Growing Up in Two Different Cultures…
***Note from Noelia: This article was written by my cousin, Roxanna Khan. My family (& I) call her “Suggy.” Though we look nothing alike, we are indeed first cousins ~ & she points this out to everyone we meet! I was interested to get her opinion on what it’s like growing up in two different cultures, particularly when they’re as different as India & the United States. I believe the topic is especially relevant as many people today are growing up amidst different cultures & influences. I hope you enjoy!
Growing Up in Different Cultures
When someone invariably asks me, “Where are you from?” ~ this question takes me longer to answer than most. I was born in the United States, but grew up in Bombay, India. My mother is white & from Orange County, California; my father is Muslim and was born & raised in India. I very much grew up, & came to be a woman, in two different cultures ~ & two very different cultures, at that.
Though today I bask in the realization that straddling two cultures adds richness & dimension to my personality ~ sometimes as a child, I felt out of sorts in both places. Those feelings have eroded over time, but given the opposing cultures: it was understandable. In India, I was considered to have a “fair” complexion, while on the other side of the world in America, I was complimented on my two-tone, latte complexion. All a matter of perspective!
I was born in Berkeley, California, raised in Mumbai (back then, Bombay), India, & today live in Southern California. And I still straddle different cultures, even today. Both will always be a part of me. My father’s colorful Indian background merged with my mother’s Southern California, citrus ranch & beach upbringing ~ can one get more diametrically opposed than that? Not to mention, India & America are almost exactly half-way around the world from each other.
A Global Fusion
Nowadays, everything is a trendy global-fusion mix. But back in 1963, this union of opposites wasn’t exactly the norm. My graceful mother, with her gift of intuition, always felt that she & my handsome father were pioneers of mixed marriages ~ on the cusp of the late 1960’s. Fifty-four (54?!) years later, they are still carrying on the conversation that began at a Cal Berkley basketball game. Five years after meeting, they married ~ but not before some rather intense conversations with my mother’s family.
“You want to move our daughter to INDIA??!”
And move they did, with me in tow. I was raised mostly in Mumbai, but attended school during my teenage years in the mountains of southern India. Our student body hailed from around the globe: it was a semester steeped in international culture. This was real life education, prior to the “Internet Age.” We were literally living in a “global village” together, as youngsters. I was a well-traveled, albeit naive 16-year old, taking it all in.
I grew up in two separate & distinctly different countries. Both places ~ both cultures, were meshed into my personality like opposing strands of fabric being skillfully woven together. I was not the one doing the weaving; it was being done by a hand whose skills far exceed my own. My mother retained her culture & faith, as well as a very close bond with her family back in the States ~ and my father very much remained Indian at heart, with his daily yoga practice & frequent contact with his large family.
Fabrics Being Woven…
We celebrated Christmas at home as well as Eid; ate Biryani (a lamb & rice dish) with rice pancakes; mutton patties as well as coleslaw. The American & the Indian constantly interwoven, side-by-side. After high school, I moved to San Diego to pursue a degree in Speech Communication. On campus, I met & eventually married my college sweetheart, Haroon, who hailed from Pakistan. Though he was from the south-eastern region of Pakistan, close to India ~ India & Pakistan, in many ways, are absolute worlds apart. Proximity does not necessarily equate to similarity.
So it was in this way that I added a third fabric to the cloth that was being woven of my life, when I fell in love with a handsome man from Pakistan.
I moved to Lahore, Pakistan in 1994, and lived there until my husband’s untimely demise. Living there & experiencing a third culture, then having it end with a horrible jolt ~ I believe that, in the long run, it actually helped me to develop the real estate that existed solely in my own mind: the foundation of faith that helped me straddle it all.
At the age of 35, I found myself a young widow back in Southern California, where I had roots & my mother’s family. Assimilating back into life in Newport Beach after living in Pakistan for so long was challenging. But it was part of the call of my cultural journey. I worked, helped, healed, & later remarried. And I found myself moving again: this time to Palm Springs, two hours east of Los Angeles. This was true desert ~ & once again, very different from the beach & boardwalk of Balboa.
My Cultural Mantle
Almost immediately upon arrival in the desert, I recognized it as yet another beautiful place where I would set down my cultural mantle. Possibly for a year. Possibly for many years. The splendor of the steep, surrounding mountains was direct evidence of the strength that was brewing within me, blanched & boiled with the richness of experiences & cultures that no one could ever take from me.
About a decade ago, it dawned on me for the first time in seventeen years, after a divorce: not only would I be fine ~ I would thrive. This realization came to me slowly, but right on time. I had been adjusting my entire teenage & adult life, & because of all those numerous adjustments: I realized I possessed resilience & the ability to adapt ~ no matter the place or the circumstances.
And I realized, it was the foundation of my two very different cultures that had given me these great gifts.
If the cities I’ve lived in were listed on a spectrum: Berkeley, Mumbai, Kodaikanal, San Diego, San Clemente, Lahore, Balboa, & now Palm Springs ~ they could not be more diverse! And I had thrived in each spot. Growing up in different cultures helped me cultivate the skills I needed to thrive. No matter who I encountered, no matter where I went: resilience & the ability to adapt were not some skills I longed to have ~ they were already within me. They were now innate to my very character.
With them, I could relate to almost anyone: from my mother-in-law in Northern Pakistan, to my friends at the local coffee shop in Palm Springs, to my favorite physician, or the lift-man at the Sonawala apartment building in Mumbai. As I journey along this path, the inter-connected fabric of my many cultures brings me inner comfort. I’m comfortable with myself & those around me, whether sitting at a tea shop in Kodaikanal, or walking along the Garstin Trail in Palm Springs, by the “Wedge” in Balboa, or among throngs of Mumbai traffic, being shuttled by Jawar, our family driver.
Growing up & becoming a woman in & among these many different cultures has not always been the smoothest of rides. Yet, these experiences have carried me through the world & deposited me where I am today: as a fully-formed woman, rich with experience. I have known pain & grief. I have known great pleasure, as well as great discomfort. And most of all, I have known great joy, & the greatness of faith. All these experiences ~ all these interwoven cultures, & the beauty within them ~ they have been the pashmina wrapped around my life.
Experiences all intertwined with that most valuable silver lining that exists: faith. This is what has comforted & carried me through it all. The wonder of these growing years, was that from my faith, I drew my strength. From my faith, came the riches & blessings of all these places, all these cultures.
My faith will always be with me. And for me, that’s all that really counts.
Follow Suggy’s Trail….
Roxanna Khan grew up both in the United States & in India. Today, she lives & works in Palm Springs, CA, & returns to India every few years for a month-long stay. She is very active in her community & is always busy working on her latest creative project…
So interesting! So well written. Totally enjoyed it.
Glad you enjoyed it, Susan! I love seeing the old pictures of Sue & Shaukat : ) xoxo
What an awesome article. I have the privilege of being friends with this fabulous lady. I am blessed by our friendship everyday.
You are a lucky lady, Karen! Glad you are able to spend time with my lovely cousin : ) xoxo
Thank you for including us in your beautiful journey! We became workmates 16 years ago, and I’m very Blessed to call you friend!
Beautifully articulated piece of writing. So honest and so real. I went to school with Suggy in Bombay and now we live on opposite coasts in the US.
How cool is that, Dilip?! Did you guys go to elementary school together?
Noelle, until the 9th grade. She went down south to boarding school and I went to a school in Calcutta. I’ve stayed in touch with Suggy and in fact met her at a school reunion party in Bombay a few years ago. Was special meeting her after so long!!!
A truly wonderful article. I l-o-v-e-d it!!
Loved the article; what a trip! Uncle Jack
You commented, Dad! Haha love it!
I didn’t just read the article but felt it! Being of mixed parentage, having grown up in different cultures, and having moved around a bit……struck chords on several counts.
Suggy was one of my dear old classmates in Mumbai, and I was one of her many admirers. She was always very kind hearted and so were her folks. Have been in touch off and on since then and have the feeling that the kindness has kept well! Wish them good things.
Especially liked the “I could relate to anyone” phrase in the article.
By the way my sister married into a ‘Bertram’ family. Are you aware of Dutch roots?
Hi Paulo! Your words are exactly what I was going for when I asked her to write this piece ~ I don’t think there’s enough meaningful discussion about growing up with mixed parentage, & I knew there was no one better to speak to that than Suggy. And she nailed it! As for Dutch roots, I’ve always been told we’re European mutts! Ha some English, some German, & lots of Scottish ~ not sure about Dutch ; )
My friend, who I refer to as the Princess, is one of the kindest, most humble people I know, how lucky I am to be friends with Roxanna. Terrific writing, I want to read more. Love, Helen Evers
The “Princess,” huh?! I never knew that my cousin had that nickname! Haha so glad you enjoyed this fantastic piece by her ~ we are both lucky to have her in our lives! xoxo N
I loved this piece. Multiculturalism certainly is a relevant topic. Perhaps now more than ever we need to hear stories about how we can all benefit from it. Not only can we better understand people who are “different” from us, but, as the article points out, we can benefit personally as well. Thanks for writing this, Aunty Suggy, and thanks for suggesting the topic, Noelle!
Love that this piece is striking a chord & your comments are right on, Lallae! I am not interested in sound bites ~ but more, stories from people who have been there & lived it. So glad Suggy was able to tell this story…& so beautifully. xoxo!
I reiterate the comment about how lucky I am to know you. You have been and continue to be a great friend.
In the years that we have been friends you always amaze me with everything you write. Your piece is brilliantly written as every thing you write. We have a special bond you and me and I’m so proud of you and all you have accomplish.
You write from your, life experiences and you describe how your experiences shaped you. You share who you are, and what contributed to your life, and how you became who you are.
Warm, beautiful, creative, and supportive.
Great catch up!
Do you know Roxanna, Saleem?