Back in India, some of my cousins’ children call me aunty. Actually, they call me mamima or kakima, depending on whether I’m their father’s cousin or their mother’s cousin. Others just call me by my first name because I’m so foreign and exotic to them that I don’t seem anything like what an aunty should be, or because they’re within 15 years of me and want to feel more modern and grown.
But here in the U.S., I’m involved in a weeklong summer camp for South Asian young adults who want to become activists.* (South Asian includes people whose origins trace back to Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Nepal, Afghanistan, and the countries that people from that place have since inhabited, like the Caribbean and beyond.) And over the past couple of years, the youth have made more and more jokes about those of us on the organizing team feeling like aunties and uncles.
Our core planning team members have a mixture of feelings about this. We’re not that much older than they are, and even if our culture has taught us to honor and even venerate our elders, we’re American enough not to want to feel that old. Some of us also worry that this allows for some arrested development, where the young adults don’t have to grow up into movement leadership as quickly if they think of us as aunties and uncles instead of as peers.
But I’ll confess, I kind of love it. When I was in second grade, my parents and I became naturalized U.S. citizens. The people sitting behind us at the swearing in ceremony turned out to be from the same region of India as my father, West Bengal, and invited us that night to a party at their house to celebrate their citizenship, as well as a major Bengali festival called Durga Puja. That night, I inherited a bevy of aunts and uncles all trying to navigate their lives in this land that they loved but that didn’t always love them while holding onto the culture of another land they loved but could not afford to stay in.
Those Bengali parties gave me a whole network of people through whom to understand my cultural identity as I grew up, since my home life was a random hodgepodge of the Indian things my Scottish mother knew about and incorporated, and the Scottish things that were more in her wheelhouse and that my father loved. But what I also learned at those Bengali parties was that men sit in the dining room during dinner discussing politics and culture, while the women sit in the kitchen and discuss jewelry. The kids sit in the living room and eat pizza and watch football, trying to be more American than the kids at school who would never really think of us as American, no matter how much football we watched.
Once I was old enough to form my own relationship to my home region, I learned that Bengalis were poets and revolutionaries, that we were connected to the country of Bangladesh by a passionate commitment to our shared language and food and our shared Nobel-prize winning poet Rabindranath Tagore. I learned that we made up the bulk of the people imprisoned on the Andaman Islands by the British for resisting their colonization of our country. I learned that we were intellectuals who gathered in the coffee shop in Kolkata to debate the best path to independence and to indigenous people’s rights and to workers’ rights.
But what I learned in the U.S. from my aunties and uncles is that we worked hard and studied hard and got jobs that made money so that we could have a comfortable suburban existence.
I did not have to survive the Churchill-created famine in India that my father and his peers survived, so I understand why these would have been the lessons they wanted to pass down.
But it is also part of why I suspect the young adults in my life long to call me aunty. My nieces and nephews in India have a million models from their elders of how to live the lives to which they aspire. So they can claim me as one aunty among many. For South Asian young adults in this country who want to stand up against xenophobia and Islamophobia and casteism (which exists within the South Asian community here as well as back home, even among those of us who are Christian), and for South Asian young adults in this country who see the unjust treatment of Black and Latinx people and who want to play a role in changing that, they may never have met an aunty or uncle from their family system or even their diaspora network who works on those issues. They are longing for family who can show them what it looks like to live into those values and thrive.
I’ve also picked up quite a few younger South Asian activist friends recently. Partly it has to do with the fact that I show up at marches they help plan and cheer on their work. And while they don’t call me aunty, I have a lurking suspicion that the reason they claim me as a friend is that they, too, long for an elder who has gone their path before them, but their diasporan aunties and uncles are a lot like mine: focused on economic survival and thriving without reflecting on who gets hurt when we focus primarily on our material comfort.
I might not have noticed any of these patterns if it hadn’t been for one particular moment in my ministry almost 15 years ago. I pastored a primarily, although not exclusively, Black church in Oakland. (If that seems odd, ask yourself how many churches would hire a mixed race 29-year-old Asian female pastor whose primary commitment was to economic and racial justice. I am really blessed they hired me.) When I started, they were 10 in worship, all between the ages of 50 and 90, plus two teenagers. After a year or so, some young adults started coming occasionally to worship at a church with a young and somewhat over-the-top pastor who let them play pop music and help create liturgy around sermon series based on deep Bible study. But the newer young adults and the older long-time members never really seemed to mesh.
One Sunday, we had a special after church forum and I recruited everyone (all 20 of us by then) to come. People were mingling in their separate groups, but we also had a very occasional visitor, one of the first women ordained in our denomination, who had served as a missionary in the Congo for 20 years and who was a truly inspiring woman. I made a mental note to pressure the young adults to talk with her even though they never hung out with the older folks at church. But before I could say anything to them, there they were in a circle around her, asking questions and taking in her every word. I hadn’t told them who she was or that they should make an effort.
After months in that church surrounded by older people, they had sensed an actual elder and they flocked to her.
I’m 43. I don’t love that I’m already a movement elder. It worries me for the well-being of the church and for the well-being of social justice movements that my own elders have had too much placed on their shoulders in terms of just surviving, far away from their own elders, to be mentored into being elders themselves. It is partly the privilege I have inherited that gives me the freedom to make myself available to younger people who want mentors and elders.
But there are two things that give me hope in this moment. One is that Jesus claimed John the Baptist as a mentor (depending on which gospel you read) so that we’d have a path to reaching out for bold leaders to shape our own paths, and that he also mentored too young, knowing that the older people in his life were so focused on surviving the crushing power of the Roman empire that they could not provide the mentoring that the people around them needed.
The other is this: My very gentle and kind-hearted father passed away this past December. I’m still heartbroken about it, and I shaved my head in keeping with a mourning ritual in our region of India. After my father passed away, a good friend of mine, who fled Vietnam for this country as a child, said to me, “I never had a good model for what it meant to be an Asian man. So your father became that model for me.” (His father was abusive and distant, as are so many parents still carrying their own traumas with no tools for their own healing, far less the healing of their families also carrying the same trauma.) He was not the only man of color to say that to me, either. My father was shaped in a time and place where he didn’t have to be “hypermasculine” to be a man, where gentleness was not considered a feminine attribute. My father would say hello to every hummingbird who came to the feeder in his backyard. The only time he looked like he might get violent was when someone else tried to pick up the check, at which point he was not above physically wrestling the check away from that person. I don’t think my father ever heard the phrase “toxic masculinity”, but he was 100 percent the antidote to it.
For those of us in this country, we have too few models for how to be a people of justice and compassion and generosity and vulnerability. Those values would literally have jeopardized our families’ lives as they fled danger or economic crisis back home. And so I’m getting really comfortable with being a movement elder too young. Perhaps it’s one of the ways I can follow in the footsteps of Jesus and of my father.