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Home > India > News > Columnists > B S Prakash

Understanding the hyphen in Indian-American

April 08, 2008

It was the super bowl night, when all real native Americans and by that I mean the non-desis, go crazy watching the American football game. Only real Americans understand it; you need to have at least gone to college here.

It is so alien with rules and timings tied to television commercials that foreigners are left totally mystified. On that night, in a small room next to the television room, me and my friend Sam, short for Shanmuganathan, were sitting glumly discussing Harbhajan in Australia. We were also extolling the virtues of Indian spinners down the ages from Prasanna and Venkataraghavan to Bhajji.

"What are you guys talking? We are going into the fourth quarter and you guys talk about some spin," said Kris irritably. Kris is Sam's son and is actually Krishnan Shanmuganathan. Not that anybody has ever called him by that name, not even his grandfather.

Sam sighed. The subtleties of leg-spin and googly were never to be grasped by Kris, he knew.

"Do you think that the next generation of Indian-Americans will follow cricket or will they only know baseball?" I asked, struck by this experience.

"How do I know? You are the one always talking and writing about identities," said Sam. "But what about our identity, that of the Indian-American?" he asked, plaintively.

That set me thinking. Yes, I had written about Neti Neti or Indian identity, even about What it means to be an American?, but not about the Indian-American.  

Is that a different and dynamic identity? You bet. The hyphen changes everything. It needs to be underlined, in fact, though that is a punctuational impossibility.

The Kannada poet and academic at the University of Chicago, the late A K Ramanujan had said quite some time back that he saw himself as the hyphen between Indian-American. His life and values had been shaped by his Indian heritage; his skills and academic rigour had been enriched by his American training. He had benefited by both sides of the hyphen. Today, multitudes are living this reality.

There are two ways of looking at this: the objective realities concerning the community, and the subjective perceptions of the community about its own identity.

There are over 20 million people of Indian origin in different parts of the world and around 2.3 million such people reside in the US. Are there some unique aspects which make a hyphenated identity possible in the US compared to elsewhere in the world? 

For instance, despite the large numbers of Indians in the Persian Gulf and notwithstanding the long duration of stay and their contribution to the host country, the preponderant majority of them can never be local citizens, will not be fully assimilated, not grow roots or contest elections.

They are quintessentially foreign and will always be 'Indians' and not Indian-Saudis, to take one example. There are sizeable numbers in continental Europe too, but apart from UK, factors of language, culture and tradition mark them as distinctive 'foreigners', even when citizens, in countries like Germany. 

There are other cases of the Indian migration: Sri Lanka, East Africa, Caribbean, Fiji, where the reality is different and far more complex, influenced by history, economics, and politics.

It would be fair to say that the process in the US is different. There are several reasons for this. The sizeable migration to the US is relatively new, largely starting from the mid-'sixties. Today,  the bulk are still the first generation immigrants and we are now beginning to see the second generation join the workforce in numbers, and the third generation as toddlers or kids in schools.

Second, America has modeled itself as the melting pot, as a country wherein everyone felt at home, irrespective of origin. While this was historically applicable to European immigrants, it is nevertheless true that it is easier to assimilate and join the mainstream in the US compared to many other societies. Despite the current heated debates about immigration, the fact remains that the US is comparatively an assimilative society.

Third, the English language and the familiarity with the ways of the US make this process even easier for Indians compared to some other major immigrants such as Mexicans or Vietnamese who have to struggle with the language.

Fourth, it is also a fact that a large flow to the US from India has been at a level where the newcomers had educational or professional qualifications. As a result of all this, the Indian immigrants were accepted, respected and were soon regarded as responsible and productive members of the community.

All this is not to deny that there are cases, thousands of them, who have come to the US, legally or illegally, to eke out a living and despite the hard work are at the lowest levels in terms of economic or social standing. But the average profile of the Indian in public perception in the US is not of an 'alien.'

Apart from these objective realities, what is the mindset of the community about the two components of their identity, the two nodes separated by the hyphen? At the risk of oversimplification I attempt some broad generalisations.

The Indian-American generally feels positive and confident settling down and growing roots in America. This ease and ability are especially true of his workplace and vocation. The work ethic, the easy informality, the respect for competence, the reward for hard work and the efficiencies in day to day living are all much admired and easily adapted.

More difficult are the social and the cultural aspects: worries about children, their attitudes to elders and family, their alienation from traditions, anxieties about dating and inter-racial marriages, individualistic or impersonal lifestyles are often spoken of as difficult aspects in the process of adjustment.

Much of this is generational. In the first generation there is nostalgia about India that has been left behind, the festivals, the food, the music and the movies. For the second generation some of these are esoteric attachments, not felt first-hand.

If there are ambivalent feelings about culture on the American side of the hyphen, what about the Indian side? Here too, it would appear that many factors are at work. Given the class and social background, most in the community have a sense of pride about their Indian heritage.

There may be feelings of frustration about India's ground realities and  repeated complaints about the woeful infrastructure, corruption in the system, the inefficiencies, the red tape etc etc, but notwithstanding all such cribbing about the State or the System, about India itself -- its history, heritage, culture -- there is a deep sense of ownership or belonging.

In the last few years, the changing image of India, its successes -- economic growth, technological prowess, the growing middle class -- have further lent cheer to the community. The Indian side of the equation is thus an inheritance that most cherish rather than view as a 'loss.'

The growing size of the community too changes the feelings. There is an ever-expanding physical footprint of India: the temples that dot the landscape, the impressive parades in major cities on national days, the spread of Indian restaurants and grocery stores by hundreds, the mushrooming yoga centers and meditation classes, and the ready availability of Bollywood. India has come nearer, if not already here.

With the passage of years and the growth in size, it is natural that the life of the settled immigrant is now a material for film or fiction. The appeal of The Namesake, the novel and the movie, both authentic in their own realms, marks a stage in the delineation of this identity to a wider audience.

It is evocative in its depiction of the opportunities that opens up first for Ashok-Irfan and later for Gogol-Kal Penn and at the same time the loneliness of Ashima-Tabu and the generational chasm.

The author of the novel, Jhumpa Lahiri, in an essay had spoken of 'the traditions on either side of the hyphen dwelling in her like siblings' intimately familiar with one another and 'of interpreting the constantly shifting equation' in her Indian-American experience.

Mira Nair -- the recent rightful winner of the India Abroad Person of the Year -- had even before The Namesake explored the complex immigrant experience in Mississippi Masala. We will continue to see many more interpretations of memories, melodies as well as maladies of this distinctive identity in the coming years.

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

B S Prakash is India's Consul General in San Francisco and can be reached at

B S Prakash