Monday, December 17, 2007

Body in America, heart in Kerala

Malayali immigrants in America are torn between the loss of roots and the desire for a comfortable life

By Shevlin Sebastian

“Most of the Malayalis in America lead a sheltered life,” says A.G. Alias, 71, an American-based psychiatrist, who was in Kochi recently. “That means, they do not cross boundaries. For example, in New York, they will not go to a high crime area like Harlem.”

He says the Malayalis, most of whom belong to the upper middle class, prefer to move around with other Malayalis and tend to associate with white, black or Hispanic Americans only at the work place. Not everybody agrees. The California-based engineering manager, Biju Abraham, 39, says he knows of Malayalis who have very good American friends.

However, it is not easy to be assimilated in a foreign country. Initially, when Malayalis go to America, they suffer from homesickness. “But once they have lived there for six months, they begin to enjoy the material comforts and the ease of travel,” says Alias. “Road congestion or broken roads are rare and there is no overpopulation”.

And, where earlier, they would feel nostalgic for the culture of Kerala, now it is easily available, like turning on a tap. They can access Asianet and Surya television channels, the latest Malayalam music and films are available on DVD, the newspapers can be read on the Internet and at the local Indian stores, you can get tapioca, pappadams, bananas and masala powders.

Says Suresh Pulikara, 41, an IT manager in California: “Every other week we get to see a new Malayalam movie at a cinema hall in the Bay area. And there are a couple of fine Malayali restaurants nearby.” Alias says the Malayalis have created their own Keralas in America. “They no longer miss out on what is happening back home,” he says.

But all is not smooth sailing. When their children grow up and become more American than Malayalis, the parents have a mixed reaction. “They would like to raise children like the way they were brought up in Kerala, but they know they can’t do that,” says Alias. “It eats into them, but, eventually, they learn to adjust.”

Suresh Pulikara is not sure whether there is any need to feel upset. “Even in Kerala the new generation is not growing up like the old generation,” he says. “If our children have to grow up in America, it is best to be an American, rather than an ‘American-Born Confused Desi’”.

When asked about the reaction of a first-generation American Malayali if their son or daughter married a black or a white American, Dr Sudhirdas Prayaga, 43, the CEO of a biotechnology company, says, “They will get upset. Most of the first-generation are Malayalis at heart and would want their children to marry within the community.”

Anish Nair, 36, an engineering manager, says that having a non-Indian son or daughter-in-law is not an easy thing to accept. “It needs a lot of compromise and adjustment on both ends,” he says. “I would try to influence my kids to opt for an Indian spouse, not because I am prejudiced, but because culture and values play a prominent role in our lives. That said, I would still respect the wishes of my kids.”

With this complicated attitude towards life of the first generation, does the second generation have any problem in adjusting to life in America? “The second generation has turned out well,” says Alias. “Around 75 per cent do well in academics. Most of them don’t break laws or get arrested, or take drugs. And they mix easily with other Americans.”

The New York-based schoolteacher, Sheeba Jacob, 29, a second generation Malayali, says she has found a comfortable niche in the United States and, at the same time, she is “proud to be Indian, a person of colour, and a child of immigrants”.

Growing up in the United States, she was surrounded by Gujaratis, Punjabis and Tamilians. “I learned to appreciate these different groups,” she says. “Recently, my friend cooked a Diwali dinner and when I looked around the room, I saw this landscape of Indian people from all over.”

Sheeba sounds comfortable in her own skin, but is the first generation also comfortable? As they grow older, do they feel a sense of loss regarding their roots? “The loss is getting less because when they go back home, they find that most of their friends or relatives have died or gone elsewhere,” says Alias “The connection to Kerala becomes brittle.”

So, for the older generation, it could be a difficult experience: their links with their home state become tenuous and they are not fully assimilated into American society, what with their segregation and hyphenated identities: Indian-Americans.

So, in the overall context, is emigration good or bad? “The pluses are better opportunities, high job satisfaction and a better standard of living,” says Prayaga. “The minuses are a moral bankruptcy. We miss the social interactions of Kerala and the children miss the presence of grandparents and relatives. Since life in America is fast-paced, there are fewer family get-togethers.”

Suresh Pulikara begs to differ. “All of us Malayalis gather at one of our friend's place for festivals like Onam, Easter, Christmas and Vishu,” he says. “This helps us to keep in touch with our culture and also gives an opportunity for our children to mingle with other Malayali children.”

Sheeba, of the second generation, has another perspective: “Whenever an immigrant group moves from one location to another, there is bound to be cultural gaps. Things get lost in translation. The key is to keep an open mind and be tolerant towards everyone.”

Alias is not sure whether emigration is good or bad. “The best deal would be for the Malayalis to go to the USA, spend a few years there, save some money, learn something new, and then come back. That would be beneficial for the individual and the country.” But, unfortunately, this does not happen. He says that less than five per cent come back.

Biju Abraham says the main reason people do not want to come back is the high standard of living. “You cannot understand how good the quality of life is in America, unless you live here,” he says.

Meanwhile, Alias, in the autumn of his life, does suffer from a stab of regret. “The Indian tax payer spent so much money so that I could get a good education,” he says. “The country expected me to serve it. But since I went away forever, India did not benefit. I feel guilty about this.”

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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