American Journey

So how does the story of Ramayan play out with here in America?

America, levels the hierarchical structures of all new entrants into the society. The immigrants create a new reality, a new conditioning with some aspects of the past and some of the new. Compared to their counterparts in India, immigrant mothers face not only parenting issues but also the sense of "Indian-ness" they impart to their progeny. Their conditioning is distinctively flavored by their own family cultural dynamics as well as the external cultural environment. In this context one sees how much of a stronghold the characters of Ramayan have on the Indian psyche. Indian immigrants have turned to religion and spirituality in a big way, perhaps more than their peers in India. Maybe because they need something to hold on to in a different land!. And, the aging population is turning within.

Conflict occurs not only between a parent and a child, but within the parent who is trying to figure out the best way of dealing with the "Indian-ness". Often, parents themselves do not know what norms to apply to the children. In America, they ask themselves, how much exposure to "Indian beliefs and values" should a child have? How much is enough? What values are we passing on? What society are we bringing up our children to deal with? Each family goes through its own search for the desired balance where the unit can function within its internal and external environment.

I too went through the process. I exposed my daughter to as much Indian-ness as I knew. Dance, music, history, fundamentals of language whatever information I could get my hands on. I wrote a Ramayan skit and, of course, cast her as Sita. At that time, we did not have established Indian cultural centers. So we developed them as we went along. We also gave them exposure to ballet, piano, skiing, soccer and so on. I was able to expose her to culture for a while. When my daughter reached ninth grade, she turned to me and said her life was not India and Indian dancing. She was an American. So I have had to step back. A few years ago, Madras Doordarshan asked me why do so many NRI's teach their children Bharat Natyam? I answered because it is not only their way of exposing them to their ancestral heritage and culture, but also of helping them develop a sense of identity.

The immigrant parents are perceived to be a product of a society which calls for harmony of the entire community, not necessarily at the individual level. Ram sent Sita away sacrificing their personal happiness to do his duty as a king. So, many parents try to teach their children to adjust and adapt and accept what life brings because it is dharma. But the rules have changed and we need to adapt to suit our contemporary environment.

With the adult population of second generation, I see another internalized myth. Here, the notion of purity and chastity abounds at different levels. More Indian immigrant parents, here than in India, are afraid of the "immoral" American environment. Not having grown up here they do not know the system. They learn as the child grows. Their view of America is largely shaped through the television tube: drugs, alcohol, smoking, teenage pregnancy, pre-marital sex, poor grades in school, divorce, old-age retirement homes, et al. All the horrors of an "immoral" Western society!

In my opinion, the normal intergenerational tension is heightened by cross cultural issues. All problems become cultural. Whatever deviation from the "parental expectation" an Indian American person displays is automatically seen as cultural, that they are some how betraying their ethnicity, therefore, the parental identity and a sense of their own self. The negative stereotypes of the Sita message, that of a subjugated woman, are often very internalized. Yet, many mothers want their daughters to have more freedom, something that they may not have had. And, if there is no societal change, daughters may find they become more like their mothers.

As I researched, I found quite a few second generation know about religion and the popular version of the Sita. First of all, Diwali is celebrated every year. And, in New York in a grand style at the South Street Seaport. The story of Ramayan is retold and seeps into the Indian American psyche. Misperceptions of the Sita message are internalized. This sometimes creates internal conflict with their image of womanhood. The popular message among both young South Asian men and women is that a wife must be pure like Sita. This places a woman in a double bind. If she does not date she will not be able to choose someone of her liking. If she dates or has sex with too many men she is dubbed a "loose" woman. The general perception is that men know they have the option to have an arranged marriage with a "pure" idealized woman from India. South Asian women know they cannot opt for what they perceive to be a freedom curtailed arranged marriage. In reality this expression of purity and chastity appears at odds with the surrounding culture. I say appears because I have come to realize that most American parents want similar protection for their children. The difference is that their threshold of acceptance differs from the Indian Americans'.

I want to also point out that in the eyes of the Indians an Indian American is seen to be somehow sexually more freer. Many Indian men in India see the Indian American girls as less pure and chaste. These girls have been contaminated by the West.

Another message that the Second Generation men and women have inherited is the traditional version of Sita to obey the husband regardless. And, many younger South Asian women, the second generation, have seen transnational arranged marriages not work out. The culture around allows more of platonic physical contact than the traditional. A Namaste from afar is the normal Indian greeting. If a younger Indian American woman married to an Indian man hugs a male friend and kisses someone on the cheek, a traditionalist could consider her promiscuous. So the second generation women face a number of different beliefs: parents who want them to retain their culture - whatever that means, the overall culture around them which propels them to date and find their own mate and some Indian American men who don't want a "loose" woman.

The average adult second generation is in his or her twenties and thirties and now in their forties. There is enough of a mass now for like minded people to come together and explore issues. In the typical American way, they are forming their own support group. Recently a large group of South Asian men and women met to start a gender dialogue and understand the myths and realities of the stereotypes they hold of each other. I'll share a few quotes, "Women have moved ahead without our permission". "Women have moved ahead and we are not ready to handle their expectations." "Men think women should act one way and women want to reject it". "My parents don't understand dating".

So Sita is an integral part of immigrant Indian and Indian American womanhood.  Only by moving beyond the negative stereotyping can we see Sita as a woman who dealt with all challenging situations with dignity and grace