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.