July 4th & The Immigrant Identity

For many years when I was growing up, July 4th was the day I remembered because it was the birthday of a very close friend. After high school, when we grew apart as people usually do when they shift the stages of their lives, I continued to remember the day even though the action of picking up the phone and wishing the long-lost friend gradually faded away. From 2004-2009, it held no importance to me whatsoever because I could not relate anything that separated it from the other 364 days that went into the construct of a year. As an employee in a major U.S. bank, the day sneaked in a presence if only so far as implying that my managers were out of office on this day.

Then, 2014 happened and I came to the united states of America. A shift did happen, but one that was gradual, that continues to this date and I believe will do so till my last breath. There are many questions that an immigrant has to grapple with everyday when he adopts his new country as his permanent place of residence. There are issues of identity that keeps coming up from quarters as varied as the food you eat, the values you bring at work, the things you do over the weekend or the kinds of sport that you watch. These are minor issues when looked at from a vantage point different from our own. And yet, in their slow intrusive ways they define how we evolve in our own localized way.

I keep going back to Amartya Sen’s Identity and Violence whenever I start thinking about identity. While the book focuses largely on bigger, macro scale factors such as violence and politics when discussing the individual identity of people, I tend to base my thoughts more on the mundane, more normal aspects of the day to day life of an immigrant. Somehow, calling myself immigrant in itself makes me squelch for some reason.

There are so many different ways by which we identify ourselves. I am a “South” “Asian” “man” from “Bihar”. I am an “engineer” who has worked in the “financial services” industry. I am a “Jain” and a “vegetarian”. Roughly, there could easily be 50 different razors by which I can slice my identity. Some of these are more important than others no doubt. My Indian roots for instance is more pronounced and bare in that I tend to relate more with the Indian community, tend to like the Indian food more and prefer cricket over baseball by a stretch. Now, as an Indian living in America, I have acquired another identity. Through various stages of our lives, we tend to aggregate different identities, sometimes going back on one while permanently erasing the other. I posit that with age, acquiring new identities becomes more and more difficult owing to a number of factors including inertia, relative strength of a particular identity and the community we immerse ourselves in – knowingly or otherwise.

Reading about current events in depth and immersing myself in the grass root political news of the day was a favorite activity of mine when I was in India. As the years have gone by living in U.S., I have steadily lost my appetite. Partly that’s because of the fire hose of news that we are increasingly subjected to. But partly, that’s also because of the increasing unfamiliarity with the world I find myself in. This scares me because of the slow but steady recession of an identity that I thought was intrinsic to who I was. I guess identities are superfluous and do not define what I am – they are the original chameleons that shift and distort in order to merge with the surroundings they happen to find themselves in.

Essentially, all the different identities that we imbibe stake their dominance over our behaviors and ways of living through various drivers including geography, community, stages of life, monetary situation, current events. societal obligations etc. True, I tend to discard the power of will and intention in all of this but that’s because the apparent busyness that we surround ourselves with mandate the push-back to a conscious way of living. I cannot, for the love of my life, think of watching cricket in the wee hours of the night just because it happened to be one of my passions at some point of my life. Priorities and ranking become a sad but true aspect of our existence. I also realize that there are many who make it a point to continue with their chosen identities while also attempting to assimilate new ones. All power to them but for me, personally, it does seem like an exercise in futility.

That said, the sense of aimlessness and loss of identity that bugs many a “resident aliens” can only be overcome if we are able to strike a conscious balance between the competing identities. Resisting new colors to our identity will only prolong the directionless sense of being while also casting a sand-box around ourselves. I think there are 4 types of immigrants when it comes to cultural assimilation, a) those who retreat into their comfort zones and immerse themselves around the community they have always known, b) those who attempt to strike a balance between the two cultures and take concrete but baby steps to understand and learn, c) those who excel at imbibing the new cultures and are active enough to continue with their legacy identities through sheer will-power and d) those that abandon their older selves and begin to merge themselves completely into their new surroundings. A little bird tells me that (c) above leverages their select identities to gain big strides into the new world and are the most successful at crafting the lives that they want.

On the American Independence day, I am reminded of Amin Maalouf’s writing on identity (which Acumen sent across in their newsletter this morning):

“[In] the age of globalization and of the ever-accelerating intermingling of elements in which we are all caught up, a new concept of identity is needed, and needed urgently. We cannot be satisfied with forcing billions of bewildered human beings to choose between excessive assertion of their identity and the loss of their identity altogether, between fundamentalism and disintegration. But that is the logical consequence of the prevailing attitude on the subject.

If our contemporaries are not encouraged to accept their multiple affiliations and allegiances; if they cannot reconcile their needs for identity with an open and unprejudiced tolerance of other cultures; if they feel as if they need to choose between the denial of self and the denial of the other – then we shall be bringing into being legions of the lost and hordes of bloodthirsty madmen.”

“For it is the way we look at other people that imprisons them within their own narrowest allegiances. And it is also the way we look at them that may set them free.”

To the America and the diversity the founding fathers chose to imbibe, to the country that despite its many flaws continues to hold the torch of acceptance and liberal ideals, I salute your national day. Happy Independence Day!




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