Thursday, January 19, 2012

Indians - being "more Indian in the US"

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This is an email Deepa and I got from our friend Jennifer Kumar, an American settled in Kochi for over a year now. She is married to an Indian and has a Masters degree in Social Work from Chennai, India. She is a cross cultural coach who loves to “work, make friends and live a life among others that were different than her”. She raises some interesting points that I have always observed especially after we moved back to India – how different the involvement of the working middle class is in India compared to the Indians settled in the US celebrating Indian festivals and how the NRI’s try to follow Indian traditions at every possible events while just the opposite is happening in India. I am publishing that email with Jennifer’s permission. 
Brijesh and Deepa....
A few reflections...
I interviewed you on my blog a while ago. I had a question about being more Indian or easier to be Indian in the US... something like that. I was told my impression was wrong.
Well... since being in Kerala I have observed something interesting. I don't know how it is where you are, but here are some observations from where I live in Kochi.
Daily wear
Now a days even in our age group I see more jeans and kurtas. I see salvaars. I rarely see saris in our age group.
In the US, when a fancy party happens or even a semi-fancy party, Desis try to dress to the nines by wearing sari or a fancy salvaar kamiz. Sometimes guys wear mundu or kurta pyjama.
I have seen for the same kind of parties in Kerala that the host may dress up- but the guys will come in fancy pants or kurta and pants (sometimes not even Indian wear) while women come in a fancy salvaar as compared to a sari. Saris relegated to the older set. But even in the 40 plus set, I see a dressing down taking place. 
A few specific examples of this include attending a baby’s first birthday party, a community Rotary Onam cultural program and a Kerala wedding. I will detail each below.
The first example is the dress code I noticed at a baby’s first birthday party in Kochi. I'd say the people in our community are kind of equivalent to the Desi crowd I hung out with in the USA.  Economically speaking they are upper middle class. They own cars and rent in an affluent neighborhoods and working in software jobs. I dressed in a sari as I thought this would be the dress code. Krishna went in kurta and pants. (Western pants). I was the only one in a sari minus the baby's mom and a few older women (even some older women were in salvaar). This is ironic considering I am the foreigner here! And as for the guys, only elders were in mundu, while many younger men came in pants and western top. Little girls had fancier dresses on than the mothers in many cases. Beside me and baby's mom, no other girls in our age group had saris.
This is a common thing I have seen at the five parties I have been in Kochi with one notable exception. The second example is the Onam party we went to hosted by the Rotary. Here women dressed in settu mundu. But interestingly, those who dressed in this did so for dancing thiruvathira. About half the women after dancing immediately went and changed into a salvaar. I was shocked! 
And, the last most poignant example is in attending Kerala Hindu weddings. I have attended three weddings in Kochi over the past one year. In these events, I noticed a range of dresses. Indian and western formals and casuals. I was surprised to see kids and teens coming in what I may consider ‘school clothes’ in American standards. They were wearing jeans and a fancy top, or cotton paavada davani, not silk or silk mix. The absence of Kerala sari, even for the bride was the most shocking change. Krishna told me that when he was growing up, one would be hard pressed to see women in anything but settu mundu or at least one piece Kerala sari. But now, we see fancy Kanchipuram pure silk weaves and Indian dresses from all over India (lenghas, saris wrapped in Gujarati style and so forth). On one hand it’s nice to have a variety of clothes acceptable in Kerala. The culture is opening up, but at what cost to tradition and culture?
Coming to India, I was thinking it would give me more chances to wear saris. However, as I see these situations, I feel that many women in my age group don’t even know how to wear saris. I miss the NRI crowd in the US now. In the US Indian crowd I hung out with (both pan-Indian and Malayalee and Tamil groups) people took more efforts to dress Indian and dress more formally - more girls our age wearing saris over salvaars for instance to parties. People also took more care to wear Kerala dresses for Onam parties, even to the extent of being obsessed about it and planning to have things sent to the USA from India via their connections. Or, in some cases, even driving from Rochester, New York to Toronto, Canada to buy or rent clothes from the India towns there.  
Another observation I have is that in Mallu clubs in the US people dance thiruvathira and in Xmas programs some dance margam kali. Here in Kerala no one will dance these dances. What I gather from this is that in Kerala people feel fear of criticism from others because they are not professionally trained. Doing it casually for fun like they do in the US is not done here. When our housing development was planning the Christmas party, I asked if we can dance margamkali and a few girls looked like they never heard of this dance, while a few others said 'they cannot dance this' and the rest said it's not possible to do it. When I mentioned that in the US Mallu groups do these dances they were shocked and said "Mallus outside India are more Mallu than we are in Kerala."
My NRI neighbors have said this to me on various occasions without me even bringing it up. Before Onam I told them I asked a few girls if they'd like to try thiruvathira for Onam and I was denied to try it with them. Again I guess for reasons I mentioned above, we talked about that and then the neighbors made a note of how many people they know in Kochi who are ordering Onam meals and not cooking at home. They commented "In the US we have to be more Mallu than here because here we can get others to do the work for us- caterers or cooks or maids." 
I would say this leaves me with a most interesting thought to ponder. When living in India, Indians are not giving much thought to their dressing habits or may not even know how to cook. But, living abroad, one HAS to know how to do this if they want to 'be Indian.' (so to speak)
Just some thoughts....
Thanks for reading.
Like to know your thoughts or responses to anything here. 
Jennifer dancing Thiruvathira in New York with the Malayalee group;
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Blogger White Bhabi said...

In the US I think they feel the need to prove themselves and maintain their cultural identity. They may feel they need to work harder to do this so that is why they go out of their way to dress up and act so formal for events. In India no one would question if they are Indian nor would anyone confuse them for other Asian cultures.

January 19, 2012 4:29 PM  
Blogger Akshaya Borkar said...

Hi Jennifer,

Nice post! Indians living in India already get a lot of cultural dosage indirectly though publics celebrations and celebrations in school n collges, so they make a conscious desisions to avoid it ( to stand out in the crowd).. but people when migrate to other countries, they have to preserve their traditions for their next generations, their kids are not getting this cultural knowledge though their surroundings.. hence they try to be particular abt their traditions so its preserved...

January 19, 2012 10:51 PM  
Blogger Jennifer Kumar, Cross-Cultural Coach said...

White Bhabi -
Yes, that is a valid point. And it overlaps with Akshaya's point about standing out.

What both of you have shared makes a lot of sense. Thank you!

January 20, 2012 10:38 AM  
Anonymous SHiju R said...

The reason is simple. While in Kerala you don’t have to make any extra effort to be ‘a part of or involved in keraliya samskaram’. You are always a part of it. But while in US one always has to make an extra effort to be a part of Indian culture and festivals.

January 20, 2012 4:27 PM  
Anonymous itisravi said...

Okay, Indians wear traditional dresses abroad for the cultural identity thing.But as to why we do not wear traditional clothes back in India, I think there is more to it than just the convenience factor.As with any other developing/developed Asian country,the influence of the 'west' (whatever that means) on our daily lifestyle is increasing as ever.Children are raised in an environment where eating pizzas, watching western TV serials or wearing jeans has become normal
in any Indian middle class family.We are no longer 'trying' to ape western culture. A part of it has already been imbibed into today's generation.To them,
wearing a traditional Mundu might seem a weird thing to do because every other 'normal' Indian neighbour is wearing trousers and salwars.And no one wants to be the odd man out, do they? Who knows,30 years down the line, the only ethnic differentiating factor amongst people across the world might be language they speak.Give it 50 years more,it might boil down to just the colour of your skin.

January 22, 2012 3:09 AM  
Blogger Jennifer Kumar, Cross-Cultural Coach said...

Shiju and itisravi
Thank you for your feedback.

I'd agree- no one wants to be the odd man out.

The irony is in the USA ethnic minorities are always the odd man out.. the unfortunate reality. And when minorities dress and behave different, they are only segregated and misunderstood more in that society. That's why some complain Americans, even Americans with Indian neighbors continue stereotyping Indians rather than knowing them as people. It's a two way street of course, however, it'd be the same for me for instance if I went as a white American to live in an inner city neighborhood where a majority of African Americans live. How would I fit in? The process is a bit similar there.

January 24, 2012 3:04 AM  
Blogger Vaishnavam said...

Just read in the paper today about another issue -

"" What makes NRIs so touchy about issues concerning their homeland? “They are stuck in a time warp,” says Lavrenti Lopes, an Indian actor-model in Hollywood. “When they moved to their new countries they found the value system alien. So they lived in isolation, holding on to the values they came with, values that no longer exist even in India.”"

January 29, 2012 7:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It may be just that people who emigrated to the US years ago are stuck in that time period, when many of these cultural activities were more common. These days people choose to spend more of their 24 hours doing things like Facebook, playing games, watching movies/tv, etc. The people in the US who emigrated years ago are still stuck in the India from years ago. But India has moved on. I have Indian friends from India who are more progressive than my Indian friends who grew up in a strict household here in the US, particularly if they grew up in a community with a large Indian population.

February 14, 2012 6:06 PM  

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