Indian immigrants’ lost world

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We are monetarily richer but are we poorer in friends?

families-on-the-beach

Indian immigrants enjoying the beach

Indian Immigrants – Searching for a lost world… 

The homemade chicken curry, the daal and the vegetable pullao would travel by subway and by car, each lovingly coddled in aluminum foil. Made by different hands in different kitchens, they would be united on one table for rag-tag self-made families of immigrants stitched from diverse parts of India. These friends may not have known each other even a month ago, yet in an alien land they became connected, instant family.

Yes, there was a time when newcomers to America would gather together in each other’s homes, each bringing in their specialty, be it saag or gulab jamuns. While the children played or watched TV, the menfolk would gather over beers discussing cricket, politics and green cards, while the women divulged secret recipes for the no-sweat method of making favorite dishes, tips about where to buy good sneakers for the children, or vented about problems at the workplace.

A Vanishing Circle of Friends

Every family seemed to have a close-knit inner circle of friends; people who could watch your kids or bring them back from school. If you were unwell, a friend could be counted on to bring you some homemade lunch. Had a problem with your car? A friend was always willing to pick you up for a party at a common friend’s home. Graduations and birthdays were celebrated together and a visiting aunt or parent would be invited to several homes for some warm Indian hospitality. The furniture may have been hand me downs or bare bones but the enthusiasm and warmth was palpable.

Yet somewhere along the way, that circle of friends vanished, disappeared into thin air. Sure, these friends still meet socially a few times a year but that closeness is gone. In some cases, these old friendships have been totally annulled and in its place are social friendships, cocktail chatter or maybe a round of golf.

A report in The New York Times was a real eye-opener, about a study by sociologists at Duke and the University of Arizona, which found that “on average, most adults only have two people they can talk to about the most important subjects in their lives — serious health problems, for example, or issues like who will care for their children should they die. And about one-quarter have no close confidants at all.”

living-in-america

When Friends are Family

So, what’s happening with the larger population of America may be reflected in the growing Indian community as well, a consequence of being thoroughly mainstreamed. New immigrants in ethnic enclaves tend to have a stronger support system but once they fly the coop into the prestigious suburbs and into Americanization, there is a chasm of distances to overcome between friends.

Three decades ago when Indu Jaiswal, a dietitian in Long Island, gave birth to twin boys, she and her husband, new immigrants, had no family to turn to. They were living in Queens at that time and had two Indian families in their neighborhood. “These were people I had not known in India and they just happened to be neighbors,” recalls Jaiswal. “When I was ready to come home from the hospital, they drove me home. They cooked for me for a week and took care of the babies, almost as if I was their daughter. They were more than my parents – I feel like crying when I think of all that they did for me.”

She adds, “ I’m sure in today’s world that kind of help would not be possible – people are far too busy. The social structure seems to have changed and everyone wants to make more money and live on an upscale level – so between working and home, they don’t have time for an outside person.”

Searching for Indian Names in the Phone Book

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, the noted novelist who lives in Houston, Tx, also remembers a different time. “When I was a grad student at the University of California at Berkeley in the early 80s, we Indian students – about 15 of us – were all on tough budgets but once a month we would get together in someone’s apartment and cook things together – some items were disasters! We would sit on the carpet to eat because there weren’t enough chairs. It was so much fun!

“Also, if we needed help with moving to a different apartment, everyone would help. It was the same way after I got married.” She says that her sister-in-law who came to the US even earlier remembers scrolling through the phone book for Indian names and calling them: “They would be so friendly and invite her over and give many helpful hints about survival. At that time there was no distinction of communities or languages – we were all Indians together.”

Comparing then and now, she says, “Now with affluence, things have become so formal. Here in Houston most Indian parties are catered now. And of course everyone hires movers – that’s partly because we’re too old to do otherwise!” She points out that friends are mostly from within one’s own community. As friends move away, lured by better jobs to new places, it becomes increasingly hard to make new and close friendships at a later age and with the added pressures of career and children.

The Kindness of Strangers 

Kanta Khipple of Chicago also remembers a more golden time when friendships were enduring ones. She came to the US in her 30’s as a student to Ann Arbor, Michigan and reared her children in a university environment. Khipple, who was working on a masters in public administration, was always on a budget but found caring friends who helped to make life easier.

Friends would pass on children’s clothes or bed sheets and nobody thought badly about it. “Those were close relationships,” she recalls. “Professors would invite us home for meals on Diwali and Thanksgiving. We’d get together for picnics and outings – it was a very caring environment.”

Khipple, who is a co-founder of Apna Ghar, a shelter for battered women, says she has maintained some of these friends over the years, but now because of age and physical distances, some are drifting away. She adds, “It’s difficult to make those kind of friendships because once you’ve lived in America so long, individualism has crept in those friendships and American values and no time to talk to anyone – this is happening quite often.”

from-india-to-america

Catered Food and Catered Talk 

Today our social circles and acquaintances are so many that sometimes it leaves little time to nurture the more intimate friendships. Does anyone picnic anymore? Or go apple picking to an orchard in the summer, families in tow? Those were the activities one indulged in as new immigrants, cash-strapped and with young children to entertain.

Now the intimate gatherings are few and far-between, and the food is generally catered. People talk about their achievements, their new acquisitions, not about the problems. Relatives pass away in India, and friends who would have dropped in with comfort and condolences on hearing the news, now just make a phone call or sometimes, not even that.

Jaiswal, who is chairperson of a community group, finds people often don’t even have time for their own families as they juggle the demands of work. When her organization got space from Nassau County to start a Senior Center to enhance the lives of older citizens, some people in the community told her they had no time to drop off their parents to the center. She says this would not have happened 20 years ago. She finds the whole attitude toward reaching out and helping either on a social or community level has changed. No one has time to do mailings and suggest hiring a secretary to do these volunteer chores.

And of course, with the advent of catering, the potluck dinners are a dying breed. “There was a time when we had no choice,” says Jaiswal. “If I had hundred people over – I would cook for a hundred people. Now the option of catering the food is available, and that’s another reason why people have stopped having those intimate kind of parties.”

In the Old Days, Finding another Indian was like Finding a Piece of Heaven

Indeed, in today’s fast paced society there’s hardly time to get to know neighbors, leave alone love them as thyself. You may exchange pleasantries and then retreat into your private world. After a hectic workday, people return home tired and frazzled and once again see to chores and dinner. You may see an Indian family at the grocery store, and avoid each other’s eyes. If you encounter each other several times, you may say hello but never invite each other home. You don’t connect – like in the old days, when to meet another Indian was to have found a piece of heaven.

“As communities became larger, the networks change,” says Margaret Abraham, Professor of Sociology at Hofstra University in New York and the recipient of a Rockefeller fellowship: “When you are a small community, you have a small set of people to depend on and the bonds at some level are much deeper, even if they are just between neighbors. You feel relatively isolated and so are much closer to your neighbor and look for mutual help. Earlier, immigrants shared common experiences of difficulties they had overcome – but now there’s so much access that you don’t feel the same kind of empathy or need.”

Indeed, the Indian American population is now touching 2.5 million, so there is not the same intensity or pressure to bond with each other. The south Asian community is huge and a second generation is already there, so there isn’t the same notion of ‘newness’. People can go to Indian stores or chat with other Indians via email at the drop of a hat. The same needs are just not there.

Relationships are dynamic and change over a period of time depending on the structure of our society, says Abraham. In the 80’s, people would drop in to the homes of India-bound friends, to send letters to their family. A box of mithai brought by a friend from India was a delight – now we have a surfeit of sweets in our own Indian markets, and are quite blasé about it.

Rituals of Social Bonding 

“ So even the little gestures of caring are being eradicated and those small rituals of our social bonding are being lost,” says Abraham. “ So all those mechanisms which are part of relationships are changed. I don’t think the circles are disappearing but they are reconfigured in a way that the amount of time we spend on relationships is much less and a certain amount of the personal has been depersonalized.”

In her own life she says she has ‘circles of significance’ – people who are very significant in your life – so while you may want to do things for multiple people and the desire and intent is there, the reality is that it’s just not possible. She says: “It’s not the old days when you could just drop things and take off for a week to visit a sick friend – now it’s more a call, an email to show the caring. India has changed too – You could go to people’s houses any time but now that’s not done. I think it’s all about romanticizing a time.”

Indeed, perhaps the biggest reason for the change is technology, which has not only bound us to our desks, but also in many ways set us free. The hours that one can work has just multiplied and the line between home and the office has blurred. So you can be home and not yet home, if you’re working out of a home office. For many of us, our work defines us. The old neighborly rituals are lost as each family bunkers down at home with computer, DVD and IPOD.

“The workload is also taking its toll on the second generation – everybody is working 18 hours a day – whether you’re a lawyer, engineer, doctor, accountant or finance person,” says Indu Jaiswal. “Anybody who’s working in the corporate world is working at least 12 to 14 hours a day. Whatever time they have they go out for a drink or for a movie. They don’t have the time to form circles or meaningful friendships.”

Technology has also changed the way friends keep their connections going. They may not rush out for visits, bearing Tupperware containers of food but they keep tabs on each other with emails or SMS. Now telephone conversations to India are so cheap – or free through programs like Skype – that now India is closer than your neighbor’s home. You may not want to intrude on your busy, time-deprived neighbor but can now chat for an hour on those incredibly cheap phone cards to your sister in Delhi, who may have more time with the support networks around her.

When Abraham came in 1984, it cost $13 to call India for three minutes – today it’s practically free. Email has also opened up connections, and she points out that her mother, who is 72 years old, emails her daughters and grandchildren who in India every day and keeps current with their day-to-day lives. Similarly, many friendships have become email or phone based as people don’t have the time to meet or the distances are too vast. If a family member or friend is sick, group emails about the progress are a way to keep up efficiently.

The Social Divide 

Communities are not only defining themselves by their ethnicity but class and materialism is also playing an increasing role. Indeed, one important change that has occurred in Indian circles is the widening social divide. Abraham says that in the last decade, huge class differences have emerged within the Indian community and these manifest themselves in the relationships people have. The interactions with those who are born here and abroad are also very different and there’s a kind of separation of spaces.

One observer of the social scene who didn’t wish to be named says the criteria for friendship seems to have changed – it is having a big house and a big car, and if this is missing, they don’t want to know you. People, he says, tend to be lost in their own world and reaching out and helping others is not a priority. Yes, the circle of friendship is certainly getting reconfigured and it may now embrace larger social groups and organizations. The second generation, for instance, form meaningful bonds in their connections within youth groups like SAYA or advocacy organizations like Sakhi. Earlier, these groups did not exist but now there are multiple niches where people can find support and lose their sense of isolation.

Close friendships are substituted to some degree by organizations and other support groups, says Abraham: “Our notions of intimacy and long enduring friendships and expectations have changed in the way we relate to others because today we have multiple ways of contact that we didn’t have earlier.”

Many women are also part of kitty groups that are surprisingly close knit with women sharing their concerns with each other Young parents form playgroups for their children and often share support and experiences as they watch their children’s baseball games together or take them for outings.

Religion – A catalyst for Connections 

According to Jaiswal, religion is fast becoming the catalyst for bringing people together, and meaningful connections form in the gurudwaras and temples. “The way the circles are being rejuvenated is through small puja groups that people form – about 20 families get together once a month in each other’s house to hold a puja or read from the Gita or the Ramayana together, after which they share a meal. Since they meet regularly, they know what is happening in each other’s lives.”

While life in America may be frenetic, it is slowing down for the baby boomers and the empty-nesters and she finds that with the children grown and gone, couples are back where they started – two people on their own – and are now getting together with other like-minded couples, and so this is a category of people who are coming together again.

Today the circles seem to be more work or child related, or based on common organizations than on the basis of new immigrants, new neighbors or simply on the commonality of ethnicity. “I don’t think the circles are disappearing but because of technology, time, work pressures and the changing relationship to society, they get restructured in such a way that they seem partly invisible,” says Margaret Abraham. “This is actually reflective of the larger society and it is also symptomatic of an Indian community that was much smaller becoming much larger.”

So, the good news is that the circle of close friendships is not vanishing – it’s just getting reconfigured. It may not be as intimate or as deep as one would have liked but that is a reality of our changing times…

© Lavina Melwani  (This article was written several years ago – so time to follow up on this story again to see how these families are coping.)

Photos courtesy – Indu Jaiswal

(I’d love your feedback and your insights in the comments section or on Facebook. If you’d like to share your thoughts for a future essay, please do get in touch with me at lassiwithlavinaatgmail.com. Thank you!)

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About Author

Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who writes for several international publications. [email protected] & @lassiwithlavina Sign up for the free newsletter to get your dose of Lassi!

20 Comments

  1. loved this article,but like back home, immigrants here network with their own kind, mostly they network only within the Indian community and would like to preserve that “culture” that they have left behind…I wish we were more open minded about all cultures though, where else can you find such a unique experience / a cultural melting pot….the great New York city!

  2. Lavina Melwani on

    Thanks,Nivedita – but you’re right, people do stick to their own networks generally. It’s not just the elite who tend to do this but regular folks too. As a reporter, I once attended a cab driver’s birthday party – there were about 50 people there – every one a cab driver or from the cabbie’s family! Getting to know people from different groups and cultures is always enriching and one comes away learning something new. Would love readers to share their stories of creating offbeat networks.

  3. From Nandita Godbole via Facebook

    Thanks Lavina Melwani for writing about this.
    The sheer loneliness of being single, brown, awkward, defiant and an introvert female on a shoestring student budget exposes your weaknesses, vulnerabilities and shortcomings like no other. It brought all sorts of people into my life when I first came to the US. From people trying to take advantage to those who were on an emotional power trip.
    When it attracted kind people, warm hearts and caring hugs – I knew the true meaning of joy. I was incredibly blessed to find two friends who became my family, and have remained my confidants. Right after, I met Umashankar R Uma, Avatans Kumar and a few others who remain our constant mental companions… our family friends, even after 20+ years and living in different geographies. Amongst us, we have different stories than the ones here (at least from what I remember) but valuable memories nevertheless.
    What a gamble, what a risk, what a strange way to receive a blessing.

  4. Thanks Amrita, I think a lot of us connect with these sentiments. Have shared your comment on Lassi with Lavina – would love feedback from others about their immigrant tales!

  5. This is true in India too. I hear my in-laws and all the older generation complaining about this. We as a society have changed. The more money we have, the less dependent we are on our friends and family. Here in US, I would hire a pet sitter or call an Uber instead of bothering my friends. I can call my best friend on WhatsApp and chat for hours hence not get emotionally or socially dependent on any of my friends. But of course with all this I do need to catch up with my friends over a Cosmo every other week. These are choices we make intentionally.

    The first generation immigrants, in the beginning, always had less money to spare, and the spouse would not have had a work visa. It’s important to see why certain things worked the way they did. Today when I get visitors, I don’t offer a ride to and from the airport. I know they can afford it, and I cannot waste 2 hours trekking to JFK. Nor would I want them to brave Delhi traffic to pick me up. Our society and our environment has changed.

    Same is true in India too. People have or are chasing money and success and hence have no time. It’s easy to order food. Easy to meet outside. Easy to call Ola cab, than ask a difficult relative who would want reciprocal help at the most inconvenient time.

    The cliched, ‘Those golden days” are not going to be back. Those were days of hard labor. No work visa for spouse, limited money, no decent vegetarian options in local restaurants. Clearly, that generation also was strict with gender roles. I see more and more girls from India married and settling down in the US who cannot or would not put together a dish for a potluck. Nothing wrong with that. I have a grown son, and he cooks. He is not expecting a wife to cook. BTW, all this is only true within the context of Indian immigrants.. Generally more educated and on an average earning more than other immigrants. Studies show that on an average, other immigrants in US work harder and have less work-life balance than an average Indian immigrant. Cannot quote the source right now, but can if i have a little more time on hand…

  6. Sumukha, thank you for sharing your experiences. A lack of time is a big culprit!
    Times are indeed changing but I’d be interested in learning from readers if this distance-building is happening across the diaspora or is it more in hectic, busy cities? I’d imagine that small towns and other countries may still have time for close relationships. I have relatives in the West Indies, and I find that in small communities there is much more personal caring and sharing.

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  8. Just amazed by how many people have been touched by this! Everyone has family or friends who have lived through these experiences. Would love to hear about the stories of others.

  9. Sanjoo Malhotra via Facebook

    Will send you mine which maybe a surprise as we have managed to retain all the positives around food and social gatherings where handcraft is much more appreciated and encouraged

  10. Deepika Mandrekar via Facebook

    Absolutely loved this article Lavina Melwani…❤️ Rings so true especially since I was a “poor” Indian student in Pittsburgh in early 90s!!! The experiences written here bring back old memories

  11. Thanks Deepika Mandrekar! I think all of us have such stories tucked away – would love to another piece on this and would absolutely love you to share your memories! Do email me any thoughts at lassiwithlavinaatgmail.com. I would love to get different voices in – and those gorgeous old photographs! Would love to hear from all those holding memories and willing to share!

  12. Cindy Easton via Facebook

    This article really rang true for me, my father who has passed away, was from India and living in Dubuque IA, in the 70s and 80’s. The small group of about 20-30 Indians, mostly doctors and professors, that lived within 30 miles were all from different parts of India and spoke different dialects. I remember my parents having large parties, the women sat in one room and the men in the other, all learning how to navigate American culture from each other. These people were considered my aunts and uncles. Now there are 3rd and 4th generations, living in different parts of the country. Recently some us came together for an Indian wedding and I was able to share some heritage with my granddaughter and introduce her to some of these people that knew her Great grandfather.

  13. Ramsundar Laxminarayanan via Facebook

    Lovely story. Dubuque is a small town..been there in ’93 …as students we drove from Chicago to meet with our friends studying in Uty of Dubuque. Your little anecdote brings back memories.

  14. Ramsundar Lakshminarayanan via Facebook
    This article takes me back memory lanes. Brings back memories of times when an entire move was done using a Sedan in one single ride. The enigma of Indian food was enhanced by lack of good Indian options outside. I do remember, Bay area virtually had crappy desi restaurants as recent as 1996….no Indo-Chinese until early 2000’s (first one being Hot Wok Village in Atlanta), no south Indian food in Devon Ave in Chicago until 1993 when Udupi Palace opened and was a roaring hit…..and so on and so forth.

  15. Ramsundar Lakshminaayan – thanks for sharing. There must be so many readers with so many private stories we’ll never know! We are all quite hungry for stories about early Indian immigration into America.

  16. This article really rang true for me. My father who has passed away, was from India and living in Dubuque IA, in the 70s and 80’s. The small group of about 20-30 Indians, mostly doctors and professors, that lived within 30 miles were all from different parts of India and spoke different dialects. I remember my parents having large parties – the women sat in one room and the men in the other, all learning how to navigate American culture from each other. These people were considered my aunts and uncles. Now there are 3rd and 4th generations, living in different parts of the country. Recently some of us came together for an Indian wedding and I was able to share some heritage with my granddaughter and introduce her to some of these people that knew her great-grandfather.

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