What Does “Being American” Mean?

A few weeks ago, my four-year old son, E., approached me with a thought-provoking question.  He wanted to visit my younger sister, R., and her baby boy, AJ.  Despite my East Indian heritage, E. calls my younger sister “Aunt” R., for no other reason than I figured it would be easier to manage when he was little.  But now that he’s four years old, E. has been more exposed to the existence of other cultures, thanks to a horrifying children’s show called Barney.

As a single twentysomething, I swore I’d never allow my kids to watch that mind-numbing purple dinosaur.  But since actually having children, I’ve embraced the hypocrisy of parenthood.  We were watching a Barney video about Spain.  One of the kids on the show addressed his aunt by a “different” name.

E. turned to me.  “Mama, what did that little boy call that lady?”

“Tia,” I replied.  “It means Aunt in Spanish.”

E. scrunched up his face, obviously confused.  “What about Aunt R.?  Why don’t I call her Tia?”

“Well, if we were Spanish, that’s what we’d do,” I replied.  “But we aren’t Spanish.”

“What are we?”

I smiled, because that question from an adult would aggravate me.  I refrained from saying “human,” and tried to keep my answer simple.  “Well, your daddy’s family is from a country called Ireland and my family is from a country called India.”

“So, how do they say “aunt”?”

“In Ireland, they speak English, so it’s the same word.  They would also say Aunt.”

“What about the other country?”

“India,” I prompted him.  “In India, there are many words for aunt.”

“So, what would I call Aunt R.?”

I hesitated for a moment, as I rapidly went through the long list of words for “aunt” in my head.  Since I’m a girl and R. is my younger sister, what would E. call her?  Was it Kuri?  I addressed my father’s younger brother’s wife through marriage as “Kuri.”  Or was it Pehi?  Most of my cousins on my mother’s side called her “Pehi.”  Since they are the children of her older brothers, was it a title for a brother’s younger sister?  “Mahi,” I responded uncertainly.  “I think that you’d call her Mahi.”  Since he didn’t know what the fish was, I repeated the word, exaggerating the pronunciation for him.  “Maaa-heee.”

E. was satisfied with that answer for all of two seconds.  He turned to me and asked, “So, what would cousin AJ call you?”

I groaned inwardly.  I didn’t even have to think about this answer.  My father has two older sisters who still evoke fear in the hearts of anyone who crosses their determined paths.  I admit that I’m already small and bossy.  Do I also need this title to confirm a life trajectory that I don’t want to travel?

“Well, let me talk with your aunt R. and figure that out with her,” I replied.  He nodded, before turning his attention back to the video.  I sighed deeply.  Why couldn’t I just keep things simple and stick with being called Aunt Taara?  Wouldn’t it make everything a lot easier?  But as I studied my half-Indian son with his tilted, long-lashed dark eyes, I felt a pang of discomfort.  It felt as if I was doing him a great disservice by taking the “easy” route and ignoring half of his heritage.

My parents moved from India to the United States in the ’60’s.  As in the 1960’s.  That’s a long time ago. Assimilation was the mantra of that generation.  There weren’t a lot of people of Indian descent in the metro Detroit area when I grew up.  In 1991, I think I was one of six Indian kids in a senior class that had a total of 525 kids.  And all of us were very “western” in appearance.

Unlike many of the Indian households I witness today, I grew up in a household that only spoke English.  In fact, the only reason I even understand the language of my parents, an Indian dialect called Assamese, is that they only spoke it when they didn’t want me to understand what they were saying about me.  So naturally, since I always enjoyed subverting authority figures, I listened for my name and eventually became relatively fluent in Assamese as a child.  My parents had no idea that I understood exactly what they were saying each time they whispered to each other in Assamese.

But my father always drummed two mantras into my head:  “You were born in America, so that makes you an American” and “You should always be grateful to the country that has given us so many opportunities.”  Growing up, we dressed in “western” clothes and embraced everything “American.”  Unless it was a special occasion or gathering, we typically ate “American” fare like BBQ chicken, meatballs, mashed potatoes and salad.  To this day, I wonder if I am rarely taken for Indian because I’ve been so indoctrinated with the notion of “being American” that I can’t shake it off me.

So, what does “being American” even mean?  Does it mean that I have to ignore the culture of my ancestors?  I don’t want that for my children.  I want them to “be American” AND to embrace their heritage.

I looked at my son, who was still engrossed by the show.  “You know what, buddy?  Your cousin AJ should call me Jethai.”

E. glanced at me.  “What did you say?”

“Jethai,” I repeated loudly, squaring my shoulders.  I was determined to own the title.  “Like Jet.  And then Hi.  He should call me Taara Jethai, okay?”

“Like Star Wars?”

I grinned.  That didn’t sound so bad.  “Sure.  I’m a Jethai.”  And maybe one day I’ll even be a Jethai Master.

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