Category Archives: Blog

Mangoes and pickles, drugs and arms. And MY American dream

 

“Do you have any Indian mangoes?” the immigration officer asks me in a conspiratorial tone.

I stare at him, confused. In the background my two kids bicker, tired after our long flight from India.

“Mangoes?” I ask stupidly.

Does this man like mangoes? I wonder. Is this a mango-bribe to get into the United States?

Having just spent six weeks in India, I have become used to bribing my way to the front of every line, even at a grocery store, and that is the first thought that enters my travel-weary, jetlagged mind.

“If you do have mangoes you should tell me now,” the immigration officer continues. “You Indians are always trying to sneak mangoes in this time of year.”

Of course! It is mango season in India and if you are Indian, life is incomplete without summer mangoes. Naturally, an Indian here and there will try to sneak some fruit into the United States.

“We have dogs that are trained to sniff out mangoes,” the officer tells me. “So, if you confess now, it will save you the trouble of opening your bags.”

I continue to look at him stupidly. Having just been in a country where everything is chaos and disorder and often dirty and colorful and noisy, it is taking me a little time to get re-accustomed to the order of the United States.

“No, I am not carrying any mangoes,” I answer and even while I am saying it I remember my mother asking if I wanted to bring some mango pulp back with me, freshly squeezed from the mangoes in my parents’ orchards. I had said “no,” irritably, to my mother but she always helps me pack and I have often returned from India and opened my bags to find things my mother thinks I must have and which I feel I don’t need at all.

Did she pack that pulp? I wonder, suddenly angry with my mother.

Some of what I was thinking must have shown in my face because the officer gave me a paper with a green A on it. That means the dogs will be specially brought to sniff my bags and I have to put them through the X-Ray machine and open each one.

I am too tired to argue and drag my kids towards baggage claim where an officer descends upon us with a dog that sniffs all our bags. The kids are, of course, thrilled but I am not.

The dog can’t smell any mangoes and I sigh with relief and feel sorry for being mad at my mother. But we still have to put all our bags through the X-Ray and every one of my four large suitcases is opened. I have six small jars of lime pickles in there – made from the lime in my parents’ orchards. I am addicted to this pickle and have also passed it on to several of my non-Indian friends who are now similarly addicted. The bottles are sealed but the officer lifts them out with gloved hands and asks me what they are. I answer and tell him they are preserved and sealed and, therefore, safe.

He doesn’t believe me and says I can’t bring them in. By now, I am very tired and very angry. I let him take them and once I have all my bags and my kids out the door, turn around and yell.

“Don’t throw them. They are yummy. Eat them.”

At this point my indignation is turning into outrage. So I cannot bring in mangoes and pickles into the country because they might have some exotic germ, a superbug that will chew through everything, killing people as it goes? It is U.S. protectionism at its best – its people have to be kept safe and what needs to be done needs to be done.

My outrage suddenly writes itself into a blog.

What of all the things that the United States sends out into the world?

The drugs, the arms, the toxic waste, the high-fructose corn syrup, the junk food, the “anything-is-fine-as-long-as-it-makes-us-happy” motto?

United States’ neutrality is only a fantasy as it pits one nation against another, supplying arms, causing internal conflict and, worst of all, having no reservations about invading any place it wants.

http://www.sipri.org/media/pressreleases/2015/at-march-2015

We have bases in 74 countries and for what? To save the world from, uh, germs?

http://qz.com/374138/these-are-all-the-countries-where-the-us-has-a-military-presence/

Then there are the drugs that the big pharmaceuticals test in Third World countries where they can get “uninformed” consent by offering money. In India, just two years ago, a US-based pharma was testing a contraceptive that had been shown to have serious side-effects – heart failure among them – and it was being tested in the rural areas.

http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2011/01/deadly-medicine-201101

Or how about high-fructose corn syrup that has invaded the world? The MacDonald’s junk food that is giving rise to obesity even in very poor countries? What about dumping its garbage in the developing world?

http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2013/dec/14/toxic-ewaste-illegal-dumping-developing-countries

 

What kind of genetically-modified superdogs can the rest of the world make to sniff and keep out the United States of America?

In comparison, how bad can my alphonso mangoes and lime pickles be? So now, as I live my American dream, I am hoping it might include some Indian mangoes and homemade lime pickles. If I can have them, my life will be perfect and I will pretend to not notice the other things that cross US borders.

My obsessions, confessions, and epiphanies about (American) football

I arrived in the United States 14 years ago and did everything to fit in. I love experiencing new cultures and customs and the United States was particularly special – a country built by a hardworking people who, by and large, accepted differences in race, religion, and background. I greedily devoured everything – Thanksgiving and Halloween, apple pie and cider, sneakers and sweatshirts, and everything that was so uniquely American. I came here to attend university, intending to return home to India, but met my American husband three months before I graduated and the rest is history. I stayed on and became American enough that this now feels like home. These days I feel proud on July 4th, agony on September 11th, and embarrassed every time there is a mass shooting and the world sniggers at our stupidity and stubbornness. I even get defensive when I visit India and people criticize the United States.

The one thing that has prevented my complete Americanization, interestingly, is my dislike of football. It wouldn’t bother me if it wasn’t such a crucial part of being American, of being accepted. It wouldn’t bother me if that wasn’t the only thing most people like to talk about when they first meet you. It wouldn’t bother me if I felt it was “just a sport,” but it is so much more – it is America’s religion, identity, and its fans are more fanatical than anything I have ever known.

To understand and converse intelligently about the sport, I did read up about it in the beginning. But the more I read the more flummoxed I became. First, I couldn’t understand why it was called football when the foot wasn’t really used to kick the ball. I could appreciate the strategy and moderate intelligence of the game but I couldn’t understand its brutality. I couldn’t fathom why the NFL was a non-profit organization.

The cynic in me reared her ugly head. My Third World sensibilities and insecurities kicked in; I was appalled at the amount spent on sports-related activities – not playing the sport – but watching it, advertising it, creating video games around it. But since everything here is bigger (and hence better?) I made peace with that.

Then there were the injuries (http://www.ryot.org/nfl-concussion-chris-borland-patrick-willis-retirement/925317) and while I felt initially indignant that this could happen in the First World, I decided I could live with it. What’s a few head injuries when people are dying from bombs, hunger, and disease? Besides, if you were a successful player you did get to enjoy some fame and fortune before you completely lost it and that wasn’t such a bad deal, was it?

In the end, the thing that pushed me over the edge and made me hate this sport was its very-little-discussed, passionately-denied dark side. Football, I discovered, is the cause of and directly related to an increase in human trafficking (particularly sex trafficking) in the United States. To me there is nothing worse than the degradation of another human being and the victimization of women tops the list (http://national.deseretnews.com/article/3412/the-super-bowl-is-the-largest-human-trafficking-event-in-the-country.html).

(http://www.latimes.com/nation/nationnow/la-na-nn-sex-trafficking-sting-super-bowl-20150202-story)

Women should be the first to boycott this game. I cringe at the millions of women who sit in stadiums and watch the degradation of other women – scantily dressed cheerleaders encouraging the machismo on the field. Do they ever wonder why female football doesn’t have male cheerleaders? To me that is the irony of American feminism – the same women who abhor sexism do not question it when it hits them in the face (http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/25/sport/nfl-cheerleaders-minnesota-vikings-mvc/).

But my cynicism about the game is largely misunderstood. When I speak against it, a football lover will defend it like a religion – even more than he or she might defend Christianity and God, Hinduism and Krishna. Islam and Allah. The NFL and the NRA are not very different in their resistance to changing their laws, their checks and controls. They can do what they want with such impunity because we, as a society, are constantly readjusting our values so we don’t have to deny ourselves the pleasure of this game, WATCHING the game that is.

The irony is that football and team sports in general have made me feel like an outsider in the United States. There is a certain arrogance to this attitude – a certain American belief that the way things are done here are so unquestioningly right – be it guns, foreign policies or sports. A ludicrousness to the way people will more willingly accept my criticisms of Christianity than they will about football (http://www.faithstreet.com/onfaith/2014/09/03/confronting-the-dark-side-of-football-a-qa-with-steve-almond/33910)

In the last year I have, unwittingly, hurled myself into a small, often-ostracized group of football haters. I do feel some pride in the fact that many members of this “club” were diehard football fans most of their lives and then went over to the other side (damnit, how unpatriotic). Steve Almond (a Boston-area writer I deeply admire for speaking out against things he considers wrong) is in this club. His book Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto, explains why he chose to not support the sport after a lifetime of doing exactly that. People have, of course, called him crazy. But didn’t people call Protestants crazy?

My impression that football is a religion was confirmed on a recent visit to the Gillette Stadium (no I wasn’t there to watch a game though there was a game going on and the place was packed). It was my first visit to the stadium and I was in awe – it was so huge, so magnificent, and so unreal. It occurred to me that if I were an alien visiting earth, the scene below wouldn’t be that unfamiliar.

It could be any number of things.

A Mayan pyramid surrounded by thousands of people, praying. At the pyramid’s peak, a child or an adult or an animal about to be sacrificed. A wave of chanting spreading across the gathered crowd.

A Native American ritual, everyone dressed up, faces painted, elaborate head gear. They are singing and dancing to the gods – the sun, the moon, the stars.

A Hindu temple where heat and sweat mix with the smell of incense and flowers and everyone enters a trance-like state in which it is difficult to differentiate pain and pleasure because they become one.

A football stadium in a frenzy. Thousands dressed in similar clothes, many with their faces painted. Some have head gear, too. They are shouting for their gods to win. Big strong gods with helmets and power. If the gods win, they win. The gods they idolize, canonize, proselytize and who they forgive for their many misdemeanors because they are THEIRS. In the end it isn’t the victory of a team, but of a personal belief system, of vanity, and the primal need to dominate.

So ironic that a country which considers so much pagan has created its own brand of paganism. Where the sacrifices cannot be seen because they are happening elsewhere – in dark alleys, houses, pubs, and football parties. http://www.nber.org/papers/w15497

My “meeting” with a Nobel laureate

 

A few years ago, a six-year-old boy was found semi-conscious close to a temple in northern India. He had a head wound – so severe it almost seemed like someone had tried to cut his head off with an axe and missed.

The boy lived and a horrific story unraveled – someone had tried to chop the child’s head off. And missed.

The boy lived with his sick, widowed mother in a severely drought-ridden village. That year, the monsoons hadn’t come again – the land cracked, the sun blazed on barren fields, and a curious lethargy sank into everything that was still alive. The village elders and thinkers got together to discuss the problem – a curse, they decided, that had to be lifted. They agreed the little boy was the root cause of the village’s misfortunes including his mother’s sickness (no one had the courage to point out that the woman was severely malnourished) and that he had to be sacrificed to appease the gods and lift the curse.

Except, when the executor raised his axe, the child moved and it came down on his head rather than his neck. The group performing the sacrifice concluded the boy was so evil that the gods were not even accepting him and abandoned him by the temple.

The boy ended up in the care of an Indian foundation fighting child slavery and abuse. The person telling the story, during a breakfast meeting in Boston, was Kailash Satyarthi, the organization’s founder who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year. His work, which began in the 1980’s and is spread in 100 countries, has freed more than 80,000 children. The people responsible for child trafficking are powerful and Satyarthi has suffered severe injuries trying to free children but it doesn’t stop him.

“You cannot stop the quest for freedom,” he said to the small group gathered in the room to hear him speak. Just being in the same room, a few feet from him, made me feel humble and honored and so many things, including outrage.

The people who come to Satyarthi for help are often poor and illiterate. To them, he isn’t a Nobel laureate but a man who might help them find their missing children – an unimaginable task because 6 children go missing every hour in India and 170 million children are in forced labor worldwide.

I have come across a few celebrities and “important” people in my life but no one who is so truly important or so truly humble or so truly courageous. I can’t imagine what I would do if I was approached by a mother whose three daughters, between the ages of 6 and 12, have all been kidnapped. I can’t imagine how I would deal with the frustration of not being able to find a missing child or, worse still, finding the child and being unable to free him or her because the people “in charge” are simply too powerful and well-connected.

“The tears I see in a mother’s eyes when we find and bring a lost child back to her are divine,” Satyarthi said. “I see god, then.”

Satyarthi speaks with a heavy Indian accent, dresses simply and has a very humble persona, yet his presence fills the room. When he speaks, his outrage becomes your outrage, his fight your fight, his courage your strength. I am, overall, a person who is moderately socially aware and who questions the norms of society but by the end of the morning I began feeling pretty selfish. I know I wasn’t the only one in the room to feel that way.

The group that morning included several local philanthropists, thinkers, activists, and people who wanted to make a difference. Many were prominent and successful and, yet, at the end one woman asked Satyarthi what “we could do” to make things better.

The answer, as Satyarthi said, is bringing your kids up to be outraged at injustice, speak out against it. From a lifetime of outrage comes a lifetime of peace, he said.

But there was something else that occurred to me that morning. Satyarthi’s own happiness seemed to be based on making other people happy. To give and to help, selflessly. To make the grief of others your own, to make their battles yours.

I often tell my kids, “No matter what you do, I want you to be happy.” Suddenly, that seems selfish to me – a very individualistic, western concept that we have all come to believe in. Growing up in India I don’t remember my parents saying that to me – personal happiness wasn’t a goal you aspired to achieve.

But happiness is important. The secret, then, might lie in raising your kids to find happiness in other people’s happiness.

What if we were to bring up our children in such a way that their happiness is selfless? Where making the world better makes them feel fulfilled? Where they don’t feel the need to follow a trend, a fashion, a fad, or a whim? Where their idea of self and their confidence is not based on material things but something much more internal and deep?

What if?

But we are such a long way from there. All you have to do is open the newspaper to see what people think is important. The little boy’s story never made the news, in India or anywhere else. Other things did – India’s cricket, Bollywood, celebrity gossip, Liz Hurley’s wedding. We simply didn’t have the newspaper space or the time to cover the attempted beheading of a six-year-old.

Sprite and Stupid Nutella

I have wondered when my kids might first experience peer pressure, or rather, when they might first succumb to it. It happened sooner than I thought – two days ago my nine-year-old son threw all caution to the wind and drank Sprite.

Yes, Sprite.

And, really, it wasn’t the drinking of the Sprite that rocked our world as much as how it happened, and what followed.

We were at a sit-down dinner party where the kids and adults were at different tables.

My son was chatting to a Sprite-drinking eight-year-old boy sitting next to him. At first, my husband and I thought he had made a friend and watched with proud smiles on our faces. Our son was so friendly. And, oh, that little boy was so cute.

We realized things were not as friendly or right as they seemed when our son, who isn’t allowed to drink soda and doesn’t really like it, came to us with a can of Sprite asking if he could have it.

“Why?” my husband asked.

“Because I want to,” our son replied.

“Ok, it is full of sugar and not good for you,” my husband explained. “There is water and other juices you can have.”

Our son cupped the Sprite can between his hands, confused.

“We want you to make an informed decision,” I explained. “We’ve told you it isn’t good for you, but it is your choice.

“Will you be mad if I have it?” our child asked.

“Not at all,” I lied, imagining a sixteen-year-old standing before me cupping a beer can, a sniggering group of teenagers in the background.

So our son proceeded to go to his table, pop open the can and drink the Sprite.

I shrugged. This would happen again and again, I knew. Our children would try all manner of things, make bad choices, disappoint us. Then again, that is what growing up is – to learn some hard lessons and come out bigger, better. There were no lessons to be learned tonight, I thought – succumbing to peer pressure and drinking Sprite was hardly worthy of a life-lesson.

I thought wrong.

Within fifteen minutes our son was back at our table because the boy he’d tried to impress by drinking Sprite was not only unimpressed, he was calling him “Stupid Nutella.” Now my son is not stupid, but he is quite Nutella-ish. He is sweet and he is brown.

My husband and I decided we would back off and let our child fight his own battles.

Then the boy began adding to the “Stupid Nutella,” phrase. “Stupid, slimy Nutella,” he said. “Stupid, slimy Nutella, booger-wooger,” he said.

I have to admit I even thought it was funny – even a racist eight-year-old should have more words to work with.

When my son told him he didn’t eat a beef dish, being offered that night, because he was Hindu the boy remarked that “no religion that is against beef can be that good.”

At this point my son was quite, quite mad and agitated. I so wanted to wring the little bully’s neck but I sat tight and so did my husband. If we intervened at this point, our son would think we would always be there to bail him out.

“You should have ignored that boy from the beginning,” I said to my son later, when we had wiped his tears and calmed him down. “A boy who laughs at you because you don’t drink Sprite can’t be that nice.”

Drinking that can of soda to impress the eight-year-old was the best thing that could have happened. Our son learned that not only was it not a good idea to succumb to peer pressure but that the people that make you to do something, against your better judgment, are bad news.

I hope my son remembers the Sprite and Stupid Nutella incident when he reaches for a can of beer in high school (in the first draft of my blog, the sentence read, “reaches for a can of beer in his sophomore year in college,” which readers pointed out was wishful thinking and unrealistic). When he finds he has fewer friends because he doesn’t have anything in common with his football-watching, video game-playing, beer-guzzling classmates. When the most popular, sought-after girl turns him down because he just isn’t “cool” enough.

I wondered what kind of parents could take their child’s innocence and turn it into something vicious and mean. The racism, the meanness was obviously not coming from an eight-year-old. It was being taught.

And re-taught. Even while we still have a long way to go before we learn Sprite is just a lot of gas and sugar, even if has no coloring, and Nutella is not stupid, even if it is brown.

The Head Lice-Vice

That dreaded mid-morning call from the school nurse.

“Hi, this is the school nurse. I am calling about your son.”

My heart stops for a second. My son’s school nurse is not someone who will call because my child is sneezing. She is pretty cool. So this must be something bad, I am convinced.

“He has head lice,” the nurse explains. “You have to take him home. He cannot return until he has been treated.”

I breathe a sigh of relief. It is only head lice. Then I begin to panic, again. My son cannot return to school until he has been treated. Does that mean I have to pick out every single nit from his hair, which he happens to have plenty of?

“What kind of treatment?” I ask the nurse.

She explains I can buy it at CVS. A shampoo, gel, comb. And, then, he can return to school.

I have heard of those treatments. They are a pain in the neck, but I can do it this very afternoon. Forget work. I cannot have my son miss school because of lice. For God’s sake, lice. Those pesky black creatures crawling in your hair, nesting, laying hundreds of eggs. Breeding like only lice can. Taking over your life.

Because that is what happened. Those lice took over my life.

First I did the whole treatment on my son. Then decided, what the heck, let me do the same for my daughter. Of course, she had them too. The whole school, in fact the entire school district, was under lice attack.

I first did the shampoo, then the gel. Then combed through every strand of my children’s hair to check for nits. Then, thorough as I am, I went a step ahead and got this special lice zapper, a comb that zaps and kills nits.

Then I washed all the sheets, the pillow cases, put hair accessories in the freezer to kill nits, and repeated the same thing the next day. My best friend suggested going to a lice demolition service, a company that specializes in lice extermination. “Save yourself the headache and let them do it even if it costs you a few hundred dollars.”

I did and am glad I did. The children (and I, because my head had been itching since I heard the word ‘lice’) got checked. We were told we were lice-free and sent home.

Another sigh of relief. A serious lice infestation means weeks of cleaning bedding, upholstery, continuously combing hair with a metal comb that hurts. And hours of dealing with something that, in the end, is not dangerous but just annoying.

I also learned that you must make a “lice confession,” to school, friends, everyone, so people can decide if they want to stay away from you or not. Then, there is this whole stigma attached to having lice – that you are not clean enough, your house is not clean enough. Which is baloney in my case because I could put Dr. Lister to shame with my spotlessly clean house and my obsession with cleanliness.

To be honest I am not freaked out about lice. I grew up in India, a tropical country where creatures like these thrive, and I accepted their somewhat benign existence. Until now.

Now, I know I must deal with them immediately, effectively. Make sure others are not afflicted by this affliction. I must mount a strategic attack, just like the US army does, on the lice in my children’s hair. I must protect them from the head lice-vice.

Because, I have concluded, that that is exactly how head lice are perceived. An indication of how you live, how you think, your values. A bully in school, a racist, a rough kid, is more accepted than a head lice-kid. Somehow, head lice are something you can prevent. How can you prevent a child from being a bully or mean? It is the way someone is born, right?

Of course.

I don’t blame people for rushing to the lice demolition experts to get their kids checked, just to make sure they don’t have lice. Because, of course, if there was a company that could check our kids for other vices – bullying, racism, meanness – we would take them there. Just to make sure they were fine.

Vice-free.

Head-lice-free.

Boston Plans on Taking on Johns

Boston went after prostitutes. It went after pimps controlling the prostitutes. But neither approach did much to discourage commercial sex trafficking in the city. In a new initiative, Mayor Martin J. Walsh plans on coming down hard on johns who, in fact, drive the sex trade. If johns are discouraged from buying sex, it reduces the demand for women selling sex and pimps go out of business.

Mayor Walsh made dismantling Boston’s sex trade part of his policy platform when running for office. Last week, he made good his promise hosting a summit with Demand Abolition, a Cambridge-based group chaired by former ambassador Swanee Hunt. Demand Abolition leads a nationwide effort to abolish the illegal commercial sex industry by eradicating demand.

At the June 4, 2014, summit in Hotel Commonwealth, activists, law enforcement officials, policy-makers, and researchers met to launch Boston’s program for reducing commercial sex demand. Such initiatives are already underway in San Francisco, Seattle, and Denver.

Sex trafficking is a $9.5 billion a year industry in the United States. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that up to 300,000 minors are at risk of ending up in the sex industry; an Arizona State University study released last year found that on any given day in the Metro Boston area, 130,000 men are actively seeking to buy sex online, through backpage.com alone.

In a February 16, 2014 article in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof wrote, “Polling suggests that about 15 percent of American men have bought sex, and back-of-envelope calculations suggest that a man has about a 1 in a 100,000 chance of being arrested while doing so.”

Tradition is to arrest the victims and prostitution is often seen as a choice a woman makes.

The average age women enter prostitution is 15; there are known cases of six-year-olds being forced into the trade. (February 11, 2013, Boston Globe article by Ayanna Pressley and Lina Nealon). Most victims come from foster care with a history of sexual abuse. Think about it. The pimps make money from the girls they control, often using violence and drugs. The johns get what they want, domination and an outlet for violence through paid sex. But what is in it for the women? How can prostitution be a preferred career choice for a woman knowing her body will be subjected to indignity, sometimes 10-12 times a night?

A 2011 law passed in Massachusetts increased penalties for men buying sex. An arrested john could be fined up to $5,000 or serve over two years in prison. Yet, a Boston Globe article by Jennifer B. Kim on December 9, 2013, noted that “none of the state’s 11 district attorney’s offices could cite a single case in which a defendant has faced even a minimum fine of $1,000.” The worst penalty was a john who had to pay a $65 monthly court fee for a year and watch a video about the harmful effects of the sex trade.

(After the Kim piece was published three johns were fined $1,000).

In a new movement, the thinkers and movers committed to abolishing sex trade are pushing for the arrest of johns. It might just work – the johns, men with families and jobs, are the ones who have the most to lose and the fear of arrest is a huge deterrent. Research shows, and law enforcement affirms, that majority of buyers are white men with partners. The “hobbyists,” who buy sex multiple times a month have an average income of $120,000.

“The thing johns want most is anonymity,” Michael Shively, Senior Associate at Abt Associates, said at the summit. “It isn’t hard to arrest johns, they practically arrest themselves. They are a great resource for testifying against pimps and traffickers. Right now the burden of evidence rests on victims and that won’t work.”

(Abt associates is a Cambridge company feeding into Demandforum.net, a research site supplying data on cities that have launched initiatives to stop sex trade.)

The only way for things to change is a shift in political will and law enforcement. “Buyers need to be held accountable, instead of arresting and re-arresting the women and children, a practice that only re-victimizes the vulnerable,” Lina Nealon, Demand Abolition’s Founding Director said.

There is a parallel movement to increase men’s accountability, to address the sexism and entitlement ingrained in our culture. Educating boys well before they can become buyers of sex is crucial. In the last two decades “John schools” have sprung across the country – a place arrested johns go to educate themselves on the risks and violence of prostitution.

Boston’s aim is to reduce demand by 20 percent in the next two years. Fingers crossed. As Shively puts it, the only way women exit the sex trade is either destitute or dead.

Boys will be boys! And girls? Hmmm. Tomboys!

 

Here we are, then. This modern, liberal society in which women have equal rights as men (though I still cannot believe we are patting ourselves for this), but where we continue nurturing lingering ideas from medieval times.

The thing is, we still think masculinity, or what we perceive as being masculine, as cooler. Even in our daughters.

I balk when I see an unruly, “sporty,” cool 10-year-old boy behaving like a “man.” Just as I balk when I hear a mom proudly saying her daughter is a tomboy, hardly “girlie.”  There are two, no a million, problems with this.

First, why is the exhibition of “masculinity” revered? Encouraged. Nurtured. “Every girl in my son’s class has a crush on him,” I overheard a mother saying about her fourth grader. And I wondered, “Jeez, am I doing something wrong? No girl seems to have a crush on my third-grade son.” I felt immediately ashamed because my son is surrounded by girls, but they are his friends. He connects with them, and they with him, at a deeper level. It will change, as it should, but right now he is a just a little boy being friendly with little girls.

I am guilty, I admit, of thinking he was “nerdy” at some point. But now I am glad he is.

He is gentler, calmer, less “tough” than boys his age. For years my husband and I tried to get him interested in some team sport just so he could fit in. He never took to it and we gave up. But as he is getting older I see him with a close, small group of boys just like him. Sure, they do rough play, but they are very much in touch with their gentler, nurturing sides. They seem more creative, curious. It is partly their nature. But it is also partly that their minds are uncluttered with “cool” things they are uninterested in. Like football scores, for example. And the best thing? All my son’s friends can play with my 6-year-old daughter who (guess what?) is feminine and doesn’t actively seek the company of boys.

And why are we so proud that our daughters behave like boys, anyway? That they exhibit none of the “girly” traits? Here, I might add that I, too, have a problem with the girlishness that girls display at a tender age these days. The way they scuttle into teen-hood. But I think girls should be empowered by their femininity. I do believe it is the one thing that will give them the confidence to be themselves.

So I let my daughter be what she is – sweet, gentle, shy. Feminine. History, after all, is rife with examples of queens, princesses, and heroines who fought wars, ruled empires, died for what they believed in.

Because masculinity can be gentle; femininity can be tough.

As my kids grow older, I realize that being obsessed with a sport will not make my son more masculine. Just as wearing a pretty dress and doing her hair will not add to my daughter’s femininity. Both are, ultimately, a state of mind.

I want my children to break the stereotypes of popular culture. To be trailblazers. To really live.

 

Indian Flag?

I don’t want to start by saying I am a regular (hockey) mom living in the United States trying to do what everybody else is doing. That would be an outright lie.

I am an American mom, sure. But I am an Indian-American mom. I came here 10 years ago from India to go to school, met the love of my life (who is first generation Indian-American), got married, and had two children all within that time.

My husband is lovely, my family is great, we have a nice house in the suburbs and there is nothing lacking in my life. I could try and complain about my gardener and the state of my house or even my in-laws. But they are all perfect and just as they should be.

So what do I have to blog about in this perfect, idyllic life of mine?

It is this question – how do I raise my kids to be both American and Indian? It is hard, especially in the wealthy, and predominantly white, suburb we live in. I have nothing against either of those – I have thrived in this society more than I ever did in India. But I realize that if I lived in India and had a family there I wouldn’t think about this.

My son recently started kindergarten in the local public school. He loves it and fit right in. I am thrilled at how comfortable he is in this society at a level that I will never be because a part of me will always feel Indian.

This week my son has “Walk to School” day where all the neighborhood kids will walk to school holding a flag of their family heritage. I didn’t think twice about having my son make an Indian flag which will get walked to school and stuck in the front yard. Everyone will get to see everyone else’s flag.

Here begins one of my first moral dilemmas in child-raising.

Do I want other kids to know, outright, that my son is of Indian ancestry? For all practical purposes my son is “American.” So why do I want him to stick that Indian flag in the ground especially if I think it might make him vulnerable to comments and questions? Like is India full of snakes and tigers and what the difference is between American Indians and Indian Americans? Or even worse, are people vegetarian in India because they cannot afford meat? Or is my son part of an idol-worshipping, superstition-ridden culture (which he is)?

So should I be sending my child with an Indian flag and exposing him to a whole population of people – some naive and unworldly and others racist and prejudiced? Or should I just suck it up and have him carry an American flag?

I am sure this is a trivial question, especially when we put in perspective the problems that really plague this world. But the larger issue is this – how do we raise our kids to know their cultural heritage in a country that fancies itself but is still not, truly, a melting pot? And how do I raise my kids to love India and still understand that they owe almost everything they have to the United State of America? What are they really? What do I want them to be? Because, you may or may not admit this but, there are really no “Citizens of the World.” A part of you will always rise to defend some little squiggly patch of this planet where your heart truly belongs.

I still have the Indian flag sitting on our piano where I can see it all the time. But before I walk my son to school on “Walk to School” day I might lose my nerve and have him make an American flag. Just to protect him from that bully in class.