October 23, 2020
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The Two Sides Of A Hyphen

I'm Indian, but my son isn't. He was born in the US, and, in accordance with US law, automatically granted American citizenship...In the eight years he has spent there, he has been brought up as an Indian-American...I've often wondered how to raise h

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The Two Sides Of A Hyphen
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I’m Indian, but my son isn’t. He was born in the US, and, in accordance with US law, automatically granted American citizenship. And so, as a matter of convention, in the eight years he has spent there, he has been brought up as an Indian-American, a hyphenated moniker he has neither had the capacity to understand nor the experience to appreciate.

I’ve often wondered how to raise him: how to maintain a sense of equilibrium between the two sides of the hyphen. This dilemma seemed almost existential when we were in the US. I wanted him to understand why his skin was brown, why his name didn’t sit easy on his teacher’s tongue and why we didn’t go to church but instead worshipped a ten-armed goddess on a lion on a convenient weekend rather than a specific holiday. The forward tilt probably got reinforced as he picked up cues from our Indian friends who would come over for the occasional potluck parties in the US. If not for the gathering of similar looking brown-skinned people with heavy accents and the perennial confusion between their "V’s" and "W’s", a healthy amount of time amongst the invitees was devoted to criticizing American foreign policy, its culture of consumption, its covetous capitalism and its declining morality. I suppose it was cathartic to vent about a society where we lived and prospered, but didn’t feel integrated. How could we when our role in the consciousness of that nation was confined to being motel owners or gas attendants? Recently, a new phenomenon called outsourcing, had left us with the epithet of ‘high tech job-stealers’— a tag as desirable on our community as a leech on one’s skin. Without political clout, without representation, we were left to commiserate amongst ourselves within the confines of our homes, the predominant sentiment being that our motherland had so much right with so much wrong, while our adopted country, despite having so much right, wasn’t what it was touted to be.

However, ever since we’ve moved back to India and concerns about cultural chauvinism have eased from my mind, I find myself debating the issue about the two sides of the hyphen even more fiercely than before. I am missing that satiety that I thought I’d have upon seeing my son being raised amongst his own. As expected, now-a- days he likes cricket more than baseball, he thinks of football and soccer as being the same thing, mumbles Bollywood songs that he doesn’t understand, and looks forward to celebrating Holi rather than Halloween with his friends.

Then why the disquiet in my heart?

I suppose it comes from the concern that when he’ll return to the US in a decade or so— as he no doubt will to avail of the superb higher educational system in American Universities that I had benefited from— he might face the same alienation that I did when I had first stepped on those distant shores. Was it unfair on my part then to let him only have a second hand experience of the country he was born in and belongs to? Wouldn’t I have done him a disservice by turning his citizenship into paperwork, making him an immigrant in his own country?

Thus, paradoxically, I find myself making a conscious effort to balance the scale while we are in India, weighing the America side of things so that the hyphen bears down to the right and reminds him of his other identity. When relatives and friends come around to congratulate us for making the move, often bad mouthing American foreign policy or it’s hedonistic society in the same breath, I’ve found myself defending America during these instances, telling them that much of their impressions are drawn from Hollywood or the sensationalistic international press feeding off the tendency of Americans to wash their dirty laundry in public. What about racism they ask me. What about it, I ask, making my case that discrimination exists in every society. If anything, American consciousness prickles to its insinuation with greater sensitivity than anyone else’s, and their laws against it are certainly more watertight than ours. Americans are selfish and live for themselves not for their children they claim. Have they ever attended a Parents Teachers Association meeting, I ask them? But their divorce rates are ten times ours and their children suffer because of this. I shrug and accept the argument, never voicing my opinion that such discrepancy exists because Indian women choose to suffer in silence. What about Iraq… the great American misadventure that has cost thousands of innocent lives? Of course it is a travesty… I tell them, but drawing inferences about a culture and a society from the country’s foreign policy is as fallacious as the American conclusion that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq from a few satellite photos of broken trailers and aluminum tubes.

I’ve watched my son follow these discussions with his big probing eyes, perhaps indirectly registering my subliminal message in his eight-year-old brain. More directly, I’ve reminded him how lucky he is that his American passport will allow him visa free travel through much of the first world and that he will never have to suffer the ignominy of standing in serpentine lines outside consulates while worrying about tricky questions from shifty consular officers. We’ve looked over books on American presidents and discussed Lincoln’s assassination with the same drama as Abhimanyu’s bravery. I’ve made a conscious effort to keep him abreast of the 2008 American presidential race and reminded him that people look to the US for inspiration about the greatest concept of people’s empowerment otherwise known as a democracy. And occasionally when he hits a superb cricket shot all the way to the boundary and shouts ‘home run!’ I’ve chosen not to correct him.

The paradox boiled down to the morning of November 5th when he and I sat watching Barack Obama give his acceptance speech on television. Here was a man with a decidedly unusual name, born of a white American mother and a Kenyan father, brought up by his grandmother and step-father in places as far flung as Hawaii and Indonesia; a man who had just shattered the racial glass ceiling with dignity and a fierce belief in himself, and was now getting ready to step into the most powerful office on earth, carrying on his young shoulders not just the hope of Americans but the entire world — while, in my own country, brown skinned people were killing fellow brown skinned people because some were from the north and some wore skull caps while praying. And that’s when the answer struck me and I knew what I had to teach my son to be. A good human-being. Human-being: with five letters on each side, the perfectly balanced hyphen. Actually, according to my spellchecker, we can get rid of the hyphen altogether.

My moment of epiphany was short lived. When I told my son that he should take immense pride in Obama’s victory, he nodded his head and said he knew why. Wasn’t it because Barack Obama was African-American and not simply American?


Anirban Bose is the author of  Bombay Rains, Bombay Girls


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