Naan yaar Naan yaar Naan yaar….(aka Who am I?)

This post is dedicated to all the souls who’ve lost their identities.  Who don’t know who they are or where they belong.

I am lost – on many levels.  Let’s start with my name.  My family calls me Latha.  My in-laws and husband’s family calls me Srilatha.  Several of my friends call me Sri.  My kids call me Satan, Damien (after the evil character in the Omen series – my daughter has this for me on her cell), maa (mostly by my son), amma, mom, dawg (this from my daughter when she really wants something and wants me to think she thinks I’m cool).

My husband calls me….nothing!  for some strange reason, he doesn’t call me by name (nor I him).  I don’t know what our problem is.  We’ve lived together for 20 years not calling each other by name.  I am not holding my breath it’ll happen anytime soon.   (yes I cannot get through an entry without bringing up something about you!)

It’s strange because before we were married, he used to call me by my initials (JS) and I by his name.

With the Americans, it’s a different story.   You’d think Srilatha is a fairly easy name.  Wrong.  I was called sri-laah-thaa or worse, Sri-lay-tha – by pretty much everyone here for so long that I started telling everyone to call me “Sri”.  Fair enough.   That seemed to fix the problem.

I had a client who always called me SriLanka – like the country. Didn’t blink, pause or hesitate.  Confidently called me that every time we spoke on the phone.  I never had the chance to correct her because a call from her always meant some fire had to be put out.  And I wasn’t going to be picky about how she said my name.   

If that sums up all the names I was called verbally, the written form of my name has seen even more mutilations.

 Frilatha (yeah right), Sriladhy (hey who’re you calling lady?), and the ever-popular Srilaytha to name a few. 

As if all this is not enough, I recently got an American Express card from Costco which was all fancy and everything.  But every time I use it, I get asked for my id.  Why? Because it has a picture of a white woman on it.  Yes.  A white woman.  So everywhere I go, I give the card – they look at it, do a double-take, look at me and ask to see an id.  It was amusing the first 2 times.  Now I tell them when I hand them the card  – “I know – that nice looking lady on the card is not me – and I’m not an identify thief, I didn’t steal her card.  It’s a mistake by Costco – here’s my driver’s license”.

But wait…this post is not just about my name.  although I could go on about it.  It’s also about my ‘cultural’ identity.   I don’t know if all NRIs feel this way – like they belong nowhere and everywhere at the same time. 

To my American friends, I am Indian.  How much ever I assimilate, I have too much Indian in me to be an American.  My kids,  yes.   They have no trace of an accent,  no tell-tale signs. 

To the desis on the other hand, I am too westernized – I am not one of them. 

And truthfully, I don’t know if I really fit in with the Indians back home anymore.  I, with the rest of the desi diaspora, am forever locked into that frozen state of desihood we were in whenever we left home to make this country our home.  My Indian values have not changed for the most part – but I’ve adopted some American values.  India as I knew her 20 years ago, doesn’t exist anymore.  India has moved on, whereas I have not. 

And then I have these moments when my brain plays tricks on me – and I’ve noticed other people going through this phenemenon too.   Once, I was sitting in a van with my friend Suneeta, outside an Indian restaurant, waiting for my husband to come back from the Indian store, and we were just people-watching.  We saw a number of Americans entering the restaurant and I said “ Look at all the foreigners going into that restaurant”.  It wasn’t until my friend started to crack up that I realized what I’d said.  For one brief moment, I was in India while in America.  It was the weirdest feeling!

A frequent conversation that I have with a friend is about where do we really fit in anymore.    Or do we fit in anywhere? Sometimes it makes me sad, but most days I think I’m okay with not knowing.  Or knowing I belong to a new breed – a curious mix of frozen-desi and 1st generation immigrant.   And then there are days I really crave the sights, the sounds and the bustle of Madras.  All it takes is the smell of jasmine, an old song, or an old movie.  Days when I really question our decision to live here and raise our children here.

I am curious to know what people back home feel.  Do folks who have relatives abroad feel differently from those who don’t?  I am also curious to know how NRIs who returned back home feel. 

To finish this post off, here’s an old song from the movie “Kudiyiruntha Kovil” that more or less aptly describes how I feel – I warned you that I’m a big fan of MGR.   And yes, the crazy MGR is the one I feel like most days.  I bet I can find a song for every emotion/topic in an old Tamil movie.

In spite of the over the top acting by MGR, I love this movie and all the songs.  This is also a favorite of my son, 16, born and brought up in the US.  He calls it the ‘twin thief’ movie.  His other all-time fav Indian movie is Sholay. My daughter’s being “kannathil muthamittal” and “Alai Paayuthe”.   They both love dosai, all the street/chaat food, idli, pongal, would kill for puliyotharai and thayir saadam and mango pickle.  I wonder if they’re confused as I am. Happy for the most part, but confused!


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. sandhya
    Apr 18, 2010 @ 21:08:37

    the end of this made my mouth water a little.. but wow why don’t you get your american express card replaced?, that’s hilarious!



  2. Yukti
    Apr 21, 2010 @ 13:36:24

    This state of being in the middle that we all immigrants feel, I think you put it really well. Everything is going well, yet there is an emptiness that we feel. We want to go back and stay here at the same time; we want to be Indian but cannot give up our Americaness too. We want our children to do well in America but to never forget their roots. My hope is that our psychotic behavior not make our children just as confused. I think we have paid the price of moving from India to America. We were told that this American life is better so we ran as fast as we could to make a wonderful life in this great nation but no one allowed us to miss the small things we enjoyed back home. We gave value to education and money but were not allowed to complain about missing the simple things in life. On the bright note, feelings of sadness and confusion are a sign of climbing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, our basic needs of food, shelter, education, safety have all been met and we have moved beyond this phase. This is a great sign and something that should be celebrated. The feelings of not belonging are maybe a sign of us moving up the chain of needs which is a great achievement. If you had moved to America and still struggling to make ends meet these feelings of emptiness and sadness may not surface. So pat yourself on the back and say that you have achieved the All American Dream!



  3. Vidhya
    Apr 21, 2010 @ 23:12:47

    deep thoughts…deep thoughts….speaking of name I really learnt the true meaning to my official name Ramalakshmi..just couple of years ago (thanks to my aunt!)..after wondering all these years where in the world did my family come up with “Ramalakshmi” when there were million other names to pick from……
    Well it irritated me when I had to tell people even from India that they heard me right and that my name was “Ramalakshmi” and not “Rajalaksmi”
    Then later on when I got my citizenship I had a chance to change my name..odd enough I didn’t want to…now I am happy when people call me “Rama” reminds me of my dear dad since he calls me “dai Rama” like I am his boy!
    Then it was rockin’ awesome when a colleague took the time to learn to pronounce my entire name (First middle and last)…

    Spelling out my name..I’ll leave that part alone..

    Interesting that you mentioned it..for a while S and I called each other by our names and now he calls me ‘mom’ and I call him ‘dad’ we are teaching a 1yr old..duh! some relationships takes odd turns!

    Costco card..good heavens change it!

    As far as figuring out what spectrum I am in..all I can say is that I have already put in a request with P to put me in a nursing home in a warmer state. But if I am lucky and get a chance to settle in India I would love to settle in Valparai..never been there but watched it on TV so many times and fell in love with that place! But at the end of the day I am just happy and thankful for what I have!

    As far as a how people back home feel about us…we are Americans in India !One of our friends went back to India but guess what their son is back in the US for his college..I also have friends who went back to India but came right back because they couldn’t keep up with the Indian lifestyle!

    “Kudiyiruntha Kovil” ..I have never watched that movie …my all time MGR fav is “Anbe Vaa”
    S if you like KM (best performance of both Simran and Maddy) and should watch Mouna might like it and YESSSSSSSSSSSSS I am totally with you on the mouth H2Oing part!

    I was watching American Idol and they were showing clippings from Idol Gives Back..they showed a 7 yr old who weighs less than a 1yr old because of HIV….. her body was like a thin twig but her eyes were filled with so much joy that I have never seen before…why do some people have to suffer so much?????



  4. Trackback: Diary Of A Lost Soul | Middle Aged And Restless

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