East Is East, West Is West: by HARVIND KAUR
And The Twain Shall Meet In Me
I grew up always wondering which side of the line I belonged on.
Through High School it was the line between what I was expected to be at home and who I wanted to be at school.
During college, my age, location and experiences changed but the line was still solidly in place. I was always between two
worlds: Punjabi vs American; practicing Sikh vs not Sikh; educated, strong, independent woman vs Punjabi girl worried about her families 'honor'.
It has taken many years for me to go through this journey. I thought I had decided which side of the line I belonged on, but age and experience has proven otherwise.
I don’t think my experience is unique. I think for most immigrant children whose parents moved to the West in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the story is similar.
As a child the words of your parents are the only truth. They are the only people you want to please and be loved by. So as children of immigrants we struggle with what is expected of us from our own tradition and what we grow up in outside of
The one thing that remains a constant with me is that I always knew in my heart that I was a Sikh and was proud of that. However, reconciling all the expectations, incongruences and hypocrisy continue to remain an issue.
As a child there was no question as to what I was expected to be. I knew I needed good grades, I did exactly what my parents told me and I saw their daily struggle in this new world. The factory jobs, the public transportation, the hard work that went into keeping us afloat.
But then, as a child your parents' words, expectations, ideas are the only ones you know to be true. The difficulty comes later, when you begin to see and realize a world outside of the one in your home.
All through my teen years I struggled with what I saw in the world around me and what was expected at home. By this time I knew more and wanted more for myself. I was an American teenager that had to sublimate the entire American in me to make sure I was a good Panjabi girl at home. I was raised in an open society but with expectations from a culture from the other end of the globe that still informed every day of my life.
The notion of an arranged marriage and no other was drilled into my head. Ideas regarding family 'honor' (izzat) and a woman’s shame were so part of the expectations that the line between who I was expected to be, who I wanted to be and who I became, got darker and wider.
I was the girl who had to run home from school to make sure dinner was ready and on the table before my parents came
I was the girl who couldn’t join extra-curricular activities because they weren’t important in the grand scheme.
I was the girl that didn’t go to any football games or dances.
I was the girl that everyone liked but no one could really understand.
Ultimately, my close friends reconciled all of this by assuming my parents were totally crazy and living in a bubble that would burst one day.
But were they? Who becomes a parent knowing exactly what to do?
Don’t we repeat what we know? Don’t we do what we think is best?
Through all of this there was one constant in my life that I did enjoy. That was religion.
I really gravitated towards Sikh history, kirtan, and the meaning it provided in what often seemed like a futile existence. I knew in my heart early on that I was a Sikh and would always take pride in that.
But growing up, how do you reconcile the way of life expected in a practicing Sikh, with the abundance of contradictions in everyday American life and Punjabi culture?
In college, things became even more complicated.
I was free to be who I wanted to be. And I was. I took pride in my heritage and traditions and knew the basics of my faith. At the same time, I was that American collegiate that was part of the fabric of American life.
But the weekends and vacations at home were fraught with difficulty and duality. "Who am I?" became a really important question. Who did I want to be? How was I to reconcile the two worlds I lived equally in?
Ultimately, I decided that I was straddling a line. On one side was my religion and aspects of my culture that I could accept. On the other was the American I grew up to be. I was an independent, educated woman who regarded her worth beyond her 'izzat'.
I always kept both worlds separate.
Finally, I came to realize that I would have to pick which side of the line I wanted to be on. I came to the conclusion that one of these two lives needed to dominate the other. I needed to pick which side I wanted to be on and stop straddling the line so that I didn’t live a dual life. I had to pick a side of that line that allowed me to define myself more concretely. So I picked the side that included my faith and all the other aspects of being a Sikh and a Punjabi.
I sublimated my American self so that I could define myself more concretely hoping my double life would be over. I did this because I thought my faith belonged only on one side of that dark line.
I have lived this way for many years.
But I now see the fallacy of my decision. How wrong I was. There is no way to separate the two pieces that make me whole.
I am a combination: a Sikh, an American, a Punjabi, etc.
For so long I have struggled trying to remain more concretely on one side. However, allowing one side to define me more strongly than the other has continued the duplicity I was trying to remove from my life. So once again I find myself at a crossroads and I am on the verge of changing my direction.
I can no longer stay on one side of that line or the other. I mustn’t straddle the line. I must walk the line itself.
Just like the edge of a sword, I must walk that thin line. That is the small haven where my East and West meet and are one. It is a thin and difficult line, but that is the line I must walk. Picking one side or the other leaves me hollow. I am not wholly one or the other. I am both and need to live that way.
The sword has two sides. But the edge is where the power lies. It is the thin sharp line that allows the fighter to win in battle. The sword with its two sides is strongest at that line separating one side from the other. My double life will only end at the edge, where both worlds meet. So finding that line and staying on it is the challenge. Picking one side over the other was an easier solution. But today I know it was not the right one.
But this is part of my journey.
A journey that keeps changing its direction as I learn more about the world I live in and the person I want to be.
March 28, 2012
Conversation about this article
1: Harbans Sandhu (Columbia, U.S.A.), March 28, 2012, 9:04 AM.
So eloquantely put. I am a child of migration in the 60's. I have experienced these feelings myself and I am sure my children have done the same. I am sharing this article with them. Thank you for putting into words how we are sometimes lost and then found. Thanks.
2: Karamjit Kaur Virk (Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A.), March 28, 2012, 11:00 AM.
Enjoyed reading your thoughts and words. The journey is the beautiful aspect amid the boundaries placed internally or externally from the moment we arrive in this world. There is a beautiul poem by Prof. Mohan Singh titled "Havva" ... one should simply be like the wind, never stay still.
3: Roopinder Singh Bains (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada), March 28, 2012, 11:27 AM.
If you go far enough West, you end up in the East, and if you go far enough East, you end up in the West.
4: Harinder (Uttar Pradesh, India), March 28, 2012, 12:08 PM.
The final destination of life is a mystery ... no one knows. So let's lead our lives zestfully and enthusiastically, with Chardi Kalaa, in whichever space or time-zone you may inhabit.
5: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), March 28, 2012, 8:33 PM.
The 'complexity' of the clash of cultures, nations, parents' demands, personal journeys, etc., never need happen if all parties stick to the core of Sikhi.
6: Robbie Singh (Indianapolis, Indiana, U.S.A.), March 31, 2012, 10:48 AM.
Dear Ms. Harvind Kaur: Your thoughts are very touching to me as a person growing up in the United States with a Sikh, Punjabi-born father and mother born in the U.S., but of European heritage. We learned about Sikh religion and other religions as well, and we were taught that, as in Sikhism, we should visit different houses of worship, respect all religions and cultures, for there is not just one way to know God. I went to both a gurdwara and a Methodist church; I chose for myself to assimilate the values of Sikhism. In terms of culture, it is good to respect the Punjabi culture, as are your parents' wishes, but this does not mean you should not be able to enjoy a football game or a friend's party. You have to be inwardly strong, as a woman, and especially as a Sikh-American. Our values as Sikhs are different in terms of abstinence from drugs or sex (prior to marriage, and many American youth espouse these values too!), but this does not mean you cannot partake in and enjoy what your friends are doing. You have to follow your comfort and conscience as to what is best, and it will naturally be different from what your parents experienced in India. Introduce your friends and colleagues to your parents and to the Punjabi culture. You might be pleasantly surprised! We have many American friends who enjoy Punjabi food, Bhangra music, even the clothing. Yes, you can assimilate into American culture, but if my friend cannot appreciate my Punjabi culture, then maybe he or she is the wrong kind of friend!