Balancing between cultures
Indian-American youth keep traditions alive
By MURALI BALAJI
DELAWARE ON-LINE: Februay 28, 2004
When 18-year-old Nikhil Neelkantan of Newark got his driver's license, the
first place he drove was the Hindu Temple in Hockessin for reflection and
prayer. Since then, he has gone to the temple every week, surprising his father,
Neel, who emigrated from India 35 years ago.
"When we grew up in India, the first thing you did when you got something was
you go and pray," said Neel Neelkantan, who said he didn't expect his son to do
the same in the United States. Neelkantan said he was surprised that his son has
embraced a tradition that is common in India, but not here.
Nikhil Neelkantan is one of thousands of young Indian-Americans in Delaware
trying to balance the customs of their South Asian homeland with the vastly
different modern culture of America.
While many young Indian-Americans were once quick to shed time-honored
traditions of India for American ways, more are now increasingly achieving a
balance between their two worlds, in large part because of the recent explosion
of Indian pop culture in America.
The British film "Bend It Like Beckham," which showcased an Indian family's
struggle between tradition and acceptance, scored big with American audiences.
And Indian movies such as "Laagan" and "Monsoon Wedding" have been hits in the
United States, clearing the way for India's movie industry, known as Bollywood,
to export more such films to the West.
Artists such as Jay-Z, Missy Elliott and Timbaland have combined their hip-hop
styles with Indian beats to make Top 40 music that is striking a chord.
Suddenly, being Indian is "hip," teens and experts said.
"There's something about Indian movies and Indian music that gives me a feeling
I don't get from American music," said Shalini Neelkantan, Nikhil's twin sister.
"I feel proud of being Indian."
Local high schools and colleges such as the University of Delaware host dances
where Bhangra, folk music with contemporary beats that originated in Punjab,
ring through the halls. On weekends, young Indian-Americans can watch Indian
music videos and movies on a local cable channel and listen to popular Hindi
songs during Raga, a two-hour program on the UD radio station.
S. Mitra Kalita, author of "Suburban Sahibs," a book examining the impact of
Indian immigration on New Jersey, said the desire of young Indian-Americans to
connect with their Indian culture has a lot to do with Indian influences in
American pop culture.
"It's not a coincidence that being Indian is suddenly en vogue," Kalita said.
Indian-Americans are one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the country,
increasing from 800,000 in 1990 to roughly 1.9 million today. The
Indian-American population in Delaware has nearly tripled in the last decade, up
from 2,200 in 1990 to nearly 6,000 in 2003, with most living in the northern
part of New Castle County, according to census data.
Several Indian restaurants and grocery stores have opened in the county. The
Hindu Temple in Hockessin opened in 2001, becoming a social and cultural
gathering place for many Indian-Americans.
Indians also are among the most affluent of any ethnic group, with a median
income of about $62,000 a year, compared with the U.S. average of $38,000,
according to the census.
That affluence means many young Indian-Americans have the opportunity to travel
to India and learn about their heritage firsthand.
Manjul Asthana, a Newark psychologist who heads the Indo-American Association of
Delaware youth group, said the more exposure young people have to their culture,
the more pride they will take in it.
Asthana, who has lived in Delaware since 1973, recalled that in the late 1980s
and early 1990s, her daughter, Shivika, and other young Indians would shy away
from their heritage because they wanted to be accepted as Americans.
"They didn't want to be seen as different," Asthana said.
The desire of young Indian-Americans to be accepted as Americans often clashed
with their parents' goal of maintaining Indian traditions. Indian parents were
less likely to allow their children to participate in activities considered
American, recalled Shivika.
A former member of the rock group, Papas Fritas, Shivika Asthana, 30, said as a
teen she would sneak out for dates and parties.
She said her parents didn't allow her to participate in sleepovers with friends,
and she had to take Indian dance lessons and learn to play the sitar, an Indian
"My life centered around the Indian community," Shivika recalled. "I wasn't
trying to do that. It happened by default."
She said her parents wanted her to have an arranged marriage, a tradition in
India, and get a professional job. She joined a rock band, instead. "It took my
parents a little convincing, but they accepted it," she said.
Her band, which broke up two years ago, released three CDs and had one of their
songs played in a TV commercial. Shivika is now a freelance Web developer in
Better educational and economic opportunities are the reasons many Indians
immigrated to the United States beginning in the late 1960s. Many came to
Delaware for graduate studies at UD and Goldey-Beacom College or to work at
corporations such as DuPont. Others came to work as doctors or to start their
Many Indian parents limit or prohibit their children from participating in
activities that distract them from academics and the goal of a successful
career. Dinesh and Daisy Rawlley of Middletown said they have encouraged their
children to take part in extra-curricular activities but emphasize academics
"My parents expect nothing less than A's when I come home," said Eshawn Rawlley,
a sophomore who plays soccer and tennis at Tatnall High School in Greenville.
"It makes me want to perform well."
Dinesh Rawlley, Eshawn's father, said the same was expected of him growing up in
Punjab, a state in India. "My parents put an emphasis on studies - nothing
else," Dinesh Rawlley said.
But raising children in the United States, means making room for social
activities, he said.
The Rawlleys recently returned from a two-week trip to India to visit relatives.
"Here, we spend more time with our kids, but we bring them up with some of the
values we grew up with," Rawlley said.
Dinesh and Daisy Rawlley insist on the family having dinner together every
Friday. They often watch Hindi language movies and discuss family issues, which
they credit for keeping the family close-knit and culturally in-touch.
"We try to tell our kids, 'You are lucky to have two cultures - pick the best
out of both,' " said Dinesh Rawlley, who works for Playtex in Dover.
Like many Indian parents, the Rawlleys speak their mother tongue - Hindi - along
with English at home to keep their children fluent in their native language.
The Rawlleys' daughter, Ashley, said she translates Hindi words used in American
songs for her friends.
"They want to know what some of these words mean and it's cool being able to
tell them," she said.
For many young Indian-Americans, dating is the primary area where they find
themselves in a tug of war between the expectations of their traditional
parents, many of whom did not date when they were young, and those of their
contemporary American peers.
"I disagree with how our parents have raised us sometimes," said Jay Mittal, 18,
of Hockessin about growing up in a strict household. "But when we're in college
and our parents are here, they can trust us because we respect their values."
Asthana said children who grow up respecting the importance of education, faith
and Indian history without having it forced on them are more likely to keep
their heritage as they grow older.
"Our kids have a lot of strength in dealing with two cultures," Asthana said.
Sadhana and Ashok Pasricha of Hockessin encourage their daughters, Sarina, 20,
and Meghan, 17, to take part in Indian activities such as Bharatnatyan - a South
Indian dance - and Indian classical music, along with American activities.
Meghan is a trained classical Indian dancer, the co-captain of the girls' golf
team at Sanford School in Hockessin and a black-belt in karate.
In the Pasrichas' home are pictures of Hindu gods, imported artwork from India
and Rolling Stones albums.
"We realized that if we didn't incorporate what our children wanted, this family
wasn't going to be successful," Sadhana Pasricha said. "We also wanted them to
know that there is a place for Indian culture in their lives."
Reach Murali Balaji at 324-2553 or firstname.lastname@example.org.