The Global Dilution of Cultural Identity

I don’t think that our family was like other Indian families.  My parents didn’t constantly drag us around to the houses of other Indian families, nor did we constantly have to attend Indian social functions.  I really admire my parents for assimilating so well to American society.  For the most part, we grew up like other American kids that we went to school with.  We went to the movies, played board games, and growing up in Miami, we would drive out to The Keys and go fishing and snorkeling.

While my parents knew each other as acquaintances, they certainly did not know each other well when their parents agreed to have them married.  From what I understand either of my parents could have refused the arrangement, but they didn’t.  They moved to Hong Kong for a year so that my dad could work with an uncle on his side that had his own business.  That apparently didn’t work out, so they moved to Miami so that he could work with a friend of my grandfather on my mom’s side.

My parents were definitely “foodies”.  My dad grew up in a home in Mumbai where good food was important.  After they arrived in Miami my mom took it upon herself to learn how to cook extremely well.  So every night in our house there was a fully prepared 2 or 3 course meal the quality of which could match any restaurant out there.  They were quite social and would frequently entertain friends at the house and everyone would rave about the food every single time.  Their friends were of various cultural backgrounds which gave my brothers and I a very well-rounded view of the world, and made us all very confident conversing with a heterogeneous group adults from a very young age.

We weren’t a religious family either.  I knew that my parents called themselves “Hindus” but I really had no idea what that meant.  Every 2 years we would travel to India for the wedding of a cousin and inevitably that involved visiting a Hindu temple adorned with an abundance of flowers and paintings of Hindu Gods on the walls.  A man would read from a gigantic book while another would swing what appeared to be a wand with fluffy long hair at the end of it, which I later learned was to keep the flies away from the book.  At some point each of my brothers and I had a ‘thread ceremony’ which is something that we all have to do before we get married, but all of these rituals were more cultural than religious.

We were brought up to be good people.  Lying, stealing and cheating were all punishable offenses.  My parents were responsible members of society, donating money to feed the homeless and other noble causes.  We never went to feed people at a homeless shelter or anything like that, but nevertheless they were able to instill a sense of right and wrong, and giving back.  My parents lead by example, and my two older brothers and I all learned that life was a balance of hard work and play.

Just like any family though, we had our challenges.  There was a constant focus on academics which, now having a 6 and 7 year old of my own, I can totally understand.  But academics never came easy to me.  If I put in the time and effort into learning something, I would know it backwards and forwards, but it was a struggle for me to concentrate on learning math, history, or anything in a text book frankly.  When we had to read books for school, I would read as little as possible just so I could speak about the book without actually having to read the whole thing.  This inability to focus on one task with intensity carried over into many areas including music.  I really enjoyed played the piano for example, but it was a struggle to sit at the piano and practice the same piece of music until I knew it perfectly.  This would mean though that I would be just ok, or good at many different things, but not excellent in any one area.

This became a point of conflict with my parents.  They were of the belief that you should pick one thing and be excellent at it.  Now, at the age of 42, I can understand where they were coming from.  But I don’t believe that you can, or should, just pick something.  I believe you have to identify what you have a passion for.  I have a passion for listening to music, but am I passionate about learning how to play it?  No.  I enjoy it, but I don’t have a self-motivated drive to sit down and learn a piece of music for hours.  But I digress.

This point of friction with my parents, combined with the difficulties of growing up in Great Neck, pushed me into a state of depression for years.  It was the experience of living with a Spanish family in Tenerife during the summer of 1993 that blew my world open and where I would say I first felt a passion emerging.  The ability to converse in another language, to understand another way of thinking, and the exploration of another way of life lit a fire in me that I had never felt before.  Within the four weeks that I lived in Tenerife I absorbed a much of the language and culture as I possibly could, and was left with a hunger for more that I wouldn’t be able to feed until almost 4 years later during my junior year of college when I studied abroad in Sevilla.

The experience in Tenerife was a turning point in my life and set me down a path of no return.  After studying at the University of Rochester I worked for Accenture and PricewaterhouseCoopers for 3 years and was constantly looking for a way to use my Spanish skills, without success.  Finally in 2001 after traveling through Asia for the summer, I went to the Cornell University Hotel School to do my Masters, and immediately started interning with Sol Melia Hotels & Resorts, the largest Spanish Hotel chain.  For the first time in my life, I felt passionate about work.  These internships (and eventual job) included everything that I loved about life.  I was able to use my Spanish, work with beautiful hotels and resorts, and with a group of international people that felt like family.  I’ll never forget those 7 professional years of my career as they continued to define who I was as a person.

Interestingly though, having a mixed cultural identity can be quite lonely.  I certainly do not identify as being Indian, and while I can hang out with a group of Indian people for an evening and enjoy myself, I certainly don’t want to do that every night.  I grew up in the United States and had the most exposure to American culture throughout my childhood, but there is a limit to how much I identify myself as American.  The same goes for Spanish and Latin cultures.  It is nice to be able to mix with a variety of people and groups and feel comfortable, but it means that one doesn’t build deep friendships.

This, I believe, is what binds Sina and me.  Sina grew up in Austria but does not identify herself as Austrian.  She has lived in Spain, Mexico, The Dominican Republic, Brazil, Puerto Rico and many other places, but does not identify with any one group.  We find comfort in each other’s agnosticism.  Our closest friends are people that are in similar situations, with mixed marriages and an appreciation for different cultures and languages.  There are others like us and with time it is becoming more common as the world’s culture blend together more each year.  I look at Luka and Taj and hope they do not grow up feeling like they do not identify with anyone.

It becomes a challenge to decide where to live and raise them.  Charlottesville, Virginia is a beautiful town.  We decided to move there when we started to have kids because we decided that Miami was not the environment we wanted our kids to grow up around.  It was the right decision.  Charlottesville is safe, beautiful, surrounded by mountains, lakes and vineyards.  It has four seasons without 6 months of frigid temperatures, a decent airport, and nice people.  But while there is a concentration of well educated people, Christianity is quite pervasive in the community.

I can see why many people find comfort in religion.  The world becomes scarier and more complex each day.  Religion provides people with a sense of safety that everything is going to be ok because there is a force that is bigger and more powerful than all of us.  It provides people with a guide to be good people and to teach their kids to be good people.  I believe we can raise our kids to be good people without religion.  Both Sina’s and my parents raised us to be good people without religion, and too often we see those who claim to be religious because they attend church every Sunday living their lives in ways that do not follow the principles of the religion they pretend to identify with.  It becomes easier to fear religion when political and religious figures use it to justify their own agendas, from abortion to gun control.

Our plan is to teach our kids about the world through real life experiences.  They have seen the slums of Dharavi in Mumbai, and have visited the village of Aflao where Sina met Emmanuel.  They have never been to a zoo, but have fed elephants, swam with wild dolphins and whale sharks.  It’s still early, but they don’t appear to be inclined toward academics either.  But they speak Spanish, English and German, in that order, and by the time they are applying to college will have experienced more of the world than most people do in a lifetime.  Ultimately we hope that they will find happiness and will contribute something good to the world.