Diaspora (definition: "the movement, migration, or scattering of people away from an established homeland") has traditionally had several causes – economic migration, fleeing political persecution or in many cases just a desire to start afresh in a new environment. While it is natural for migrants to have a sense of longing towards the ‘motherland’, the manifestation of that on the first generation in the adopted land is often interesting.

Migration in South Asia
Credit: Joan Molet

Migration in South Asia

My own experience

Born in the UK of two Indian immigrants, I grew up between the UK, Holland and the US before my parents moved back to India. So, I had the opportunity to finish high school and undergrad in India. Till I moved back to the UK and interacted with my British Indian cousin, I did not realize how much my parents relied on my environment, to teach me about ‘Indianness’. While I never felt any pressure to follow or understand intricate details of Indian customs and even religious rituals, my counterparts in the UK seemed to be in a veritable pressure cooker of Indian culture almost being force-fed to them. Many Indian parents outside India have a hard time accepting that their children who are growing up in another society will never be exactly the kind of Indian that they are – in their mindset, in their attitude, in their choices. Many find it hard to see that their kids are perhaps better off for it as they imbibe not one – but at least two rich cultural heritages. The result of their efforts, in many cases, makes the children almost lead double lives, sometimes being forced to make choices early on in their lives with longer lasting repercussions. Damien O’Donnell’s 1999 British comedy drama East is East portrayed this dichotomy splendidly. An Indian friend of mine in the US, for instance, did not disclose to her parents that she had a Polish boyfriend for six years – till they decided to take the plunge. A cousin of mine in Canada didn’t date in high school and university as her parents never approved of non-Indian boyfriends. Now a successful doctor, she still finds romantic interactions difficult.

A more widespread phenomenon

While parts of the Indian diaspora get a lot of bad press for their conservatism, are they the only culprits though? I dated an Italian-Australian lady once – as the eldest child growing up in a family of Italian migrants in Melbourne, she was expected to be a model to her seven siblings, which meant no dating in high school and even in University when she was allowed to do so, it had to be with someone from within the strong Italian community in Melbourne. I went to a wedding in Greece and saw none of the customs which I saw in a Greek wedding in Toronto. My surprise was greeted by good nature banter that “we had these (customs) fifty year ago my friend”. And THAT to me is ultimately the key. 

Why they are how they are

The parents leave the homeland and keep etched in their hearts, a version of the homeland and more importantly, its culture that almost stands still in time. Even visits back, do not seem to change this almost idealistic image in their minds. And it is this version of their cultural backgrounds that they want to pass on to their children. The irony is that in the meantime, the homeland has moved on with the times. A British Nigerian friend of mine once recalled, “I always looked up to Nigeria when I was growing up even though or perhaps because I had never been there while growing up”. 

What the future holds

Now that I am about to have a child with my Italian wife in the UK – a child who will be the very definition of a third culture kid (a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents' culture – US President Obama being the most illustrious example of a TCK), we wonder how will we react, me being a quasi third-culture kid myself and my wife being a first generation immigrant. Only time will tell.