Shefali Milczarek-Desai

Living In-Between

by Shefali Milczarek-Desai


I was on the phone with my parents pronouncing my sons’ Indian names with a Gujarati accent when my five-year old son loudly corrected me, “Mommy! It’s not ‘Saagr’ it’s ‘Saww|ger’!”  His harsh American drawl accentuated and apparent in his corrections to my softly flowing Gujarati. I tried explaining that there were two ways to say his name – the American way daddy said it and the Indian way I said it. But he was furious. He angrily instructed me never to mispronounce his name again.

I was stunned. Had I miscalculated by not immersing my children in my parents’ immigrant culture?

When I was my son’s age, I was highly aware of my Indian-ness and desperately tried to wish it away. In elementary school, I was an outcast for being brown and having parents who spoke, at least to my peers, in indecipherable English. I craved white skin and a name people could pronounce on the first try. When I was eleven, my parents bought me a used, bright-red jacket with “Shelley” embroidered on it in black cursive lettering. I happily adopted the jacket as well as its moniker.

My thoughts shifted in High School and College. In the 1990’s being different was exotic and cultural diversity was cool. I embraced my brown skin, Indian heritage, and fluency in my parents’ mother tongue. During one summer vacation to India, I slipped away with an older cousin and came back with my nose pierced in a bold attempt to wrest back the cultural identity I had spent years shunning. Even after the piercing turned into a raging infection and I spent the remainder of the trip in a lot of pain, I stubbornly refused to take it out. I still have a scar on my nose, carefully hidden under a diamond stud, from that act of claiming identity.

And then I married a white man. Indian relatives and friends saw this as a definitive statement about my Americanness but Americans continued to exoticize me. Frustrated that identity is often subject to the whims of other people, I refused to self-identify as any one thing and rejected all identity categories as inventions of hegemony. Young and in love, I never considered what this might mean for my future offspring.

By the time I got around to having children toward the end of the first decade of the new millennium, the celebration of diversity had reached a fever pitch. If a parent spoke a language other than English, she was instructed to talk to her child exclusively in that language. If you were in an English-only household, you were supposed to plop your kids in front of Dora the Explorer or, as some friends of mine did, hire a Spanish-speaking nanny.

When my first son was born, well-meaning friends asked if I intended to teach him Gujarati, my parents’ mother tongue and my first language. Before birthing him, I daydreamed of soothing my baby with the gentle, poetic tones of this obscure but lovely language, an offspring of Sanskrit, that grandmother of languages with the irresistible power to stir the Western imagination and longing for an Edenic past.

I was crushed by the reality of early motherhood. In my sleep-deprived haze, I could barely manage to teach my son, who already seemed late in developing speech, one language let alone two. Even though I was fluent, my Gujarati was halting and my vocabulary shrunken from years without anyone to converse with given that my spouse didn’t speak it and my parents had spoken primarily in English for the past twenty years.

Friends seemed disappointed when I explained this to them. I, too, was heartbroken that the language I was so fond of, the language that tenuously connected me to my parents’ motherland, would disappear with me. But at the time, all I could focus on was surviving new motherhood. And I could only do that in English within the American culture in which I was firmly entrenched.

Five years later, my son’s pronouncement regarding his name brings me face-to-face with a question I have been avoiding since becoming a mother: do I or don’t I care whether my children grow up with a sense of their Indian-ness?

As with most things nowadays, I am of many minds about the answer to this slippery question. The Indian daughter, the idealist, the dreamer shouts, “Yes, absolutely, of course!” The rebel American student of postmodern feminism resurrects herself to rejoinder, “No, because they are American, and that already encompasses multitudes, including their Indian-ness.” The practical mother I have become sighs and wearily mutters, “It doesn’t matter because it isn’t up to me.”

Cultural identity is at once one the most rigid and amorphous notions in America.

The American obsession with cultural difference, though well-intentioned and perhaps born out of an effort to reach understanding across vast divides, sometimes has the effect of pigeonholing immigrant cultures and requiring their inhabitants to look, talk and act in a certain way. Similarly, many immigrant cultures, eager to keep their young people from straying too far into the American cultural morass, rigidly dictate what constitutes membership in their clan and reject those who dare transgress by, for example, marrying outside the group. Taken together, this creates a complex matrix of language, food, ritual and appearance one must “get right” in order to claim a given cultural identity.

Viewed in this light, my children fail the stereotypical test for Indian-ness from both outside and inside the culture. Americans will struggle to locate them within an Indian cultural identity because they don’t speak the language, eat the food or regularly participate in cultural or religious events. Indians have difficulty regarding my sons as one of their own because they have an Anglo father and their skin is too light (never mind that most Bollywood stars are far fairer).

Seared in my memory is the only mixed family who regularly came to events in the Indian immigrant community when I was a kid. The father was Indian, the mother was white, and the two children had the same lovely, honey-colored skin I now associate with my own sons. The mother always came dressed in a sari and the children wore Indian clothes. What I remember is this: no one spoke to the mother and her children. They sat alone while the rest of us “true” Indians talked and played and ate and danced. I recall feeling sorry for them in the way a child does, but also regarding them as not one of “us”.

Thirty years later I realize with a gasp, this family is my family. My children are the in-between kids who will have only half understandings about what it means to be Indian: to eagerly lap-up spicy oily food in a hall crowded with other Indians, to sing and dance all night long in brightly colored clothes with people of all ages from babies to grandparents, to effortlessly slide into speaking a gentle ancient tongue untouched by guttural Germanic sounds.

I feel palpable pain when I consider that the cultural richness my parents brought with them to America half a century ago will in all likelihood die with them. It brings on a profound sense of sadness that swallows innumerable smells and sounds, an entire language, a whole way of life that is not even remotely quantifiable.

The enormity of this loss is pleasantly paralyzing and pulls me away from esoteric rumination back into the day-to-day reality of raising young children. Practically speaking, I cannot mobilize my scant energies to teach my children Gujarati, regularly cook Indian meals (which they would refuse to eat), and attend every Indian cultural event in town. But I can remind them of their Indian-ness, as peculiar as it may be.

On a clear and sunny morning, I strap the kids into their car seats and head two hours north to my hometown’s Indo-U.S. Cultural Center to celebrate my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary and my maternal grandmother’s 95th birthday. Anxious not to stand out too much, I meticulously dress myself and the kids in Indian clothes and pack a variety of snacks to thwart meltdowns that might brand us as spoiled Americans.

As soon as we arrive, my sons run to greet their “Nana” and “Nani” (mother’s father and mother), “Masi” (mother’s sister), “Masa” (mother’s sister’s husband), “Mamma” (mother’s brother), and “Mammi” (mother’s brother’s wife) – all terms that connote a loyalty and connection that my children deeply feel with my family despite not knowing Gujarati (and despite the fact that both their Masa and Mammi are not Indian). Then they run off happily to play with their cousins, their brightly-colored tunics flapping behind them.

For my part, instead of scanning the crowd for judgmental faces, I chat with the “aunties” of my youth, many of whom are now bent with age. When my father begins to sing Hindi tunes and beckons me to join him, I don’t hesitate to hold his hand in front of the crowd as my children dance in circles with my mother.

I come home from that gathering with a new feeling: not optimism that my children will know Indian-ness as I have, but confidence that they will be able to claim Indian-ness if they choose. I hope they do, and I will nudge them in that direction without leveraging the oppression of identity – the feeling that they must look and act a certain way to belong – but by imparting to them a sense of Indian-ness rooted in my family, which they already recognize as their tribe.

But even if my children choose to claim their Indian-ness there will be loss. That is the immigrant condition when experienced as a mixing with rather than a resistance to the new culture. There is an in-between space that is created in the midst of this anguish; it is a confusing, dynamic, thought-provoking place that I have inhabited for years. I will beckon my children to join me there.


Postscript: My partner came home from the pharmacy the other day and told me that the pharmacist, who is Indian, corrected him when he pronounced our sons’ names in the “American” way. He was bemused with a hint of annoyance that she would presume to correct a father regarding his own children’s names. In that instant, it occurred to me that my son’s conviction about how his name ought to be pronounced might be his way of claiming his name for himself – something I couldn’t do when I was young. Owning his name may very well be the doorway through which my son will discover and fashion his Indian-ness.

Contributed by Shefali Milczarek-Desai