A test of the strength of traditional values is the beliefs of first generation children of immigrants to the US. In 2010, I interviewed a group of first generation Indians in Northern California, four young boys and three teen girls, about traditions they wanted to keep and those that were changed by living in the US. They’re aware they’re growing up with two cultures, with few other Indian students in their schools and occasional prejudice from teachers. I was surprised that there was nothing they wanted to change except dowry payments from the bride’s family, bribing officials like police officers, and the showing off that occurs in India where people will rent expensive clothes and jewelry if they can’t afford to buy them, and borrow for lavish weddings. They have to be more independent here because there aren’t servants to bring tea, cook, and clean.
They value speaking multiple languages, including Hindi and their northern India regional language—Bengali or Gujarati. They value Hinduism, the fun festival celebration of deities like Devali, and the morning and evening prayers in the shrine room in their homes where they light incense and an oil candle to pray.
They like the group sharing and concern, in contrast to US individualism and isolation. For example, Prince, 11, said if he were to get hurt here, his neighbor’s wouldn’t know or help. Everyone knows you there. People don’t need to lock their doors. In India, he crashed a scooter and many people came to help him. People take more time with family and friends rather than working all the time. This group cohesion also means everyone knows what’s going on and they don’t forget if someone messes up. Their parents frequently are on the phone with friends and even distant relatives, but the young people don’t do this as much. Family members don’t knock on bedroom doors before coming in, they borrow and share things like clothing or cell phones, and parents don’t give allowances or ground their kids, they just share. It’s “ours” not “mine.” One of the girls was wearing her aunt’s sandals, another her grandmother’s earrings. It’s not like the US culture where everyone wants their own space, their own things, their own earnings, their privacy, yet there’s more freedom in India, they said.
I asked if they think social isolation has an effect on Americans and they strongly agreed that Americans are more likely to be suicidal, depressed, and anxious. In contrast, Indian close-knit, extended families, with friends treated as family members, creates a sense of belonging and happiness. A cousin or friend may be called brother or sister, with the trust that they have each other’s backs. Long-time servants are also treated like family in India, as when on their grandfathers recently paid for his servant’s wedding ceremony. Mothers teach about these relationships and how to show proper respect, including girls not wearing revealing clothes like shorts.
All the young people but one expect to have arranged marriages because they believe it’s more than a relationship between spouses, almost like a business arrangement between families. Love marriages are based on lust and can be selfish. All their parents had arranged marriages that turned out well: “My parents are love birds,” said Bhavika, 18. Chandni said her parents complement each other, her father from a rural background, her mother urban. They believe parents are more supportive when they have a say in selecting a spouse. The exception was Andrew, 12, who said his aunt argues daily with her husband, not a good selling point for arranged marriage. He plans to pick his own wife so he won’t be stuck in a bad marriage for life with someone he doesn’t respect. It’s more free in the US he says.
Having a degree is now the biggest draw for a prospective spouse. Families carefully investigate prospects, including ones found online matrimonial sites. Caste is still a factor; Bhavika said she’ll marry only in a specific sub-caste of Patels. Lighter skin is still considered appealing, so mothers tell daughters to stay out of the sun and not get too tan playing sports. They also expect to have a big multi-day wedding because it’s the biggest day of your life. People talk about your wedding for generations–people still comment on a grandmother’s wedding.
I thought that they might want to date and go to school dances like proms, but they are not allowed to date until maybe their last two years in college in preparation for marriage in their early 20s. They’re OK with that, believing studying comes first. One of the dad’s commented that US schools are too easy, that kids learn in 8th grade what Indians learn in 4th grade. Parents expect focus on schoolwork, just as important for girls. A saying is, “Your first girl/boy friend is your books.” A family with three sisters, no brothers, said Indians comment, “That’s too bad” not to have a son to carry on the family name, but their parents are happy with their daughters. The deadline for marriage is age 25 for a girl, said Chanchal. The boy should be older with an established career.
Chandni, 17, does want to go to her senior prom with her sister and girlfriend and her parents agreed this time, after saying no in her junior year. She wouldn’t be surprised if her father came by to check on them, as their parents are much stricter than other parents. A boy and a girl are not supposed to be alone together. Prince’s mother said when he was assigned a girl as a homework partner, she stayed near them so they were never alone, bringing snacks and such, even though they’re only 11. If his teenage sister goes to a dance, she is supposed to call home every 30 minutes. At something like a temple gathering, a boy might walk by a girl and make eye contact to say hello, but not speak to her, so as not to offend her parents. He might also text to say hello. Non-Indian boys may feel hurt when given the cold shoulder when an Indian parent is in the vicinity. The teen girls crop Facebook photos to make sure there’s no boy in the background their parents might worry about. Going off to college is an issue, with parents hoping they’ll attend a local college or talking about sending a parent to live there with the student—no dorm living. Lastly, I asked if we can be hopeful that their generation will turn things around for the planet. Two of them quoted Gandhi about being the change you want to bring about, but didn’t seem to have a social mission.
When I interviewed a group of four guys in their teens and 20s who also said they wanted to continue Indian traditions, including living at home till marriage. Their tone was different than the girls in that they focused on their parents being more lenient than in India, but parents are often less protective of sons. They said they knew friends who were dating although it was kept a secret from parents. Krishan, 16, noted that Indian kids are more respectful to their parents, not talking back like some of his Anglo friends. I asked about caste, since last names indicate one’s caste background, but they said it’s not a big deal.
I also interviewed a Hmong young man in my town, age 24, a college graduate. Jason is the youngest of six siblings. His parents are farmers, born in Laos, not fluent English speakers. He reports, “I’m proud of being Hmong. I’m different and yet I’m still accepted by everybody, able to speak another language. “I respect my parents and elders; when they grew up they never had much freedom, had to work so much as kids. I appreciate what they did to take care of us, what they had to go through each day.” He also had to work hard as a child; “When I grew up they had me help with the farm. It was hard work and I was well disciplined through that process, but I wouldn’t have my children do that. I feel I lost my childhood, didn’t have time to do things like a regular kid. I’ll spend a lot of time with my kids and make sure they succeed.”
His family attends a Hmong-speaking Christian church, but he has been to ceremonies where shamans cure illness by removing evil spirits. Although his parents’ marriage was arranged, his married siblings selected their own spouses. One is divorced. Jason says, “I prefer to pick my own wife, my choice. If things don’t work out, it’s another lesson learned.” He feels people are the same, doesn’t focus on the differences. Like the Indian students he likes speaking more than one language, but his attitudes towards marriage are like his peers.
Finally, I asked Eri, a college student, the same question. His father came from Mexico to work in the orchards here when he was 14. Eri tells us:
To this day, at the age of 53 he still continues to work in the fields. The hardships of working on the fields, is all finally catching up to him. His seasoned hands, cracked and dirty and sometimes bleeding from the almond branches. His muscles aching from heavy lifting. His lungs from chemicals entering year in year out. The sweltering heat, dust, harsh chemicals that he has to spray. It is something that he has endured so that my sister and I don’t have to. I think that his job along with some other factors in my own life, is the main reason that I would love to go into law and more specifically Labor Law. I think that I owe it to him to become someone who wont have to go through the struggles he has gone through, someone who doesn’t have to keep their mouth shut when working conditions are the worst, someone who doesn’t really have to answer to anyone, or an unfair employer who will only pay you minimum wage for a job that is unequal in workload; that is what I own to my father and my family.
I was really raised in an “Americanized” family. My father doesn’t speak English but the mentality of my parents was to raise my sister and I to fit into society and reap all of its benefits. One thing I plan to keep throughout my life is the belief in supplemental practices to western medicine. We believe in the medicinal purposes of certain herbs, or certain rituals to heal people, prayer. We deeply believe in the spirituality of those that have moved on. I guess you could call it folklore. 🙂 When we cross certain animals or they cross us, it means something depending on the animal. Other than that all the other values and traditions are really common things for every other American. I was raised “right”; you respect elders, you do things with integrity, and so on. We don’t celebrate “Day of the Dead” or “Cinco de Mayo” or eat 12 grapes on New Year’s Day, or go to church on Christmas, or have an alter of past loved ones like other Mexicans.