Culture Stories

What Grief Taught Me About Being Asian American

It is often said that the greatest wisdom comes from the lowest points in our lives. We all deal with forms of grief and anguish, and in the tears, there are lessons to be learned. As I write this, I am dealing with the loss of my grandfather. My father’s father was the only grandfather I ever knew, since my mother’s father had passed away before I was born. He was a kind, caring man who taught me much about the value of custom, ritual, and culture, even if it was not so obvious to me.

As a child, I did not speak Kannada, the language of my family. At best, I could understand basic conversations, and give trite responses to the usual questions of “Did you eat yet?” and “How are you?” Perhaps the two most important questions ever asked. Asking you about an immediate state of being, making sure that you’re fed and healthy, and then asking about your overall state. How are you? Where have you been? What have you been doing?

My grandparents on both sides spoke to me in Kannada most of the time, though both of my father’s parents could both speak English perfectly. They chose to speak to me in Kannada, and for what reason, I can only speculate. My grandfather was an inquisitive man, asking all sorts of questions about what I did, and sometimes to my annoyance. He was so curious, that he would directly ask me questions on Facebook, and it often embarrassed me. Only recently had I begun to really appreciate my grandfather as a human being, with a real personality, and a real place in time. Because whether we realize it or not, children are often not deeply aware of their grandparents’ presence as real people, often appearing as periodic visitors with nice gifts and old-fashioned habits. But for me, I realize, it’s not so simple.

Growing up in a small suburban town in the San Francisco Bay Area of California makes it seem to others that I had a perfect, and undisturbed life. That was only somewhat true. Sure, my parents were wealthy enough to afford to live and raise their children in a very wealthy city, spend reasonably freely, travel the world, and generally enjoy a comfortable life. I even had the luxury of having Indian classmates and friends who had many of the same experiences in common; high expectations in school, colorful and crowded family functions, and dealing with kids who mocked us for bringing chapati-sabji for lunch at school.

But there was something else I lacked. During Thanksgiving and Christmas, I had always heard about large family gatherings around crowded dinner tables, with different cousins, aunts, uncles, and most importantly, grandparents. I would come back from Thanksgiving and winter break every year, and many of my classmates would tell us things about the presents they got for Christmas, or how their grandparents were staying in town till Christmas. They would talk about their unique traditions or quirky relatives, and when it came to me, I would say, “We don’t do Thanksgiving.” “We don’t celebrate Christmas.” My teachers would ask me “Why?” and I would reply, “Because my grandparents and most of my family live in India.”

Now, you may ask why we didn’t travel to India often, but it was not feasible to go to India that often with plane ticket prices, and as a child, I was often impatient with being in India. There are many variations on this type of story among Asian Americans, but they are generally the same. Some Asian Americans did have grandparents living with them at home, or visiting somewhat often, but in my case (and many of my friends) didn’t have that.

I used to ask, “Mom, Dad, why can’t Ajja and Ajji come stay with us in the US? I don’t like traveling to India. It takes too long.” My parents would simply say that my grandparents didn’t want to come to the US, and were comfortable living in India. Not to mention that the rest of our family lived there as well. The concept of distance became highly relevant to my life. How far is Bangalore from San Ramon? How far is Chennai? How many hours ahead are my relatives?

Ironically, technology came to our rescue, in some sense. With the advent of Skype and FaceTime, every Saturday morning became a ritual in which my family and I would talk to my grandparents. Thanks to my parents’ prosperity, they too, enjoyed the ability to have things like iPads, enjoy nicer things, and travel more freely, mostly to see us. My grandfather would talk to me and my brother, asking us how we were, what we were doing in school, and my grandfather would frequently ask what new video game I was playing, or when I became a language enthusiast, what language I was studying.

Whenever we visited India to see my grandparents, my grandfather would try to sit me and my brother down to listen to stories about how he grew up, and even wrote an entire biography. Not that we, as young children, were going to sit still and listen. As I got older, I did try to listen, especially as I was trying to build a relationship with my grandparents in order to improve my Kannada. Getting my mother tongue back was an incredibly difficult part of my life, and to some degree is ongoing. Talking to my grandfather, who had an incredible command of the language that was getting rarer with my father’s generation and certainly with mine, was a privilege. My grandfather’s Kannada was impeccable, intellectual, and beautiful. I loved to talk to him and my grandmother, because they were giving me bits of my heritage back to me. My grandfather taught me to do parishanshane, performing Hindu grace, and to do sandhya vandanam, the salutations to twilight and midday.

The pursuit of heritage and reclaiming my mother tongue has been a salient theme for most of my life, and it’s something that I think most non-immigrant Americans would have difficulty really understanding. For those who don’t know, Indian communities are a complex bunch. With hundreds of different languages and even more dialects along so many different social axes, it’s not easy to find the community that’s just like you. My grandparents, and particularly my grandfather, were my lifeline to Kannada, my culture, and my religion, and without them, I would not be who I am today. I realize that the physical distance between me and my grandfather, with all of the other factors of travel expense, time zones, and everything else, made all the difference in changing the kind of life I had growing up.

Grandparents are the first font of wisdom after parents, giving a special kind of knowledge that comes from not only having lived a long time, but also having seen their children become parents themselves. My grandfather grew up during the end of the British Raj in South India, and came of age at the time of independence. His view of the world is disappearing, because people of that generation are passing away. For Indian Americans, and Asian Americans as well, this vital connection to heritage via our grandparents can mean all the difference between growing up with a sense of who we are as a people, and quietly being assimilated, our stories forgotten. It is a crying shame that I only now realize that my grandfather was a real person, in a way that I only see now that he is gone. He is located not only in a particular country, but a time, a community, and a history. I know all of this only in the grip of grief.

I look back to my elementary school days, when I struggled to articulate where, when, and what my family was. All I wanted was to know where I came from and what I was. It was something that most of my other friends had. The children of Sicilian Catholics coming to America in search of opportunity; descendants of the first pilgrims on the Mayflower. Whatever good and bad these pasts have, it mattered only that I did not know mine until recently.

My family is Sankethi, part of a group that was persecuted by the priesthood and forced to flee Madurai in the tenth century, for allowing women to learn scripture and gain an education. The story goes on for so much longer, and I’m not sure I know even half of it.

Being Asian American while dealing with loss and grief has taught me a great deal. So many Asian Americans have told stories of wanting to belong, and part of that is being able to see your family, to share your life with them. Because so many of us live apart from our extended families, it can feel like we’re growing apart from them. And sometimes that’s true. The loss of family members bears down on us because it also means the loss of our history, heritage, and wisdom that we sometimes sorely need. It’s a hard thing to deal with, and sometimes, there’s no way around it. This is the reality, the price of being an immigrant. My parents gave up more than just being able to live at home. They gave up the ability to live close to their families, to give their children a rich heritage and connection to their people. To hear the stories of grandparents and extended families, and distilling that wisdom for me to share and reflect on is a greater privilege than I have ever realized. My grandfather gave me so much more than I ever appreciated because he lived so far away from me.

Ajja, I miss you so much. My heart aches when I think about you, and I yearn to speak to you again. To thank you for what you did for me, and to give you one last namaskara. After my parents, you are the second guru, giver of knowledge, preserver of the faith, and my grandfather. I will always keep you in my prayers, hoping that you attain moksha, and I will never forget you.

By: Shashank Rao

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