Traditions maintain link between home, heritage


Cultural customs: Celebrating a cousin’s wedding, the Kalra family women take part in the tradition of singing songs that welcome the groom into the family and send off the bride into a happy marriage. This generallly occurs on the second night of the wedding, which can last up to a week. Photo courtesy of Anushka Kalra

Anushka Kalra, assistant news editor

Tradition and teenagers usually do not go hand in hand.  However, for teenage  immigrants, traditions take on a more important role in our lives. For me, traditions are a way to connect with my culture and reconcile the differences between my home, the United States and my Indian heritage.

My birth certificate says I was born in India, but my childhood was spent in Chicago. Honestly, I’m pretty sure I was the only brown person in my middle school. Growing up, that thought never crossed my mind. I was American because I was in America, right?

Well, yes obviously. But that didn’t get rid of my Indian-ness. It did not automatically make me a citizen. The older I grew, the more I understood that I was from two different worlds. America the modern and India the (in my mind) ancient symbol of tradition.   

My family would go to the temple every weekend. I remember staring up at the roaring lion ridden by the Goddess Durga, seeing the sky in the blue skin of Shiva, running around under the watchful eyes of Kali. But none of that meant anything to me.

It was when I saw the pride other people took in their traditions that I wanted to learn more about mine. Watching my friends go to church every Sunday or singing songs in their native language for the holidays inspired me to seek out my own traditions. I would whisper questions to my mom during religious services and, to my horror, she would march me up to the priest and tell me to repeat my questions to him.

It was mortifying. The priest would always look at my mom with a “Is your child stupid?” look on his face and my mother’s face would reply “No, she’s just American” and a look of deep sympathy would appear on his face.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. I’ll be the first to admit that my family’s lack of knowledge about American culture has led to questionably funny situations. When my dad bought his first American car, he took it to the temple to get it blessed. The priest did his bit and cracked a coconut in front of the car to prevent accidents. Then he drew a swastika on the hood.

Okay, so let me be perfectly clear- the swastika is no longer a part of Hindu culture because of the connotations obviously associated with it.  However, for thousands of years before Hitler came along, it was a symbol of peace.

My dad wanted to be respectful and so after he left the temple, he went to get it washed off as quick as possible. He was honked at a lot more  than usual, as you can imagine.

These kinds of experiences highlighted the odd liminal space that I found myself in. I wanted to cry with mortification when I found out my dad was driving around in a Neo-Nazi mobile.  In all seriousness, it did help me develop my current opinion that tradition, as stagnant and long held as it can be, has to change to fit the times. Still, I didn’t want to abandon mine, and so I kept asking questions.

My parents are always willing to answer any questions that I have without being patronizing. I talked extensively with them about my troubles, and they did their best to help me. But for immigrants like me, who came to this country at a young age, we are left out of both societies, and that is a struggle that must be overcome alone. We don’t belong to to our ethnicity and we don’t belong to our home.

So what is to be done? A lot, actually.  The self imposed isolation has to end. Take a leap of faith and volunteer yourself for situations  that are out of your depth. For example, I never hosted a spiritual gathering at my house, but I did last summer. It was fantastic. The biggest advice I have is to not be afraid to learn.

Also, spend more time immersing yourself in your culture. The more time I spent with my family in the hallowed halls of places like Lemont Temple, Swami Narayan and Hindu Lake County Temple, I felt closer to India and to my family. I was no longer afraid to ask questions (especially after I asked my mom to stop subjecting me to torture by priest). I felt more knowledgeable and less likely to withdraw into my shell when talking to my family in India.

So my advice to you, young immigrant, is to not shy away from tradition.  Ask questions.  Speak your native language no matter how bad you sound; no one can begrudge you for trying.

I promise you, keep it up, and you will be amazed at what you can learn about yourself.  Tradition does not always have to be a bad thing.