It was the first day of 5th grade; my mom had bought me a new pencil box and it was a big deal (because Desi parents rarely buy the second child new things). I got to school and a girl in my class wanted to check if the pencil box would break if it fell on the floor. Everyone was looking at me, and I was desperate to fit in. So I handed it over and she threw it on the floor. It broke. I didn’t realize anything at the time, nor did I have the sense to see the early signs of bullying because I was different. It continued for years to come. My desperation to be “American” blinded me from many of these incidents.
My parents spent the first 10 years in America working 18-hour days, learning English, learning how the school system works, and doing what they could to keep their roots alive. Survival mode is what they knew in those early years. In all their hustle, their kids were also growing up in a new country, speaking a new language, and spending most of their time with kids who didn’t look like them.
As we settled in and grew up, we noticed that we were different, and others saw it too. My parents didn’t have the time or tools to help us be intentional about accepting both cultures. They did what they could and it was enough. The funny part was that at home, at desi weddings, at mandir – I was SO proud of being Indian. I loved everything about it, from Bollywood to bindis. But nonetheless, I was confused between home life and school life. Growing up is hard. Growing up with two cultures is harder.
The best thing we can do is to learn from our childhood experiences and make sure the next generation is wiser for it. What does that mean?
As a parent, be intentional when it comes to incorporating both cultures into our kids’ experiences. My daughter must have asked for chicken nuggets for two months straight once she saw her classmates eating them. How do you help a 3 year old understand what it means to be a vegetarian? Be honest and gently repeat the reasoning every single time. Once she learned it, she stopped asking. I don’t understand Halloween so instead of trick-or-treating we take our kids to the farm for hay rides, horseback riding, and overpriced snacks. My daughters don’t get birthday or Christmas gifts because we only give gifts for Diwali. It’s been incredible to see the excitement leading up to Diwali because we are intentional about showing them that this is an important holiday.
Intention in the everyday things is crucial, because repetition works like a charm on young children. Every day we say our shloks, we thank God for our meal, we dress up for Hindu holidays, we speak in Gujarati at home, & mom and dad share the load in every aspect of the family (working, parenting, cooking, cleaning, discipline). We take full advantage of the incredible small businesses that have made it so easy to blend cultural importance into daily activities.
The first thing to learn as parents is that you can’t do everything from both cultures so give them what feels like the best balance for you and them, not anyone else! I want my daughters to cherish these memories when they grow up and, hopefully someday, to incorporate these traditions when they have families of their own.
Guest post written by: Moulee Patel
Moulee Patel is a mom of 2 girls and is rewriting what it means to be Desi in America for them. Based in Texas, Moulee and her husband work towards building a world for their daughters to thrive in. Breaking outdated gender and cultural expectations are essential to give their kids a brighter future.