The Namesake

A Stranger in Your Own Country

Memoirs of a Bengali (and Filipino) American

November 27, 2007
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Open my eyes that I may see
wonderful things in your law.
I am a stranger on earth;
do not hide your commands from me.
(Psalm 119:18-19)

In grad school, I had the opportunity to go on a couple of international trips. I was hoping for Europe but ended up getting South America and Asia. This was fortunate because my class had a bunch of white people in it. Let me explain; on the trips I was able to watch the dynamic of my European American classmates be the minorities. Ah, there’s nothing like being in a crowded room and being the only… whatever: white person, brown person, male, or female.

I say this with no malice as I often forget that I’m a brown Filipino American. The only time I remember is when I look in the mirror or when someone reminds me that we live in a white country. (Ever heard someone refer to a European American as just plain American?) I was born here, as my bio says—in Hollywood, CA no less—and was raised in the suburbs of Los Angeles.

For the most part I’ve always been able to blend, but I’ve never really felt American or Filipino. It is a strange feeling to have, to feel like a stranger in the country you were born in. I went to the Philippines in 1997 and suffice it to say I didn’t feel all that comfortable in the land of my forefathers, either. The movie The Namesake MovedMe because it tries to depict this same dilemma in some very poignant ways.

familyFirst off, the movie centers around a family—it feels like we shouldn’t call them an Indian family but Bengali—whose parents are from India. It chronicles how the father came to be in America, received his wife who was arranged for him, and how they raised two children in New York. The father’s name is Ashoke, the mother is Ashima, the son is named Gogol (played by Kal Penn of Harold & Kumar fame), and the daughter “lucked out” with Sonia.

“How old were you when you moved to America?”
This is a classic question that I’ve gotten a handful of times in my life, and it was asked of Gogol by a guest at his white girlfriend’s graduation party. Mostly it’s a harmless assumption as it was portrayed in the movie, but it is an assumption all the same. The assumption is that everyone who is not white must be a foreigner.

Gogol’s answer is great and gracious. He just says in a matter of fact manner that he was born and raised in New York, just like his girlfriend Max. There is no bad blood or need to be haughty about it; it was a harmless mistake. But the fact is, in the year 2006 we still have the situation where a brown, bilingual person would be considered a foreigner before he would be considered American.

Believe me, I of all people know that many strides have been made, to my benefit and without my having to participate in any civil rights actions. But the fact remains: what do you think of when you see a non-white person standing before you? More often than not most people think foreigner. Again, not casting stones just stating a fact.

Take it from someone who has lived almost 37 years being mistaken as a foreigner when I was born and raised here, that it gives one an uneasy feeling sometimes. Most of the time, like I said, I don’t even think about it, which is a credit to our generation and where I live. My point is, that uneasy feeling is hard to shake.

I want vs. parents want
Throughout the movie there is quite a bit of tension between what the parents want/are used to and the freedom Americans give their children. To try and ease Gogol into school his parents gave him a more American sounding name, Nicholas. On his first day in Kindergarten he tells the teacher he would rather be called Gogol and without asking his parents the principal changes his name back in the records. That’s no big deal to us, but imagine coming from a culture where your parents even have control over who you marry, much less the name that you go by.

MaxineLater in the movie, Ashima makes a statement that she feels like she gave birth to strangers. This is in response to looking at her mostly American teenagers, her boy with long hair and her daughter wearing all black with buckles and chains everywhere. Fast forward to Gogol, now called Nick, living with Maxine, who his parents haven’t met. Maxine asks him if his parents want him to marry a good Indian girl and Gogol/Nick responds by saying, “I don’t care what they want; this is what I want.”

Is this kind of tension there for most parents and teenagers/young adults? Sure. But it is heightened when the parents are not used to this kind of treatment and the teenagers/young adults know it. This happened to me all the time. What seemed absolutely normal to everyone else was forbidden territory for me. It ranged from simply going outside and playing with friends to later going to football games to even later going out and living on my own.

But I say all this not to make you sorry for first-generation Americans, but to drive a point home that we feel out of place and that’s a very discomforting thing. I took two 2-week trips with my white classmates to Chile and Brazil then Japan and Thailand. They only had to feel that discomfort for 4 weeks, but they got a great taste of it! Those of us that are not white Americans feel that discomfort all the time.

Or maybe I’m wrong about that… I believe all of us feel something very similar. Let me explain.

Each and every one of us was created for a totally different world than the one we live in. Hang in there with me; it will become clearer.

God created us for paradise, Eden we call it. A place where we live in harmony with our creator, each other, and the creation around us. Our parents, Adam and Eve, broke the one law that God gave them and they were cast out of paradise, and an angel with a fiery sword guards it so we can’t get back in. If you think I’m making this up, go read the first few chapters of Genesis.

Ever since that fateful day when we chose to go against God’s law we have been living in a very alien place indeed. A place where we don’t live in harmony with God, each other, or the creation around us; thus more laws. As the passage from the Psalms above states, we are strangers; most of us, in our quiet moments, know it. St. Paul in his letter to the Romans states:

For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. —Rom 2:14-16

The gist of what he is saying is that even if you don’t believe in God, but especially if you do, we know the difference between right and wrong. Just like when I used to go do things that were normal for most American teenagers/young adults, but felt that nagging sensation that I was doing something wrong. Maybe you never understood why you have that sensation or those feelings. I’m here to tell you it’s because you were not made for this sin-filled world, you were made for paradise… heaven.

The good news is that God has given us a way back to himself—he said it in those early chapters of Genesis and he says it in different ways to reach us throughout the entire Bible: that he will bring us Salvation. That Salvation is through Jesus Christ. That nagging feeling in the back of your head or deep in your heart that tells you that something is not right is meant to push you towards him!

Let me encourage you to do so with a passage from St. Paul to the Ephesians that tells us we don’t have to live with that nagging feeling that we are strangers in a strange land any more. God, in the form of his son Jesus Christ, has come to give us citizenship. I hope you take him up on it.

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. —Eph 2:19-21

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Patrick was born in Hollywood...literally! Hollywood Community Hospital in 1970. I met Jesus and my wife, Linda, in 1989. Two relationships that I treasure to this day. We have two sons, Joshua and Jason, and a little dog named Sophie. We love Jesus together, enjoy living on the Central Coast of California and hanging with our boys and dog at the beach or a park. As far as Hollywood Jesus it's a privilege to write with real writers...since I'm not. I hope you like my reviews, which are more commentary on everything that MovesMe. I always assume you've seen the movie or TV show that I'm commenting on...so be fair warned; I'm a spoiler.

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