Essay: My Name Isn’t Priscilla

Shoba Narayan came to Mount Holyoke as a Foreign Fellow in 1986. She planned to spend a year studying all the subjects she never got to back home in India— theater with Jim Cavanaugh, music composition with Allan Bondi, and sculpture with Leonard DeLonga. Like many others before her, she fell under the spell of DeLonga’s unorthodox teaching methods, and took up sculpture full-time. DeLonga wrote to President Liz Kennan, asking that Shoba stay on an extra year as a “Special Student” studying sculpture. With then Dean of International Students Mary Jacob also pushing her case, President Kennan made a case to the college and allowed Shoba to stay on for one more year to build up her arts portfolio to apply for graduate programs in art. Shoba then went on to pursue an MFA in sculpture, followed by a journalism degree from Columbia University. But she will never forget Mount Holyoke and the freshness of its memories are daily proof of how influential the college was in her psyche. Shoba Narayan grew up as a woman and became a feminist at Mount Holyoke. She remains a grateful alum.

Return to India is a topic that obsesses Indians. Chat rooms are devoted to it; multiple websites ponder the question and offer help, both practical and emotional; and first-generation Indian families can’t seem to stop thinking about it, if not actually discussing it. Lists are made about pros and cons. Mine went like this.

Reasons to move back to India

1. Parents are getting older. Want to take care of them.

2. Want kids to have Eastern values like putting out for family and respect for elders. (Can we teach them these values while living in America?)

3. Want kids to have relationship with their grandparents and that is easier if we live in India.

4. Want to give back something to the country that nurtured us. (Can we do that from here? Contribute dollars to Indian charities.)

5. Viscerally miss living in India– the food, smell of jasmine, the auto-rickshaws, music concerts, cows on streets, haggling at bazaars, wearing silk saris. Is this just nostalgia?

6. Family is family. You can buy anything in America. Can’t buy family.

7. America is a very high-octane society. Want to protect kids from random shootings, drugs in high school, sex in middle school. (Am I being puritanical?)

8. Don’t want daughters to become a Brittany Spears clones. (Am I overreacting?)

9. What if we move back and something terrible happens? Can I live with myself?

10. If we live here, there is a fair chance that India gets eroded out of our lineage. Can I deal with non-Indian grandchildren?

11. Want kids to love India as I do.

Reasons to stay in America.

1. Global opportunities for a career. Meritocracy in the workplace. Encourages you to be the best in your field. Exciting place to work. If we move to India, have to give up on a career.

2. America is a multicultural society. Kids will get to know classmates from all over the world, especially if we live in a large city like New York. They will have a broad worldview.

3. Very comfortable life here in terms of material comforts. Systems work. People are efficient. Easy to get things done with encountering corruption.

4. Dollar income, strong currency, good purchasing power. Can use it to travel the world, buy things, enjoy life, go on cruises.

5. Want kids to have American values of independence, self-reliance, go-getting drive. (Can we teach them that from India?)

6. America is the least imperfect society. Has its problems, but at least I don’t have to worry about traffic, pollution, bribery and petty corruption, trains running on time, etc.

7. Even if we move back, I would want the kids to come back here for college. Then why bother hauling them back?

8. Medical facilities are much better in America. What if we move back to India and get a medical emergency; if someone dies because of medical mistreatment. Can I live with that?

9. Kids can learn skiing here. No snow in South India. Then again, how many times have we gone skiing in the last ten years?

10. Have a great life here. Have many dear friends. Why uproot ourselves? Are we nuts?

11. Want kids to love America as I do.

The impetus to act however, doesn’t come from these lists. It comes from events, either life-changing like a parent’s death or a child’s birth; or a series of small ones. I was one of those people who thought more about the move back home after my kids were born.

But if I had to choose, I’d say that my questions about life in America grew out of a series of mundane events. Parties, for instance.

Dressing up for an Indian party in New York was, for me, a complicated exercise fraught with rules and miscues.On the one hand, I didn’t want to seem too Indian, dressed like my mother in a traditional sari and dime-sized bindi.On the other, I didn’t want to show up in a cocktail dress or pantsuit and confront a sea of women decked to the gills in ethnic finery. Not only would I stand out, worse, I would be instantly labeled as a pseudo Indian who tried to be too westernized.

Indians have a highly honed instinct for spotting artifice probably because many of us have attempted it ourselves. After all, what is the point of starting afresh in a new land if you cannot reinvent yourself into someone else, be it a suave corporate chieftain, Nobel-prize winning professor, media-darling with political aspirations, policy wonk, or UN high-flier who cloaks ambition with charm?

Yet, within each of us lay contradictions. We touted American enterprise and capitalism yet engaged in acts that were antithetical to free will: conducting an arranged marriage before thousand guests at one’s native village after spending years in America was one. Consulting an astrologer or shaving a child’s hair on a preordained auspicious day were others. We were– all of us–rational professionals with some irrational Indian predilections such as a love for cricket, curry and cold water without ice; a craving for mango pickle and mother’s rasam; and a belief in the curative powers of Vicks Vaporub, Fair & Lovely face cream and Woodwards Gripe Water.

I thought of this as I stood before my closet, discarding outfit after outfit. Usually, my sartorial decisions weren’t so complex. I wore Indian clothes to Indian parties and western clothes everywhere else. But Vicky and Tina Kapur, our hosts, were the most westernized Indians in our acquaintance. There was a fair chance that their party would be full of Americans in which case a cocktail dress or a pantsuit would work just fine. Then again, they may have invited only Indians in which case an elegant silk sari was more appropriate. Sari or suit, Indian or western– therein lay my dilemma.

Every Indian carries a mental inventory that is divided between being ‘Indian’ and being ‘Western.’ Certain clothes like saris and shawls are Indian, while pantsuits and short skirts are Western. Chunky gold jewelry is Indian while sterling silver is western. Sandals are Indian, shoes, western. Long hair in braids or a chignon gave women an Indian look, while short boyish cuts were more westernized. Living in Queens, New Jersey or Long Island was Indian while living in edgy Manhattan was more western. Goods that offered value-for-money were Indian, outrageous splurges were western. Driving an SUV or BMW was Western; driving a Toyota or Honda was definitely Indian. Leasing, or for that matter, anything construing a short-term mindset was Western; owning, paying off the credit card bill in full at the beginning of each month, and offering cash for all transactions was Indian. Decorating your home with Indian artifacts was obviously Indian, while buying minimalist modern furniture was western. And so it went.

The problem with such a list was that random acts became deliberations. Lifestyle choices that should have been spontaneous became complicated by analyses. Should I keep an ‘Indian’ home or a ‘western’ one? Should I wear a bindi or not? Should I keep my hard-to-pronounce name, or anglicize it, like the Jews and Chinese had done? Should I celebrate Christmas, a holiday that I didn’t grow up with, or should I ask for a day off to celebrate Diwali, the most important Hindu holiday? Should I remain aloof or assimilate? Should I wear the colorful Indian clothes that I love, or quit wearing them in public because I am tired of being stared at? Such questions rattled my brain to the point where I sometimes just wanted to check out. Sometimes, I just wanted to pick an outfit, not a country.

When I was single, the answer to such questions was simple and pointed to all things American. I wanted to wear western clothes, celebrate American holidays, embrace new traditions, and assimilate completely.That changed after I became a mother, and took upon myself, the self-imposed but rather nebulous task of passing on “Indian values and culture,” to my child. I didn’t have a clue as to what exactly constituted Indian values, but I knew that they had to be different from American ones, which meant that I had to be different too. I had to become more “Indian.”

As cultures went, India and America were so different that it was difficult to assemble a composite Indian-American identity. India was at one end of the spectrum, America was at its opposite, and there truly was a schism between the two. It was hard to mesh the two cultures together in one individual.

In comparison, I felt, Europeans, particularly Western Europeans had it easier. They were closer to America in the cultural continuum. When my Swiss or German friends talked about going on ski trips, for instance, it sounded natural–what they had done in the Alps as children, they were continuing in Aspen. When Indians talked about ski vacations, it sounded like an affectation, given that there is no snow in most parts of India. Similarly, some of my Indian friends cultivated an interest in wines and waxed eloquent about them. While their interest was genuine, and their knowledge, honestly gained, it seemed contrived– in comparison to say, a French man’s interest– because India has few vineyards and is not a wine drinking culture. Indian booze consists predominantly of beer, whiskey and scotch.

I couldn’t help wondering if my fellow Indians cultivated such interests–golf, wine, opera, art, or jazz–as a means of fitting into mainstream American society. Or perhaps they were enamored by the novelty of it all, just as I was. I too, was not exempt from such behavior. I had studied modern art in America and gained an understanding and appreciation for it. Still, it seemed pseudo when I dropped names like Jackson Pollack and Christo, because Indian modern art is a mere twenty years old and I had little interest in art before I came to America. We had, each of us, added layers to our personalities after coming to the United States. Sometimes, these layers clashed with our past even if they were not poses. There was no coherent way to join our Indian past with our American future without it seeming forced.

My problem–and perhaps all women face this–was that depending on the event and the people involved, I switched roles and changed personas.

In the presence of elder Indians, I reverted to what I called my “Indian bahu (daughter-in-law)” role, touching their feet respectfully, plying them fresh lime and samosas, and politely calling them Auntie and Uncle. In the presence of Americans however, I felt duty-bound to break stereotypes and prove to them that Indian women were not suppressed demure damsels sans voice or convictions. So I got into my “feminist” role—she of the strident laugh and strong opinions. It got a bit confusing, and sometimes I wondered who I really was.

My husband’s answer to all this was a devastatingly simple, “Why don’t you just be who you are?”

But who was I really? Was I the good Indian bahu (daughter-in-law) or the feminist rebel– two different creatures entirely? And who were all these Indians pretending to be?

Ram (my husband), I knew, didn’t view our fellow Indians through so jaundiced a lens. He didn’t think anything wrong for an Indian to acquire new loves–be it western hobbies,racecars, nouvelle cuisine, or all of the above. While I viewed such choices as traitorous pretensions, he saw them as a natural evolution of coming to a new country and learning new things.

“How can a guy who has been eating dosa and sambar for 25 years suddenly guzzle kimchi and proclaim Korean the food of the Gods?” I would ask.

“Why not? Just because you grew up in England doesn’t mean you have to love Shephard’s Pie. Just because you grew up in Vermont doesn’t mean you have to love snow,” Ram would reply.

“You don’t have to love it, but you don’t need to turn your back on it forever,” I said. “After all, a leopard can’t change its spots.”

I was right, and Ram was right too. Most of our Indian friends hadn’t changed spots completely, but hadn’t remained the same either. We had retained some of our Indian-ness while absorbing some American mannerisms, habits and interests, and morphed into something unique. We were unlike any of the Indians we left behind back home but hadn’t completely become American either. We were mutants.

The Kapur party had already reached the high decibel zone when we arrived. Their Upper East Side townhouse “fitted with a swimming pool, no less” as someone said was filled to the brim with Indians; and a smattering of Americans.

There were many overlapping circles amongst Indians in New York, and the Kapur party contained a fair representation. On one side was the Asia Society crowd–the auteurs and art patrons who paid $1000 a pop for an evening with filmmaker Mira Nair.

Across the room were the Columbia University professors and journalists. Many of the men were from Wall Street and you could tell who was where on the corporate ladder by what they wore. The ones who appeared genial, almost professorial were the top guys who ran big divisions. The ones with the $5000 Armani suits were the ladder-climbing mid-level executives, and the young single analysts…well there weren’t any young singles at Tina’s party. They were all probably enjoying Indian Bhangra Night at SOBs downtown with DJ Rekha.

I stood back to enjoy the scene. City lights twinkled in the background, the Kir Royale had a delicious fizz, and the murmur of conversation was punctuated by a sudden guffaw or giggle. This, I supposed, was my world…and it wasn’t a bad one. My daughter, Ranjini would have loved this party. She enjoyed playing hostess. When we had dinner parties at home, she liked to go around and serve people, which sort of drove me nuts, because it was such a traditional womanly role.I wanted Ranjini to take charge, to be tough and strong. She would probably end up traumatized by the mixed messages she got from her mother. On the one hand, I wanted her to be humble and respectful to elders like a good Indian kid; on the other, I wanted her to be an American go-getter. She would probably end up an ABCD–an American Born Confused Desi.

Desi is a Hindi word, meaning ‘native’ and immigrant Indians like me used the term ABCD (American Born Confused Desi) pejoratively to indicate first-generation Indian-Americans who were born in this country but burdened and confused by the strong Indian values thrust upon them by their parents.

“Oh, he’s such an ABCD,” we would say dismissively, referring to someone who looked Indian but acted American.

Yet, now, here we were, rearing ABCDs ourselves.

ABCDs who would eventually view us disparagingly as “Fresh Off the Boat(FOB)” parents who knew zilch about American culture, rap music and proms.

“I would hate to spend the rest of my life with a FOB,” my American-born, Indian-parented niece said whenever the subject of marriage came up even though she considered herself ‘Indian.’

We called them ABCDs, they called us FOBs. Who were we really?

We had arrived in this country, carrying little but our wits, and then clawed, scrambled and fought our way to decent positions in respectable professions. We had grabbed our share of the American dream and ensconced ourselves in its soil. Now that we were part of its populace, we had little to fight for, but hadn’t yet lost our stray dog spirit. So we jockeyed and practiced against each other, dropping names, developing new interests, joining non-profits like the American India Foundation and giving money to fashionable charities. In this, we were still the immigrants who had something to prove–to each other and the world. Yet, for all the assimilation, our current personas were sometimes at odds with our past.

I realize that this is my problem. Many people shrug off their origins for reasons that have nothing to do with migrating to another country. Even within America, people from the South may shed their accents and people from Hawaii may have nothing to do with beaches or the surf. Others change their accents to become news anchors; their names to become models; and hide their sexual preference when applying to the armed services.

They change their identity and are the happier for it. You can’t be imprisoned by your past, they say, and I agree wholeheartedly. But when an Indian does this, I take it personally. Because I am part of the land where he comes from, I feel bad when he disassociates himself from it.

Even those that proudly display their origins end up having to watch it being rubbed off from successive generations. In my own case, the most painful example of this disconnect occurs when my mother recounts stories from Indian mythology and my daughter prefers to watch the Cartoon Channel. Or when my daughter speaks English and my parents can’t understand her accent.

“What is she saying?” they ask, gazing at me confused.

“My own mother can’t understand my daughter,” I think in theatrical despair as I translate.

This disconnect is happening in India as well–the youngsters play pool while their parents play cards; college students patronize pubs in Bangalore even though their parents don’t drink; teenagers listen to rock bands instead of native Indian music. This, I suppose, is what is called generation gap. But in the case of Indians in America, the gap has perhaps become a gaping hole.

It was late at night when we hopped on to a cab. I leaned back exhausted.

“These Indian parties really get to me,” I said. “We are such pretenders,” I said. “The whole lot of us—with our foreign affectations and faux accents when what we really do is go home and eat dal-chaval (rice and dal) everyday.”

“Why can’t we be both?” Ram asked. “Indian and American. Indian-American.”

“An ABCD, you mean?”

“Not necessarily. American for sure, but not necessarily Confused. The best of both worlds.”

I shook my head. “Doesn’t exist. India and America are too different. Best of both worlds leads to confused kids. Best of both worlds is a prescription for an ABCD. You have to pick a country; you have to make a call.”

“I disagree.” Ram’s voice rose. “Being cosmopolitan is not a bad thing.”

“Being cosmopolitan is all very well for adults with set identities. It is a disaster for young children,” I said.

“That’s not true,” Ram said.

There was silence. We turned away from each other.

“It is true,” said a voice from the front. Our cab driver was looking at us with interest through the rear-view mirror.

“It’s true,” he said, nodding his head emphatically. “Raising kids in foreign country is no good. That’s why I sent my wife and kids back to Nigeria last year.”

“Thank you for your comments but….” Ram began testily.

“Hear him out,” I interrupted.

“This culture very different from African culture,” the man continued, clicking his tongue. “Here it is…what you say…sex, drugs and rock & roll, no?”

I smiled and nodded.

“Send your wife home,” the Nigerian cab-driver advised. “Nice life in India. Hare Krishna Hare Rama!” He grinned.

Ram rolled his eyes.

“Look, if giving Ranjini Indian values, whatever they may be, is so important to you, then do something,” Ram said. “Rather than hankering for something which doesn’t exist.”

“I will,” I said as we got out of the cab. “I am taking her to the temple tomorrow.”

I wasn’t surprised that motherhood changed me. After all, I, an avowed agnostic had suddenly started taking my child to the Hindu temple in Flushing, Queens so she could become exposed to her faith. What surprised me was that motherhood changed my attitude towards America. Until then, America had been a welcoming land where I had spent ten glorious years being young and free. It had denied me nothing because of the color of my skin or the foreignness of my character. Indeed, it had allowed me to fly and freed me from the constraints of my homeland.

After my child was born, America became my daughter’s birthplace, her homeland, and I held it to higher standards. I wanted it to accept Ranjini, but–irrationally, perhaps–I resented that she would always be a minority. I didn’t want Ranjini to think like a minority, to carry a chip on her shoulder and feel compelled to try harder like I did. I wanted her to have the ease of entitlement, the confidence of knowing that this was her country, because it was. I wanted her to believe that she would have equal opportunities here; that she was just like the other kids.

So I began to look at other parents, particularly Indian parents to figure out what techniques the successful ones adopted. Ram and I had many nephews and nieces who had grown up in America, and I talked to them about growing up as an Indian-American.

Two years into the process when Ranjini was about five, it became apparent to me that Ranjini would not be a typical American kid. She was American by birth, but couldn’t escape being Indian, not because of the way she was but because of the way her parents were. Ram and I were too Indian. We enjoyed America but had not been able to leave India behind. Because of us, Ranjini would be always be the other, the outsider, the minority, the “Indian” kid. She would be Hindu and vegetarian because we were. She was doomed to spelling out her strange-sounding name because we had thought it pretty and named her so. She wouldn’t escape Indian culture because we surrounded her with it.

Ram’s attitude towards parenting was more sanguine. He believed that as long as we gave Ranjini a stable home and basic values such as honesty, compassion and equanimity, she would turn out fine.

“You are over-analyzing things,” he told me often. “There is no magic cause-and-effect for parenting. It is more like a crap shoot. You do what you can and hope for the best.”

“That’s not true,” I said. “I want Ranjini to believe that the world is her oyster, that she can become anything she wants including the President of the United States.”

“You really want her to become President?” Ram asked. “Like Clinton?”

“Not really, but I want her to believe that she can. I want her to believe that she can walk in space and touch the moon,” I said.

“That’s great,” said Ram. “But how do you propose to impart all this confidence and make her humble and respectful to elders like a good Indian child?”

I pursed my lips. He was mocking me.There was a lot I needed to figure out. Cross-cultural parenting was harder than I thought.

At the corner of 66th Street and Columbus Avenue, a stone’s throw away from Lincoln Center, is a tiny stand named Priscilla’s Pretzels, manned by an old woman who looks to be of Eastern European descent, perhaps Polish. I had always assumed her name was Priscilla, although the stand could have been named after her mother or daughter.

I passed Priscilla’s Pretzels several times a day– on my way to the subway, after dropping off and picking up my daughter at her preschool, on my way to pediatric appointments, and when we walked together as a family to Lincoln Center during the summer for outdoor concerts.

“Hi Priscilla!” I would say as I passed her and she would wave back. I hadn’t made a single purchase from her stand for I disliked pretzels, but I didn’t think she held that against me.

On that cold February afternoon, a few hours after I became a US citizen, I passed Priscilla again as I walked back home. It was still snowing. Wisps of smoke came out of her stand as she wrapped a warm pretzel and handed it to a customer.

On an impulse, I stopped. It was a momentous day in my life. I felt exuberant, yet strangely weary. I was embarking on a new chapter and wanted to share the news with someone. Priscilla, I felt, would understand. She too was an immigrant, and had probably undertaken a similar journey. We shared a longing for America emulsified by a deep aversion for the INS. Or so I believed as I stood before her holding out some bills.

“I became a citizen today, Priscilla,” I said.

“Congratulations!” she said, slathering some mustard on my pretzel. She waved away my money. “It’s on me,” she said. Her accent was hard to decipher.

“Thanks,” I replied. “No more dealings with the INS.”

“That’s right,” agreed Priscilla.

“No more waiting for green card and visa extensions.”

“Absolutely,” said Priscilla. “Now it’s time to go back home.”

I laughed. “Sure,” I drawled. “Work hard to become a citizen, and then turn right back and go home.”

“That’s right,” said Priscilla. “Family is family.”

“Is your family back home?” I asked. I still couldn’t tell where she was from.

Priscilla nodded. “Every single one of them. I’ve been in this country 22 years but not a day goes by when I don’t think about them.”

“I know,” I said, nodding. I knew.

“Thanks a lot,” I said, holding up my pretzel.

“Bye, Priscilla.”

“My name isn’t Priscilla,” she said. “Priscilla is my daughter.”

“Sorry,” I apologized.

It was only when I reached home that I realized I still didn’t know her name. So Priscilla she would remain, at least in my mind.

“Now it’s time to go back home.”

Priscilla’s words haunted me. It wasn’t the first time I had heard them or even thought them myself.

Every time the going got tough with the INS, I would question my intent to stay in America. “What am I doing here?” I would think. “Is this worth it?”

But there had always been the seemingly unattainable next step to aspire to, the next challenge. Mount Holyoke, graduate school, getting financial aid, getting a job, applying for a work permit, getting a green card, and finally, after 15 years, becoming a US citizen. I had been propelled by a drive that I hadn’t questioned. I had been so busy getting to the next step, running up the spinning wheels that I didn’t bother to check where they were leading me. Now that I had finally “made it” as an American citizen, what next? How now to make meaning out of my life?

Staying the course was easy; inertia, easier. Dreams were prettier when they remained just that– blowsy, diaphanous and distant. The minutiae of living cut into the examination of a life. Until something or someone broke the cycle…as Priscilla had done for me.

Note: Shoba Narayan and her family moved back to India in May 2005. And then, a black man with an Islamic middle name got elected President and the world changed. Shoba wonders if she would have moved back had the Obama era began much earlier.

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About Sandi Sonnenfeld

Sandi Sonnenfeld is a fiction writer and essayist. Her memoir, This Is How I Speak (2002: Impassio Press), which recounts how her views about what it means to be a woman in contemporary America changed after suffering a dangerous sexual assault, was a Booksense 76 finalist. With the memoir’s publication, she was named a 2002 Celebration Author by the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, which recognizes writers whose work merits special notice. Sandi has published more than two-dozen short stories and essays in Sojourner, Voices West, Hayden’s Ferry Review, ACM, Raven Chronicles, Necessary Fiction, Perigee, Revolution House and The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review among others. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Sandi holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Washington, where she won the Loren D. Milliman Writing Fellowship. She currently resides in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and the world’s most perfect cat.