Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Karma Chameleon

 By Supriya Savkoor

As the daughter of immigrants, someone with brown skin and a somewhat eastern upbringing, I should have a lot to say on the topic of fitting in. My co-bloggers think so, anyway. And yet I’ve been stressing over my post for a week now.

Contrary to what some people might expect or believe, I’ve never had much trouble adapting to new environments. We moved a lot when I was a kid, so I changed elementary schools four times that I can remember. Who knows, it may have been more. It was all so routine.

Of course, in those days, I was often the only brown kid in these schools, which tells you how long ago this was. But that was part of the adventure, what made me unique. Maybe just the tiniest bit exceptional. I’m sure I was the only kid who legitimately got to check “other” on all those old school forms, the ones where the only choices were, “black, white, or other.” None of my teachers knew what I should be checking, so at one time or another, I’ve checked off all of them. (Maybe I’m more black than white? Or, maybe I’m more white? I’m from Ohio, so could I be other? That’s right, a perfect chameleon, I chose my answer depending on my color mood.)

And so now, trying to remember the times when I didn’t fit in, I do suddenly recall a little acronym we American children born of Indian parents have heard so often (supposedly not as an insult): ABCD. That stands for American-born confused desi. Desis being anyone of South Asian descent, so Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Nepalis, Sri Lankans, and any others with roots on the subcontinent.

Was I confused? Most certainly. In America, ever the melting pot, even back then, most folks accepted my differences, though perhaps they didn’t always understand them. (True story: “India? Oh yeah, where they’ve got our hostages.”) But why did so many Indians, especially ones living in India, think I was confused?

I don’t mean to poke fun of either side, but I know such stories ring true to many “others” like me. And I saw the genuine confusion in the eyes of relatives back east. I was more other there than I was here. I looked like one of them, but I didn’t speak any of their languages, know their national anthem, or drink their water. So they were the ones confused, right? Er, not me.

I may not have known it then but being other gave me a deeper appreciation for both cultures as well numerous privileges and opportunities in both countries. While I wasn’t always grateful for them back then, I certainly am now. You could say it was my karma.

Have you ever had to walk the line between two cultures? If so, were you successful, and how did you do it?


  1. What a lovely post, Supriya. I'm so glad you have been able to embrace both cultures - that's a very special thing to have.

    I've walked the line between Australia and South America and it can be hard, but what a wonderful experience. An open heart and mind and a williness to learn is all that's required, I believe, to balance on that line.

  2. Wonderful post! Walking that line between cultures as a kid and as a grown up can be a completely different experience/challenge! While I am still trying to walk this line at work or in my neighbourhood and decide if I am successful, reading this gives me a perspective of what my kids go through in their own little world.
    I have an uphill task of bridging that gap between cultures for my little ones. So, as confused as I may be about what is right, (should I teach my kids my mother tongue or let them excel in the langauge of their home land?!) I have to take a stance.. tough!

  3. Parvathi, you bring up so many interesting points here. Yes, it’s as though you as an adult immigrant and your kids who were born here almost have opposing objectives, right? Yours is adapting to a new country and theirs is understanding your old one—and in so doing, better understand each other. With all the choices that abound, that task is easier in some ways and more complicated in others. (When I was a kid, pediatricians warned parents not to speak anything other than English at home else heir kids would suffer in school.) Bridging the gap isn’t always easy or the same for everyone but it gives us first-generation kids a valuable and unique perspective on what is means to be part of a community, or rather several of them. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

  4. Supriya, the image of karma chameleon is going to stick with me for a long time! Such a wonderful way to express the way you bridge the cultural divide.

    Parvathi, I think you should teach your children your mother tongue. They will be native speakers of the language in the dominant culture where you live no matter what other languages you teach them. And being able to understand your native language will give them a stronger sense of their heritage.

  5. I just have to say to Parvathi, yes teach your children your mother tongue. I so wish my German mother had taught me her language when I was a kid. I learned it in college, but have never been able to speak it well. I have always been envious of folks who are bi-lingual.

  6. I also grew up among worlds, and I am definitely a chameleon. Growing up white in Africa and Asia, I ws expected to be a little different. Coming "home" where I look like I fit in is the difficult part. I think the experience of growing up among cultures gives us some great skills and insights, and I agree that being multilingual is so important.

    Great post!

  7. Yep, guilty. I should post for you the photo I used when I taught Russian - set in Moscow, it shows a woman in a long dark wool coat, fur hat and colorful flowered scarf. It was a point of pride when I learned to blend to the point when no one asked me where I was I shift between Kyrgyz wife and American woman, picking and choosing which traditions to follow...changing shades, but not my essential colors.