rarity, everyone else deals with it...but the West is not synonymous with child pregnancy (unless I just don't remember mine because I was on a crack binge), and the East has lots of problems of its own. We talk a lot about what we like and have problems with from both cultures (and families), and our goal for ourselves and especially our children is to take what we like best from each, as much as we're able.

  6. Hi AAD, thanks for an interesting post :) I like your analogy of the melting pot requiring people to shed away some of their unique differences and just blend in. I grew up in a small very "sliced white bread" city (i.e. zero multiculturalism – we didn’t know any other South Asian families there) and it was definitely all about blending in. Most of my friends had never even been to the mainland of Australia, forget about having any idea of what life might be like in another country! I was fortunate enough to have travelled both interstate and internationally from a relatively young age, but still I got the shock of my life when I moved in my late teens to a larger Australian city, which is much more multicultural and also described as a “melting pot”. Going from a predominantly all white high school where race was never an issue (very few non-whites, and they were all pretty well assimilated) to a multicultural high school where Indian kids hung out with Indian kids, Chinese with Chinese, Lebanese with Lebanese, whites with whites etc...like you describe, just seemed so racist for a ‘multicultural’ place. Why didn’t people mix? For a few years there I even believed that multicultural places are more racist than monocultural places...because people would constantly ask me where I was from! This is a question no one would even think of asking in my home town, and a question that I still can’t bring myself to ask others because of an ingrained belief that I shouldn’t feel more affinity to a person based on their culture. It took me ages to figure out that people aren’t asking about where I’m from in order to judge me. Rather, in a multicultural place, people tend to relate to each other and establish commonalities by sharing aspects of their culture (because sharing and acknowledging cultural difference is more acceptable in a multicultural than a moncultural place). The thing that strikes me (and I’m not sure if this happens to you?) is that people always assume I am from wherever they are from – i.e. they use cultural background in an inclusive way rather than an exclusionary way. South Americans always think I’m South American, Indians think I’m Indian, Lebanese think I’m Lebanese, Italians think I’m Italians...it just goes to show how people look for cultural similarities in order to relate to others. I still feel uncomfortable with the idea that cultural similarity can be the main basis of fulfilling personal friendships in our so called multicultural society - but obviously it makes total sense for people of similar backgrounds to relate to each other more easily. I grew in a white middle class city and no prizes for guessing that my social circle has not changed much in demographics since then. It’s been quite an issue with my partner, because he does find it hard to relate to my friends and often resists going out on social occasions.
    @ Sara – wow it sounds like you and A went through a really intense time at the start! Good on you for starting to rebalance yourselves now  It’s so hard when you’re dealing with insecurities and personal dynamics which have their basis in wider social relations (e.g. the pressure to assimilate). I can relate a lot to what you’re saying.
    I wouldn’t be too worried about kids fitting in at school...I’m speaking from personal experience here and I realise it’s not applicable to everybody, but I went to a school (and grew up in a city) where nobody was similar to me “on the outside”. But I never saw myself as different to any of my friends and never had issues relating to others or developing meaningful friendships. I did see other friends struggle though, trying to fit in (I had a close friend who moved to Australia when she was 10 from England, and was teased about her “posh” Pommy accent all the way into Year 12, even though by that time her accent was barely there!). It’s hard to know with kids and teens which way it will swing, I just hope and trust to a certain extent that my multiracial kids will be ok...

  7. Thanks for your comments taswin. Very nice points. I liked the point about you feeling that people were judging you, by asking you where you were from. I never thought about it in that way, but yes, come to think of it, it shouldn't matter where one is from, but I think it's human nature to find commonalities among people and sticking to those who they have most in common with, the more time one spends in a more diverse climate it might get easier, but to completely rid oneself of it, might be a task for many, mainly because most of the times such separation for the lack of a better word, is subconscious, and most aren't aware of it.

  8. There are soooo many good issues that you are touching on. I can't identify them all but will try a few...

    1. On the outside looking in-
    This is powerful.

    I am an American born and raised (no Indian background) lived in Chennai (earned my Master's degree) and married an Indian. We lived in US for 5 years, now relocated to Kochi.

    I was enmeshed in the Indian community in US. I actually felt like on the outside looking in as an American because I identified with Indians, hung out with Indians, etc. I sometimes felt I did not identify with Indians or Americans. That's being on the fence!

    2. Melting pot vs. Salad bowl
    I think immigrants and integration into US culture has changed considerably in the past 50 plus years. My family came to US from Hungary. At that time as they entered Ellis Island they were FORCED to change their name (talking about names there are a LOT of Indian Christians with Western sounding names). Now a days people do not have to do that but may feel compelled to do that because Americans can't pronounce the name. One of the saddest/most creative examples is Vandana made into Dana. In this case the 'dana' part is pronounced differently in both names. Vandana is such a beautiful name...
    That made people feel compelled or forced to melt in as the case goes. Now there is much more open mindedness to be culturally aware and accept differences. Unlike India with thousands of years of history in this 'unity and diversity' concept, US is like a teenager trying to still figure it all out. That's how I feel anyhow. Some places allow more 'salad bowl' while other places make one feel they need to 'melt in'.

    (I will continue!)

  9. @ jennifer,
    Thanks for your comments.
    I too like you felt on the fence sometimes, because the Indians in America, were too Indian for me and I was too Indian for the Americans..Haha..so I know exactly what it's like to be on the fence...LOL !

    Liked you comment that some parts are more of a salad bowl rather than a melting pot . Even in India, some places (like Mumbai) are much more a salad bowl, compared to other places, smaller cities, where one (even an Indian) does feel the need to try and fit in, be it by learning the local language,or something.

    Please do continue, will love to hear more from you on the subject .

  10. @ sara, I dunno how I missed publishing your second comment, but I just saw it, and published it....very good points overall...and you bet I'm gonna cover all those myths/realities about raising children in the west. I'm working on the topic now, and shall be posting in in a few days...:)

  11. I would tend to agree with Jennifer. My great grandparents from Hungary were also forced to change their name, we aren't even really sure what it was. My great grandparents (both of my mother's grandparents) also never spoke english, despite having children that spoke english. I think it was still standard to live in ethnic neighborhoods among other immigrants. I think what turns immigrants groups into Americans are second-generationers. They speak english, without accent, mix with all different kinds of people and take on American culture. So in a way we are both the melting-pot and a salad bowl.

  12. Sorry I lost my train of thought! :)

    I enjoy your blog quite a bit. Thanks.


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