Reading

Transcultural Identities

“Like many immigrant offspring I felt intense pressure to be two things, loyal to the old world and fluent in the new, approved of on either side of the hyphen.”

Cultural psychologist Carola Suárez-Orozco writes that for chil­dren, “the task of immigration . . . is creating a transcultural identity.” She explains, “These youth must creatively fuse aspects of two or more cultures—the parental tradition and the new culture or cultures. In so doing, they synthesize an identity that does not require them to choose between cultures but incorporates traits of both cultures.” 1

Like many immigrants to Europe, Indian-American author Jhumpa Lahiri has lived in two cultures for most of her life. Balancing her dual identity has not always been easy for her. Despite her rich heritage, while growing up, she never felt completely Indian or American. Only later in life did she accept both of her identities. Lahiri, now a parent, hopes to pass both of her identities on to her children. She explains:

I have lived in the United States for almost 37 years and antici­pate growing old in this country. Therefore, with the exception of my first two years in London, “Indian-American” has been a constant way to describe me. Less constant is my relationship to the term. When I was growing up in Rhode Island in the 1970s I felt neither Indian nor American. Like many immigrant offspring I felt intense pressure to be two things, loyal to the old world and fluent in the new, approved of on either side of the hyphen. Looking back, I see that this was generally the case. But my perception as a young girl was that I fell short at both ends, shuttling between two dimensions that had noth­ing to do with one another.

A woman and a man wear semi-formal clothing at an event. The woman carries a baby.

At home I followed the cus­toms of my parents, speaking Bengali and eating rice and dal2 with my fingers. These ordinary facts seemed part of a secret, utterly alien way of life, and I took pains to hide them from my American friends. For my parents, home was not our house in Rhode Island but Calcutta, where they were raised. I was aware that the things they lived for—the Nazrul songs they listened to on the reel-to-reel, the family they missed, the clothes my mother wore that were not available in any store in any mall—were at once as precious and as worthless as an outmoded currency.

I also entered a world my parents had little knowledge or con­trol of: school, books, music, television, things that seeped in and became a fundamental aspect of who I am. I spoke English without an accent, comprehending the language in a way my parents still do not. And yet there was evidence that I was not entirely American. In addition to my distinguishing name and looks, I did not attend Sunday school, did not know how to ice-skate, and disappeared to India for months at a time. Many of my friends proudly called themselves Irish-American or Italian-American. But they were several generations removed from the frequently humiliating process of immigration, so that the ethnic roots they claimed had descended underground whereas mine were still tangled and green. According to my parents I was not American, nor would I ever be no matter how hard I tried. I felt doomed by their pronouncement, mis­understood and gradually defiant. In spite of the first lessons of arithmetic, one plus one did not equal two but zero, my conflicting selves always canceling each other out.

. . . As I approach middle age, one plus one equals two, both in my work and in my daily existence. The traditions on either side of the hyphen dwell in me like siblings, still occasionally sparring, one outshining the other depending on the day. But like siblings they are intimately familiar with one another, for­giving and intertwined. When my husband and I were married five years ago in Calcutta we invited friends who had never been to India, and they came full of enthusiasm for a place I avoided talking about in my childhood, fearful of what people might say. Around non-Indian friends, I no longer feel com­pelled to hide the fact that I speak another language. I speak Bengali to my children, even though I lack the proficiency to teach them to read or write the language. As a child I sought perfection and so denied myself the claim to any identity. As an adult I accept that a bicultural upbringing is a rich but imperfect thing.

While I am American by virtue of the fact that I was raised in this country, I am Indian thanks to the efforts of two individu­als. I feel Indian not because of the time I’ve spent in India or because of my genetic composition but rather because of my parents’ steadfast presence in my life. . . .

I have always believed that I lack the authority my parents bring to being Indian. But as long as they live they protect me from feeling like an impostor. Their passing will mark not only the loss of the people who created me but the loss of a sin­gular way of life, a singular struggle. The immigrant’s journey, no matter how ultimately rewarding, is founded on departure and deprivation, but it secures for the subsequent generation a sense of arrival and advantage. I can see a day coming when my American side, lacking the counterpoint India has until now maintained, begins to gain ascendancy and weight. It is in fiction that I will continue to interpret the term “Indian-Ameri­can,” calculating that shifting equation, whatever answers it may yield.

This reading contains excerpts from Jhumpa Lahiri’s, “My Two Lives,” Newsweek World News.3

Listen to the audio version

Many immigrants who identify strongly with the multiple aspects of their heritage balance many aspects of their traditions and cultures. Indian-American author Jhumpa Lahiri has lived most of her life in two cultures and shares the challenges that arise growing up feeling neither completely Indian or American. This audio reading is excerpted from her article "My Two Lives."

 

  1. arola Suárez-Orozco, “Formulating Identity in a Globalized World,” Globalization: Culture and Education in the New Millennium, ed. Marcelo Suárez-Orozco and Qin-Hilliard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 192.
  2. Dal is an Indian term for all varieties of dried beans, split peas, and lentils.
  3. Jhumpa Lahiri, “My Two Lives,” Newsweek World News,http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11569225/site/newsweek/ (accessed May 23, 2007).

Connection Questions

  1. What does Suárez-Orozsco mean when she says “the task of immigration . . . is creating a transcultural identity”? How was Lahiri able to “fuse” aspects of her Indian identity with her identity as an American?
  2. Lahiri writes, “Like many immigrant offspring I felt intense pressure to be two things, loyal to the old world and fluent in the new, approved of on either side of the hyphen.” Why is there pressure to choose between her two identities? Do people have to choose one identity?
  3. Lahiri talks about the Indian customs she followed at home with her parents. She explains, “These ordinary facts seemed part of a secret, utterly alien way of life, and I took pains to hide them from my American friends. . . . According to my parents I was not American, nor would I ever be no matter how hard I tried . . . one plus one did not equal two but zero, my conflicting selves always canceling each other out.” What do you think Lahiri means? Why do you think she felt she had to hide her identity? Are there times when you hide parts of who you are?
  4. Lahiri worries she lacks the “authority” to be Indian. Why? What authority does a person need to belong to a group? Who determines which people belong to a group and which people don’t belong?

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