I was 7 years old, at the grocery store with my mother. We were traveling back from an Indian function, and I was dressed in traditional clothing, outfit complete with a pottu, or bindi, placed neatly on my forehead. Though I wasn’t self-conscious at first, this quickly changed when we spotted one of my classmates. Before completely realizing what I was doing, I immediately went to rub the mark off of my forehead. I saw the shock in my mom’s eyes, and felt a guilt I couldn’t place. Though I was a child then, in the 12 years since, I have grown to understand and appreciate my culture in ways I could never back then. But as this process continues, I begin to realize just how much I have to learn as a first-generation Indian-American.
Take my relationship with my mother tongue, Tamil. A combination of conversations with my parents and relatives has given me at best a 5th grader’s command of the language. Factor in my inability to read and write, and I’m about as proficient as a 2nd grader. Now, if I take it upon myself to teach my children and grandchildren Tamil, I can only give them the 2nd grader’s worth of knowledge that I myself have –– and this is a terrifying concept. The idea of the culture of my parents and grandparents dying out because I did not know enough to pass it on is heartbreaking, but only serves to make me even more determined (and in a way, obligated) to learn as much as possible now. However, there is also a part of me that is overwhelmed by the sheer amount of what I don’t know. Even if I try my hardest to soak up as much knowledge and culture as I can, I’m scared that it will never be enough.
I’m scared that my well of knowledge is so shallow that it will dry up too quickly when it comes my time to pass it on. As eager as I am to keep giving, there won’t be more than I know to give - and what I have to give is a mere handful of knowledge in a whole universe of customs, traditions, and stories. It is my lack of ability to pass on culture, not any lack of desire, that frightens me.
I wasn’t always enthusiastic about my culture, let alone the idea of passing it onto future generations when I was younger; from speaking to other first-generation Indian-Americans, I’ve learned I wasn’t the only one. A lot of us actively pushed away the opportunity to connect with our cultural roots when we were younger, throwing tantrums in Bharatanatyam class and refusing to go to Hindi school. I won’t excuse my past self for missing those opportunities, but I understand where I was coming from back then –– or more specifically, what I was afraid of. Wanting to be liked is a powerful motivator when you’re younger, and as a child, I was acutely aware of my differences. Bringing idli for lunch and wearing a pottu in public was panic-inducing.
I don’t particularly like thinking about those times I rejected my heritage - they’re embarrassing, especially now that losing my culture is such a present issue for me. Not to mention, every day I become more aware of the limited time I have with my parents and other older relatives; the idea that one day I will be the sole source of knowledge makes me anxious. I feel a panic in the back of my mind, pushing me to ask my mom endless questions and struggle to form words as I slowly make it through short Tamil stories, knowing that one day it will be my duty to teach future generations these parts of our identity.
These worries constant, I’m slowly making heritage a priority. In some ways, I am making up for my past behavior — a type of penance. I speak to my parents in Tamil when I’m home, and at Princeton, I’ve taken two semesters of Hindi, with two more planned.
While the concerns of being able to pass on more complicated aspects like language, tradition, and the arts exist, there are more “accessible” parts of culture that can be passed down with less difficulty than others -— clothing, for instance. Although it’s definitely taken some patience, practice, and guidance from my mom, I now know how to drape a half-saree/saree, and I am confident and glad that, come time, I can bring those skills and an appreciation for South Asian attire to my daughter. It isn’t all of Indian culture, but it’s a start, and I am comforted by it.
Much of my anxiety also comes from another pressing question: how valuable is passing on culture when it may no longer have the same personal meaning? In other words, are carrying on the rituals, traditions, and art forms my parents and grandparents did in India enough, even if it is almost certain that we — in different times, environments, and societies — will experience it differently? How can I reasonably expect my descendants to carry on a culture I was never truly in touch with?
I sang Indian Carnatic music for about 10 years, and although I have appreciation for the beauty and complexity of the art form, my parents obviously had a different, almost deeper emotional connection to it, often being moved to tears easily by the music. My parents and family friends would regularly conduct house-warming poojas and other rituals, but even though I have seen these in action, I could not conduct them myself with the same intentions, as I don’t have the same connection to meaning that they do. Maybe I can pass on the motions of going through a ritual, but if my grandchildren and great-grandchildren one day participate in them themselves, will it have the same emotional and religious significance to them that it does to my parents? How can it?
However, I am coming to realize that it is not truly about the practices, rituals, or art forms themselves. My connection to Carnatic music comes from my teachers’ ability to highlight musical details, careful pronunciations of words felt but not always understood, and the countless memories of practices and performances. That it is different from my parents’ experiences is certain, but hopefully not by any means less valuable, or less “complete.” Rather than the experiences themselves, I think it is our intentions behind these experiences that matter most - our intentions in crafting a new, rich Indian-American culture — and I hope this is the perspective my children and grandchildren will hold when their time comes.
I’m no longer that embarrassed child in the grocery store, but a young adult navigating my relationship with a quickly disappearing past. It is heartbreaking, but in truth inevitable that some things will be lost. There is no way I or anyone else can absorb all of a culture from generation to generation. My parents certainly lost things from their parents and grandparents when they traveled to America, but in that process they created something new. I am getting more confident that in time, we can do the same.
Nivedhitha Sivakumar is a member of the Class of 2023 at Princeton University.