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Indian-Americans part of ‘American Quilt’ on Long Island

From left: Parents Latha Venkat,Niketa Bhatia, Sunita Mahtani

From left: Parents Latha Venkat,Niketa Bhatia, Sunita Mahtani and Jyoti Agrawal, at Bhatia's Woodbury home Friday evening, Oct. 14, 2016, are petitioning to make the Indian festival of Diwali an official school holiday in the Syosset school district. Photo Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

The Syosset school district recently approved a petition I initiated to add the Hindu holiday of Diwali as an official holiday on its calendar, allowing hundreds of families to celebrate without the worry of missing or making up school work. Personally, it’s not about getting time off to celebrate, as much as it is about us being accepted into the mainstream American culture.

I came to this country when I was 8, back in the 1970s. My brother and I were the only non-Caucasians in our public school in northwest Chicago, and our goal was to assimilate and fit in as quickly as possible. That wasn’t always easy when your mother sent you to school with two oiled, tight braids hanging from near the ears, a bindi on my forehead and a little ring in my nose. Soon after starting school, I got rid of the nose ring and bindi, and cut my hair into a bob. The concept of being politically correct wasn’t conceived yet and there were those who didn’t hesitate to use racial slurs such as “camel-jockey” and “dot-head.” The irony of it was that I had never seen a camel before. People weren’t afraid to yell out “Go back where you came from” from their cars.

My parents did their best to teach us about India and the culture, but celebrating a holiday like Diwali wasn’t much fun, especially when you didn’t have other Indian families to celebrate it with. Instead, we rejoiced in exchanging gifts at Christmas and made tandoori turkey and spiced mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving. Everything was always done with what Indian-Americans call a little “desi” twist. For example, my mom added ajwain (oregano seed) to the pizza dough. She made refried beans for tacos using rajma (kidney beans) and Indian spices. One of my favorites was the aloo-peas tikki (potato and pea patty) with chutney on an English muffin! On my very first Halloween in America, my parents made me wear my Indian clothes and told me to tell everyone that I was an Indian princess.

In those days, we felt like we didn’t have a choice. We learned English quickly. Once someone laughed at the way I said the word engineer. I pronounced it the way my father did, “IN-JIN-YER” so I practiced saying “EN-GIN-EER, EN-GIN-EER, EN-GIN-EER,” until the word flowed off my tongue like those of the American kids. We got good grades, because if we were going to stand out anyway, it may as well be for something worthwhile. Many Indian immigrants, like myself, who came to the United States in the 1960s and 1970s assimilated so well, in fact, that we dismissed the other rich and beautiful culture that we were privileged to be a part of. We gave up our Indian identity and became “American.” But for what? When people saw our brown faces, they didn’t see Americans. A classmate once even asked me, “Why are you so dark?” Like other brown people, I was always asked, “So, where are you from?” As we became more American, our parents, however, became more worried and sometimes upset that we had lost our cultural identity.

We have come a long way, but need to understand that America is not a homogeneous land of one culture, color, race or religion; it is not a melting pot. Instead, we are part of the “American Quilt.” We all symbolize a piece of the quilt with our varied experiences and beliefs. However, we are all part of the bigger, collective fabric, rich in color and stories. Each patch of a quilt has a place and purpose within the whole. Each patch has a story and history behind it. And the great thing about a quilt is that we can keep adding to it. But taking away a patch only destroys its beauty, value and integrity.

The people of Indian decent, most of whom are Hindus by religion, make up many significant and powerful pieces of the American Quilt. It is not so much recognizing Diwali, per se, but acknowledging that Indian-Americans are American. Until other cultures and their traditions are recognized officially in parts of the United States, we will always be considered outsiders. Our children will feel the need to choose one culture over the other. America will continue to be seen by some as the white America established by Europeans. Only when America embraces Diwali, the Chinese New Year, Eid, etc., along with holidays like Christmas, Easter and Yom Kippur, will other ethnicities be accepted as part of the American mainstream, forcing schools to make more efforts to teach about other cultures in the lower grades.

America is a land of many different cultures and religions coming together. The Americans of Indian heritage are just trying to add a patch to a growing American Quilt.

Niketa Bhatia, a Woodbury resident, is an elementary schoolteacher.


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