Robin found a draft of this that I’d tried to write. It felt stuck and unfinished at the time, but he encouraged me to come back to it. The original reason I wrote it no longer exists, but maybe it is interesting anyway?
My Vietnam-born coworker brought her Chinese boyfriend to my wedding to my half-Indian husband. Later, she told me her boyfriend was “disappointed” because my husband doesn’t look Indian.
It was my first experience of the strangeness that goes with living in a multiracial household.
Eight years and three kids later, I am still trying to figure it out. To be blunt, our family looks white. Since my wedding, I have been explaining my Indian last name to many, many people who, if they’re not disappointed, are at least surprised when they meet my pale, freckled face for the first time. My husband at least has his father’s dark hair and eyes. Of our kids, only one even has that much.
I sometimes feel like I owe the world an explanation for our existence. We have a right to dress our kids in the clothes their auntie brought them from Delhi! We get what The Namesake character Nikhil means when he talks about his good name! We know what to order in an Indian restaurant! It’s part of who we are – even me, the Minnesota girl who used to think the bell peppers from Cub were too spicy. We are not usurpers, white people without a culture of our own, taking over one that doesn’t belong to us.
We don’t owe anyone anything, really, of course. Most people don’t care how we define ourselves, or if they do they are just interested and not judgmental. Which means it is my own hang-ups that are holding me back; a fact I’m ashamed of – my kids should be as much a part of their Indian heritage as they’d like to be. When it comes to it, they should be a part of the whole world – it should belong to them without reservation. We should celebrate my German ancestors, too, and we should learn about Ramadan even though we’re not the least bit Muslim.
In a sense, families like ours are a microcosm of one of the central conflicts of modern life: global, or local? My family can’t, without splintering, choose the food and festivities of only one culture and embrace it entirely. We go global or we don’t work. On the other hand, it’s awfully idealistic – possibly even undesirable – to say I want my kids “to be a part of the whole world.” What does that look like? Some kind of namby-pamby pan-everything Deepak Chopra-ism? Gross. Nobody wants to see their culture so watered down for mass consumption that it’s unrecognizable.
I think what I’d like for my kids is:
1) A knowledge of their ancestry. Who came from where, why’d they leave, what’s good and bad about that culture. Plenty of chances to witness and take part in the traditions of each of their “native” heritages.
2) An appreciation for other cultures and an open mind.
3) A critical mind. The United States’ “culture” and “heritage” have always been difficult to understand and define. They are, more than anything else, Americans. They’ll have to decide what that means for them.
4) Most important: a sense of belonging. No matter what they call themselves or their friends, no matter where they practice their faith or what they make for dinner, I want them to feel like they’ve found a community.
How do you and your family navigate through all this?