Tuesday, July 10, 2007


I was reading a blog entry by Kal Pen where he said that Gogol, his character, did not have cultural struggles in the movie. In his opinion it was Gogol's mother who had ethnocentric issues to resolve.

I saw the movie and it really resonated with me. I am hard pressed to agree with Kal Pen in that his character had no identity conflicts. The one aspect of this movie that resonated so well with me was the idea of a first generation immigrant kid easily finding his niche in America but being unable to share his experience at home with wider America. To take an instance, scenes that followed his white, America girlfriend's first meeting with Gogol's parents were hilarious, but at the same time toe crunching for a viewer like myself that comes from a conservative non-PDA type culture.

Here was this American raised, Indian boy having gone through the typical suburban upbringing, done everything right, heading to an Ivy League school, landing his glamorous city job, and all the shebang that America is said to be great for. He glides through all this in style, albeit the occasional comments thrown in by his dissatisfied mother who thinks her child sees his time more fit to visit his American girlfriend and her family than his own parents. Ultimately he confronted by the death of his father and Indian mourning traditions which he is unable share with his girlfriend.

That mourning moment appears like his character had an Indian revelation but the underlying issue was that he never actually shared his life with his girlfriend. He shared her life with her instead and that is very acceptable and encouraged to/of immigrants in America. He played his American role like a well tuned fiddle to fit and be as invisible as possible within society. Not his fault. Not her fault. Not America's fault. It's just a fact of being an immigrant anywhere.

Sometimes I feel like I have multiple personalities. One that I have with Americans, another one that I have with immigrants in America and finally the my personality with Ethiopians, the last one being the closest to the real me. I'm not deceiving nor fabricating, it's just that I know limitations of my interaction with these different groups, and that's OK by me. But sometimes I realize that my interactions almost seem like work, like I have to actively monitor my boundaries, I am acutely aware of what fits in their world views and not. I wake up every morning and read the African news section of BBC after I keep up with 'normal news' that the rest of America might be reading(or not). My shelf has a pile of Amharic books that'll never be discussed at work or at my next BBQ. I like having another excuse to have a day off from work but beyond that I have no interest in July 4th celebrations and fireworks. Yeah, I can drag myself to somebody's garden cookout, but after all these years I don't look forward to that day even by the tiniest fraction of the way I miss yemeskel demera, buna'na qolo or nifro. True, I enjoy Japaneses cuisine and will take Roti Canai any day, but only because I can't get my qeTen yalech yeQibe shiro be'injera. And no, I don't ever tire of eating that stuff. How does one explain that? One doesn't. One can't. One just goes on to describe how good Roti Canai is. Really, if you haven't already, you should try it.

In Namesake I thought Gogol went through a similar experience. His father's death was a crosspoint of his two cultures. It was a moment he could not shelter his girlfriend from. It was a sombre and very traditional Indian experience which she tried to deal with in an American way. He had to be at home and with his familty, and it wasn't something he could compromise about. Inevitably it brought their relationship to and end.

In a way Kal Pen's right when he says Gogol did not have to struggle with his identity. He was a man in two cultures. He comfortably played both roles well and separately. His take on his father's death was not a choice he had to make - he knew the Indian way the only way to be and his explanation of his behavior was no consolation to his girlfriend. She was was never the one crossing boundaries. He always came to her ... until that point. So maybe he wasn't struggling with his identity, but he was still a victim of it, as was she.

To paraphrase Barak Obama's wife, she noted that human beings have a lot more in common on individual basis than we do as communities. Every day cultural boundaries are being trespassed by many of us. Differences become more noticeable when communities get involved. The plot of Namesake appeasers to be one such case.

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