Cultural Connections: Longing for belonging – from India to the US

A map of Bombay (Mumbai).

By JULIA GASPAR-BATES — Being an outsider has been a lifelong reality for Gautam Bastian. Born in Delhi, India, to an Anglo-Indian father and Maharashtrian mother, Bastian spent much of his childhood within the Christian tradition, which is a minority religion in a predominantly Hindu country. The family also moved frequently to different regions of the country. 

“My father is an Anglo-Indian, who are descendants of the first Europeans who came to India and had children with Indians. They became a separate group because of the caste system so they would marry amongst themselves,” said Bastian. “My mother was raised in a Marathi-speaking family and went to Anglican school in Bombay. My parents had a love marriage, which was unusual during the time, as arranged marriages were the norm.” 

During his first nine years, Bastian moved with his family between Delhi, Bombay (Mumbai) and Patna, in the eastern state of Bihar. While living in Patna his father became ill and Bastian moved to Bombay, on his own, to live with his grandparents. “My parents stayed in Patna for another year, but they ended up moving to Bombay. We lived in a 450- square-foot apartment with my parents, sister, grandparents and uncle, who also ran his dental clinic out of the apartment.”

Although raised in a relatively secular family, Bastian, who is named after the Gautam Buddha, attended Catholic schools and college. “My mother was born in a Brahmin family (the highest caste), and despite coming from a Hindu background, she converted to Christianity in 2004. Although we always went to church when I was a child, I participated in some Hindu ceremonies. Every morning my grandfather had me do Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutations) to instill in me the importance of discipline.”

Bastian first came to the U.S. in 2005 for a summer fellowship program in Washington D.C. He returned in 2008 to do a master’s degree in public administration at Columbia University, where he eventually met his wife, Cecily. In 2011, they married, and he joined her in D.C. and started working at the World Bank.

Gautam Bastian

After living in Alexandria, they eventually followed friends to Hyattsville five years ago so their kids could attend St. Jerome Academy. Bastian enjoys life in Hyattsville for its strong sense of community, its walkability and the Catholic community. “Since many people are new, they don’t have established relationships, so it’s very easy to make friends.”

Reflecting on differences between life in America and India, Bastian observes, “American neighborhoods are very quiet. When I first came here, I got the sense that something was missing, but I couldn’t quite figure out what it was until I got back to India. As I left the airport and heard all the noise, it clicked. Americans are much more protective of their space. For example, people desire independence — social distance is much greater here, both psychologically and physically. Daily life in India is very difficult, and since there isn’t any safety net, you have to rely on others to get by. In America, there is a lot more support and material well-being.”

He also reflects, “Indian culture is very family-oriented and ties don’t dissolve easily. There is a clear sense of duty. Prosperous kids here or in India often have the idea that parents owe them. Even though in India, there is a keener sense that your parents make sacrifices for you. Parents in America are sometimes more anxious and less confident of their role as parents. They are hesitant to exercise authority. I don’t quite know why.”

Navigating between cultures, however, is not difficult for Bastian. “I never belonged to a particular group–culturally, religiously, place[wise],” he said. ”I have been more of an observer than participant of culture because of my personal background. I was born on Indian Independence Day, so I have a strong sense of being Indian. I know that my life is here, but I’m hesitant to become an American citizen — but who knows? Belonging to a nationality is very important to me. I will probably live in America the rest of my life. My children and wife are American. I’m very keen that my kids are clear that they are American.”

“Cultural Connections” is dedicated to bring forth the voices of Hyattsville’s foreign residents to highlight the rich cultural diversity in our community.

 

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