Nov 26, 2006

Keep it in the Family (3)

My extended family frustrates me sometimes, as I've written before, but there is something so pure about the bonds that you feel with some members of that family. I don't feel like I have to try to be someone - they know and love me for being part of the circle of kin, for my broken Gujarati, and probably for my connection to my mom, who they love in a way I can't even begin to understand.

I feel a level of comfort that I still don't fully understand when I'm around certain cousins and nieces/nephews. It is so bizarre to me that the person who I am generally is not who I am in their company, and even the majority of my conversations don't reflect the things that I care about or focus on in the rest of my life. But yet, it feels like something beyond just small talk. But I wonder what they all think of me, given that what I do or what I'm studying doesn't really ever come up. I find myself incredibly boring in that context - but I guess that's why family is great: they don't seem to think the same.

And every once in a while, I get to connect on a different level. Last night, I reconnected with a cousin who really mattered to me while I was growing up, and with whom I felt very close. It felt nice to retouch that connection that we'd had from our childhood/adolescence. I don't know what happened along the way, but it was just nice to find some path out of the thickets that had grown between our lives.

I feel blessed that my immediate family are who they are, even though I have less patience with them than I should. But I realize after these family events, when I'm alternately pleasantly surprised that people even speak with me still, and thankful that there is so much laughter, so much joy. I just wish I could be a better presence for my many nieces and nephews... I wonder what they are learning through their suburban upbringing, and what they could learn from my mistakes and minor life lessons.


But I still have reservations about the way that my cousins are raising their kids. This new generation of suburban brown kids has a built-in guju posse in their cousins, but beyond the convenience of age-matched playmates while growing up, they also have the potential for a built-in superiority complex about Gujaratis in the broader food chain. And there's more than a little competition going on between their parents, although I have seen how much they take care of their siblings' kids.

I'm just not sure of what values the 1.5 generation in my family - many of whom came here as adults (in their early 20s) bring to the mix. For some cousins in particular, the biases, dogmatism, and small worldview from their parents are being passed along directly. For others, their exposure to the system in the United States is incredibly limited, and their kids are calling them out on some things - which is interesting, but then how are their parents dealing with it? Do the kids have the compunction to work through these aspects of their parents' personalities?

It's very hard to tell, and sadly, I see some of the pitfalls that I reference when I speak about the next generation of desi kids generally. My parents' generation worked very hard to enter the middle class in the United States, and our period of second generation kids has its own range of issues. But the technical class that entered the United States in the 80s and even 90s, have settled down and have kids. Their kids, while second generation as well, are being raised in more upscale neighborhoods, by parents who are more removed from their humble beginnings, and from the India that our parents knew.

Their perception of "making it" is reflected in the general movement in Bollywood films from depicting the social aspects of modernization as the fledging democracy took its first unsteady steps towards free flight as a nation, to the mass consumerism and coca-colonization that has taken invidious and perverse forms by interspersing "hip" English-language phrases, hyper-gendered and sexualized musical numbers that are supposed to represent some new freedom but just come off as parody, and vacuous plots, dialogue, and actors.

Name brands and status symbols abound, and the parents seem to be showering their noveau wealth all over the kids, who know little to nothing of discipline, of struggle, of the valuation of material items vs. honest work and thoughts. While the kids may be able to go through the motions regarding religion, how much of it is filio-piety, and how much of it is real engagement with the philosophy that drive the machinations of so-called faith?

Then again, that can be said for any group, I guess. I wasn't raised within some shroud of poverty or difficulty, but I also didn't have an entitlement complex when it came to material possessions or station in life. I overheard one of my cousin's husbands speaking with another about the kids, and how without the feeling of urgency that comes from coming out of a disadvantaged background, the kids will not have the same drive as people who come from India. I tend to agree with that. But the problem arises when the parents still refer to the same system to judge success and "making it" for their kids - what possessions they have, what their parents can provide for them, and where they end up in school and as careers.

Even the pursuit of education is not seen as an end in itself - the education is only a means to get the gold at the end of the rainbow. My expedition into a second career in public interest law, after working for a number of years and getting married, doesn't make sense in this calculus filled with derivatives and permutations of wealth and earning potential. Success is the nest egg you've built for yourself and the assets you can accumulate and pass down for the next generation.

Of course, I'm essentializing their experiences and lives after only brief encounters, but the threat of such moral bankruptcy still scares me. And more than anything, the clannishness can be suffocating. Expanding beyond the tiny concentric (or overlapping) circles of faith, language, and culture in which they find themselves could be a very good thing for their kids. But I guess, just like it was for some of us during our period, that's up to the kids to work out.

For me, I'll continue to offer up my own unorthodox opinions for anyone who takes the time to listen in my family, or read here.

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