Reflections

A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry from Yale Divinity School

Crossing Boundaries of Religous Tradition

Author: 
Peggy Levitt

Immigrant assimilation and enduring transnational practices are not antithetical to one another. It’s possible to be an upstanding member of two or even more communities at once. In fact, many people build homes, contribute to charity, or invest in the places that they come from while they register to vote and sign up for the P.T.A. in their adopted U.S.A.

Not so for their children. The prevailing wisdom is that transnational parents do not necessarily produce transnational children. Most researchers predict that while the first generation maintains strong social and economic ties to their countries of origin, their children will not.

I want to challenge this view. Though I do not expect the second generation to participate in their ancestral homelands in the same ways and with the same intensity as their parents, dismissing the potential importance of ancestral-country participation among the children of immigrants outright misses the boat. When children grow up in households and participate in organizations where people, goods, money, and ideas from both near and far circulate on a regular basis, they are not only socialized into the rules and institutions of the countries where they live, but also into the rules and institutions of the countries from whence their families come. They acquire social contacts and social skills that are useful in both settings. They master several cultural repertoires they can selectively deploy in response to the opportunities and challenges they face.

In addition, the norms that govern family and community life are constantly renegotiated across global space. The lines between the home and host country and between the first and second generations can blur, making them one interconnected social experience. The children of immigrants are at least witnesses, if not active protagonists, in this drama. The thicker and deeper these social ties be- come, the more they are institutionalized. The social and political groups in which the second generation participate reflect this reality and therefore perpetuate it.

Transnational Transcendence

What does all this have to do with religion? Immigrants and their children make up nearly one-quarter of the U.S. population. These newcomers introduce new faith traditions and “Asianize” and “Latinoize” long-standing ones. But it is their children who will ultimately be the face of an American Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism. They are doing the hard work of taking their inherited faith traditions and reshaping them so that they make sense in the context of their families’ daily lives now.

Seeing this as a process shaped only by forces at work within the U.S. is dangerously shortsighted. My conversations with young people of Brazilian, Indian, Pakistani, and Irish descent over the last ten years have convinced me that the new face of American religion is shaped as much by what goes on in the mosque or temple across the globe as by what goes on in the church down the street. Young people today construct religious selves in conversation with people, places, and institutions all over the world.

According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 74 percent of today’s immigrants in the U.S. are Christian, 3 percent are Hindu, and 1.7 percent are Muslim. Because they are still relatively young, we don’t have a lot of data on the religious lives of the “new” second generation or the children of these newcomers. What we do know suggests a varied picture. Some young people reject ties to organized faith. Others become even more observant than their parents, reclaiming an orthodoxy they feel the first generation has lost. Still others create their own brand of faith that combines ancestral and new traditions. In their major survey of the children of Dominican, South American, West Indian, Chinese, and Russian Jewish immigrants in New York City, Kasinitz and his colleagues found that, on the whole, their respondents were less religious than their native-born counterparts. Instead, many described themselves as “spiritual” and, like every good American, believed they should be able to choose the religion that was right for them. The young people who did participate in organized religion worshipped in places that brought them into frequent contact with other ethnic groups. Thus, religion was an assimilation catalyst rather than a cultural reinforcer. The second generation, particularly their Russian and Chinese respondents, also tended to be more religious than their parents (See Philip Kasinitz, John Mollenkopf, Mary Waters, and Jennifer Holdaway, Inheriting the City: The Children of Immigrants Come of Age, published this year by Harvard University Press and Russell Sage Foundation).

Borders and Beliefs

But looking at other foreign-born communities, non- Christian experiences, or outside the doors of the church to the informal settings where religion is expressed every day might tell us a different story. Even the Catholic Church, immigrant integrator par excellence, firmly ties its members to other Catholics around the globe. It often provides them with built- in networks, such as those between priests or charismatic Catholic group members, which connect them to co-religionists in their homeland and across the world. It was through these very networks that some of the Brazilian American youth I met raised money and traveled back to Brazil to build schools and churches. Many Hindu and Muslim communities are also creating thick, dense networks that connect their members and through which goods, ideas, and practices regularly travel. If the children of immigrants grow up in transnational households and belong to religious communities that are in regular touch with fellow believers around the world, then what they believe in and how they put it into practice is not just made in the U.S.A. but across the globe. Though most of the examples I draw upon here highlight the Hindu or Muslim experience, my own work, and the work done by other colleagues (such as Nina Glick Schiller and Ayse Caglar, Prema Kurien, and Carolyn Chen, to name a few) suggests that some aspects of young Catholics’ and evangelical Christians’ religious lives also cross borders.

Let me give you an example from the Indian- American experience. During the course of my many interviews with second-generation Indian- Americans, I met twenty-three-year-old Bindi and her friend Sonali. They recalled the many Saturday nights they spent growing up together. “It was like you had your school friends,” Sonali said, “but the message was clear that your real friends were the Indian families we got together with every weekend.”

Sorting Out Identities

Bindi and Sonali live in middle-class towns in northeastern Massachusetts where few other Indians reside. In a way, it was a relief to get together on Saturdays and Sundays with kids who looked, ate, and had parents just like them. They didn’t have to do any explaining or worry that their friends wouldn’t like the way their house smelled or the food their mother served for dinner.

Growing up, Bindi said, you knew that all the Indian parents were watching you. If another family happened to live in your town, you were always looking over your shoulder to make sure they weren’t there if you were with someone or going somewhere you weren’t supposed to go. “It was like the parents joined forces,” Bindi explained. “The ‘uncles’ and ‘aunties’ were so worried about us growing up right, they had no problem telling other people’s children what to do.”

In many ways, kids like Sonali and Bindi live be- tween a rock and a hard place. Their parents are ambivalent about their assimilation into the U.S., and they communicate these mixed feelings to their children. They want their kids to fit in but not too much. The line between being ‘too American’ and ‘too Indian’ is never clear. The line between being Hindu enough and too Hindu is also blurry. Where it falls is determined by what their parents remember as good Hinduism back home and what they think it should be in America. Kids often feel that if they excel at one standard, they fail at another.

When they leave for college, these same young adults have to decide who they are outside the con- text of their families. Their new South Asian class- mates automatically expect them to join the Asian Students Association. Their roommates ask them questions about Hinduism or Islam they cannot answer. The world makes assumptions about who they are, and they feel that they somehow come up short. This propels the Gujarati young man to seek out the Hindu Student Advisor, or the Muslim young woman to experiment with wearing a headscarf. These organizations often form part of national and international groups that link young people to their religious peers around the world. It’s a combination of things, Sonali and Bindi explained – finally being interested in learning about your traditions, rather than being forced to by your parents; being thrilled at finding a like-minded community that welcomes you with open arms, and feeling responsible for rep- resenting your group to the rest of the world. “It was such a relief,” Bindi said, “to talk about your parents and not have to explain anything to anyone because all your friends were going through the exact same thing. I couldn’t believe there were twenty-five other girls who had families just like mine.”

Being Watched, Being Tested

While these kids grapple with being ethnic in America, they also struggle with how to be second- generation American in their ancestral homeland. This is another test with multiple examiners. Most of the families I have spoken with over the years take their children back fairly regularly to their home- lands. Some go back every year, staying for three or four months at a time. These trips were generally remembered in glowing terms, although they presented challenges (the bugs and the lack of air conditioning or running water took some getting used to). Perhaps the greatest challenge was knowing that everyone was watching you. Just as Sonali and Bindi felt they were given a “ ‘well-brought-up’ test” every Saturday night in America, homeland vacations felt like extended report cards for parents and children.

Anika, a thirty-year-old second-generation Gujarati, lives with her parents in a small Massachusetts town near the New Hampshire border. Her parents are pillars of the local Swadhyaya Hindu community. She attended Swadhyaya meetings even after she went to college, coming home on the weekends to teach religious school. Swadhyaya, a contemporary Hindu-oriented social and spiritual movement based in India, helped her gain confidence in who she is and to do the right thing even when others were making the wrong choices, she said. If anyone has been well trained in Hinduism and Gujarati culture, it is Anika.

Four years ago, Anika went back to India with her father. Though it was officially a trip to see her grandparents, everyone knew it was really about finding a potential mate for her. Her father told her to be herself, but she could tell that she was being carefully scrutinized by her Indian relatives. If she didn’t show enough respect, if she wasn’t suitably

humble, or if her compliments to the chef were not sufficiently effusive, she could sense the disapproval. She wasn’t sure how to make things right. “It felt like I was somewhere where all the things we learned at Swadhyaya were being lived everyday, but that the rules were slightly different. I couldn’t quite get it right.”

Yet, when I visited her family in Gujarat two years later, her relatives could not sing her praises loudly enough. She was right in assuming that they were watching her carefully, but they were satisfied by what they saw. They were also willing to give her the benefit of the doubt because they could see she was trying. As her uncle in Gujarat described, “My brother visited with his daughter Anika in 1999. We hadn’t seen them in more than five years. We were wondering what she would be like. Some kids come back here and it’s like they are allergic to India. They don’t like the food, the dust, and the heat. She was very different. She was very interested in everything. She was very respectful. She didn’t wait to be waited on. I told my brother he had done a good job raising her. It is possible to bring up good Indian children in America.”

What it means to be a good American, ethnic- American, Hindu, Christian, or Muslim is being rewritten across oceans and continents. People like Sonali, Bindi, and Anika define their religious selves in relation to several reference groups at once, using elements and narratives from several settings. They do so in conversation not only with their young co-religionist peers but with their native-born U.S. counterparts and with their relatives and friends back home. They articulate their Hindu faith in relation to their understanding of Christianity, based on the stories of Sunday school classes, first communions, and church dances their friends tell them about. They compare it to the Middle Eastern version of Islam their college friends tell them about that seems so different from the Hindu-inflected version of Islam they observe when they visit India each year. They incorporate practices they learn while attending a summer institute for Hindu youth from around the world.

Moreover, young people around the world also have opinions about what their faith traditions look like in the West. In addition to the stories about headscarf controversies they hear in the news, they also have ideas about what it’s like to pray in an American mosque or temple based on the stories their visiting cousins tell them or on their internet conversations over Skype. The version of faith they embrace is also produced globally, resulting from their interactions with parents, teachers, and friends from near and far.

Religious Redefinitions

The second generation and beyond hold the key to the religious future in the United States and in Europe. They will ultimately determine what it means to be Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim in the West and, at the same time, challenge long-standing Christian practice. How the children of immigrants embrace religion strongly influences how they participate socially and politically. Faith traditions contain strong messages about our collective responsibility to each other. They offer a door for entering national political and civic life as well as tools with which to assert global citizenship. Religion may enable the children of immigrants to build bridges across the same ethnic and racial divides that their parents have been unable to cross. It may also provide them with the resources to promote conservative or progressive causes around the world.

We miss the opportunities and challenges posed by these developments by continuing to insist that national religious life is nationally produced. We need to acknowledge that at least some of the children of immigrants, although socialized primarily in the countries where they are born, are still continually influenced by ideas and practices from their ancestral homes and beyond. This constant exposure means they acquire the skills and know-how to participate easily in many settings. Not all will choose to do so, but the potential power of this skill set and the access to different cultural repertoires it makes possible should not be overlooked. In his new book, The Way We’ll Be, pollster John Zogby proclaimed that the 18-29-year-old Americans he surveyed will be the first global generation whose lives will be public and interconnected in ways not possible in pre-internet times and who will usher in a new age of sanity, substance and citizenship. I take that to mean both global and national citizenship.

I’ll close with two stories. In a recent interview with two Indian-American Muslim college freshmen, the conversation turned to what they wanted to do when they grew up. The first, a boy who described himself as an observant Muslim, said he planned to study engineering so he could help build roads and bridges in Muslim countries around the world. His faith taught him, he said, to choose a career that would allow him to spend his life helping the global Muslim community. The young woman, who also described herself as observant, though less so, also said her choices were inspired by her faith. She said she wanted to become a lawyer so she could make a lot of money and help expand the Indian middle class in her ancestral home; her faith told her to work for poor people. These experiences suggest that religion inspires both national and world citizenship and that young people are likely to exercise their rights and responsibilities across the street and across the globe.

Peggy Levitt is associate professor in the Department of Sociology at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. She is also a research fellow at the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations and the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University, where she codirects the Transnational Studies Initiative. Her latest book is God Needs No Passport: Immigrants and the Changing Religious Landscape (The New Press, 2007).

 

 

Issue Title: 
Who is my Neighbor? Facing Immigration
Issue Year: 
2008