A product of racial integration, I am a direct example of post-ethnicity and cosmopolitanism. My grandfather was born in Chanpur, to a Brahmin Hindu father. His father died shortly after my grandfather’s birth, and he was raised in extreme poverty. Education was my grandfather’s ticket out of poverty. As a foreign exchange student in the 1950s, he received his PhD in Agronomy at the University of Minnesota. While completing his studies, he met and married my grandmother, Margaret. Tall, willowy and extremely fair-skinned, my grandmother grew up in the Midwest. She was the daughter of a minister who emigrated to the U.S. from Bern, Switzerland in the early 1900s. My mother and her eight siblings, were raised on farms in North Dakota and Wisconsin, where my grandfather was a minister. My grandparents met at a bus stop in Minneapolis and were married for the rest of their lives.
My grandfather was a solid foot shorter then my grandmother and about ten shades darker. They had three daughters who were, as Takaki remarks on children of racial integration “…not one or the other but both; as hapas or others of mixed race”. In the late 1950s when my grandparents married, the idea of a multi-racial family was not the norm. During their marital spats –as per my Aunt Gita - my grandmother would throw china, and yell “why did I marry a little Indian man?” My grandfather also struggled with their cultural differences. He was accustomed to women having traditional gender roles, and struggled with my grandmother’s decision to finish her college degree, and work as a dietician.
Early in their marriage, they found it hard to be accepted in the U.S. In the late 1950s, they moved to Ibadan, Nigeria, where my grandfather was a lecturer at the University of Ibadan. In Ibadan, their professional and social lives flourished. They mingled with other expatriate families – and were particularly close with families in the Indian community. Friends dropped by often, and there was a strong sense of community. In Nigeria, their friends accepted them.
After the Biafran War broke out, they were forced to flee Ibadan. After one year in Salinas, California, they returned to West Africa. My grandfather was a professor of Agronomy at the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana. For my mother, returning to the U.S. at the age of 12 was traumatic. She and her sisters were unfamiliar with American customs and norms. They also spoke with a pronounced British accent, after spending their entire childhood in West Africa. Gita was the youngest daughter, and had the most Indian features, She is dark haired with olive-colored skin. My grandfather often said she resembled his mother. In the U.S., she was mistaken for Mexican, Latin and Greek.
After returning to the U.S., my grandfather became increasingly isolated. He took a job working as an agronomist for US Gypsum in Chicago, Illinois. It was a tremendous shock for him, and the family to relocate to such an extremely homogenous area. Aside from his work, my grandfather distanced himself from the outside world. His life became very secular and pretty much revolved around my grandmother and the library. During my childhood visits, our dinner entrees ranged from curry and samosas to meatloaf or spaghetti.
Frequently, I heard my grandfather yelling in Hindi, as he slept. He rarely spoke of his family in India and went back to visit once. He returned, literally overnight, after learning that his brother – who was supposed to be awaiting him –had actually died three months prior to his arrival. His daughters never learned Hindi, and know very little about his family in India. After his death four years ago, my Aunt Gita traveled to New Delhi and Goa.
Takaki asserts that, for many multi-racial Americans, the proclaiming of their complex identity had more than a cultural purpose. Politically, they are challenging the rigid categories and notions of race that have been socially constructed throughout history. As per Takaki, as individuals “assumed a multi-racial identity” that “…signified the beginning of the destruction of the idea of race”.
This “destruction of race” came too late for many individuals of all races, my grandfather included. Takaki’s comprehensive examination of the histories of different Asian American groups and individuals validates their existence and presence. From a cultural perspective, numerous immigrants to the U.S. negotiate a delicate balance between being an alien and “other”, while trying to create a life as an American.
In my grandfather’s lifetime, he was always the “other,” due to his dark complexion and accented voice. It mattered little that his passport stated he was a U.S. citizen. He was ahead of his time, while creating a multi-racial family, one that according to Takaki might live in a world where one “…can’t decide ethnicities along one’s arbitrary line".
I guess, that’s what America should really be all about.