Relaxing against a pillar in the Paul Robeson Campus Center’s dining hall at Rutgers-Newark after his chemistry exam, 19-year-old pre-med student Jay Bhuta talks with his friends while he eats his lunch. By hanging out often in the campus center, he understands that he is different from his more conservative first-generation Indian peers. With spiked hair, faded jeans and a vintage “Abercrombie” shirt, Bhuta stands out with his eclectic mix of second-generation Indian, Filipino, Israeli, Arab and Persian American friends. But he doesn’t mind. “My clique of friends and I are more Americanized, but we still know our cultural roots,” Bhuta said.
The issue of identity at Rutgers-Newark plays a significant role in how students perceive themselves and the world of difference around them. Yet the importance, complexities and benefits of identity at this multiethnic, multicultural diversity are not always obvious. Identity on campus exists in clustered, monoethnic networks and in multicultural groups. It is individual and pluralistic. It is diverse yet self-segregating. It tears people in two. But it is driven by deliberate choice.
“I don’t have a problem with my cultural identity. I don’t care what other people say or do. I am fine with who I am. I don’t think I am a bad person because my parents raised me with a sense of ‘do what you want,’ ‘be who you want to be.’ They never questioned me. My parents never forced me to go to mandir [Hindu temple],” Bhuta said.
Bhuta and his friends often spend their free periods in Robeson learning about their cultural identities by eating each other’s sack lunches, catching up on chess games and, of course, discussing the latest foreign films. But what mostly binds this diverse group together is that their stories and backgrounds provide them with the opportunities to seek two identities in America—one that is American and another that is ethnic.
“I consider myself to be American but of Indian descent. My parents came here for a better life for my sister and me, and because my uncle was here already. They came to get a better education for us and better jobs for themselves—but mostly to give us better lives,” Bhuta said.
According to sociologist Christopher Lasch in his book The Culture of Narcissism, American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, immigrants who come to America often do not think about the challenges their children will face when they leave their native countries. Instead, they perceive that their children will be able to “escape from the past” with them and simultaneously begin their lives anew without experiencing any complications in generational differences.
For the most part, Bhuta’s parents, like countless first-generation immigrant parents, are able to embark upon new identities in America. But still, as Lasch points out, social conditions are not the same for second-generation immigrants who find themselves enmeshed in American culture. Bhuta said: “My identity is not really as much my problem as it is for more traditional, first-generation Indian Americans that go to school here. I sense they think I am kind of ‘whitewashed.’ Nonetheless, I try my best to relate, although the first inclinations of my immigrant peers is not to do so because they want to stick together. I’m in the middle. I’m trying to fit into my culture, but still I am an American.”
Being “American” for Bhuta does not only mean that he was born in America. Bhuta sees it as adopting a completely different culture, which for some immigrants takes time. For example, instead of attending mandir every Saturday and Sunday, Bhuta spends his weekends playing soccer, playing guitar or horseback riding. He is open to hanging out with his friends on short notice and listens to American rock music. Bhuta also sees no difference between himself and his American peers. But he still knows that American and Indian identities are different. For example, Bhuta observed from his peers that first-generation Indian boys and girls cannot go out for pizza together unless they are dating and have the approval of their parents. Furthermore, “they are religiously devout and committed to their nationalist pride against Pakistan,” Bhuta explained.
Bhuta says his parents fall somewhere between these two stereotypes. “They became American—they have been here since the ’70s—a good 34 years,” he said, “but, still, they do try to keep some of their Indian values.” Bhuta elaborated that although he was born and raised in Cedar Knolls, N.J., went to a predominately white Catholic school and has “dated a few girls, most of whom have been white,” when he dates, his girlfriends still have to measure up to his parents’ Indian standards of etiquette and class.
It is these small differences, which Bhuta often notices between himself and his American peers, which remind him of his ethnic background. Therefore, the idea of immigrants beginning anew in America, according to Lasch, is not fully true. Bhuta’s parents’ slight retention of Indian culture is a trend that his first-generation Indian peers on campus tend to mirror. But does this group behavior somehow shape the world in which Bhuta must live?
According to Stanford University sociologist Thomas Sowell in his book Race and Culture, it does. He offers that “migrations have transferred cultures across vast distances and thereby transformed whole regions of the planet, as new skills, new organizational patterns, new work habits, new savings propensities, new attitudes toward education and toward life all have had their impact on the environments to which people moved. Cultures may be shaped by the environments in which they have evolved, but they are also capable of reshaping other environments to which they are transferred.”
Bhuta thus finds himself torn between two worlds in determining his identity: India and America. “As an American of Indian descent, I find myself looking into my cultural background and identity,” he said. “However, I want to be more Indian and to learn about the culture because it is my family’s past. But still, I know where I come from, and from where I did not.”
According to Sowell, Bhuta will also be fulfilling his need for a sense of security and assurance. Sowell points out that when individuals identify with ethnic or cultural groups, they are more likely able to successfully confront challenges or overcome losses, as opposed to how they would respond to hardship without such networks.
Bhuta began to search for his cultural identity in 2001 because he knew nothing about Indian culture and also because he wanted to make new friends. He said that he was aware of his Indian identity, and he has always been receptive to multiculturalism. But he wanted to identify even more with other Indians to learn about how they interact. Before attending Rutgers-Newark, Bhuta always felt disconnected from his Indian heritage, growing up in his primarily Caucasian suburb. Therefore, he was reluctant to speak with other students of Indian descent because he felt he had no common experiences with them to share.
But reluctance doesn’t have to exist in his or any case. According to Harvard University historian and journalist Michael Ignatieff, for most persons who don’t live their lives enmeshed in cultural groups, identity becomes more a matter of choice—a willingness to make connections and a desire to feel a sense of belonging.
Nonetheless, because levels of commitment to one’s culture are so diverse on campus, Bhuta often finds himself torn between Indian and American communities regardless of any choice that he may make. For these reasons, even Bhuta admits that he himself can be critical of his more conservative peers.
“It’s harder for me to communicate with other Indians right from India because I don’t understand them fully. But I sympathize with them. I don’t laugh at them. If I can help them to feel at home, I would help. I personally understand that identity is hard to deal with because of the position that I am in. But their differences are very easily noticeable: the accent, how they look appearance-wise, their attitude, the way that new immigrant Indians talk, and what they say about Americans and other groups.”
This is not uncommon, according to Rutgers University-Newark sociologist Max Herman. He explained that generational differences make a big difference in how students interact with one another on campus because many who attend Rutgers-Newark experience pressure at home to stay within their cultural boundaries, if not only their ethnic boundaries.
However one may look at it, Bhuta took the first step to reach beyond his own group of second-generation American friends and into first-generation Indian social circles. Although speaking Gujrati as his second language makes it sometimes difficult to communicate with majority Hindi-speaking Indians on campus, he does not feel that he needs to personally accommodate the needs of his conservative peers by learning Hindi in order to fit in. But still, he has picked up a few words in order to relate better with them.
He said: “I have a natural interest in the Indian culture, too. Yeah, now I am kind of joining in. I mean, I never felt like an outcast. But it would be nice to understand what other Indians are talking about—especially those who come from India—to see how they perceive the world and to understand their views on life.”
“Before I met my new Indian friends, I couldn’t open my mouth to say anything because I felt I didn’t know anything about the culture,” Bhuta said, “but recently, I have been watching more Indian movies so that I can actually hold decent conversations with other Indians. I guess it makes me feel more comfortable knowing that there are others like me who are different but very much the same. I like that I come from India, and this way, I can be even more proud because I’m learning about the Indian side to myself.”
Although Bhuta often finds himself at odds in identifying with the Indian community on campus as a second-generation Indian, 21-year-old business major Vashishat Patel looks at his identity on campus through a completely different lens.
Living in Jersey City, one of the largest Indian communities in New Jersey next to Edison and Iselin, Patel takes strong pride in his cultural identity. He grew up in a conservative Indian home, shopping for Indian spices and regularly hanging out on Newark Avenue, also known as “Little India.” Furthermore, attending mandir and Indian social gatherings with his first-generation family and friends has always been an integral part of his life. Nevertheless, with a sporty sense of American style, he doesn’t exactly fit any conservative mold that Bhuta previously explained.
“My parents raised me to always focus on my Indian culture first and foremost. After that, I can follow whichever culture of my choosing. They taught me that just because I live in America doesn’t mean that I have to be fully American. Sometimes I think I should just be American because of the overwhelming media that surrounds us. But at the same time, I believe in my own culture.”
The Indian culture is indeed an intrinsic part of his life. He said: “I go to mandir every Saturday and Sunday. This is my Indian activity during the weekend. And I guess it’s my second life. My first life is school and schoolwork during the week. I pray during the week every day and every morning because of my parents’ influence.”
But he also has another side to him. “My American activities are just sports,” he said. When Patel is not engaged with the Indian community, he watches ESPN and plays basketball. Nonetheless, like Bhuta, his first priority is schoolwork.
“I’m glad my life is like this because it keeps me away from ‘bad company.’ If I wasn’t with my family and didn’t go to mandir every weekend, I might be going to parties. I might be doing drugs. I might smoke. But I don’t do any of those things. I really think parties are immature. I would rather be with my family. My family and my faith are going to help me in the future—parties are not. It’s not that I don’t go to movies or hang out. I do all of that too. After all, it’s the ‘American life’—socializing, hanging with your friends. But I do it in moderation.”
In relation to Bhuta, being a second-generation Indian on campus for Patel is looking within himself and knowing he has a solid grasp of both Indian and American culture, thanks to his diverse upbringing. But even more important, he believes it is his responsibility to carry on the Indian tradition and his family’s history to make him feel good about who he is in America.
“I’m an Indian with an American cultural identity. I’m an Indian because that’s what I am. And I also have American values in my life. For instance, if you ask me what I am, my gut reaction will be to respond ‘I’m an Indian.’ If I give you my passport, I’ll have to say ‘I’m an American,’ because that was an identity that was added to me. My Indian identity that I have was given to me when I was born. It is my appearance, my language and my commitment to mandir.”
Herman explained this phenomenon. “The desire to belong to a tribe generally conflicts with a desire to belong to a society at large. This is especially true in a modern, secular society.” Herman elaborated on how ethnic or cultural communities reach out and fulfill individual needs for connecting, to feel a part of a historical continuum or to simply be “someone” distinguishable.
Nonetheless, Patel said, “It’s your decision whether you want to be American and lose your cultural identity or you want to have both cultures be a part of your life. I mean, if you don’t know anything about your culture now and you’re second generation, it’s highly unlikely you can learn as much as I have since I was born and raised with both identities. But I guess it’s possible. ”
Bhuta agrees that his identity is a matter of choice. Nevertheless, he believes his effort and commitment toward learning about Indian culture will lead him to achieve a sense of belonging. But, according to Bhuta, this does not mean he is willing to compromise his American identity.
Patel, on the other hand, is a different story. Although he is American, Patel’s pride tends to sway toward his Indian identity because, as his parents taught him, “your culture should be wholesome and a part of your life—especially if it is your history and your past. No one should be able to change it—no country should be allowed to change your culture. For example, you don’t have to live by the American culture to live in America. I know so many people that totally hate American culture and they live here. They have their own culture. And that’s the best part of America. Nonetheless, if you want to be ‘accepted’ in society, you have to more or less learn to maintain both identities,” Patel said.
According to Sowell, maintaining two identities for the Indian community has been possible because of its ability to stick together. “There are varying degrees of encapsulation, as with most social phenomena. Overseas Indians have tended to live in relative isolation from surrounding cultures and cut off from the culture of India as it has developed since they or their ancestors left the subcontinent,” Sowell said. Furthermore, travel, modern communications and movies have kept Indians up to speed with their own culture in addition to American culture.
It is therefore reasonable to assert that seeking an individual identity looking within one’s self is a lifelong process that has no definitive time or place. The identities of individuals within families may “freeze” once immigration takes them to distant lands—and, therefore, the time that immigrants leave their ethnic or cultural homeland plays a significant role in how their children view the “new world” around them. As Bhuta and Patel also showed, their parents played an essential role in the way that they perceive their identities in America. The fact that Patel often visits India and identifies with the country, as opposed to Bhuta who has never gone, reinforces this idea.
But more important, the key to understanding these two young men’s journeys through uncovering their cultural identities is “meaning,” according to Lasch. Although both Bhuta and Patel explained that they have always been able to accept their multiculturalism, Patel’s dual identity has offered him a sense of community that Bhuta has never truly experienced. In addition to being American and achieving a host of friends that share the same culture, Patel has the Indian community that offers a more intimate sense of belonging through a shared language, heritage and history. Lasch offers that feeling alone in a world full of cultural opportunity is a life that becomes less meaningful as time progresses. In particular, the idea of having a “home” away from America gives individuals the comforting sense that they too share immigrant roots abroad—better establishing a sense of identity and purpose in America—the land of immigrants.
Furthermore, Lasch offers that extending one’s self to a group with shared interests, values and experiences breaks the barriers of unfamiliarity in America between individuals who strive to communicate with one another.
Nevertheless, “when you know two cultures,” Patel said, “you have to recognize and adapt to the American way of life. There should be no surprises in America. Surprise isn’t a word here. Anything and everything happens here.”
Omid Farza is a 2004 Honors College graduate of Rutgers-Newark.