If you’d peeked into my kitchen a few years ago, you’d have seen the chef (that would be yours truly) with something strange on her head. No, it wouldn’t have been a chef’s hat. It would, in fact, have been a polka-dotted, vinyl shower cap. Definitely an unusual choice of headgear for cooking.
For me, however, it was a strategic option. I would sometimes cook dinner before heading out for an evening engagement. Maybe it was book club night, or my son’s first grade Christmas performance, or an evening out with the mom’s group. Whatever the destination, I didn’t want the world to detect I’d been cooking chicken curry.
Enter shower caps and sniff-testing of clothes. Just one of the ways of dealing with a mixed bag of lifestyles as an Indian immigrant mom in the U.S..
As long as I can remember, I’d wanted to live in America. Growing up in a busy metropolis in south India, I was fascinated by the U.S. Maybe it was the steady diet of entertainment in my childhood: "The Cosby Show," "Full House," "Charles in Charge" (I should stop considering how much I’m dating myself here). Later, I subsisted on "Beverly Hills 90210" and "Friends." In my mind, America was a sitcom where canned laughter would play on a loop in the background.
As soon as I was able to make my way over, I did. I cracked the GRE and headed for grad school in a startlingly snowy town in upstate New York.
Fast forward a few years and I married my sweetie, an Indian computer engineer. He checked off all the boxes, including the one I didn’t quite want to acknowledge even to myself: the would-be-perfect-if-he-lived-in-America box.
I moved to the Pacific Northwest where he lived and began my life as an immigrant wife. We bought a house. We had our babies, one boy and one girl.
We dove headfirst into all things American: playdates at the park, Disneyland for spring break, berry picking in the summer, squelchy pumpkin patches, superhero-themed kids’ birthday parties, Christmas trees weighed down by baubles. I volunteered at my kids’ elementary school, I drove a minivan, I spent too much money at Target.
Along the way, like most moms, I discovered that parenting is hard, and that parenting as an immigrant came with its unique challenges.
I found that immigrant parenting means finding your village or building it, sometimes from scratch. It means making sure your kids fit in, without devaluing your own culture. It means taking the parental prerogative of embarrassing your kids to a whole new level. It means doing the unfamiliar and the nerve-wracking over and over again.
Here’s the thing, as a kid I didn’t have the chance to sit strapped in the minivan while my mom ordered Happy Meals at a McDonald’s drive-through. In fact, I hadn’t seen a car seat, a minivan, or a McDonald’s when I left India 20 years ago.
As an immigrant parent, you don’t have a roadmap from your own childhood because, literally, this was a whole new world. You’re unfamiliar with how things work at the doctor’s office. How many questions is considered impolite? You’re unsure of how to navigate the school system. A school supply list? What’s a three-ring binder? And what’s everyone else giving the teacher for Christmas? You don’t know the first thing about Star Wars and your kid wants a themed birthday with Yoda and Luke Skywalker taking center stage. Who are the clone troopers again, the good guys or the bad guys?
Eventually, things do become familiar.
You meet another mom at Starbucks but you don't stand frozen in front of the barista wondering which of the 73 types of coffee to order. You just order. You learn to answer with a casual, “It was great. How was yours?” when the Trader Joe’s guy asks how your weekend went and your young ‘un helps himself to a lollipop. You invite other moms over and realize that what you do – or don’t do – is not a reflection of your culture. You become brave enough to let people sample some of your traditions and your cuisine.
In the words of psychologist Brene Brown, I learned to “own my story.” I learned not only to come to terms with my role as a mom straddling two cultures, but to be proud of that identity.
I slather peanut butter on bread for my kids and I eat rice with my hands. I call crackers “biscuits,” and I love dunking them in my coffee. My kids ask for biscuits with their milk too. I can have my parents – even my in-laws – live with me for months on end without feeling smothered. I teach my kids the value of close-knit, generational ties.
I want my kids to embrace both worlds. It’s not one or the other, and it’s not one over the other. I want them to embrace what’s good and right and kind and lovely in both.
Two years ago, we did what many friends thought was unfathomable: we put our American Dream on hold and moved back to India. We swapped our house on a quiet cul-de-sac in one of America’s “best cities to live in” for an apartment on a crazily chaotic road in India.
We’re now raising our American kids in a culture that sometimes seems at odds with what we’ve taught them. I think of the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Culture does not make people. People make culture.” So we own our story with all its glorious plot twists. We make our own culture, all the while using shower caps as originally intended.