Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Keeping Up With The Patels

A non-Indian friend of mine joked to me recently that she was going to an Indian couple's party and she knew she was in the right place because her Lexus was the shittiest car in the parking lot.  I laughed it off, but then it got me thinking.   Many first-generation Indians have gotten rather....fancy, right?  The striking engagement rings followed by the lavish 700-person weddings, the expensive cars, the big houses, over-the-top vacations.  It's certainly not the norm for all of my Indian friends and I think it may be more prevalent in certain geographies, but the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) extravagance feels more commonplace now and perhaps - dare I say it - expected?  On one hand, the fact that many first-generation folks can afford the finer things is a wonderful tribute to our parents, all immigrants who worked their butts off to give us a life they did not have.  They seem to have collectively succeeded, as Indian-Americans are wildly overrepresented in most professional categories, and have attained higher levels of education and earn a higher median income than all other ethnic groups in the U.S. (whites and other Asians included) despite making up only about 1% of the population.  But are we setting a standard that strays far from the ideals with which we were raised and, if so, I wonder if people are feeling a certain pressure to reach that new standard.  Are we still trying to keep up with the Joneses?  Or are we now trying to keep up with the Patels?

My parents left India and moved to London in 1968, and then moved to the United States in 1980.  A fairly typical immigrant story, they worked extremely hard to build a life for my sister and me.  Though my family had the means, we didn't buy fancy cars, we didn't wear expensive clothes (though in the 5th grade I got a pair of $60 Girbaud jeans for Christmas that were freakin awesome), and we didn't go on luxurious vacations (we went many places, though.  My dad would come home from work on a Friday and declare we were driving somewhere like Florida - from Texas, mind you - and off we'd go with a cooler full of Indian food and we'd stay in HoJo's (at best) along the way.  Kind of awesome, really).  My mom still, to this day, randomly sends me packages in the mail of groceries that she thinks are cheaper in Texas than in Chicago.  I've gotten things like Pam non-stick spray, lots of Goldfish, boxes of cereal and after I got married we started getting pickles and Reese cups (if you know Adam that makes perfect sense to you).  It's pretty comical, but it's the mentality that allowed them to provide us everything we needed, including giving us a pretty profound (and often unappreciated) sense of security.  I think most of the Indian kids I grew up around in Texas were raised pretty similarly.

When our immigrant parents left India, they didn't have parents to fall back on if they hit a tough patch like many of us have.  They navigated American culture from scratch, with Indian educations and English as a second language.  They came with nothing, yet somehow gave us everything.  How amazing is that?  And now, much to their delight (at least to my parents') their kids can now  maintain nicer lifestyles and can provide even more for their kids than they could.  But what are we doing with that gift?  Are we too interested in show?  Do people in our generation feel pressure to attain a certain amount of wealth/success?  Are we focused enough on paying it forward to society, future generations and back to our parents?  Maybe it's more prevalent in certain cities, and maybe it's not unique to the Indian-American community?  I am curious to hear others' takes. 

My husband and I work hard so we can enjoy a great lifestyle, but I try not to feel too bogged down by external pressures to do so.  Even so, there are times where I will catch myself thinking so-and-so is doing xyz, maybe we should be too.  Often it is in the context of wanting the best for our son.  But I have to remind myself that we have to always do what we think is best for our family, regardless of what others are doing.  And if we ever needed to scale back because we weren't happy anymore, I think (hope) we would without worrying too much about our decline in social status.  After all, we could always take last minute road trips and stay in HoJos.  Sounds pretty good to me.


  1. We used to take random last-minute road trips too! Someting I miss about living in the Midwest - Texas is far better suited to impromptu road trips.

    Great post. I do think some of it is cultural-specific, but there is always a "keeping up with the Jones's" element in any subgroup. I think with Indian folks, it's much more upfront in terms of social status, and that's reinforced by certain Indian norms of class identity.

    1. Good point - though our parents weren't as fancy day-to-day, they did bring with them strong notions of class identity that have probably been passed down. They're the ones who generally pay for those lavish weddings, for example.

      Funny y'all took spur of the moment road trips, too. Agree Texas is better suited, but at least it doesn't take 13 hours to cross state lines up here :)

  2. Yes, we all have the same stories. :-) We used to drive from Illinois to Florida, Texas to Illinois...blah name it and we spent the time driving those pathways.

    Kudos on pointing out some of these ridiculous pressures-- I feel like we have sort of lost focus on things that are really important in life because we are so clouded by this person's job, or that person's house, or our own ability to say we accomplished xyz.
    I think the expectations also go beyond just trying to do well but is attached to a larger socio-political construction of our identity which started with Ronald Regan in the 1980's. We were labeled as the model-minority which has put quite the number on Desi Americans and our relations with each other within our group, our relations with other minority groups, and our access to social services due to dominant cultural perceptions of us. There are so many Desis that came here post brain-drain that are in need of services just like other groups. The experiences of these Desis, however, are rarely highlighted. Reasons for this are complicated and require a 15-page paper.

    I am ranting at this point.

    Anyway, thanks for the post. I enjoyed reading it. Your thoughts make up a good springboard for reflection for us as individuals and as a cultural group.

    -Avani T.

    1. Interesting bringing up the "model minority" concept...I hadn't thought of that external perception as a possible influence on the construction of the Indian-American identity, but it definitely makes sense.