Sometimes I wonder if my parents would be more accepting of my queerness if we actually lived in India. While they probably wouldn’t have any prominent positive queer role models there (read: Ellen DeGeneres and Rachel Maddow), they also wouldn’t be so worried about “enforcing” Indian culture. When I was born, there were hardly many Indians in the US – and as such, there were no Indian cultural associations, no temples to attend poojas in, and no people to sing “Jana Gana Mana” with on August 15th. My mom will sometimes tell stories about how, as a newcomer to America, she couldn’t even find ginger or green chilies in the grocery stores, and she would have to attempt to make chutney for dosas with rosemary as a substitute. She’ll tell stories about how, when they moved to a new city, they would find the other Indians by looking the phonebook for Nair’s and Namboothiry’s because they were so starved from friends from “home”.
My parents left India more than 20 years ago, and still view “India” and “being Indian” as what that meant some 20-odd years ago. India has modernized, but my Indian parents have not. While I was born in the states, that means very little as far as who my parents expect me to be – they still expect a sati savitri daughter. While my cousins in India can wear mini-skirts, I’m barely allowed to go out in short sleeves. My one body piercing, when it was discovered, caused quite the uproar, followed by lots of praying on their part – and lots of eye-rolling on mine.
Add all that to being queer, and you’ve got quite a lovely mix.
In retrospect, I bore a lot of the brunt of their homesickness throughout my childhood. I started Bharatanatyam lessons at the age of 4, and even though we moved 3 times, my lessons never stopped. Even today, 3 years after I stopped dancing when I started college, if you Google my name, the search always turns up links to past performances. When Balavihar classes started being offered in my city, my parents would drive an hour, both ways, to take me to the community center downtown every Sunday for years, so I would learn my slokas by heart and do yoga with other Indian kids.
As the Indian community grew, so did the idea of what it meant to “be Indian” – it meant being a good student, a devoted child, and a perseverant scholar of either Carnatic music or tennis. Considering that I had no hand-eye coordination to speak of, the poor Indians of my city were regaled with my attempts to imitate the Carnatic greats every year at the annual music showcase. My parents let me do activities in high school based on whether other Indian kids had done them before me. When I applied to colleges and had my heart set on a small, private, Midwestern, Liberal Arts Women’s College, my parents were appalled. And because I had to be the devoted child, I’m now at the exact opposite – a large, west coast public university.
I wonder what life would have been like had we stayed in India. I wonder whether my parents would then believe that being queer and being Indian do not have to be mutually exclusive principles. I’ll never know, but I wonder. While it’s a gross oversimplification, I wonder whether my parents worked so hard to create a “good Indian daughter” that they never stepped back to think about what, exactly, constitutes a good child. After all, even my lesbian self can make a mean chicken biriyani 😉