Husband & Wife Articles


Gift of Self

As Indian Americans, our family gives to and receives from our country

By Jilu Jacob

Recently, I re-watched the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” It’s a coming of age story of a Greek woman who discovers her complex identity and shares the good, the bad and the crazy of immigrant life with her American boyfriend. With comedic twists, it captures the nuances of not only Greek immigrants, but of many immigrant families as well, including my own. My own Big Fat Indian Wedding, with over 400 guests (not an exaggeration!) was two years ago, and was just one of the moments in which I have experienced the joys and complexities of being a first-generation Indian American.

My parents came to America from Kerala, a small state in India, when my sister and I were young. We were one of the few Indian families in a primarily Italian New Jersey town. We struggled at times because we wanted to fit in but also retain our Indian culture. So, over the years, we developed our own fusion identity – we were both fully Indian and fully American. At home, my siblings and I spoke Munglish (a combination of Malayalam and English), ate Indian-inspired spicy pasta, took Indian classical dance lessons, but also played on sports teams for the town. Yet to feel more at home, our family clung to other Malayalees (Indians from the state of Kerala) who could relate to this first-generation immigrant reality.

Jacob Family

Not having family of our own in the States, these new friends became family. The church became our meeting ground and our Catholic faith our rallying point. Sundays would be all-day affairs when there was not only Mass, but Malayalam language classes, catechism classes, celebration of birthdays, special occasions and, of course, lots of food. With the support of this extended family of faith, it became a much easier proposition to observe and preserve both faith and cultural values, while continuing to find our way in American society.

One such value that was encouraged by both my parents and our community was respect for elders and family. In the Indian culture, there is an inherent respect built into interactions with both family members and strangers. Older women and men in the community are called “Aunty” or “Uncle,” whether they are blood relations or not. Likewise, at home, my siblings were taught to call me chechi, or older sister. More than a matter of etiquette, it is a practice that reveals the cultural importance of respect for elders.

This attitude of respect also carries through to faith, especially in the practice of family prayer. My parents recount stories of sitting together with their parents every evening for prayer, reading the Gospel and kneeling for the recitation of the rosary. Although family prayer has taken its own form in the Malayalee families in America, one thing remains constant – the sign of peace at the end of prayer. Starting with the eldest member of the family, the sign of peace, or sthuthi, is given to every member of the family, in age order. Extended family gatherings cause a joyful confusion, as the youngest must give peace to everyone, many times making up the order as they go along!

While we practiced such traditions in my family, most immigrant communities struggle to pass on language and communicate the importance of traditions to the next generation. Often there is an invisible pressure to assimilate and brush aside seemingly archaic traditions in the context of American life. In his address at Independence Hall in Philadelphia last year, Pope Francis specifically addressed the immigrant communities and reflected on this issue.

“I think in particular of the vibrant faith which so many of you possess, the deep sense of family life and all those other values which you have inherited,” he said. “By contributing your gifts, you will not only find your place here, you will help to renew society from within.”

These words are a call for all immigrants to discover the beauty of their culture and traditions, especially the sense of family life and faith. Yet we are not meant to stop at discovery, but to offer our culture as a contribution to society! That, perhaps, is one of the most precious aspects of this country, where different cultures, traditions and faiths can come together and learn from each other in mutual harmony.

It seems appropriate then, with the recent celebration of Memorial Day, to remember and honor those who have served our country and given their lives for the protection of the freedom and dignity we enjoy today. I am blessed to have the freedom to be fully Indian, fully American and fully Catholic. I am blessed to have the freedom to struggle with and enjoy the complexities of this reality. And we are all blessed to have the freedom and the call to contribute the best parts of ourselves, especially our unique traditions and values, to renew society from within.

Jilu Jacob is a wife, mother and nurse living in Massachusetts with her husband, Roger, and their daughter, Magdalena. She is a first generation Indian American, a Jesus Youth, and her family observes Syro-Malabar Catholic traditions.