The Life of an Indian-American Teenage Girl.
December 20, 2001 9:08 AM   Subscribe

The Life of an Indian-American Teenage Girl. A friend sent me this link and I felt quite sad reading it. Agreed, the teen years are cruel to everybody. But, it seems like the unique constraints that are placed on member of a minority community(especially with first-generation parents) can uniquely exacerbate the angst. I was particularly taken by one statement- "Although you have the ideals and values of an American, you look like an Indian". What advice would you give this sixteen-year-old?
posted by SandeepKrishnamurthy (16 comments total)
I'd advise her to get used to it. My Indian-American friends in college reported ongoing parental harassment over pretty much everything.
posted by crunchburger at 9:57 AM on December 20, 2001

Been there. Done that. Not to sound flip, but every first or second generation kid of immigrant descent goes through this. I remember growing up as an Indian-American teen in the 80s thinking that no one could possible understand what I was going through. Guess what, there are hundreds, if not thousands of others like you experiencing the joy and pains of growing up in two cultures. Trust me, once you've had some time for perspective you'll see it wasn't so bad. Besides, it makes for great party conversation.
posted by turbanhead at 10:17 AM on December 20, 2001

Well the thing is that Indian-American children get labelled as ABCDs (American Born Confused Desi) right from the start, worse part is as they get older most of them actually earn the title. I've seen this happen with a few of my relatives. I've only met 3 people who were the first generation Indian-Americans, and yet were not culturally confused. I guess it all depends on the parents, if the parents can manage to find a perfect balance in between the two cultures, the kids turn out fine.
posted by riffola at 10:19 AM on December 20, 2001

> It is that although you have the ideals and values of an
> American, you look like an Indian. Don't get me wrong.
> There's nothing bad about looking Indian. It's just that
> even if you are beautiful in an Indian way, you're not in
> an American way. The standards of beauty radically
> differ.... Can somebody tell me exactly how a person is
> supposed to fill both those requirements?

It probably won't mean anything to an American teenager of any ethnic background until a certain degree of maturity sets in, but it's better to be aware that cultural requirements of this sort are 90% arbitrary and meaningless than it is to be unaware of the culture you swim in, as a fish is unaware of the water. Falling between two cultures, one is at least explicitly aware of both of them, while those safely ensconced in one or the other can remain unconscious.

Knowledge and mindfulness are better, though harder. "Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our mind..." -- Bob Marley

> Most Indian girls I know, get guys on the basis of their
> scintillating wit and personality. To get the same number
> of guys as your average bleached blonde, the poor girl
> has to be three times as pretty, to make up for
> her "exotic" qualities.

Also -- dare I suggest it? -- if a girl has problems with the cool crowd because of certain "exotic" qualities she possesses, might she consider looking for social contacts amongst the guys who don't get to date the bleached blonds? Plenty of these around, and some of us actually bathe once in a while and have a trace of social skills, even if we do want to talk about Harappan civilization and partial differential equations instead of Friends...
posted by jfuller at 10:20 AM on December 20, 2001

I'd advise her to realize, firstly, that there's a range of attitudes of parents, and that not all of these can be ascribed to simply being an Indian immigrant. My father emigrated from India in the late 50s or so, and my youth and teen years were quite a different experience than those of the author's.

It's quite possible that my father was the exception to these sorts of attitudes; however, I've met a fair number of other Indian kids who had similar experiences to mine. I'd describe my childhood as one completely typical of other Americans, tinged only very slightly with Indian tradition (ie, we occaisionally went to eat at a Indian restaraunt, or my mom would make Chex mix with hot peppers) and mostly affected by 'first-generation son's syndrome'. That is, my father believed that life was for studying hard, and then getting a good, practical job that could support oneself in a nice lifestyle -- which is mostly good advice anyways (of course, they do get a bit disappointed when you end up getting a liberal arts education).

I realize that this is not always representative of the upbringing of all South Asian children -- but, of course, it's not always representative of the upbringing of ALL children. For example, I recall that my neighbor, who had red hair and was so fair-skinned as to get burned in the sun after ten minutes (I guess the point here being -- read: Anglo-American) was not allowed to watch ANY television except for PBS, was grounded constantly for the slightest of offenses, and was generally micromanaged by her parents throughout her youth (her mother even made her clothes for her up through high school -- which, of course, we all thought was damn cool -- "Custom clothes!!!" -- but she hated because they were *always* long sleeved and below the knee.) I don't think that the author's life is significantly different from many other Americans -- she may think her parents are horribly backwards, but everyone thinks that when they're 16. Anyhow, she'll have real difficulty changing her parent's attitudes, for whatever reasons they may be that way, but she's only two years from saying "Fuck you", if she wishes. I'm guessing, however, she won't be doing that, because the one thing that does seem to be common with Indian parents is they all pay or otherwise substanially fund their kid's way through college, which is welcome assistance I'm betting she won't want to reject.

She'd be better advised to resolve her own internal conflicts rather than worry about the influence of her parents on her life. She needs to stop cataloguing what American or Indian pop culture finds beautiful and figure out what she thinks is beautiful, and why and how she's also lovely. Also, I'd like to point out that although it sucks to have a weird non-Christian name in elementary school (my one huge source of, well, i guess pre-angst, since I was under 13), it really rocks later on.

Lastly, I'd like to point out that there's many people who have the ideals and values of an American, but look "different": Hispanics, Africans, Asians, Middle Easterners, Europeans, even Canadians (thanks guys, you've been great!). There really isn't any "American" look until you go overseas, and then people know you're American -- whatever you "look like" -- so don't worry: you actually "look more" American than you do Indian.
posted by fishfucker at 10:25 AM on December 20, 2001

As a person who works with teenagers every day, I was very impressed with the writer's ability to express her feelings and challenges. To her, I would say, "Do not feel alone. Although other teens may not have the biracial challenges you do, everyone in your age group is going through the same things you are. The fact that you are able to speak of it is a great and wonderful thing. Keep writing, as it gives hope to all of those who read your words and makes them feel that they are not alone. It also gains you inner strength to deal with any issues that come up in your life. And remember, the best thing about high school is that it only lasts 4 years."
posted by Lynsey at 10:28 AM on December 20, 2001

i am not sure for which part you think that she wants seems to me that she is basically sharing with the world a different perspective of an american kid with parents from india. she doesn't necessarily seem lost or unsure.

unfortunately she does seem as if she's losing the other culture, but that's something that is bound to happen to a child growing up here. advise? i dont have any to give her, but perhaps she will as i did, find more of the 'other culture' in college, perhaps she'll get curious and take classes and such...and see a different perspective of all this herself.

but, honestly, she sounds fine to me. it sounds as if she has good social suppport from friends who might be going through the same thing...this is a luxury that not all 'indian-americans' have...
posted by m2bcubed at 10:31 AM on December 20, 2001


Good point. Poor choice of words with "advice". I guess I should have said something along the lines of- "What would you tell her if you were her friend?"
posted by SandeepKrishnamurthy at 10:39 AM on December 20, 2001

i would tell her, for what it's worth, look to your friends, indian-american friends. use the help of your friends when faced with problems.

my experience as a wayward youngster was one filled with mistakes and a feeling of isolation and tremendous amount of questions of what is right and wrong. i hadn't really anyone to talk to. definitely not the parents, the last thing that a child wants is to worry the parents. definitely not my non-indian-american friends for they would then tell me that my parents were abnormally insane and overly protective...i hadn't anyone who could relate to my situation and the situation of my parents, and this girl seems to have people in her life who can.

regarding her comment of what's beautiful. she'll realize her worth as she gets older. as jfuller says, the worth is not decided by the few who like pamela lee types. there are quite a few people who actually abhor that type.

regarding the big issues, sex, drugs, etc., it's truly something that all children and all parents deal with. whether she is indian or not...also, please don't think that these problems don't exist in india (which according to my parents don't but according to the youth that i have talked to ...well sex and drug probs do exist there).
posted by m2bcubed at 10:55 AM on December 20, 2001

Get wealthy and no one will give a shit about who or what you are or where your patents are from...Money trumps hate and turns it into jealousy.
posted by Postroad at 11:30 AM on December 20, 2001

Please, I'm not Indian American, and every kid I knew pretty much thought their parents were too uptight, out of it, easy to lie to.

Most of the time the parents were probably more aware of what was going on then we would have liked to have admitted, but who wants to have that kind of conversation with their kids? Easier far all concerned to pretend you don't know what's going on. This doesn't seem to be a cultural thing so much as a teenage thing.
posted by willnot at 11:32 AM on December 20, 2001

She doesn't sound like she needs all that much advice - her head seems to be screwed on straight. She'll figure a lot of it out as she goes.

That said, I'd tell her that there's another way of looking at her situation. She can see it as good fortune, being in a position where she can pick and choose what she wants from either culture as she goes along.
posted by beth at 6:02 PM on December 20, 2001

Bleh. That artical certanly didn't live up to the first few sentances "this arical is about sex". I just wrote a huge paper about sexuality in Chinese culture (as seen through film). And that paper had nothing to do with sex. At all.
posted by delmoi at 9:55 PM on December 20, 2001

I don't think the article says anything new that was not already covered in the movies Mississippi Masala and American Desi, or written by Hanif Kureishi and Jhumpa Lahiri. I don't know if Tumpa Basu, the 16 year old writer of the article, is aware of these. She asks questions for which the answers are already given and widely available:
I was curious to know if it was just my admittedly strange family that acted like this, or if it was a more widespread problem. So I called other South Asian kids (mostly Indian) and asked them about their experiences in dealing with their parents and also dealing with their own sexuality.
I think she failed to see the answers because she looked at the wrong places. Part of problem might be her self denial of being an Indian.
My parents are Indian. I am not.
She does not take pride in being herself, but tries too much to assimilate into the GAP-Old Navy wearing melting pot.
There's nothing bad about looking Indian. It's just that even if you are beautiful in an Indian way, you're not in an American way. . . . To an American, beautiful means long and thin. To an Indian beautiful is short and voluptuous. Can somebody tell me exactly how a person is supposed to fill both those requirements?
On the flip side of the Indian movie star argument, while Om Puri, with his "heavily pockmarked face,"1 is considered "greatest living actor" in the West; is not a huge box office draw in his native India. The hypocrisy of beauty-talent pivot table swings both ways.

While I agree that some South Asian parents have no clue and usually are out of the loop:
Some South Asian parents pretend to assimilate, but since, a lot of the time, they're kind of out of the loop, they often tend to do it wrong. This of course shows exactly how out of it they are.
I think their children suffer from that same sort of faux sense of assimilation as well. Many first generation South Asians simply fail to appreciate the deep-rooted cultural similarities that exists between the East and the West. They buy into the corporate advertisement of assimilation and melting-pot mantra and try too much to blend into pop-culture. An Indian mother celebrating her daughter's "debut into society" is no different than the old-money families staging a Debutante ball.

I think Basu is right on the money when she says:
Strangely enough, in this society, South Asian parents have, in certain cases, gained even more control then they would have had in South Asia!
I think South Asian parents are peer-review freaks and are overly worried about how their other South Asian friends and relatives, both here and in homeland, would judge them in their parenting skills. This hawkish awareness for peer review results in the parents putting that much more pressure on their children to be 'goody-two-shoes.'

While I don't agree with her observation that:
Most Indian girls I know, get guys on the basis of their scintillating wit and personality.
but I give that it may be a by product of cultural courtship rituals. And many South Asians I know are dating someone on the basis of their looks, clothes and all sorts of materialistic reasons. I agree with her observation that:
An Indian boy will go after American girls, thinking that they're more fun. The poor Indian girl will have to wait till the Indian boys begin to think of marriage.
In my high school, the South Asian girls who dated, went out only with other South Asian boys. The South Asian boys who wanted a guarantee of extra bases, went out with non-South Asian girls. College is a bit different. Guys want to experiment with the 'exotic.' Many South Asian girls have non-South Asian boyfriends. Only those girls seeking a serious relationship, something that develops into marriage, tries to date 'perfect for taking home to parents, prospective trophy husband' South Asian guys. Admitted South Asian guys mostly date other South Asian girls while the closeted South Asian guys (some born here; or came here at an early age; or fresh off the boat with accent intact; but running away from the curry powder smell, that despite denials, lingers around them) date mostly non-South Asian girls. I know a few who keep insisting that they are either Persian or Egyptian for no good reason.

She will graduate in a year and a half and head off to college. I am sure the number of her suitors will increase exponentially once she is in college. They won't mind if she looked 'Indian' or 'American.'

While talking (and/or acting on) sex/sexuality maybe a taboo topic in most South Asian families, statistical numbers dealing with such issues expose a vastly different 'truth.' I have not seen the report myself, but I was told of a report from researches into AIDS/STD proliferation conducted by the World Health Organization found that less than 30% of the males in India, Arab and other Asian Muslim countries were virgins at the time of first marriage. WHO researchers were not allowed to ask questions to the females in the Muslim countries. The 'less than 30%' number is comparable to virginity statistics from the West. Given the absence of statistical data on the females of these regions, I guess the Arabs or the Pakistanis would have you believe that it is one single very hard working Christian whore in Karachi who is taking the virtue of their otherwise religious male population. Unless of course they are losing it to women of similar ethnicity and background as they are. The runaway STD/AIDS and abortion numbers of India would indicate that the land of Kama Sutra is not as prude as its expats would like everyone else to believe.

And while more Americans are starting their sexual lives at an increasingly earlier age, the teen pregnancy rates of America and India are more or less comparable. One major difference being that a greater number of Indian teens with children are more likely to be married with a likely source of income to support the newborn, while a overwhelming majority of American teens with babies are unmarried and in uncertain waters about any steady source of funds to raise their kids with. Sometimes statistical numbers show how similar everyone really is.

I think she is overly concerned about the prospect of being arranged married and buys into the Western pop-culture arrange-marriage phobia. I have always viewed arrange marriage to be similar to a very very long blind date. I maybe biased with my assessment. Men generally would hump anything that would let them, women on the other hand . . . well, they know what they'll hump. Dr. Michael C. Kearl of Trinity University agrees with me that arrange marriage phobia is over-rated.
. . . having cohabited with one's eventual spouse produces little difference in the marital satisfactions of women. For men, regardless of their previous marital history, those not having cohabited are significantly more likely to report being very happy than those who had.2
I am amazed that as some of the more culturally astute Indian women in America have gone back to embrace traditional Indian values (albeit with a modern twists), Basu is shying away from her heritage.

Award winning writer Shoba Narayan came to America at age 20 to study at Mount Holyoke college having graduated from Women's Christian College at Chennai. She eventually earned a Masters degree from Memphis State University and became a house wife after being arranged married to an Indian investment banker in Connecticut. In 1995 she visited Israel having won a Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship from Columbia School of Journalism. After ten years of American clothes, she experimented with Sari for a month and wrote about her experience in Newsweek.
It wasn't just for my daughter's sake that I decided to wear a sari. I was tired of trying to fit in.3
She liked wearing Sari for a month. Indian cabbies raced to pick her up when she tried to hail a cab. People treated her with respect. Some tourists thought she was one as well. She goes on to write in her Newsweek piece that despite the American living, at heart and practice, she was still and Indian, feeling at home with Hindi and Tamil songs and Indian food.
It was time to flaunt my ethnicity with a sari and a bright red bindi on my forehead. I was going to be an immigrant, but on my own terms. It was America's turn to adjust to me.3
She went back to her shirts and khakis, mostly because those clothes are vastly more convenient for a New York living.

San Francisco based Shalmali Pal, on the other hand, was born and raised in America by parents who immigrated here from Kolkata 30+ years ago. Unlike assimilist Indians, she wants to preserve her cultural heritage.
Preserving my cultural heritage or maintaining a link to a homeland my parents have fought to preserve.4
She has also revised her personal concepts of arranged marriage.
I grew up on the prevailing notion that first comes love, then comes marriage. Fast forward 20 years and I'm singing a slightly different tune.4
And her reason is extremely utilitarian.
But in the end, I'm just lazy. Marrying an Indian means a lot less explaining . . .4
She goes on to explain how arranged marrying another Indian would mean less cultural frictions and a less tiring marital life. While she has not allowed her parents to blindly set her up with 'prince charming,' she has agreed to them setting up occasional meetings with prospective 'ideal husbands.' This is similar to match making practices seen in Jewish communities.

[Sorry I can't link to the Newsweek articles by Narayan and Pal. I only remembered reading an article with a photo of a Sari clad woman. After flipping through pages of one year's worth of Time magazines, I realized that based on type settings and article placement, it was more likely that the articles would be in Newsweek. I found them after browsing through two and a half years of Newsweek in microfilm. I am providing enough bibliographic references for you to find them on your own.]

What advice should I give a teen age Indian girl?

Well, I don't know. I can't think like them. I don't know what is in the mind of girl, Indian or other wise. If I could read a girl's mind, I'd be Rasputin reborn. In other words, I just don't connect. Then again, I am habitually a mama's boy (maybe less so to my own mother), constantly towing the party-line when it comes to matters of family values. I am so much a mama's boy, I even look like one (what ever that 'look' is). Even strangers just leave their mothers with me. Once, while waiting on line for Yankees World Series tickets, Michael, a guy I met online, just looked at me and said, "dude, I'm leaving my mom with you and gonna go try to call up TicketMaster with my girl." Michael's mom baked me cookies the next time we all were at the stadium. Another time a middle aged Chinese woman was lost at the 6 train platform in the Canal Street station. She was going home after some Chinese holiday festival, but didn't know from which platform to catch her train. She barely spoke any English. She wanted to go to 36th Street. Everyone else on the platform kept insisting she take the 6 train to 33rd in Manhattan, and walk over to 36th. I knew that the 36th Street station in Queens was in the middle of a Chinese neighborhood and was on the R train line. Seeing that she'd get lost even more if left by herself, I asked her to follow me through the tunnels from the 6 train to the R train platform in the Canal St. station and accompanied her on the ride to Queens. On the train she gave me some candies that looked like Christmas candies in shiny wrappers decorated with Chinese calligraphy. "You mom must be very proud of you," she said. "I'm sure she is, and will be even more if I ever match up to her trophy-child dreams," I replied. The Chinese woman assured me that my mom is proud as is and that she had raised a good son. All I can say is, it is a hell lot easier to be a mama's boy with about a thousand miles of physical distance in-between with my parents. I am not the right person to give any teen age girl any advice that she'd like.

I know I shouldn't pile on a sixteen-year-old. I am older and with a wider range of interests and access to more sources of information. At 16, I too was an idiot; which some would argue, I included, that I have never really grown out of.


1. Ansari, Zarminae. "My Son the Fanatic: Bland and Gloomy." The Tech V.119 No.30. 5 Aug. 1999.

2. Kearl, Dr. Michael C. Collection of Studies on the Life-cycle of Familial Relationships: America's Relationship Preferences. Sociology Tour Through Cyberspace.

3. Narayan, Shoba. "I wonder: was it me or was it my sari?" Newsweek 13 Mar. 2000: 12.

4. Pal, Shalmali. "Looking For My Prince Charming." Newsweek 15 Mar. 1999: 12.

Further Reading:

posted by tamim at 2:03 AM on December 21, 2001

tamim. footnotes?

I have a 2nd cousin who married an ... I guess ... ABCD. There were successive Christian and Hindu ceremonies on the same day. The bride had been part of an arranged marriage scheme, to take place after college graduation, but she finally decided she didn't want to marry him. I gather that some of her family supported her in this and some others ... did not.

Very sweet girl. She was American in every way but appearance; she'd been a cheerleader in high school.
posted by dhartung at 10:08 AM on December 21, 2001

"She was American in every way but appearance; "?

dhartung...what does this mean exactly and did you mean to say that? how odd...

did she wear a sari or a salwar khameez? did she have a dot on her forehead? and she was a cheerleader wearing all that?
posted by m2bcubed at 11:01 AM on December 21, 2001 [1 favorite]

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