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Let There Be Light: Diwali amid COVID-19

By: Sai Siddhaye

With almost 70 million cases of COVID-19 worldwide, the festive cheer that autumn usually brings has been thoroughly extinguished. Though quarantine is a necessary measure, it has caused significant turmoil as families are unable to reunite for the holidays. For children of immigrants, it is already difficult to juggle the two sides of a split cultural upbringing when apart from family; the inability to celebrate cultural holidays means an even greater separation. This year, Diwali landed in mid-November, preventing the Indian festival from being enjoyed to its fullest extent. The increasingly strict shelter-in-place orders meant that millions of people were separated from traditional Diwali festivities this year.

“It just doesn’t feel the same this year,” admits Rohan, a graduate student at UCSB. “I usually look forward to seeing my friends and family during Diwali, not to mention the amazing food. It just feels like a time where I can really come back to my roots. This year, Diwali just felt a little flat; I didn’t see any point in celebrating on my own, so I just felt a little sad and lonely the whole time. Even without all the decorations and the dressing up, the thing I miss the most is being with my family.” 

Diwali, known in English as the festival of lights, is a Hindu holiday that commemorates  the victory of good over evil. Its theological origins stem from The Ramayana’s tale of the return of King Rama to Ayodhya after his defeat of the demon Ravana. To embody the symbolic triumph of light over dark, the festivities revolve around lights of all kinds. Diwali is extravagantly celebrated; it is the Christmas of Hinduism, if you will. Though this festival is primarily observed by Hindus, many Jain, Sikh, and Buddhist communities in India also recognize the holiday. This year, it took place from November 12-16, smack dab in the middle of a surge of COVID-19 cases in both India and America. 

In India, Diwali is integral to morale, spirituality, and economy. It is celebrated by nationwide parades, religious ceremonies, and large family gatherings. Fireworks can be seen lighting up the sky for days, and puja, or prayers, take place in many homes and temples. To honor the importance of light overcoming darkness, most people decorate their homes with diyas (clay lamps), paper lanterns, string lights, candles, and  rangolis. These decorations, aside from bringing a positive spiritual atmosphere to homes, also account for a sizable portion of India’s business. In fact, spirituality and economy during Diwali to the point that “stock exchanges remain open during non-market hours for a special trading session called Muhurat, scheduled at an astrologically significant time on the evening of Diwali”¹. People are more likely to buy new clothes, jewelry, electronics, and even cars during this time. Just like Christmas in America, sales skyrocket during Diwali. 

This year, however, India’s economy is locked in a fierce battle with COVID-19. Many large markets, anticipating vast crowds, have closed, but India’s economy relies on the sales made during Diwali, so the majority of stores and markets remain open. India was second only to the U.S. in its number of coronavirus cases before Diwali, at 8.5 million cases ¹. With currently over nine million coronavirus cases and 138,000 deaths ², Diwali’s festive frenzy seems to have taken its toll on the overall health of the country. 

Diwali among the diaspora, on the other hand, is quite different. The melting pot of America contains a steadily growing Indian-American population of approximately four million³. Therefore, Diwali is still a widely recognized holiday, but is generally limited to religious centers and household parties rather than nationwide events. However, many people still use their elaborate decorations to show their cultural pride. Diyas, paper lanterns, rangolis, and string lights–some homemade, some store bought–still adorn many homes during this time. Indeed, an easy way to spot an Indian home is if their Christmas lights come up a few months early. Many families hold large group gatherings to celebrate amongst their communities, bedecked in traditional Indian clothing and jewelry. Firecrackers are common at such parties as well, although they are much smaller than the ones seen in India. Amid the children waving sparklers and the wide arrays of Indian food, it is easier to feel connected to Indian culture despite the physical distance. 

Predictably, the pandemic has brought massive changes to the way Diwali is observed in America as well. Most religious and community centers did not hold public celebrations due to health and safety concerns, and many people are deciding against extravagant parties. Though this might make it easier to mitigate the damage of COVID-19, the festivity and togetherness of Diwali have been effectively squashed. Nobody has felt this isolation more, perhaps, than the children of Indian immigrants who no longer live with their families. Those who are not able to travel home for Diwali are separated both physically and emotionally from the traditions they likely grew up with, which can have harmful effects on their connection to their cultures. Just as people often lose fluency in their mother tongues after leaving home, cultural practices must be repeated to be maintained. 

Shreya, a student at ASU, says she felt the separation from her family. “ I Facetimed my parents while they were doing the puja and everything, even though they didn’t have any parties. Celebrating Diwali through a screen really doesn’t feel like Diwali at all.” When asked whether the physical distance from her family affected her closeness with Indian culture, Shreya said “Absolutely. Diwali is usually one of the only times during the year that I can be fully proud of my identity and not worry about what white people think of me. It’s so validating to be around a bunch of other Indian people who I love and don’t have to whitewash myself around. Not having that this year definitely felt like a blow. I hope next year will be normal, but if it isn’t, I want to have my own celebration just to have that feeling again.”

Others have a more positive outlook on Diwali during COVID-19. Amita, who moved to California from India in 1997, says “I celebrated Diwali with my husband, daughter, and father-in-law. It was small, but it still had that core feeling of togetherness. We made an akash kandeel, a paper lantern, and put diyas around the house. Even though we didn’t want to risk breaking our quarantine to have a party, it was still lovely to be able to wish everyone through group Zoom calls. Technology really has made the distance between our friends and extended family more bearable.” 

Just as Diwali celebrates finding light among darkness, perhaps the way to survive this uncertain time is to find a spark of hope and optimism in the bleak isolation.

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To a Mom

By: Christina Lee

To a mom who never caught the flu in the winter, who never forgot the names of her daughters’ childhood stuffed animals, who never complained about the distance between “home” and the home she has grown to know.

You held one baby in the crook of your left arm while gripping a toddler’s hand in your right hand and led two others trailing behind you. You are the same mom who smiles in the photograph taken the day of your college graduation. It was raining that afternoon, and the crowd of parents behind you, dressed in gray suits and long skirts, hold umbrellas above their heads like a nylon backdrop for your own personal photo shoot. On your face is the biggest smile I’ve seen, your eyes almost completely closed. A modest bouquet of congratulatory flowers rests with dignity in your hands, and to your right is your mom, a portly woman from whom you got your smiling eyes. Your dad on the left looks stoic. This was the same man who told you to put down the heaps of laundry and read another chapter from your textbook instead, who told you to stay out of the kitchen and go to college because you would be spending enough time in there once you were married. He was right.

In that photograph, you didn’t know that you wouldn’t be returning to your home country until 15 years later, arms full of toddlers and hair shorter than ever, no longer permed because quite frankly you didn’t have the time for that. At some point, you went back to the country from where you first earned your bachelor’s degree in agricultural science from one of the top universities in South Korea, and when I asked you about that bright-looking twentysomething in the photograph, you answered, “That was me at my graduation. I left for the United States not too long after that.” That’s when I knew something was not lining up.

One night, I sit at the foot of your bed while you are relaxing under the covers. I ask you, “Did you ever want to work?” You answer, “Of course I did.” So I respond, “Did you ever have a job?” You say that you had a desk job for a short while after graduation. Although I didn’t at the time, I now believe this to be a lie. The timeline of your rushed youth did not allow for such a thing. Now I wonder how it would feel to be you, the freedom of youth cut short by naivety that quickly led to marriage, immigration, and four kids. You, who have never worked a day in your life, then ask your daughters to please go to college and find a job because you know what it’s like to be a slave to domesticity.

It’s strange that “America” in Korean literally means “beautiful country.” I tell you this, and you respond with the story of South Koreans living in a pre-industrial world who dreamed of a better life in the West where everyone could supposedly find gold on the streets. You unwittingly held onto a version of this dream yourself, thinking that you would put your degree to use and become a working woman. Instead, you never became a naturalized citizen and never got that dream job.

I ask you why you never became a U.S. citizen. “I wouldn’t mind going back home sometime,” you say, vaguely. Within that statement lingers regret, longing, and conviction that the United States isn’t truly your home. It hurts me to understand that.

It hurts me to think that perhaps the only reason you stay here in the so-called beautiful country is because of the family you created, your loyalty to your husband, who is more American than you will ever be. You look at your eldest daughter and wish that she would not get married, and you begin panicking when she tells you that she’s moved in with her boyfriend. “They probably just live in the same apartment complex,” you say, completely in denial. Your mind wanders for the rest of the day.

Finally, you let her bring him home for the holidays but only once you know that she’s been promoted at her job at a large IT consulting company. You’re pleasantly surprised when you learn that she’s finally paid off her student loans and that her boyfriend has been working a steady job as an accountant. On your eldest daughter’s 24th birthday, I can see your relief, knowing that she is the same age as you when you had your first child but only has a job instead.

Once again, you panic when your daughter brings up marriage. “It would be easier for him to work if he finally gets his citizenship,” she says, explaining her South Korean-born boyfriend’s trouble with his work visa. Something about the suggestion haunts you. You furrow your brow and stay silent, as if you are traumatized again and again by the demands of marriage. You think marriage means finality, devotion, years and years of routine. You think about what you lost on your way to America. What is gone. What you can never get back.

“You just have to learn to live with him,” you say half-jokingly about your husband while he’s away at work. We are discussing his impatient personality and strange habits in one of our “self-improvement” talks about what it means to be a “good person” or how to turn out “better” than the previous generation. By “previous generation,” you mean yourself and your husband, and you wish that your children will not experience the behavioral side effects of enduring immigration, language barriers, and racism. It’s 3 p.m. No one is taking any of this seriously. You know that when your husband comes home in the evening that you will ask about his day, feel like the family is whole again, and spend the rest of the night happily catching up on missed conversations. Although you might never use the word “love” to describe your feelings toward him—because how cringeworthy and emotionally vulnerable is that?—you still know that this man is still the reason you remain in America and live each day with a sense of stability, safety, and security. You look at your four children, all born on American soil, and wonder if they resemble you or him more.

To a mom who hates watching American TV that pokes fun at Asian stereotypes because your immigration, your accent, your struggles, your lost dreams are not a couple lines on a script for the masses to laugh at. To a mom who hates watching these shows because oftentimes the representations are somewhat true. To a mom who always told her daughters to “brag” more, in a rough translation of a rather more humble piece of advice that means: “Be more confident.” To a mom who lives vicariously through her three daughters. To a mom who says, “Don’t ask me weird things” when I ask about your childhood, your college days, your dreams growing up, as if opening up about your true desires is “weird,” too indulgent, unnecessary.

What did you lose on the plane ride here? Were these things lost or sacrificed? I know you ask yourself this everyday without deciding on an answer because you watch your daughters grow up and become all the things you couldn’t be, feeling concern, pride, regret, and joy—all at once.