This Father’s Day, we wanted to reach out to a South Asian man we admire to get his thoughts on fatherhood, especially given the double parenting challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and talking to children about race and racism in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement. Politician and successful engineer Upendra Chivukula immediately came to mind. His list of accomplishments in New Jersey state politics is many.
He currently serves as a Commissioner on the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities after serving more than 12 years in the New Jersey General Assembly, where he had been the Deputy Speaker. Upon his nomination in 2001, Chivukula made history as being the first Indian American elected to the New Jersey General Assembly and the fourth Indian-American in the United States to be elected to state office. Chivukula has also served as Mayor of Franklin Township and on Town Council for another seven years. He also served on the National Council of State Legislatures and on the Council of State Governments.
In addition to all of the above, Chivukula is also a husband to his wife Daysi, a father to their a son, Suraj (42), and daughter Damianty Chivukula (40), and a grandfather to two grandsons, Dylan Vurinka (9) and Eshan Vurinka (8).
Here’s what Chivukula had to tell SEEMA about fatherhood and how he and his family will celebrate this Father’s Day.
What does being a father mean to you? What is the most challenging and the most rewarding thing about it?
UC: Being a father is great joy and privilege to raise children to mold their growth as an architect. My wife and I were fortunate to have a son and a daughter as we got an opportunity to raise children of both genders. It is often said that a son is close to the mother and a daughter is close to the father. In my case, I had the opportunity to get involved in many sporting activities such as riding a bike, tennis, golf, etc. and left the scholastic activities to my wife, as she was a natural educator.
There were many challenges I faced as an immigrant from India because I tried extrapolating my experiences growing up with limited means in a middle-class family in India. When my son was three years old, we were living in a blue-collar town in Monmouth County (New Jersey), where he was the only student of color in his class. He did not understand why he was the only non-white child. One day he came home and told his mother that he wanted to become white. It took us a considerable amount of time explaining and encouraging him to be himself and be proud of his heritage.
It is always rewarding to see your children grow into wonderful human beings with compassion and appreciate the diverse environment we live in.
Are you passing Indian traditions down to your children? If so, why is that important to you and your family?
UC: We raised our children to have a global perspective about cultures and religions, and to respect different races, cultures, and traditions. We have exposed our children Indian traditions along with an explanation of the differences. In addition, our children have traveled to India, Europe, etc., to observe and learn for themselves.
What has it been like parenting during the pandemic? Has your relationship with your children changed? Do you feel closer to them?
UC: My children are grown-ups, but we have two grandsons living with us. During the pandemic, it has been difficult to keep the grandsons focused as we are not able to replace their interaction with other children.
What have been the most challenging and rewarding things about being a father during the pandemic specifically?
UC: Playing the role of a father and providing for the family in terms of activities like reducing anxiety levels, going grocery shopping, etc. has been problematic. It has been quite rewarding to bond with the family members, especially grandsons by visits to the park grounds, playing tennis, etc.
How are you addressing racism and the Black Lives Matter movement with your children? Do you have advice for other South Asian parents?
UC: It is a difficult issue as they are young and have many friends belonging to different races. It is difficult to explain the disparities in a way they might comprehend. Our younger grandson is aware of his access to many gadgets that some of his classmates do not have access to. He shares his interest in sharing some of the items he is permitted to bring to school.
How will you be celebrating Father’s Day this year?
UC: Our grandsons like celebrations and so, we will cut a cake with my wife, daughter, and grandsons and my dog and have my son (who is in Atlanta) join us on FaceTime. Hopefully, we will also have a takeout from a local restaurant.