Wednesday, July 31st, 2013

The Cultural Dilemma of American Summers for Immigrant Parents

The differences between summers in India and the U.S. — via shutterstock

I don’t know how to run a lemonade stand, make ice pops or build a sandcastle—all time-honored traditions of an American summer that I am struggling to acquire alongside my three-year-old Indian-American daughter. Among the many cultural dilemmas that we immigrant parents in the U.S. navigate when raising our children in a completely different culture is how to engage in the everyday rituals of our adopted homeland so that our children can fully embrace their hyphenated heritage. So for me the greatest challenge at this time of the year is how to celebrate summer and all its bountiful offerings when I have been raised to shun the sun?


Growing up in India, my summer holidays as a child were all about staying indoors. Curtains were tightly drawn and homes were turned into cool and dark recesses. Hours were spent reading or being lulled to sleep by the slow rotation of a ceiling fan. In my grandparents’ home in Delhi, small and sweet mangoes were kept cold in buckets of chilled water, waiting to be squeezed and eaten whole. Cooling drinks ranged from panna, a spiced drink of raw mangoes, to fruity sherbets like Roohafza and a most peculiar moss-green drink made of khus or vetiver. We covered ourselves in thin and flowing cottons rather than baring ourselves to the harsh rays of the sun. And there was no question of any summer sports or neighborhood games: no biking, no hopscotch and no pitthu, the traditional Indian game of seven stones. It was a time for slowing down and turning inwards or at least whatever constituted introspection at that young age. In smaller towns, there was silence on the streets during the afternoon heat, no jingle of an ice cream truck and at most the plaintive call of a street hawker selling snacks. The only sounds on a still summer day were the calls of the koel, the Asian cuckoo, and the chirping of the cicadas.


But an American summer is all about the outdoors, from street fairs to music festivals, from the park to the playground, and especially when it comes to the quintessential family vacation—the annual beach trip. Before I became a parent, I could choose to spend my summer as I pleased. But I am now embracing a whole new way of life and learning a seasonal vocabulary that is different to what I knew to be summer back in India. My natural inclination is to cover, cover, cover myself and my daughter and yet summer in American is about soaking in the sun (though we all agree about the importance of protecting ourselves against it). I have to educate myself about SPF ratings and the latest recommendations from the Environmental Working Group. And then there is the playground, with its sprinklers and sand boxes. The sprinklers I get, but the dirty sand? Back in the heat and dust of India, a sand box would never hold any recreational value, but here its sheer messiness is a novelty for urban American kids.


And so my daughter and I are together discovering how to enjoy an American-style summer. We head to Target to buy all the summer essentials: sand toys, water shoes, sunscreen and hats. We’ve camped, hiked and toasted marshmallows. This summer I’ve discovered the delights of going strawberry-picking at a farm in Long Island, and each week I buy cartons of farm-fresh strawberries from my food coop in Brooklyn. But I am also always looking for ways to infuse a bit of India into our summer days in New York. If the strawberry is the star of all the summer fruits in America, then the mango is its rival in India with some hundred varieties to choose from. Here, in New York, I now buy the panna mango drink and mango ice cream from the Indian stores in “Curry” Hill, and fresh mangoes (albeit Mexican ones) from the Bangladeshi fruit-seller in my neighborhood. And every now and then, when we’ve had enough of the outdoors, we escape into the sanctuary of our apartment, turn on all four ceiling fans and lie still under an almost tropical breeze.

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Rajika Bhandari is the author of the book, The Raj on the Move: Story of the Dak Bungalow. Her nonfiction writing spans travel and personal essays and has appeared in Passion Fruit: A Women’s Travel Journal, India Currents magazine, National Geographic Traveller and Man’s World magazine. In addition, Rajika is also the author of four books on international higher education. Originally from New Delhi, India, she currently lives in Brooklyn where, as the mother of a three-year-old, she is utterly absorbed by the parenting culture of her neighborhood of Park Slope.

Leave us a comment!

  1. CommentsMeera Sriram   |  Friday, 02 August 2013 at 1:27 pm

    Loved this piece as I can totally relate to it (coming from a hot hot city and always taught to “shun the sun”)! And it might seem such a trivial thing, but these are some of the practical challenges in embracing a faraway home with our kids!

  2. CommentsJustine Ickes   |  Friday, 02 August 2013 at 2:07 pm

    Such a lovely essay, Rajika. I love how you juxtaposed the outdoorsy, hyper-active vibe of a New York summer with the more introverted and insular languor of the season in India. Many years ago I spent the summer in Sri Lanka working. I remember quite well staring up at the ceiling fan, wishing and praying for the cooling rains to come. Now if only I’d had some of the mango panna – it sounds delicious!

  3. CommentsSharon Chang   |  Tuesday, 06 August 2013 at 6:49 am

    LOVE this. Thank you for sharing such a touching, personal account of cross-cultural differences and celebration within the family. My father is from Taiwan and my mother is white American. Dynamics like this defined our family and subsequently who I’ve become as a person. Posted your piece to our FB page I think your story will have deep relevance for all multiracial Asian families navigating across cultures and heritages

  4. CommentsFrancesca   |  Sunday, 11 August 2013 at 3:35 pm

    Not all American cities are like that. Here in Phoenix, AZ, most people spend the time indoors in the summer because it’s so hot! So I can relate to your Indian summers. My poor little one is getting cabin fever staying inside. I can’t wait for it to cool down so we can go back outside again, especially since we only have one car which my husband takes to work so we can’t escape to other places.

  5. CommentsRajika Bhandari   |  Tuesday, 27 August 2013 at 1:07 pm

    Thank you all for your great comments! And thanks, Sharon, for re-posting it on FB. And to Francesca’s point: it is so true that an experience that seems foreign, might actually be closer to home than one might think!

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