A Folk Group: Indian-Americans in Greenwood, SC | Digital Traditions

Dr. John (second from the left) and four of his brothers
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by Dee Dunagan. Dunagan is a Chemical Engineering student in the South Carolina Honors College at USC. This paper was written for the Fall 2007 class "Folklife in America."

In Greenwood, South Carolina there is a large group of Indian American immigrants and their families, and the leaders of the group are Dr. Chacko John and Mrs. Renu John. This group, at first, does not seem like a typical American folk group, but when studied, it actually has many of the same qualities. Typical folk groups consist of families, friends, or co-workers who share common interests, and the groups are held together by the practices and expressions of the members. In these groups, the people share customs, games, jokes, stories, and traditions which strengthen the group’s identity1. This is very much the case with the John family and their close friends. This group has all of the qualities of a folk group including the way in which the group was formed, the reason why it was formed, and the types folklore it shares.

When examining a folk group, it is important to first consider how the group was formed. Folklore scholars have identifies different ways a folk group typically forms: necessity, obligation, or circumstance; proximity; regular interaction; or shared interests or skills. A common group born out of necessity is a family. When a person is born into a family, they adopt the family’s values, beliefs, and traditions. The values and traditions learned from the family establish the person’s membership in that folk group. When a group is formed because of proximity, it is usually ethnically based. The location or proximity of the members’ ethnic origins are close geographically, and thus share similar traditions and culture which bind the group together. In addition, when groups are derived from either regular interaction or shared skills, the members, typically, first meet in a formal situation, and then later share informal experiences. A common example of this is an occupational group who may gather together outside of work and share jokes, stories, and experiences1. The formation of the Indian American immigrant group in Greenwood, South Carolina contains facets of all four of those methods listed. The group first began when the John family moved to Greenwood ten years ago from Durham, North Carolina. In Greenwood, at the time, there was only one other Indian in their socioeconomic class in town, Dr. Samrendra Singh. At the time, Dr. Singh was a professor at Lander University. When the John family moved to Greenwood, an article on Dr. John was printed in the local newspaper because he was the first neonatologist employed at Self Memorial Hospital. Soon there after, Dr. Singh contacted them, remembering his difficulties with being the only Indian in Greenwood. He knew they would need a friend who shared the culture and could show them around town. They quickly became close friends and would regularly get together for dinner where, typically, Mrs. John would cook traditional Indian cuisine.

Also, Dr. Singh would invite the Johns to go to the Indian parties in town; however, the Indians at these parties were different. They were not of the same occupational class as the Johns and Dr. Singh. As the years progressed, more Indians who were of the same occupation class moved to town. The Johns and these new Indians broke off from the other Indians and started meeting on their own. The Johns quickly became the leaders of this new group, and most of the parties were held at the Johns’ house. After the group was completely broken off from the other Indians, the new group still continued to grow because the Johns would contact the new comers in the same way Dr. Singh contacted them. Since Dr. John worked at the hospital, he would meet many of the new members through his job. Every time a new Indian doctor would move to town, the Johns would invite them to one of their parties. Twice, I remember reading about a new Indian doctor being employed at Self Regional Healthcare in the newspaper, and sure enough, these doctors were at the next party. The first time I recognized this was several years ago. I had read about a neurosurgeon from Saskatchewan joining Greenwood Neurosurgery. At first, I did not think anything about it, but several weeks later at a Valentine’s Day Party at the Johns’ house, I was introduced to Dr. Lal, a new neurosurgeon. More recently, over the summer, I saw an article in the Index Journal about a new Indian cardiologist hired at the hospital. Later that week, I went with the Johns to the Singhs’ house to have dinner, and while we were their, Dr. John called the new doctor to come over and join us. She stopped by for dessert, and they shared experiences about being the new doctor in town.

When I first started attending these parties, the majority of the group members were friends of the Johns; however, the majority quickly changed several years later to members of the John family. Dr. John was one of seven children, and he was the first of his family to move to America, which was twenty-five years ago. Three years ago, five of his brothers and their families received their visas, so they could also move to America. Over the past three years, the families have moved one or two at the time to Greenwood. The first two families to move three years ago were one of his younger brothers’ family and his oldest brother’s family. The younger brother’s family consisted of a wife and two pre-teenage children, and the oldest brother’s family consisted of a wife and one teenage child. Both families moved at the same time, and both families lived with the Johns at their house. When these families moved from India, they were completely dependant on the Johns; they essentially had nothing, and thus, became a part of the group out of necessity. They had to completely start over a new life and learn a new culture at the same time. The Johns had to teach them everything about living in America and particularly the south. For example, although they all new English to some degree, they found it difficult to understand the southern accents of the natives, so they first had to become use to southern accents before they could attempt to find jobs. The Johns main method of teaching them how to understand southern Americans was to have them talk to me. In addition, there were so many small things that Americans do not think twice about that they did not know and the Johns had to teach them, including anything from the currency to how to pump gas. Once they knew the basics, then, the Johns had to help them get drivers licenses and jobs, so they could later buy a car and eventually a home. Soon after the first two families bought their own homes and moved out of the Johns’ house, this entire process was repeated approximately a year and half ago and again only several months ago. There are currently two families living with Johns. One couple has three small children, and the other couple has two children. Below is a picture of Dr. John and four of his brothers.

After examining how a folk group is formed, one must then examine why the group formed. Simply put, folk groups form because the members share something in common, and that something is their lore. However, as stated previously, in order for a group to be considered a folk group, they must be informal, and the traditions must be actively practiced and have an importance within the group1. In the case of the Indian Americans in Greenwood, the group formed in order for the members to celebrate their Indian heritage and traditions. This group gets together in an informal environment and regularly celebrates their culture and identity as Indians. The Indian Americans in Greenwood celebrate their Indian identity by wearing traditional Indian dress, eating traditional Indian food, and celebrating Indian holidays. Many of the parties that the Johns have are based around some of India’s national holidays. The John family is Eastern Orthodox, but many people in India are Hindu, and most of India’s national holidays are Hindu holidays.  Thus, Dr. and Mrs. John grew up celebrating these holidays and consider it a part of their heritage and identity. There are two specific Hindu holidays that they celebrate regularly: Holi and Onam. 

For several years in a row, I have attended parties to commemorate Holi, also known as the Festival of Colors.  Traditionally, Holi is a celebration commemorating Lord Vishnu’s child devotee Prahlad’s escape from his evil father and aunt who were going to burn him alive (2). Prahlad’s father was Hiranyakashipu, the king of the demons (2).  Hiranyakashipu was arrogant and demanded that no one was to worship the gods, but his son continued to worship Lord Vishnu (2).  Thus, Hiranyakashipu and his sister Holika plotted to kill Prahlad by ordering him to sit on Holika’s lap in a fire (2).  Holika could not die because of a shawl she was wearing, but Prahlad prayed to Vishnu who took the shawl away from Holika and covered Prahlad (2).  Holika died in the fire, and Prahlad escaped (2).  Thus, during Holi, bond fires are lit to celebrate Holika’s death, and at every Holi celebration I have attended, there was a bond fire.

Holi is also a celebration of the harvest season and the prosperity it brings (2).  During the day after the bond fire, people celebrate the harvest by throwing colors on each other.  The colors are traditionally made from herbs with the purpose of warding of the sickness the harvest season may also bring (2).  Typically, colored water is thrown in a person’s hair, and paint is smeared on their face. The Johns also celebrate this part of Holi after the night of the bond fire, which occurs on the first full moon in March or April each year. The picture below shows Dr. and Mrs. John covered in these colors on Holi.

The second holiday that the Indian Americans in Greenwood celebrate is Onam.  Onam is another harvest festival remembering the golden age of prosperity when the rain was plentiful (2). Onam is celebrated mainly in the state of Kerala, which is where the John family originated.  There a three important aspects of the Onam celebration.  At every Onam, the homes are decorated with flowers and the children draw a colorful design called pookkalam outside of the door of the home (2). Figure 4 shows the pookkalam drawn at the most recent Onam celebration held at the Johns’ house.  Also, the women all wear new elaborate clothes, which are called onakkodi (Figure 5), and a big feast is served on plantain leaves (Figure 6) (2).  Usually, the meal consists of rice and at least four other dishes along with pickles and papadam (top right and far right on the man and woman’s leaves, respectively, in Figure 6) (2).

The Folk Group’s Folklore

The folklore a group shares is what binds the group together. There are five primary qualities of folklore that can be seen when examining a typical gathering of the Indian Americans in Greenwood.  Folklore is oral, customary, or material.  It is traditional in form and transmission.  It exists in different forms, and it is anonymous and formularized.

For almost every party that the Johns or one of their friends have thrown, the layout is the same.  First, several weeks in advance the group members are told about the party by either a phone call or word of mouth.  When the Johns are planning a party, I am usually reminded several times while at their house. It is, essentially, expected that the Johns’ children will make an appearance at the parties, and they think of me as a daughter. On the day before and the day of party, Dr. and Mrs. John clean the house and prepare the food.  Usually, the party is held at seven o’clock at night on a Saturday.  When a person arrives at the party, they are greeted at the door in a way according to what is being celebrated.  For example, at the Onam celebration, I was greeted with “Happy Onam, molé” and a hug.  (Molé is a term of endearment for a daughter or younger girl.)  Then, as soon as the group members enter the house, they remove their shoes and place them next to the front door.  Normally, by that time, appetizers and drinks have been set out, and the group members fix their plates with appetizers and pour themselves a drink.  The drinks are usually soda or tea.  The appetizers vary from occasion to occasion, but main staples are pakodé and some type of cutlets.  Pakodé is fried vegetables consisting mostly of spinach.  It is fried in a rice or lentil flour batter, which creates a brown, crispy exterior.  Normally, it served with a sweet sauce and a spicy sauce.  Cutlets are seasoned, shredded meat that is formed, breaded, and fried.  The meat varies; it could be beef, venison, chicken, or salmon.  While eating the appetizers, the people mingle and tell stories.          

Very soon there after, the main course is set out the same way the appetizers were, and the people line up buffet style and fix their plates. Many Hindu’s are vegetarian, so there are usually a wide variety of vegetarian dishes along with meat dishes.  Typically, the vegetarian dishes are cholé baduré (a chickpea curry and fried bread), mutter paneer (a pea and curd curry), and pacap peneer (a spinach and curd curry).  The staple meat dishes are chicken malae (butter chicken) and chicken, beef, or venison curry.  In addition, rice and parotta (a flaky flat bread) are always served as side items.

After every one has eaten the main course, dessert is served.  The desserts are also traditional Indian dishes.  At every party, gulab jamin, resgula, and soan papadi are served.  In Figure 8, the white balls at the top of the table are resgula, the black balls are gulab jamin, and the squares on the white dish next to the resgula and the galab jamin are soan papadi.

During and after the eating, the group members socialize and share experiences while playing card games and watching Hindi movies.  At almost all of the parties, a portion of the people play card games while they are eating.  Then, after the meal and the games, everyone watches a Hindi movie.  There are two card games played, and it very rarely deviates from them.  Which card game a person plays depends on their age group.  The children play Uno, and the adults play Fifty-Six. Fifty-Six is a tradition Indian card game that the adults grew up playing in India.  When a person becomes an adult, joining the games of Fifty-Six is a right-of-passage. Children do not play the game because is very complicated, and the adults are very serious about it.  In fact, some people dread becoming old enough to play the game because it gets very intense.   The figures below are pictures of the children playing Uno in the Johns’ living room, and the adults playing fifty-six in the Johns’ kitchen.

After the games, everyone gathers together in the living room to watch a Hindi movie. This time is usually fun for all because no one intensely watches the movies.  In particular, the young adults and the teenagers make jokes throughout the movie. Hindi movies are full of things to joke about because all Hindi movies are musicals, including the science fiction movies.  The joking around becomes even more prominent when the movie did not come with sub-titles.  Most of the teenagers and young adults who grew up in America do not know Hindi, so they make up their own storyline and dialog.   This tradition was started several years ago by the Johns’ niece Roshini while watching a movie after the Onam celebration.  During that movie, the other young people joined her, and they have doing it ever since, even for movies with sub-titles.  Figure 11 shows the group members gathered in the Johns’ living room to watch a movie.

During the festivities of the party, the group member share stories and reminisce about events from past stories.  The stories told are also considered folklore.  Many of the stories told, have been told over and over again, and they change with time, which is one of the qualities of folklore.  One particular story comes to mind, which I have heard several times by several different people; however the story is still enjoyable for the group because it is an experience they shared.  The happening, in which the story is about, occurred at a particularly large party where many people stayed the night.   Since there were so many people spending the night, some people had to sleep on the floor.  Thus, the floor was covered with pillows and blankets.  At the time the Johns’ son and one of the other children were four years old.  To a four-year-old’s eyes, the living room floor with the abundance of pillows and blankets looked like the ideal location to build a fort.  Depending on the story teller, the grandeur and size of the fort changes. After the fort was complete, the children walked off for a minute and came back to find one of the older adults sleeping on the fort.  The fort was completely ruined, and the children were very upset.  Thus, the Johns’ son kicked the older man in the head.  Once he realized what he had done, he began to cry.  The other child, also afraid of getting into to trouble, decided he needed to cry, too, so he started poking himself in the eye.  Since the children were so upset, the older man ended up apologizing to them instead of the Johns’ son getting in trouble for kicking an adult in the head. 

Conclusion    

This Indian American group is not a typical folk group, but it certainly should be considered one.  First, the formation of the group follows not only one, but all of the ways folklore scholars have identified as how folk groups form.  Proximity plays a factor in the formation because of the group members’ ethnic origins and their current location in Greenwood.  Necessity was also a part of the formation; members of the John family became part of the group because of their dependence on the Johns and the other Greenwood Indian Americans.  In addition, regular interactions and shared skills contributed to the formations since many of the members are co-workers at the hospital. 

Second, the group meets the two main qualifications of folk groups. They share their traditions from India informally at the Johns’ house. Also, the traditions, such Onam and Holi, are actively practiced at the Johns’ regular parties and are very important to the group because of the connections to India. 

Finally, the group has its own folklore which consists of the same qualities of scholar defined folklore.  The stories they tell, the food they eat, the clothes they wear, and the Indian holidays they celebrate all fall into at least one of the three categories:  oral, customary, and material.  Also, the parties that are centered on Indian holidays are traditional in form and transmission because the customs shared at the parties have been pasted down for years in India and now in America.  In addition, the parties are formularized, and the stories told at the parties, such as the one about the children’s fort, are anonymous and exist in different versions.  Thus, the Greenwood Indian American group should be considered a prime example of a folk group.