Diwali and Indian Identity

We took the girls on the “Small World” ride at Disneyland.  Ellie loved the singing and dancing dolls.  Europe, America, the North Pole–all great.  But as we entered Asia, she practically leapt from her seat, pointing.

INDIA!  LIKE ME!” she shrieked.

Ravi and I were somewhat thrown; not because she isn’t (half) Indian, but rather that we’ve done very little to give her any sort of Indian identity.  I make Indian food a few times a month (which for her means rice, naan and papadum as she skips the chicken).  She has a few outfits, mostly for weddings.

We aren’t very culturally Indian.  We don’t speak Gujarati or Hindi (me because I haven’t picked up more than a few words here and there, Ravi because he refused to learn).  We are not practicing Hindus or Jains (although my mother in law is Jain), nor was Ravi raised to be Hindu or Jain.  We don’t really observe any Indian traditions.  I have a few saris and some salwar but I don’t wear them on a day to day basis.

If anything, our big concern/push has been to instill an American identity.  Ellie very much identifies as Singaporean, even though she’ll tell you she’s American (or at the least that Ravi and I are from America), she is very firm that she is from Singapore.

Earlier this week I told her she had been born in America, in Boston.

Looking skeptical, she shook her head.  “No, I don’t think so, Mommy.  I was born in Singapore.”

The identifying as Indian was somewhat out of the blue for us.  I mentioned it in passing to Ellie’s preschool teachers and they told me that she is very vocal in class about identifying as an Indian girl.

What I’ve learned from my husband’s experiences growing up is that as parents we don’t get to dictate our daughters identities.  Rather, it is our job to accept them and help them feel at home in their own skin.  If that identity is Indian, then my goal is to give Ellie support and to help build some family traditions that support that identity.

When our New Zealand friends arrived in Singapore, I suggested we go to dinner in Little India and see the streets lit up for Diwali.  We had dinner at The Banana Leaf Apolo, and then after dropping them at the taxi stand, Ellie and did some wandering around Little India.  We saw the lights lit up for Diwali, bought some Diwali decorations for our home, and a few lamps.

“What’s Diwali?” Ellie asked me.

“A festival of light,” I answered.


“……” I realized I didn’t know.

The truth is that I know very little about Diwali.

Our family does have a Diwali tradition, although it’s been spottily observed since we moved abroad; we eat Jalebi on Diwali, made by my mother in law.  However, I have no idea why we do that.

I asked Ravi and his comment was that it’s a festival of light and the new year.  That was his total knowledge of the holiday, having grown up Indian and having lived in India for several years.

Which is why I’m seeking out books on Diwali to share with the girls (any kid-friendly recommendations are very welcome).  It’s why I bought jalebi mix (so I can make the jalebi this year) at Mustafa.  It’s why I’m attempting to educate myself a bit more about Indian holidays (I’ve learned a lot about Indian culture during my relationship with Ravi, but very little about the holidays).  It’s why I’m grateful to have been invited over to someone’s home for Diwali.  And it is why I want to start building traditions for our family around Diwali.

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14 Responses to Diwali and Indian Identity

  1. Rebecca says:

    I have to say I love your blog! I started following it before we moved here to Singapore (back in August), and have been following it even more closely since we moved here. I’m trying to learn more about Diwali too, since I had never heard about it before! And, I’m from the Boston-area (my husband and I lived in Westford in middle school and through high school). Thanks for posting these great posts!

    • Thank you!

      I’m talking about how I chose the way we’re celebrating Diwali in the next post.

      Westford–sigh—now I’m craving Kimball’s Ice Cream. (I’m originally from the Ayer/Shirley area and Ravi’s from Acton/Boxborough.)

  2. Alaine says:

    I grew up as a global citizen/third culture kid and feel like I have a piece of me in all the places I’ve lived. That is my identity. I think to have that kind of support for your children to figure out what her identity is priceless. She is very much a third culture kid who feels an affinity to both India and Singapore while you, as her parents have a strong affinity for America. She’s got 3 cultures in her home, and possibly a 4th culture among her other global citizen friends & community (ie. expat community).

    • I love what you do! (everyone go read her blog)

      As I’m not a tck myself, it’s tricky to know how to “share” our home culture without trying to send a message that I expect her to identify as such (although we are trying to clear up that where were you born thing). I find it fascinating to watch her mind work to try to figure out her identity. I think that living in Singapore, she has so much positive reinforcement and outlets to be Indian that she might not have at home (such as Diwali being a big deal here). I’m pretty excited to see how these experiences meld together and help form her–and what she’ll choose to do as an adult that may reflect those experiences.

      • Alaine says:

        Thank you for reading my blog! 🙂

        I think what you’re doing with her is amazing. Keep up the good work with sharing your home culture and figuring out the Indian identity together as a family while living in Singapore (host country). Her experiences will be rich with different cultures and she may one day get frustrated with not really belonging in one culture as her mono-culture peers (speaking from experience as a Adult TCK). Encourage her to find solace that she can be an insider/outsider to many cultures AND belong to more than one culture. She is a TCK after all!

  3. kvarko says:

    Where can I click “like” on this?! You are such a great parent. You mindfulness and concern for her identity is wonderful. It’s beautiful, the diversity in Ellie’s experiences, and I am looking forward to her growing up as an amazing person.

    • Thank you. But keep in mind that the mindfulness that I chronicle here is balanced with plenty of frustration and less than stellar parenting moments that I don’t 🙂 I’m truly excited to see how these experiences shape who she will grow up to become.

  4. bookjunkie says:

    I just loved this post and Ellie looks like an Indian princess in her blue paavaadai 🙂

  5. Riniki says:

    Hey, just came across your post. Looks like you had a very good Diwali.:)

    This one’s for the gorgeous Ellie! Enjoy!

    Once upon a time there was a great warrior, Prince Rama, who had a beautiful wife named Sita.

    There was also a terrible demon king, Ravana. He had twenty arms and ten heads, and was feared throughout the land. Ravana wanted to make Sita his wife, and one day he kidnapped her and took her away in his chariot. Clever Sita left a trail of her jewellery for Rama to follow.

    Rama followed the trail of glittering jewellery until he met the monkey king, Hanuman, who became his friend and agreed to help find Sita. Messages were sent to all the monkeys in the world, and through them to all the bears, who set out to find Sita.

    After a very long search, Hanuman found Sita imprisoned on an island. Rama’s army of monkeys and bears couldn’t reach the island, so they began to build a bridge. Soon all the animals of the world, large and small, came to help. When the bridge was built, they rushed across it and fought a mighty battle.

    When Rama killed the evil Ravana with a magic arrow, the whole world rejoiced. Rama and Sita began their long journey back to their land, and everybody lit oil lamps to guide them on their way and welcome them back.

    Ever since, people light lamps at Diwali to remember that light triumphs over dark and good triumphs over evil.

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