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This story was published as part of a weeklong series produced by the WGLT Newsroom in March 2022.

Indians in B-N: Parents help their kids navigate a world they're still learning too

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Courtesy
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Krishna and Uma Balakrishnan of Bloomington. They have two children, ages 11 and 8.

Krishna and Uma Balakrishnan’s kids have a lot of questions. They’re only 11 and 8. So it’s been relatively simple stuff so far. Why do they go to temple? Why do their friends go to church?

The Bloomington couple knows that those questions will only get harder as their kids because teenagers and young adults. They’ll start dating. Choosing a college. Deciding what career to pursue.

“Some questions we never asked our parents,” Uma said. “But we are also searching for answers. For an 11-year-old and an 8-year-old, I want to make sure I’m giving at least the right answer. But they’re expecting clear answers. That is a big difference in parenting.”

Krishna and Uma are among the many Asian Indians in Bloomington-Normal who are navigating life as both parents and first-generation immigrants. No parent has it easy, but it takes a special blend of courage and resilience to raise kids to thrive in a culture you yourself are learning too. Adding to that level of difficulty is a desire among many Indian parents to find purposeful ways to keep their kids connected to their Indian culture – and make sure they can converse with grandma and grandpa 8,000 miles away.

"It’s so important for children of today to understand who they are and to be comfortable into their own skin. Because there are struggles."
Archana Shekara, mother of two and an associate professor at ISU

“It’s a lot different now,” Krishna said. “We constantly learn with them, trying to improve ourselves and be better parents as much as they’re trying to adapt between the worlds.”

Added Uma: “They are Indian Americans, so they see themselves in both worlds. They are not in bubbles.”

Krishna and Uma grew up in southern India. Their journey to Bloomington-Normal is all their own, but also echoes the experience of many other Indians who’ve found a new home here.

“My parents put me on a one-way flight to a country nobody had been before,” Uma said.

They earned advanced degrees in computer engineering, and it was State Farm that brought them to Bloomington. Uma thought they’d be here 6 months. They’ve stayed 14 years. They now own and manage the Parke Regency Hotel on Bloomington’s east side.

Krishna and Uma appreciate the quality of life here, especially the commute. Their kids can do classes and extracurriculars, even on weeknights, and still have quality family time.

“While I was at State Farm, (Uma) would call me in the evening and ask, ‘Hey, can I make you some tea?’ And by the time she makes tea, I’m home. That’s a luxury you can’t get anywhere else in the world,” Krishna said with a smile.

Krishna and Uma’s kids are growing up surrounded by American culture. But they’ve also invested a lot of time in making sure their kids stay connected to their Indian heritage.

They only cook Indian food at home, so they aren’t new to it when they visit India. They celebrate all the festivals. And they’ve gone so far as to launch their own nonprofit language school six years ago, called Abdul Kalam Tamil Palli, helping their kids and 80+ others learn their mother tongue (Tamil).

Language

Jay Tummala of Normal said language has been a big consideration for his family.

Before they go off to school for the first time, many Indian origin children in Bloomington-Normal speak their family’s mother tongue at home, said Tummala. For his family, that’s Telugu.

“Once they start going to preschool and kindergarten, there comes your identity crisis,” said Tummala. “Because when you go to school, it’s all English. And when you come home and if you try to be 100% in your mother tongue, it’s going to be very confusing for a lot of kids. And most of the kids will automatically switch to English and their families will give up on that too.”

But that’s a problem if there are grandparents back in India who want to get to know their grandchildren. It’s expensive and a major time commitment to take your whole family back to India for visits, Tummala said. So that makes phone calls and, now, video calls important, he said.

“Our family has gone through that. That’s when we noticed … oh gosh, the kids aren’t able to properly communicate with the grandparents because of the language difference," Tummala said.

So, about 10 years ago, Tummala helped launch a language school for Telugu.

“Not every language has that opportunity (in Bloomington-Normal) unfortunately. Only a few have it, and we are fortunate to have it. And I feel like it’s at least helping them be able to communicate with their extended family back home,” said Tummala, whose two children are now in college and high school.

 Archana Shekara
Barbara Adelman
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Archana Shekara, the mother of two young adults, is an associate professor of graphic design at Illinois State University.

The rapid growth of Indians in McLean County around 2000 made these cultural connections easier, said Archana Shekara of Bloomington, whose children were born in the late 1990s.

“There was a sea of Indians in this town. And it was for our advantage. All of a sudden, we felt noticed. We felt like, yes, the community is growing. And there were so many opportunities for my children to learn about our culture, our traditions, our music,” she said.

Her daughter spent years learning Indian dance. Her son got really into Indian classical music.

“That’s the way we keep our cultural traditions,” Shekara said. “It’s so important for children of today to understand who they are and to be comfortable into their own skin. Because there are struggles. I saw my own children struggle in elementary school and middle school. That’s when they were discovering colorism and searching for community within the school. And it was hard for them.”

Shekara was still learning about American culture herself when, at age 25, she became a mother.

“It was very challenging,” she said. “It was like, how do you trust? How do you trust to send your child on a sleepover? Because that kind of culture wasn’t there when I was growing up. How do you let your child go to someone else’s house – that you really don’t know who they are – and have a sleepover? … My children would be like, ‘Everybody is doing this, and we are not!’”

Parenting styles

Mustafa Jawadwala of Bloomington half-jokingly wishes there were an official parenting handbook. His kids are 8 and 3. And like Krishna and Uma’s children, Mustafa’s ask a lot of questions.

“I think it’s the age we’re in: Kids are much more analytical. They don’t shy away. They will ask you questions. And then that makes you reflect back on how you reply to them. A lot has changed,” Mustafa said. “(Parenting is) a very personal experience. I know they say you should learn from other people’s experience. But this one is, like, so personal it becomes very challenging.”

Mustafa grew up in Mumbai and came to Bloomington 11 years ago. He works in information technology – a life that his own parents played a key role in drawing out.

“A lot of decisions which were (made) for me were because my parents thought this might work out well for me. And that’s how I am what I am today. A lot of what I am educationally is an investment, a decision, a conscious effort, from my parents,” Mustafa said.

 Mustafa Jawadwala
Ryan Denham
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WGLT
Mustafa Jawadwala of Bloomington has two kids, ages 8 and 3.

WGLT asked Indian parents, like Mustafa, how much influence they’d want to exert on their own children’s professional paths. Indians are among the most educated groups in the U.S., with 75% of those 25 and older having earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s only 33% for Americans overall.

“For me, a lot of decisions were made based on my parents. I would definitely want to provide the support system for my kids, but ultimately, I do want them to choose what makes the most fulfilling life or what makes them happy,” Mustafa said.

Archana Shekara, the mother of two young adults, knows this question well. When she was younger, she felt pressure from her father. First, he told her she’d be a homemaker. When she insisted on going to work, her paths were limited: She could be a doctor, or a professor, or take the civil service exams.

Archana came to the U.S. and, with support of her husband, found and pursued her passion: art. When she came to Bloomington-Normal and was working in graphic design, she didn’t feel her line of work was respected within the Indian community here. But that changed once she got a job at Illinois State University, where she’s now an associate professor of graphic design.

“Because academia is considered super-respected. It’s a very respected profession,” she said.

Her experience—and all that time spent with college students—shapes her approach with her own children. Her son was recently deciding when to pursue an advanced degree. Archana advised him to take a few years off of school – “go find a job, do something else. Don’t study.”

“He came back to me and said, ‘I’m so surprised you’re saying this, Mom. Being an Indian parent, I thought you were going to say go directly to med school and finish and don’t waste your time. And I was like, ‘You know what: Life is not a checkbox,’” Archana said. “I went to grad school at 36 years old. You can do the same. It’s OK. Who cares. No one is evaluating you.”

Krishna and Uma’s children are young, but they’re feeling a similar pull.

One day, their 11-year-old daughter approached them – almost in tears – and said they were holding her back.

“That kind of broke our heart,” Krishna said. “We said, ‘What are you talking about? We give you all you want. You’re well taken care of. How are we holding you back?’”

Their daughter was seeking independence. So they let her pick her own outside-of-school activities. She chose singing and gymnastics.

“We realized that’s her passion. And we saw that when we sent her to the classes we wanted her to go to, that passion was not there. I feel we are giving them that independence to choose: OK, if this is your passion and path, we want to show them that everything has consequences and you gotta work hard and you can be the best at what you want to do.”

It’s a sort of blending of both of their cultures, Uma said: High expectations in the pursuit of your passion.

“We can survive thousands of miles away from our home because we understand the importance of education and how things flow in different parts of the world,” Krishna said. “You can get that only through education. I don’t see any other skill that can fill that gap.”

WHY WE DID IT

Bloomington-Normal has more Asian Indians than any other downstate metro community in Illinois. First-generation Indian immigrants and their children have shaped Bloomington-Normal in big and small ways, and that's worthy of attention. WGLT's Newsroom aimed to measure that impact in an 8-part series of human-centered stories.

HOW WE DID IT

Bloomington-Normal’s Indian community is not a monolith — socioeconomically, politically, culturally — and this series aims to reflect that. The WGLT Newsroom interviewed over 30 people from various backgrounds. We acknowledge these sources do not represent every Indian in Bloomington-Normal. They represent themselves, and we appreciate their willingness to share their story.

FEEDBACK

We want to know what you think of the series, and what future reporting we should consider. You can send our Newsroom a message at WGLT.org/Contact.
Community support is the greatest funding source for WGLT. Donations from listeners and readers means local news is available to everyone as a public service. Join the village that powers public media with your contribution.

Ryan Denham is the content director for WGLT and WCBU.
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