Families who move to the U.S. from other countries have a lot of obstacles to overcome: learning a new culture and sometimes learning a new language, too. The Mohanty family of Woodbury has adapted to life in their adopted country and now want to preserve the family's Indian heritage. In this latest installment of MPR's Young Reporters Series, Amrita Mohanty tells us how her parents are encouraging their two daughters to learn more about their culture.
I was born in January of 1997, the youngest daughter of two educated professionals. My middle-class family has a house in the suburbs. It's very different here from what my sister Mina was born into. She's 10 years older than me and she was born in India. Our parents went to college in India, and then came to the US for graduate school at the University of Minnesota. When Mina was little, my family struggled to pay the bills. They lived in graduate student housing. And Mina remembers it was nothing like where we live now.
"In graduate student housing ... you had people from all over the world there," she said. "Most people that I saw were from East Asia or Africa. And even though I was the only Indian, I didn't feel like the odd one out or anything in any way. But when I finally moved to New Brighton in 1994, it was a very big shock ... it was very white."
Despite her darker skin, my older sister Mina made friends, played soccer and the violin, listened to 'N Sync, and watched teen movies like a typical American teenager. My sister broke boundaries for my family by absorbing American ways. Now, I play soccer and the violin and I started at a younger age than my sister because she paved the way for me. While Mina's integration into American culture helped me, it came at a price for her, one that's illustrated by a recent conversation I had with her in Oriya, our parents' native language.
While Mina was getting ready to go to the local Hindu temple for the weekly Pooja, or prayer service, I asked her "What are you going to do at the temple?" She struggled with Oriya and it took time for her to come up with her answer, which was, "How do you say eat?" When I listen to my sister speak Oriya it sounds like she's just learning the language - but funny enough that was the only language she knew when she first came to the United States. My sister believes she lost the language as she conformed to the customs of her new country.
"My parents were trying to assimilate and I was trying to assimilate and in the process I sort of forgot it," she said.
So is it even important to worry about speaking Oriya anymore? I mean we live in America. My mom would say yes. My mom, Debashree Mohanty, is a naturalized American citizen who has lived in this country for more than 30 years. She's a computer analyst, as well as wife and mother. And she says she pushed my sister to learn English as a young child. However, she still finds it important to maintain the traditions of her homeland. She makes sure that my sister and I know about our heritage. And she taught me Oriya.
"You should know little of your parents, where they came from and you should know that language," she said. "And also you have to communicate with your relatives in India, too."
It was difficult for my sister to hold on to Oryia, not just because of the emphasis to learn English, but also because there were not many Indians in Minnesota when she was a child. At that time, less than one percent of the population was Indian. But the state has changed over the years. There's much more diversity than when my parents moved here in 1987. The latest U.S. Census says there are now 33,031 Asian Indians, still less than one percent, but that's triple the number who were here when my parents moved to the state.
My mom likes to acknowledge other changes she's seen from when she first moved here. She remembers how difficult it was years ago to get the cooking spices and other ingredients she was used to having.
"When I came, there were not too many Indian people," she said. My mom told me grocery stores didn't have many ethnic foods on the shelves. But now she says there's an entire aisle of Indian food. "You can find all those curries, pakodas. It's completely different," she said.
She is also amazed at how easy it has gotten to find vegetarian food when she eats out. Vegetarian-style meals are a staple of many Indian diets.
"I never could imagine going to a restaurant telling them that, 'OK, I need vegetarian food.' Now if you go to restaurants, every restaurant has vegetarian food," she said.
My parents are living the American dream but our family still faces the challenge of retaining our native Indian culture. My parents would say they owe their success to having a good education. I know that means I have to aspire to even greater endeavors. My sister has already set the bar by attending medical school and now she pushes me to go beyond that. We are an American family with big dreams for the future. Along the way, I know there's another expectation for me. I not only need to succeed, I need to help my family hold onto the past since out past makes us who we are.