When a young man went overseas to study or to work, he carried with him the hopes and aspirations of not just his family but the entire community. This was especially true during the ’60s, ’70s and even in the ’80s, when the exposure to western lifestyle and standard was something one read about or vaguely heard from third parties.
The people who migrated during that time and in subsequent years have been facing a cross-cultural dilemma between maintaining their cultural identities and adopting western social and cultural lifestyles. The problem is acute when it comes to their daughters.
Most of the young NRI men living overseas came to India to find brides to take back with them, while the few girls who were allowed to go there to study were mostly pressured to come back to India by their families, post completion of their respective courses.
The girls who went as young brides were mostly from semi-urban or rural backgrounds, and faced a major cultural shock on landing in the west. Some of them adjusted, while most succumbed to the challenge of western cultural adaptation and lifestyle change.
Children caught between Indian and Western values
Then came the children who were born and brought up in the west. Schooling meant being exposed to other western children and therefore, developing a western mindset was only natural, where individual thought and personal decision making was encouraged.
That ran contrary to Indian values and tradition, where the family makes the first call on how the child was to be brought up; with parents mostly influencing their children’s thought process during the growing years. So, as these children entered their teens in the west, it was natural for the boys to do the ‘boy’ stuff – partying, having a girlfriend, smoking, drinking and other things common in growing years but anathema to Indian parents.
The real problem came when it involved the daughters. The conflict came up at home with parents trying to curb the girl’s western lifestyle, while being more accepting in the case of the son (it’s true back home as well).
The cultural disconnect
Most parents who were born in India remain emotionally attached to the motherland and therefore, become more conscious of maintaining their ‘Indian’ cultural identity. Towards this, the annual pilgrimage to India to meet up with relatives and friends, has been the accepted thing. Each parent hopes that these visits will give their children a glimpse of their ‘true’ cultural identity and help foster love for everything ‘Indian’.
The problem is that children who are born and brought up in the west do not really have a deep emotional connect with India or Indian values and prefer western lifestyle. And this is why many parents have returned to India permanently, despite finding the quality of life here very challenging.
The biggest driver to this ‘return to motherland’ are the daughters. Parents would like their daughters to grow up with Indian ‘values’, whereas the daughters prefer the western values that treat boys and girls equally and encourage independent thinking.
In the west, parents rarely support their children beyond high school. It is natural to expect that on completing high school, their children would move out and support themselves to pursue higher education or start earning for themselves. But for NRIs, the first priority once the daughters complete their education, school or college, is to find a ‘good’ husband, preferably from back home, and see them settle down.
Dr L Srinivasan’s story (name changed)
Take the case of Dr Srinivasan. He left for the US in 1981 to pursue his masters in Electrical Engineering and followed up with a Ph.D. He got married in 1990 to a girl from his village in Andhra Pradesh, had a son in 1992 and a daughter in 1995. His son is now 24 years and daughter 21 years. The son has completed his graduate studies at the bachelor’s level and is now pursuing a master’s while the daughter is still in college.
In 2014, Dr Srinivasan and his wife returned to India permanently, but with an unresolved conflict. The parents want their daughter to return to India on completing college, but would like their son to continue to pursue his Ph.D. The reason for this contradiction – they want their daughter to settle down in India with a ‘local’ but educated boy. The question is: Why no such expectation from the son? In fact, both parents actually want their son to live and work in the US.
So why do NRIs still have this hypocrisy and bias towards the son? Why are the ‘rules’ different for the daughters? That’s the cross-cultural conundrum that NRIs are still trying to contend with. It’s pretty much the same back home, where the son still gets preference in all liberties and lifestyle but curbs apply to the daughter.
Mr Umesh Patel’s story (name changed)
Similar story extends to a Gujarati business family in the US. Mr Patel left for the US in the late ’80s, set up a gas station and now owns two mid-sized hotels there. He got married to a Gujarati girl from Bhuj and along with his two younger brothers, who subsequently joined him there, collectively run the family business.
He has a daughter (18) and a son (16). His problem is his elder daughter who now wants to live separately and pursue higher studies in the US. Both his daughter and son don’t like visiting India and don’t like to mix with people from their community in the US either.
Mr Patel wants to get a Gujarati husband for her from back home so that he, too, can join the business and his daughter can stay with him. Needless to say, there is rebellion from his elder daughter who finds support from her younger brother. The parents are now seriously contemplating selling off their business in the US and returning to India.
This is another classic example of a cross-cultural conflict that exists; where the parents are caught between values they grew up with and those of a nation they have now adopted as their own.
Caught up in this cultural conflict are children of NRIs who don’t get accepted as first class citizens in the country they were born in and don’t identify with the country that their parents came from. Daughters, of course, are expected to remain as ‘Indian’ as is possible, but sons get the option and the freedom to move on.
It’s time for the Indian mindset to change, both back home and within the Indian diaspora, on gender equality and independent thinking. Values are best imbibed when acquired naturally and not forced, but will NRI parents understand that?
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