My So-called Jeevitham
by Lisa C. James
Part 1 of 3: From U.S. to India - The Struggles of Identifying with India While Growing up in America
(Links to part 2 and 3 at the end.)
Glossary (Yes, you might need it!)
Chaya – Black tea with sugar and milk
Chechi – respectful term to address an older female
Chorru - rice
Desi – term for someone from South Asia
Dosa – sourdough crepe made of rice flour usually eaten with curries
Jeevitham – Life
Salwar Kameez – traditional outfit worn by women consisting of drawstring pants under a long tunic.
Mundu – sarong-type clothing
Onam – a festival of Kerala
Tiffin – British Indian word for the container (usually stainless steel) in which you can carry a light lunch or snack.
Veetu Pairru – House Name
What am I?
I am not sure why my parents chose to name me “Lisa”. It is so American. And with the last name James. “What are you?” is a question I get asked frequently because my name and face don’t match. In fact, I am surprised if they don’t ask. If they knew my middle name, it would make sense my brown face would make sense. But my middle name/family name/veetu pairru is 15 letters long and doesn’t conform to American documents and forms. For the longest time, I didn’t even know how to spell it. Sometimes I feel like my middle name: very Indian, difficult to remember, hard to explain, abbreviated most of the time, and surrounded by American-ness on all sides.
My parents are from India, from the state of Kerala to be exact. Our family is Roman Catholic. The family legend is that we were one of the first Christian families in Kerala back when St. Thomas came in 52 AD. We hail from the ancient city of Kudangaloor and my mom’s family tree can be traced that far back. Of course, it is all documented in Malayalam and this meant little to me growing up partly because I didn’t read Malayalam and partly because I didn’t see how I fit into it. Essentially I was an American Born Confused Desi (ABCD). I could be the ABCD poster child. However, it wasn’t until I started school that I knew I wasn’t like the other American kids.
My Misspent Youth
Growing up, I felt like I lived in two different worlds: India at home and America at school. My dad wore a munda, we had chorru and curry for dinner every night, we spoke in Malayalam at home and went to a Malayalam mass once a month. However, away from home, I was surrounded by white faced- English speakers, non-Indian music, and non-Indian food.
I felt different and different is wrong when you are young. I felt like I had to hide the Indian part of me including how we lived at home. When I started school, I realized that there were Malayalam and British Indian words and slang I didn’t know the “American” word for. How was I supposed to know that what mom called a “slide” was actually a “barrette”? I remember telling my friend in school that I liked her “slide.” She looked at me bewildered and was probably wondering how I knew about the swing set in her backyard. That was in kindergarten. Little did I know that was just the beginning of my cultural missteps in the world.
From the very beginning, I tried to bring the two halves of my existence together. In first grade, I begged my dad to give me chaya in my Care Bears thermos because all the other kids thought it was chocolate milk. Everybody loved chocolate milk. My brown beverage tasted nothing like chocolate but at least it looked like it! Only I knew that it was just black tea with milk and sugar.
When we studied Native Americans in second grade, I told everyone my “Indian” name was “Dancing Butterfly” And they believed it. At seven, differences are external. I looked like one of “them” and everyone knew I was “Indian” so never mind which kind. I was just glad they were studying any kind of “Indian”. I suppose I felt I had to give myself an identity. I thought “Dancing Butterfly” was pretty creative and I felt proud to carry my fake name.
The rest of my elementary years and middle school years were spent pulling the same sort of cultural shenanigans. Mainly, I just wanted to belong.
When I got to high school, there were a lot more Indians in my classes. But, by then, I was almost too “American.” I only spoke English (even though I could both speak and understand Malayalam), I called my parents “mom” and “dad” (which they hated and still do), and I told my brother to stop calling me chechi (which he rarely does now and only when he’s being sarcastic). I was immediately drawn to the other Indian kids in class and my best friends were all Indian. I felt accepted for who I truly was. They grew up surrounded by other Indians and embraced the Indian side of themselves more than I did. I learned a lot from them and immersed myself in our version of Indian-American-ness. Yes, go to cultural events but be sure to talk like a valley girl and roll your eyes a lot. Sure, go to Little India on Harwin and be sure to buy Bollywood tapes with a lot of hip-hop beats. Eat Indian food but only at home. Dance to Indian music but only if it’s upbeat and vaguely American. Wear Indian clothes but with a lot of American accessories. And cardinal rule: don’t talk to FOBS*.
*FOBS: “Fresh off the Boat” in our lingo meant those Indians not born in the U.S or newly arrived from India. They could be distinguished from “us” by their attire (Indian clothes with tennis shoes or some other un-hip fashion statement) and verified and validated by their Indian accents. FOBS called us ABCDs and disliked us as much we disliked them. I am not completely sure why we wanted to be distinguished from this group. I think it’s because we truly thought we were different from them but honestly, it was just xenophobic. Most Americans didn’t like Indians. Indians talked weird, smelled like curry, and wore white tennis shoes with dress slacks. I think we feared the negative stereotypes of our culture and did not want to be seen in that light. And really, in high school too, it was all about being accepted and fitting in. Besides, we weren’t Indian. We were Indian-Americans. So, as some my friends would later ask, why would I want to go to a land full of FOBS?
Dark Days of December 1995
After I graduated high school, I went to the local university where the majority of my peers went. I didn’t know what to major in and all I really knew is that I liked to write. However, as my parents admonished, how can you make a living out of writing? So I majored in pre-pharmacy. Not as icky as pre-med or pre-nursing but still related to health care which everyone in my family seemed so proud of. According to my parents, health care was the way to go. I never liked chemistry or math and those were my worst subjects. So what was pre-pharmacy mostly comprised of? Chemistry and math, of course. Needless to say, I did horribly in my first semester.
My parents were shocked when they found out my first semester grades. I had failed both chemistry and math and was put on probation because my GPA dropped below the minimum requirement. The only classes I got As in were the literature classes. Unfortunately, my parents only saw the Fs. I had never failed any class before in my life and was mostly an A-student and so this shocked them beyond belief.
For a few days, the house was beyond silent. My parents didn’t know what was happening with me. Was I on drugs? Did I have a boyfriend who made me skip classes? Was I in a gang? Who were these college kids I was hanging out with? Never mind that I was a college kid myself. The truth was that it was none of those parents-worst-nightmares. However, I myself didn’t accept or understand the truth until much later.
That was probably one of the worst times in my life. I didn’t know who I was nor did I know why I was so unhappy. I didn’t know why I had given up. I felt lost and helpless and stuck. For years, my parents had protected me and advised me but, at 18, I didn’t want that anymore. Their opinions were not my opinions but I was too scared to object to anything they said. They were my parents and in our culture, you respect them and you obey what they say. I was a bad Indian daughter if I did not. However, there were so many things I wanted to do and none of them had to do with their expectations for me. In a way, failing the pre-pharmacy classes was my rebellion even though I hurt myself in the process. I was civilly disobedient. It was the only way I could tell them “No, this is not what I want.” I felt that my parents no longer knew what was best for me. However, I could not tell them that without dishonoring them.
In the darkest hours of those December days, I cried myself to sleep because I felt so misunderstood and without a voice. I had not only failed my parents but also myself. In those dark days, I prayed to God that if He got out me of this mess, I would never doubt His existence. God and my journal-ed prayers to Him were my only comfort. I felt that I had broken my parents trust though that was not my intention. I was deeply unhappy and I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t feel I had control of where my life was headed.
The conversations with my parents after my big flop of a semester was painful. My dad wondered if maybe I wasn’t cut out for college. Maybe I should just be married off to some guy from a decent Indian family. Why waste time and money if I just wasn’t even going to try? Finally, after silently staring at the floor in shame, I told them that it wasn’t school. I loved school. I loved learning. It was what I was learning that was the problem. I told them I wanted to study literature or maybe psychology but I wasn’t sure. Being unsure about your future plans was not something that was acceptable in our house. I don’t know how it came about finally but I was to sit out a semester and figure out what I needed to do.
===End Part 1===
Part 1 of 3: From U.S. to India - The Struggles of Identifying with India While Growing up in America
Part 2 of 3: India it is!
Part 3 of 3: Fighting Stereotypes and Embracing Identity
About the Author: Lisa C. James
Lisa C. James was born and raised in the United States. After completing high school, she attended a university in India. Her life was changed forever by that experience and it has been a cultural adventure ever since. She currently resides in California where she works at a university assisting new international students. She enjoys her present and keenly looks forward to the future.
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