English Feature #7-37779 Broadcast August 18, 2003
Immigrants to the United States must resolve for themselves how much to integrate into American society, and how much of their native customs and culture to retain. In today’s edition of New American Voices, an immigrant from India addresses the question of assimilation and talks about her own attempts to find harmony between the Indian and American aspects of her life.
Meera Puri taught philosophy at the University of Delhi before coming to the United States as a young bride in 1973. Here she worked as a financial manager for Amtrak, the national railroad, while raising two daughters, and then retired at the age of 55 to devote her time to teaching and to good works. After 30 years in the United States she still dresses in a sari, teaches Hindi and Hindu religion in a weekly Indian Sunday school, and says that she is very comfortable being a Hindu in America.
“In a nutshell, I’ll tell you that the idea of a melting pot is great, but I would enjoy a stew better. So I want to remain a stew. As a result I have retained my Indianness, and maybe I think all of us here, Indians, we are retaining it more in comparison to our counterparts back home, because they are trying to become more Westernized. So when I go home I’m more Indian than my Indian counterparts living there. That is because maybe I’m away from there, and I want to cling to it. They are there, and they don’t have to worry about it.”
Mrs. Puri says that for her, adjusting to life in America was relatively easy, because she came as an adult, with her values already set. Her Indianness and her Hinduism were intrinsic to her, and she accepted an overlay of American culture in everyday life without seeing it as a threat to her identity.
“I wear Western clothes, and I feel very comfortable in them, and I wear my Indian clothes and I’m very comfortable in them. And I think it’s wonderful that our kids have seen that.”
Her own daughters are now twenty-nine and twenty-four years old. One is completing a degree in medicine, the other in clinical psychology. Mrs. Puri says they, too, have achieved a balance between their Indian and American identities, but not without some conflict, particularly in their teenage years.
“I would not say that there was a rebellion, but there was a resistance. And constant questions: ‘Why do we have to do it like this, when the kids in my classroom or my other friends don’t do it like that.’ These kids, at home they’re Indian and outside they’re Americans. They were born here, so they know first that they are Americans. I was not born here, so when I came here I was Indian. So there’s a reason why these kids would have an identity crisis.”
Mrs. Puri believes that it is very important for parents to give their born-in-America children a solid grounding in their ethnic and religious heritage.
“At home it’s important that we do, because otherwise we won’t remain a stew, we would become a melting pot. And then maybe a couple of generations down the road they would have a problem with finding their roots. So if the parents take care of that now, then other generations will not be looking for their roots. They would know them.”
In the case of her two daughters, Mrs. Puri turned to culture, particularly dance, to connect them with their Indian heritage.
“I found that if I give them some of the Indian cultural arts, they would learn their religion through that. And both my kids learned Bharata Natyam, which is a classical form of dance, and all the songs that they dance to give them an introduction to the different gods and the values that they stand for. So that’s how they learned their religion growing up, and it’s worked very well for me.”
With her children grown and out of the house now, Meera Puri devotes more time to spiritual practices and to teaching. She says the teachings of a swami with whom she became acquainted when he came to the Washington area from India in the 1980s influenced her decision to live her life more fully in accordance with the Hindu value system. Throughout the year she herself teaches eight-to-ten-year-olds at a local Indian Sunday school.
“We taught them all the great religious saints or leaders, and not only from India but from all over the world, in the religious history. What they stood for, how they became to be so famous or known, what was their turning point, what made them so great. My purpose for doing that with the kids is, if they pick up one good value, it will take them a long way.”
Mrs. Puri says that as she has delved deeper into Hindu spiritualism, it has increased her appreciation for America, and Americans’ acceptance of the great diversity of cultures and faiths in their country.