For Indian Family, Adaptation and Assimilation in America

August 3, 2011

By Sean Collins-Smith

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Anitha Bhuvaneswaran worries about the cultural tradition of arranged marriage.

Anitha Bhuvaneswaran is anxious.

The 17-year old isn’t particularly worried about life after graduating from Clover Hill High School, where she finished in May with a 4.2 GPA. Entering Virginia Commonwealth University this fall as an undeclared freshman doesn’t really phase her either, though she hopes to eventually pursue a degree in child psychology.

And it’s telling of Bhuvaneswaran’s mounting concerns that the prospect of her father moving back to India and leaving the family – which includes her brother, Karthik Bhuvaneswaran, and her mother, Vasuki Sethuraman – isn’t what keeps her up at night.

No, the sources of Anitha’s anxiety reside explicitly with her Asian Indian culture, and her parents’ insistence on holding firm to certain parts of it – specifically the Indian practice of submitting to an arranged marriage.

“I think about it a lot, and it really gets to me,” Bhuvaneswaran said. “I panic when she brings it up, and she brings it up a lot. It really makes me angry.”

For Bhuvaneswaran, arranged marriage is a fixture of the Indian ways she gladly left behind and a swift rejection of the freedoms she wholly embraces in America. She and her family moved to the U.S. six years ago from the southern part of Tamil Nadu, one of 28 states in India. While the northern area is more modernized, the southern section is much more traditional and cultural.

As a result, she says, her mother and father have grown adapted to the southern region’s more conservative, orthodox ways.

“They’re used to what India is like and they don’t want to change,” Bhuvaneswaran said. “I’m acquainted. I’m here. But my family has problems coping with it and coping with me changing.”

See a multimedia slideshow with Anitha Bhuvaneswaran and her family

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She says her parental plight is part of an Asian Indian culture clash that has become increasingly common in America. As adults struggle to adjust to the way things are done here, the adolescents who accompany them become acclimated with the more liberal culture they’re exposed to and gladly leave behind the culture of their homeland.

It’s a culture that has increasingly sought a presence in the United States over the last decade, as more Indian immigrants like Anitha and her family decide to make the move to America.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were more than 2.8 million Asian Indians living in America in 2010, up 70 percent from the 1.6 million who were here in 2000. That makes Asian Indians one of the largest Asian ethnicities in the country (second only to Chinese Americans), and it makes them the most rapidly growing Asian ethnic group in America.

Their population growth was even more accelerated in Virginia, as the number of Asian Indians more than doubled statewide, from 48,815 in 2000 to 103,916 in 2010. The Richmond area saw its Asian Indian population go from 12,926 to 39,265, an increase of over 300 percent.

Click the audio file below to hear a podcast from Robert Wood, Associate Director for International Recruitment at the VCU Global Education Office

Robert Wood Discusses Indian Nationals.mp3

That rise will definitely lead to more familial clashing says Aditi Chaplunkar, the former president of the award-winning group Tiranga, a VCU Indian National student organization. Parents’ solid, even stubborn grasp to Asian Indian culture is something that she thinks is detrimental to Indian children growing up in America.

“It leads them to define their identity by rebelling against their parents,” said Chaplunkar, who spent the first 23 years of her life in India and will be placed in an arranged marriage.

“Arranged marriages are absolutely something that’s very common, but I personally think it’s very unfortunate for the kids, because you suddenly bring them to a new
country and you suddenly bring them to a new culture and then you expect them to behave like they would have in India.”

In that country, women aren’t treated the same as men says Karthik, Anitha’s 21-year-old brother. He concedes that sometimes even he doesn’t understand the attitude toward females there.

“As far as Indian culture goes, they oppress girls more than men,” he says, shaking his head. “I don’t get their ideas, but they think men just have their lives to lose. For a girl, it’s more than just her life. That’s what worries my mom the most.”

It’s only one of the things that worries their mother, Vasuki Sethuramen, who at 45 continuously thinks about the impact an American lifestyle will have on her children.

“When we moved, Karthik was 15 and Anitha was 12, so I was very worried for my children,” Sethuramen said. “I didn’t want them to get cultural confusion between the culture here and the culture there. I do have a heart, and I do recognize teenage interests.”

“But,” she says, “culture is my main concern.”

What concerns Anitha is merely moving forward. While she’s starting at VCU in the fall, she still faces an uncertain future.

Her father, who doesn’t speak English, feels increasingly useless and lonely in a country where he only knows three people. Anitha can handle him leaving the country, she says, but if her mother doesn’t start showing some leniency with a culture that’s a whole continent away, she’ll have to make some tough decisions.

“I know if I move out they’ll disown me, and I can never talk to my family again,” she
said. “But at the end of the day, it’s me who has to make the decision, it’s all on me. I have to take care of myself.”