This post continues new category of posts, called “Language Dignity,” wherein I seek to interact with and learn from those who are bilingual (or trilingual) in the US. I hope their stories will grant dignity to their languages and cultures, and teach Americans more about the people around them. For the previous post in this series please go to From Spanish to Latino: New identities formed in the USA and Trilingual in the USA: Staying connected to roots in India.
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Ramesch met his Minnesotan wife in his home country of Singapore. He grew up in that island’s mix of Chinese, Malay, South Indian, and British culture and language, before he immigrated to the monolingual US. Ramesch’s family, like most of the Indians there, comes from the South of the India. But while one hears the Tamil language spoken often in the street, Ramesch’s native language is English; he grew up speaking almost exclusively English at home. He has always found himelf between cultures, whether in Singapore or in the US, because half of his mind rests in India, even though he has never lived there.
The cultural mix of Singapore
People adapt and borrow from each other’s culture. Singapore’s students all learn English–of the British variety–in school, so this is their common language. The Chinese are known to be more reserved in their interactions, and Indians, louder and more expressive. In business interactions, though, Ramesch explained that the Chinese try to express themselves more and the Indians would have to “tone down” their behavior
His ways of communicating look Indian. His animated way of expressing himself even alarms his step-daughter and wife on occasion; he seems angry, when he only feels excited. “Everyone asks why I’m so mad,” he lamented.
Religious beliefs also get mixed in Singapore. For example, in Singapore the number “eight” could be good luck (Chinese) or bad luck (Indian). Ramesch came to the US knowing how to negotiate cultures.
In and out of Indian culture
Even though Ramesch is third generation Singaporian, he identifies strongly with India. He, like many Indians, imagine India as “baradama,” the homeland. They long for a “return” to India; he equates this to others’ cultural longings: “like a Jew, Israel is always home.” He loves Indian culture and language, even though he’s only been to India twice. He spoke English at home, but he nevertheless worked hard at learning his ancestral language, Tamil. As a teenager, his friends made fun of his broken Tamil, but he got to a point where he could speak it well, though often it goes through a stage of English translation.
Living here in the US, he does not fit exactly into the role of a “typical” Indian. He converted to Christianity, even though his great-grandfather was a Hindu brahman. Nevertheless, his morals and values come from his Indian culture. He and his white, Minnesotan wife receive a lot of attention from other Indians. For example, when they were in the hospital giving birth to their second child, they found themselves across the hall from a South Indian couple who would often stare at them. Ramesch and his wife knew, though, that these looks were not disapproving, but “genuine curiosity.” At work, Ramesch’s North Indian colleagues expect him to respond to their Hindi, the Indian lingua franca, even though Ramesch never learned it in Singapore.
Raising American children
As he negotiates Indian, Singaporian, and US culture, Ramesch consciously tries to extract the best of all these cultures as he raises his children. He wants to impart Indian culture to his children, as their heritage, but, at the same time, he recognizes that not all of Indian culture is good. He is happy that his children are growing up in their US environment. Ramesch said, “One part of their roots is going to disappear. On the other hand, it is good that they grow up adapting to this culture the way it is. They need awareness of where they come from, where I come from, their roots, what I brought over.” They need to know their present, as well as their past.
He can’t offer them the mix of language and culture that he grew up with, but he insists on teaching them his values–“what I learned as a child.” While religious celebrations and observances, such as Diwali (the Hindu festival of light) are difficult outside of his home country, he says, “Values are all I can bring over, the only thing that I can adapt.” He believes in a deep “respect for elders” and “disciplining children at an early age.” Children need to know the “necessity for hard work.” Education holds an important place, too, as he said, “Respect for knowledge, respect for books.” He described that back home he “wouldn’t even put a book on the ground because books are knowledge.”
Mixing the best of different cultures seems to be a trait brought from Singapore. He translates this experience by teaching his children about what it means to be Indian, educated, and respectful. He grew up an Indian outside India, and his children will be the same–but what will that mean to them?