The Ganguli Family. (Photo Credit: nytimes.com)
After putting it off for years, I finally watched “The Namesake,” a film based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. By the end of the film, I found myself feeling a way I hadn’t felt in ages after watching a movie: connected. “The Namesake” focuses on Gogol, a second generation Bengali American who spends much of the film struggling to accept the fact that he is both Bengali and American, that these two identities are not mutually exclusive. Intertwined with Gogol’s story is also the relationship between his parents, Ashima and Ashoke. We learn of their arranged marriage, immigration from Calcutta to NYC for the elusive American dream and their difficulty in bridging cultural gaps while raising their Asian American teenagers.
The film explores a myriad of issues that immigrant families, particularly Asian immigrant families, can relate to like multi-generational disconnect between parents and their children and Asian American youth struggling to find balance between two distinct cultures. But what I think struck me the most was the relationship between Gogol and his parents. In the first half of the film, we see Gogol pull away from them and anything that would connect him to his ethnic identity, i.e., changing his given name of ‘Gogol’ to his formal name of ‘Nikhil’ which he then shortens to ‘Nick.’ He loves them but, like the rest of us, all he wants to do is fit in. He doesn’t understand his parents’ insistence on continuing to make such a big deal out of Bengali traditions and why he should even care.
As I watched Gogol’s story unfold, I was reminded of my own relationship with my parents.
My dad and I have never been particularly close and my mom and I seem to have hit this wall that we can’t get past. I attribute much of this to the language barrier that exists between us. While my dad can speak/read/write English fairly well, my mom can really only understand it. I, on the other hand, am the opposite. I can understand Chinese for the most part but speaking it fluently is a whole other issue and you can forget about trying to read or write it. Working in the nonprofit world, I have a hard enough time explaining what I do to native English speakers. You can imagine how much more difficult it is to try and explain to your parents in their native tongue when you don’t even really have the words to do so. And honestly? This breaks my heart.
All of the undergrad organizing and advocacy work I did around Asian American Studies? My parents have no idea because I’ve never told them. I literally could not find the words to adequately explain the work I was doing and why it was so damn important to me. And what do I know about them? Not a a lot, really, other than the fact that they immigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s and that my dad’s a businessman and my mom a writer.
For the longest time, it felt like my parents and I were merely acquaintances who talked about the news and weather but not much else. As I watched Gogol navigate the tricky terrain that is one’s identity, I liked that the story did not devolve into the cliche of ‘rebellious American teenagers versus their traditional immigrant parents.’ Instead, Gogol’s journey of self-discovery involves conversations he has with his parents; one of the more touching ones revolving around the origin of his name.
Seeing Gogol connect with his parents through language and sharing personal stories and how those conversations helped shape his racial identity is something that I yearn for. I used to think that the wall between my parents and I hindered our capacity to appreciate each other not just as parent and child but as adults. There are times when I still think that, but I’ve also now realized two things: 1) this may just be the type of relationship I have with my parents. One where they have a faint idea of what I do [and are relieved I even have a job] but don’t quite understand it and 2) that if I want this to change, I need to take it upon myself to do something about it.
For me, I truly believe that a critical part of better understanding who I am as an Asian American is being able to effectively communicate with the people who brought me into this world. There is so much I don’t know about them, their experiences in Taiwan, their lives in the U.S. before they had my sister and I or why they decided to immigrate to the U.S. in the first place. Watching “The Namesake” reminded me of how much this language disparity has created this distance between us and how much I want that to change. I know that this adjustment won’t happen overnight but for the sake of better understanding my parents and myself, I’m willing to make the conscious effort to try.