Menaka Narayanan (second from the left) as a baby with her sisters and grandparents in India.
At the bottom of a bookshelf in my room, there are about a hundred comic books, each containing a different story in Hindu mythology. When I was a toddler, I would bring one of those books to my mom every night, pestering her to read it to me. It has been more than a year since I opened one.
As children of immigrants grow up to become high school students, the books of their heritage sit idle, cobwebs collecting on the neglected pages, waiting for the day when they will pause their busy American lives and set aside five minutes for their culture.
My parents moved to Seattle from Chennai, the capital of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, in 1990 to study at the University of Washington. I was born seven years later, and have lived in North Seattle for my entire life. Growing up, my parents spent significant time and energy teaching our culture to my sisters and I.
Up until the age of six, I didn’t know that my father could speak English. He convinced us that he couldn’t understand what we were saying unless we spoke to him in Tamil. To this day, I still speak Tamil much better than other American-born Indians.
My mother always took us to the temple, cooked delicious South Indian meals every night, taught us about different poojas (offerings to God), celebrated every Hindu festival and ensured that we were well informed.
As a result of my parents’ toil, I was a very culturally aware child. I went to Tamil class, learned about all the states in India, and knew a multitude of stories about the Hindu gods. I even memorized and sang Jana Gana Mana, the Indian national anthem, for my mother’s birthday. And I did these things because I wanted to – not because my parents told me to.
My Indian cultural values were clearly visible in my conduct. Respect for teachers was apparent through the flowers and gifts I would give to them at the end of every school year. I was courteous towards elders, and rarely ever talked back to my parents. I never spoke ill of anyone, and I never cheated.
But as I grew older and became exposed to more American pop culture, my efforts to retain my Indian heritage began to dwindle. English was mixed into the Tamil that I spoke at home, and the stories that I had carefully studied were pushed to the dusty, back corners of my mind.
Giving gifts to teachers received the label “teacher’s pet.” Respecting my parents made me an outsider to the mass of parent-hating teenagers. I watched as everyone around me gossiped behind each other’s back and cheated on tests. It became harder than ever to hold onto the morals that my culture had taught me.
With schoolwork, sports, extracurricular activities, hanging out with friends and worrying about the future, embracing and preserving my cultural traditions has been shoved down my list of priorities.
Last year in social studies, I studied the waning of local culture and the spread of Americanization — a subject directly relevant to my life. If English is the language of the future, and the world is becoming homogenized at a breakneck speed, why should I spend my energy preserving my culture?
Resistance to assimilation, and acceptance of all cultures, is what will keep the world the diverse place it is. With diversity comes an array of perspectives, ideas and knowledge. America is not a melting pot, but a fruit salad, with each fruit retaining its own flavor and contributing to the overall luscious combination.
Those who resist homogenization can experience the joy of sharing their culture with others. Every year, my family hosts a Navarathri Golu, a doll showcase attended by all our American friends. The festival celebrates the three main Hindu goddesses and their representation of wisdom, wealth and power.
Every person that attends the festival leaves with a greater understanding of Indian culture, as well as bindi and sandalwood to put on their foreheads and necks, some lentils, a fruit, and a gift such as a cone of henna or an embroidered bag.
My culture is not just a language and a religion. It is a way of life. It has nurtured into me values like being humble, valuing education and always doing my best. These are priceless lessons that I want my children and my grandchildren and my great grandchildren to continue to learn.
First-generation kids like myself can get swept away with the American lifestyle. But those comic books from my childhood will always sit there, gazing at me reproachfully as I bustle here and there.
Five minutes today of reading those forgotten pages will save me the guilt of abandoning a bit of myself tomorrow. So I brush off those cobwebs, and read.