Sunday, November 18, 2007

Yuppie Indians

In Child CEOs and Child Doctors, I talked about how Indian parents nowadays try to see their accomplishments and successes through their kid’s performances.

Here, I talk of another phenomenon – that of English inducing parents.

When I was in US, I saw many new immigrant parents from India speaking English ONLY with their kids. These parents from India carry with them their homegrown feeling of attributing superiority to those who speak English. There is a joke which goes this way – Lalu Prasad Yadav comes back to India after visiting New York and he remarks that it is well developed because even a beggar in New York speaks English. The sad truth is that for many Indians, speaking English is a sign of opulence, success, wealth and in effect every sign of achievement. So, raising a kid in USA is seen as an accomplishment in itself- it’s like sending your kid to a posh and rich international school here in India.

Here I illustrate another story. One Indian parent, call him X, was completely lost in USA because he went there at an older age. He was not ready to assimilate with the ‘foreigners’. We used to see X mingle only with Indians keeping his interactions with Americans or other international folk to a bare minimum. When one of the friends asked X to go out with us which included non-Indians, he did not relent. When asked how come he does not interact with non-Indians, X defiantly and proudly replied that he talks to one American on a daily basis. When probed further, he said this American was his son. Since his son was born in US he carried an American passport, and hence X was speaking to an American on a daily basis. While this story is a crude example and not a generality, it does reflect something that is pervasive with many Indian immigrants (not all). Many recent immigrant Indians celebrate the fact that their kids do not know any Indian languages. They take pride in the fact that their kids speak English only. It’s as if, admitting you can speak an Indian language is a sure sign of inferiority. These kids end up not able to communicate even with their own grandparents.

However, there are many other families who look at this issue very differently. A cousin of mine living in US then has two kids. We would conscientiously make sure they learnt their mother tongue. To do this, we had to enforce a strict regimen where in we all spoke in our mother tongue while at home. It is clear to some of us that it is important to inculcate your own identity so that it is not lost.

So, when I came back to India four years ago, I was in for a surprise. I saw few IT managers in Bangalore whose kids did not speak any Indian language. The parents would speak to them only in English and the kids would respond back in English. Some kids could understand an Indian language but would respond back in English only. It was rather a peculiar trend I was witnessing. How come an Indian born in India does not know an Indian language? What great efforts one must go through to ensure that? It’s like meeting a Belgian growing up in Belgium not knowing any Belgian language. You would find that odd.

Living in Bangalore, I started to notice lot of parents like that, in shops, malls, restaurants, etc, speaking to their kids in English only. I am not sure if they want to ‘show off’ or if it is indeed a regular practice. But it is clear that many of these parents have made it a consistent habit to speak to the kids in English ensuring the kids do not speak in any other Indian language – at least when they are being watched.

You will see this trend reflected in posh places of India – where speaking in Indian language is considered inferior. If you are sitting in a posh pub, or in a posh restaurant, or attending a big event, you just can’t address the waiter or an assistant in Indian language. Even if you address the person in Indian language, he would respond back in English only. I guess the owners have instructed him not to speak in Indian language, so he keeps it that way. I have seen this in airlines too. I don’t see why the passengers have to communicate in English with the attendants? Just because they are on a flight? I do understand that there is no common Indian language. But that does not mean we should not converse in a common Indian language when we find one.

So, who are these parents? As I described earlier-

Most of these parents are above average, have done well in life, but NOT that well.

They always felt that they should have had a head start, should have had much better education (than what they had), should have much better opportunities (than what they had).

They feel they would have become much more, a Bill Gates, a Sunil Mittal, a Sharapova, if ONLY, if only they had much better access to opportunities, if ONLY they spent more time studying instead of whiling away time in the playground playing silly games, if ONLY they had come home from school and went to evening classes instead of spending time with friends.

For these parents, who feel they have lost out on missed opportunities, their kids shouldn’t be wasting their time. They shouldn’t wait to become adults to prove and perform, they should start right away, right now.

These parents PUSH the kids to perform better and better each time, raising the bar each time, and when these kids win accolades, these parents bask in that glory. These are the parents who want to be behind the stage, on the stands, in the audience, congratulating, encouraging, supporting, video-recording, photo-shooting, while their kids keep winning laurels. They have given up struggle for themselves, and instead focus that struggle on their kids now. They think they have reached the peak of their performance, but believe their kids have the world open for them to conquer.

These parents don’t want to lose time. They want their kids to have a head start. They want to ensure their kids speak English from day one without losing time. Since English has been the key differentiator, according to them, that has ensured success to people around them, English is the way to go. And if that means renouncing every Indian language, let it be so.

And if given chance, they want to push it in your face their kids’ inability to understand or speak any Indian language, proudly saying that they do not understand any of those languages.

I have seen parents parading their kids proudly displaying their kids’ ability to speak English, holding them up like trophies they have recently won. Kids are not individuals with identities anymore, but they come as a compensation for the parent’s failures and lost opportunities.


  1. It is clear to some of us that it is important to inculcate your own identity so that it is not lost

    Hi, Can you elaborate on the above? How does a language inculcate identify? Are there advantages?

    (Not being confrontational, just curious)

  2. We have many identities. Language happens to be one of them - and a strong one.

    We are identified by the language we speak - as our mother tongue. A French is French because he speaks French. A Spanish is Spanish because he speaks Spanish. A Tamil is Tamil because he speaks Tamil.

    You can relate to people of your identity when you can converse with them in your language. A kid who cannot speak his mother tongue will not be able to converse with his people. He will always miss out on that identity.

    Being global does not mean you need to shed you local identities. It means, while you are proud of your local identity, you also embrace other people of other identities without conflict or animosity.

    Being global in Europe does not mean everyone speaks French or German. The local languages such as Croat thrives as much.

  3. Hi Sujai, I wonder if there is a caste connection here too. Indians always look for something to differentiate themselves from the rest. Wearing caste on the arm is slowly being replaced by this kind of feeling of superiority attached to knowledge of English. Actions, thoughts and conduct of an individual have never been used to judge a person. So, should we really be surprised by such developments?

    What I have found is that the upper class parents in India who raise their kids with mostly English end up creating kids who are aliens in their own land. People living in bubbles in their own society unable to understand culture, people, social conditions or even their own history.

    Another example that reflects this attitude is the naming of upscale residential and commercial buildings. Some are ridiculous while others are silly. None of this matters to the yuppies who associate exotic names/things with prestige and status.

  4. Anonymous:

    Recently one person was talking about owning a home in 'Orange County' and I thought it was in California, only to be stumped later - it is somewhere close to Bangalore.

    BTW, another yuppie thing is to splash you with photographs of themselves in different European and American cities and landscapes.

    May be, its the Indian Cinema effect :)

    As you said, there could be an underlying caste connection. I have not explored that here.

    But, I think I have touched upon this a little bit in my series on 'Reservations' (IV). Most elite communities raise their kids untouched with realities of India in safe cocoons. That is the reason they do not understand why certain caste get reservations.

  5. On language as contributing to identity, the ideas encapsulated in the words and expressions of a language also say a lot about the values we hold and the way we subjectively react to certain kind of situations. Languages, words also carry certain behavioral heuristics and de/constructionist devices in them and this contribute to identity.

    Languages develop after years of cultural evolution. Each cultural evolution has its own unique path or history. The usage carries a lot of this with it.

    ~ Vinod

  6. My Dad speaks to my brother and I only in English right from the the time was born. The reason being, according to him, was that we being born in a small village should understand the nuances of English from a young age so we can 'grow'. Anyways, misplaced or not he always insisted that we speak in Tamil ONLY with our Mom. The reason behind that was so we never forget where we came from and our native language and culture. I believe that he made a difference by doing both.

  7. Sujai said in another post - "Raise your kid by imparting all your prejudices.

    I won't.

    I am hoping there would some people (not many, but minority few) who would like to raise them without imparting their prejudices onto their kids."

    Sujai also said - "A cousin of mine living in US then has two kids. We would conscientiously make sure they learnt their mother tongue. To do this, we had to enforce a strict regimen where in we all spoke in our mother tongue while at home."

    Sujai: Do you see a difference in what you say in these two different posts?

  8. Anonymous:
    If teaching your kid languages is seen as imparting one's prejudices then I am inconsistent.

    However, I don't see 'teaching language' the same as 'imparting one's prejudices'.

    According to me, teaching your kid history, science, math, languages and how to swim, or ride a bicycle or to put the trash into the trash bin is NOT THE SAME as imparting one's prejudices!

  9. Kids are like sponges - they soak what you put on them. They could easily learn 2 or sometimes 3 languages easily.

    And yes Sujai you are inconsistent.


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