Trying to find the words

Off the Beat

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“Davyakhana… davakhyana… ava… oh whatever.” I was FaceTiming my 12-year-old sister and trying to ask her how her hospital visit had gone. Except I was struggling to say “hospital” in Marathi — a language I had spoken perfectly for 17 years. I eventually gave up and quickly moved to speaking to her in English, trying to ignore the feelings of guilt and frustration bubbling up inside me.

This was certainly not the first time that I realized I was losing the culture my parents worked so hard to cultivate in me for 17 years. Both my parents immigrated to the United States in 1998, with hopes of achieving the American dream. 20 years later, I can confidently say they’ve achieved it. While raising their young brown daughter in the primarily white states of Indiana, Missouri, Kansas and Minnesota, they tried in every way to pass on to me the rich Indian culture they had grown up in. My mom would only cook Indian food at home, my dad would teach me bhajans and ask me to sit with him while he conducted poojas, and both my parents spoke to me only in Marathi. I grew up on a diet of Parle-G biscuits and SRK films. After moving to California, my parents sent me to Chinmaya Mission, a religious Hindu school that taught children about Hindu stories, rituals and spirituality. Diwali, the Hindu religion’s biggest holiday, was one of the best times of the year. I would dance until my feet blistered in massive Navratri celebrations and eat an endless number of chaklis while standing next to the stove where my mom was freshly deep-frying them.

Fast-forward to my freshman year of college. I was thrilled to gain new opportunities and experiences, but began to realize just how much I was losing. A month in, I realized I spoke more to my mom in English than in Marathi. UC Berkeley’s Navratri celebrations weren’t even close to the extravagance I was used to. The Indian community in Berkeley was a fractured community, divided like a high school in a ‘90s chick flick. Holi was a rave rather than a celebration of spring.

I entirely lost track of the moon cycle without my parents doing monthly Chaturthi poojas at the full moon. The dining halls erased my spice tolerance to the point where everything my mom made for me to eat at home was too spicy. A year later, I’ve lost even more of my Indian culture. Even when I start a sentence in Marathi, it’s likely I’ll finish it in English. I forgot pretty much all the Hindu stories I was taught and just blankly nod along when my dad references them. And now that I am hyperaware of this devastating loss, all I feel is guilt.

I blame myself for not always speaking in Marathi with my parents. I blame myself for opting to cook pasta or tacos over chana masala. I blame myself for not cultivating my own spirituality or at least keeping up what I had already been taught. It feels as though in just two years, I threw away a culture — a lifestyle — I had treasured for 17 years. A culture I had planned on passing on to my own children and grandchildren. But how can I pass on something I no longer have?

Aug. 26 was Raksha Bandhan — a ritual celebrating the bond between brother and sister. I found out from an Instagram post on my feed. I’m not alone in my guilt and fear and general cluelessness. Many Maharashtrians, Indians and underrepresented minorities feel the exact same way. They know the fear of losing a culture so integral to their beings. They feel the guilt of not doing more to keep it alive. And they’ve experienced that churning dread in the pit of their stomachs — that they will fail to pass on their cultures as their parents had to them.

The solution? I don’t know if there really is one. No matter what I do, I will spend 97 percent of my day speaking in English except for a seven-minute phone call home. I will never be able to make tea as well as my dad does. I won’t read up on Hindu mythology, considering I can barely find time to sleep.

I’m not angry or upset with myself for craving french fries as much as I crave samosas or for adding “ing” to Marathi verbs to form a mixed-language gerund of sorts. But I am anxious that one day french fries will be the only thing on the menu and my Marathi-English hybrid dictionary will cease to exist.

To prevent this, I’ve started looking up when Navratri and Diwali are going to be and writing them into my calendar. I translate certain words in Marathi if I just can’t remember them (it’s “davakhana”). And I create my own version of gobhi sabji. The feeling of guilt lingers each time I refer to Google rather than my own memory about an Indian custom or religious story.

It doesn’t feel like a concrete solution — more like dejectedly placing buckets under the holes in a leaky ceiling. But it’s definitely better than finding out about culturally significant events through social media or being laughed at by my little sister. And ultimately, by shedding my ego and admitting that I have to relearn what I should have never forgotten in the first place, I hope to keep my culture alive for myself, my children and my children’s children.

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the fall semester’s regular opinion writers have been selected. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.

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