I am a first generation South Asian American so when I moved across the country from my family, it didn’t hit me as to how far I was until I had my daughter.
Of course we have FaceTime and make frequent trips to NY from California, but the things I had missed about home are not often able to be transferred over our iPad screen.
It’s the smell of fresh ghee, the sound of my grandmother crushing cardamom with a pestle, the echo of my mother’s voice during her meditative chanting, the whispers of ancient stories my grandfather told me as my eyes fluttered to sleep as a young girl.
So when my daughter made her way into my life, I found myself learning how to make ghee for her baby food, grinding spices for our family dinners, chanting and reading stories of ancient celestial battles and magical forests to her, too.
It’s what I know of as culture and childhood, of home, and it’s so deep within me that I was surprised how much I figured out on my own once I moved away.
“My parents just make food and drop it off, easier than me doing it!”
Without that luxury, it was up to me, just as it was for my own parents when they moved thousands of miles from their parents and motherland to carry on the turmeric infused love. There are still days I call my grandmother (who lives with my parents) and ask her what spices I need for certain dishes. I noticed that as I did things myself, it allowed me to feel confidant that one day, I would hopefully be able to tell my grown up daughter what she needs when she calls me from her stove.
Often, my own parents and in-laws wonder why my husband, who is also Indian, and I know about things like Ayurveda, parts of their heritage that they never looked back upon or even have knowledge of after leaving their country decades ago for a better life in America.
And just so you know, I wasn’t always like this.
As a first generation American, I adapted quickly to the red, white and blue of summer BBQ’s, watched the latest Disney movies and even had a crush on Johnny Depp during my teenage years.
But the colors of Navratri festivals, fresh coconut from the temple, my father’s savory Sunday vegetables simmering in masala that filled the air of our home were just as evident as American Thanksgiving feasts for me, whether I wanted that or not, (the contents of those feasts in my home are another story you can read here lol).
For many years, I grew up in an extended family. My parents were the first of both their families to move to America from India, so for much of my childhood, we had relative after relative come live with us until they got on their feet. My dad’s sisters and their families, my mom’s sisters and my cousins, and even my mother’s parents eventually came on over.
There were times, I remember like many first generation children feel, that these things were embarrassing.
In the “ew, what are you eating” at school lunch at my packed pooda, to “why aren’t you allowed to sleepover” when birthday party sleepovers became a craze, the “how many people live in your house?” when someone came over to the awe at high school dating rules of many asian families: “you can’t have a boyfriend until you want to get married???” Or even my red face when a friend would ask what the smell was in the car if my grandfather drove us somewhere and we caught whiffs of his coconut hair oil, (I now use coconut oil for everything).
It’s why I flocked to the other first generation Indians, Koreans, Puerto Ricans, Israelis of my schooling days.
They got it when we had to cover up if boys were going to be at a party. They knew how important getting straight A’s were.
And then as I got older, this gift my parents gave me, this culture, became not so embarrassing as my non-Indian friends gawked at the beauty of my flowing saris and boys asked me the meaning of my name in college, (opposite of when kids made fun of it on the playground).
Now as adults, my husband and I eagerly invite our Russian, Filipino, American and fellow Indian friends amongst many others for Diwali in our home, who equally love the flavors, sights and sounds as much as we do.
It fills my heart in a way I can’t describe when my daughter asks if she can wear a bindi to school, when she tells me loves eating “green wheels” (an indian okra dish I make) or when I see her in child’s pose breathing alongside me.
When she spends time with all her grandparents and even great-grandmother, I love how much they offer her in forms of sweet ladoos, songs and language, as they immerse in our mother tongue, Gujarati.
This is her culture and I hope that I can gift her with all the beauty of it so she too one day will feel it’s depth within her. So here are 7 ways I try to do just that in daily life:
1. Talk the talk. I’m so guilty of not working on this until now and wish I had done more earlier, but better now than never! The best way for a child to learn a language is for us mommas to start speaking to our children in it. Dedicate a certain day to do this if you have a hard time doing it everyday or all the time and also a certain time once a day to talk to your husband in it to if he happens to speak it also. It could be at dinner or breakfast, just try to at least once a day and stick to it. Also assign one person per language. Our nanny who comes once a week only speaks to her in Spanish and she understands it completely with her! So you can be ‘assigned’ a language if it’s your mother tongue and your husband can be English or his language if your child is a mixed ethnicity. While there are plenty of flash cards and books out there, this is one thing that we have to talk out for the best results.
2. Adventure in the kitchen. At least once a month make a dish you have never made before from your culture. It could be a total flop or a big hit, don’t worry so much in the outcome, enjoy the process, focus on the love and intention of it. We have Gujarati food once a week (if not more) in my home so I can expose my daughter’s palate to its wonderful and healthy flavor. If you aren’t into cooking or simply don’t have the time, order in from a local restaurant or caterer that serves your favorite dishes from youth. Tell your kids your memories of it. It’s just about the experience. My friend is Polish and she rarely cooks, but every Christmas Eve, she invites us all over for a traditional dinner with home-made pierogis and borscht. You can just taste the love!
3. Go to festivals. If there’s a Holi festival at a local park, I always make plans to go to it. For a bonus, dress up in your traditional clothing if your child loves “dress up” as much as mine does. If you are Japanese and there’s a Japanese street fair one evening in the city, be sure to take your kids there. Most cities have websites now that list their events. It’s fun to celebrate your culture with your community. And go to other cultures’ events to immerse your kids in new knowledge as well!
4. Find that world in books. There are so many books out there on all cultures that it’s great to check them out of the library or invest in them for your little one’s book shelf. My friend is Ukrainian and when she had her baby boy, I found this awesome book on an old folk take for her to read to him. Some of my faves for Indian culture: The Little Book of Hindu Deities, Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth, Diwali! (Amma, Tell Me About), If You Were Me and Lived in India…plus of course my own children’s book about bringing awareness of consciousness to them: Laila’s Lullaby.
5. Sing songs. Kids love music and one night I was putting my daughter to sleep, she kept asking me for different songs. We sang hymns my grandmother sings, regular nursery rhymes like Ba-Ba Black Sheep and randomly a few French songs I remembered from studying the language years ago. She recalled all off them the next day, even the French ones, word for word! It goes to show how much they learn through song.
6. Create a ritual. My husband and I try to recite mantras together with our daughter every day. Of course some mornings are crazy, but for the most part, we do it because it brings us together. She even asks us herself now if she can ring the bell in our small prayer room before she eats breakfast. Whatever you do together just shows your child the importance of that small ritual as a family.
7. Go to classes or workshops. A girlfriend of mine teaches the classical South Indian dance form of Bharat Natyam to older kids and beforehand, she hosts a mommy and me Bollywood class for kids my daughter’s age. It’s so fun and my almost 3 yr-old totally always shakes her hips when we go! If you can’t find a class, create your own, (I teach yoga to children of all backgrounds!) but if teaching is not your thing either, just do an activity with your little one on a regular basis. It could be making a mandala if you are Indian or having a flamenco dance-a-thon at home if you are Spanish.
I once heard the saying that culture is the widening of the mind and the spirit. I hope for that with my daughter and as I expand my own learning as a mommy, too.
How do you teach your child about your roots? Would love to hear below!