Thursday, December 31, 2009

Wearing Osama Bin Laden's Shirt

It happened on Christmas day.

I woke up around 6 a.m. and pulled on a khaki kurta pajama before going to plug in the Christmas lights. This particular pajama had been purchased by my grandfather, Gurcharan Singh Gill, on one of his many trips back to Punjab and given to me as a gift when I was recovering from testicular cancer surgery in 2008, because kurta pajama are far more comfortable than most Western clothes. It seemed like a good thing to wear on a lazy Christmas morning, one which I planned to spend mostly curled up on a couch, basking in my five-year-old daughter’s joy.

Kira’s first Christmas joy, as it turned out, was sleeping until 10 a.m. Luckily, our family tradition is to open one present on Christmas Eve, so I had a new book from my wife to keep me company. By the time Kira woke up, her mother was in the shower and I was immersed in Steve Coll’s The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century.

After opening her stocking, Kira came to sit by me.

“What is that book?” she asked.

“My Christmas Eve present” I said.

“Is that you?” she said, pointing at a picture in the cover’s lower left of a young, smiling Osama Bin Laden. In the picture, he seems to be in the middle of some conversation. He talks with his hands, just like I do.

My daughter is not the first to have commented on my passing resemblance to the terrorist mastermind. Coworkers sometimes called me Osama even before 9/11. After 9/11, they were more sensitive but others were not: I’ve been called Osama by students on various campuses, strangers on or shouting across busy streets, even once by a man who was modeling for Jesus in a painting. Comparisons have been less frequent since I stopped wearing my beard long, but as a descendant of Jews and Sikhs, I appear Middle Eastern to most people. And for many people, tall, thin, and Middle Eastern primarily evokes images of Osama Bin Laden.

For Kira, it probably also mattered that he and I were wearing the same shirt.

I might have never noticed, were it not for her question and my clothing choice Christmas morning, that in this photograph Osama is also wearing a khaki kurta pajama. The collar is the same as mine. The buttons are the same. His shirt and mine both have the same pocket on the left breast, the same tiny black label attached to the upper right corner of that pocket and although the picture on the cover of Coll’s book is too small for me to read the text on that little black label, I would be willing to place a substantial wager that it, too, carries the same Sidhu brand name as on my own pocket.

Not only do we share a rough physical resemblance, I apparently also regularly wear Osama Bin Laden’s shirt.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Where do stories come from?

It wasn't until last year that I found out my grandpa Gill's best friend growing up had been a Muslim, and that his family had fled India two years after Partition (the separation of India and Pakistan) because of continuing religious tensions that had been made far worse by Partition.
Lately, I've been wondering why I didn't hear that story until recently, about how I could easily have missed that story altogether if I hadn't asked my grandfather about his memories of Partition, and also about why we hear certain stories and miss others.

I think these questions are particularly pressing across cultural contexts. I've had trouble telling certain stories not grounded in common American culture in my graduate workshops, because many readers are resistant to cultural material they don't know a lot about yet. My grandfather, perhaps, had a similar difficulty sharing certain stories from his early life during his later life in America: knowing that people might not understand probably affects us all as day-to-day storytellers even more than it affects me as a professional writer.

I asked my grandma when she found out about my grandpa's childhood best friend, Shaffee, and about similar details of Grandpa's childhood. She told me that some things had come up before they were married and during their early marriage, but the story about Shaffee and many other details came in the late 1960s, after my grandfather's first trip back to India.

Being here, she felt, he'd often been focused on figuring out life in this new world. Going back not only triggered memories, it also made him want to share information about people's current status that required him to go back and explain in much richer detail how things had been before he left.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Multiple dimensions of "Multicultural"

That's a word we use a lot today. In some cases, it applies to the people like me who used to be called "mixed race" or, in the nineteenth century, "half breeds"--people whose genetic heritages clearly broke ranks with accepted systems for categorizing ethnic groups. In a more significant sense, however, it applies to almost everyone now that we've learned that genetics are not the core of cultural.

Here's a quick list of ways in which you might find consider yourself multicultural. Are you:

1) Multi-mythic?
-Societies can probably not exist without underlying myths and values to guide and bind them, to make their members intelligible to each other. But do you come from a background in which you've inherited multiple sets of sometimes-compatible, sometimes-competing myths? My best friend used to say all of America is this way: a weird combination of inherited Roman and Jewish values that don't always fit together quite right. People invested in other mythic sets add to the mix in important ways.
Myths here don't just mean millennia-old stories, by the way. Any set of culturally defined values and ways of explaining the world count.

2) Multi-culinary?
-Eating in a restaurant that includes a country name may make you more culturally aware, but it doesn't make you multicultural. Feeling a deep emotional connection to foods from different traditions you make at home might, especially if someone in your family used to make them for you. You almost certainly count as multicultural if your neighbors or visitors have smelled your home and thought you cooked weird.

3) Multi-lingual?
-It's hard to study another language without better understanding something about at least one of its accompanying cultures. But, like restaurants, just studying fits more into cultural awareness than being multi-cultural. When you start thinking of words from another language on a daily basis though, chances are that language is becoming another cultural dimension for you. This is particularly true if these words are coming to you for reasons other than communication: when you start thinking in another language's words b/c they are comfortable in some way, that language is probably becoming part of you and not simply a skill you can use at your discretion.

4) Deeply emotionally connected to multiple places?
-Culture seldom exists without a strong connection to surrounding physical spaces. Even when we're long gone, the idea of certain physical spaces captures our imaginations in a more-than-casual way. Part of a multi-cultural experience, I think, is having more than one set of such places with powerful associations, places that you feel are inexorably connected with who you are.

5) Multiply isolated?
-Real multiculturalism will inevitably involve some feelings of distance and isolation. Maybe you don't drink alcohol at times when everyone around you is doing so. Maybe you try to share something, but no one can understand what you're talking about. Maybe you don't try to share something because you're pretty sure that if you do, no one will know what you're talking about. Maybe your looks mean something very different to the people around you than they do to you.

This list is by no means complete in describing what culture is or what it means to be multicultural, but I think it's a fair way to start talking about how cultures have multiple dimensions, and how many people are far less uni-cultural than they assume.

What do you think? Is this a good way to talk about multicultural experiences? What should be added or modified?

How does your experience interact with the above points?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Tales of Teancum Singh Rosenberg

My family is an iceberg. There are the generations within memory, the ones I can still assign faces and personal stories to. And then there's the endless mass of ancestors beneath them who I don't know, whose individual stories in more cases than not have been lost to earthly memory and can be read now only out of the angels' books.

For their sake, I remember my cultures.

In the absence of a Mehtab Singh who might be my great-grandfather's great grandfather, I remember the Sikh traditions he would have grown up with. In the absence of a Rivka Gottlieb or Esther Kantor who might be my great-grandmother's grandmother, I reach for the lost world of the Ashkenzim, that people who were once Eastern Europe's Jews.

My family is an iceberg, and their religious cultures take me down below the cold waters. I close my eyes and feel with numb hands for what might have been and what they might have hoped to leave for me.

When I come up for air, do I see the world differently? Have I changed by feeling, even hopelessly, toward what lies below me?

I know this: while I don't learn to speak the languages of the dead, I now speak a richer language to the living.

This is how I wrote "Tales of Teancum Singh Rosenberg."

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Strange Dream

In the middle of a long and strange dream last night, someone used the term FOB, which in the Chinese-American community refers to new immigrants who are "fresh off the boat." And in my dream, I told that person that the term doesn't make sense, because in America, you never get off the boat. In America, you're always moving, always in transition, and the past you stand on isn't solid: it's always swaying back and forth under you as the currents change.

I love America. A (cultural) pirate's life for me!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Monkey Oatmeal (part one)

For the past week and a half, my daughter has requested nothing but oatmeal when I make breakfast.

Usually, she wants bananas in it. Bananas magically transform regular oatmeal into "monkey oatmeal" which is obviously desirable, because it includes the word "monkey." She'll also request apples, dates, etc--frozen berries, mangoes, and pomegranate seeds are probably next.

Wondering about her eccentricity today, I remembered an extended period on my mission when I ate oatmeal almost every day (usually with honey, since German stores don't sell brown sugar). My companion started to worry about me. A family we were teaching were disgusted when I told them: oatmeal is something you're forced to eat when you're sick, the father said. It's not something you should do to yourself voluntarily, let alone every day.

Remembering that month, for some reason, made me remember how much Kira's oatmeal kick is also reminiscent of the oatmeal my dad used to make for us, oatmeal with all kinds of different fruits in it. I can't recall exactly whether my mother made us oatmeal with any regularity; it seems more like something rooted into our relationship with our dad, a sort of twentieth-century bonding ritual. I remember him praising bananas, actually, for their high potassium content, healthfulness, and taste. He taught us to love them, and now I watch my daughter finish the unsliced half of her banana even when she's tired and having trouble feeling hungry as we rush her off to school.

And it's interesting the way that thinking about monkey oatmeal reveals the way in which time is better described as having layers than working in a line. Mornings with my father aren't somewhere behind me, they're under me, inside me, layers added in a continuing axis of intergenerational relationships. Kira's current oatmeal fixation isn't an event that will simply pass a way; it's a layer that's being added to our relationship, enriching and reaching down toward other layers and up toward a future when (God willing) Kira will have children and they will do something which will remind her, on a level which perhaps does not fully reach consciousness, that her father once sliced the banana just so with those long fingers of his and he stirred the oatmeal like this and he also waited for her to touch the first spoonful with the tip of her tongue before adding the milk to cool it.

Monday, October 19, 2009


E_mirror Guest Post by Vilo Elisabeth

It's funny what will trigger a memory, and when it will happen. I'm sitting in the Denver airport, on a layover on my way to Utah for my brother's wedding. It's a little early for lunch local time, but my stomach is still two hours behind in sync with New York, where I had breakfast 4 hours ago. Luckily, the restaurants in the airport are used to problems like this, and are already serving lunch type food. I decide to splurge, and momentarily suppress my vegetarian leanings. I get 2 pieces of rotisserie chicken with a side of garlic mashed potatoes, one of the more expensive items on the menu.
Rotisserie chicken is one of my dad's favorites. He sometimes likes to pick up a small one at the grocery store, especially now that much of the family is vegetarian. He'll spend the next few days working his way through it, eating it by itself or adding it to tacos or another dish. I think of my dad when I order the chicken. But then, while I'm pulling the meat away from the bone I think of his grandfather, my great-grandfather, John Westwood, who we call Pop. I remember eating chicken one time at his house, and him demonstrating to me that there was still plenty of meat left on the piece I was finished with. I am the type to leave scraps here and there, so I don't have to get too messy or think too hard about what exactly it is I'm eating. Pop, however, was a firm believer in savoring every last bit. I smile to myself, remembering Grandma Betty telling us about my cousin Ethan, at age 4 or so, after Pop had passed away, wondering if Pop was able to have a picnic of fried chicken in heaven, since it was such a beautiful day, and that was one of Pop's favorite things to do. Grandma Betty refrained from remarking to Ethan that it wouldn't really be heaven for the chicken involved.
I am glad to have these memories of Pop surface as I get ready to see my family, and witness it expand through my brother's marriage. I wish that Grandma Betty, Pop, Grandpa Art, and Grandma Judy could all be here with us, celebrating. But maybe they'll all get together and have a picnic in heaven in our honor.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Visit

Got down to the hospital to see Grandma. I told her how I felt about her and grandpa and her brother Carl who used to live upstairs from me and died early in the morning, getting ready to go work in the temple. I told her how Michael and I talked about how someday we will be the older generation responsible for keeping things together and it's hard to imagine ourselves being up to the task. And she reminded me that you don't become the kind of person overnight: it takes time. And then she told me a story she's told me many times before, about how she, as a younger woman, spent some time caring for an elderly relative of hers who was quite cranky and bitter. The experience made her vow to herself that she wouldn't be a cranky old woman: which made her realize that she'd better stop being a cranky young woman first.

I laughed. We talked and talked, told each other new stories which led us back into telling stories
we've already told each other dozens, maybe hundreds of times--and I love the rhythm of it.

Next Friday, she told one nurse, she will have twenty-nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

When another nurse asked where she was from, she said "Would you like the short version or the long one?"

Maybe that's one thing we can keep from generation to generation.

Good News

Matt just called again to say that Grandma is awake and breathing fine in the hospital. Everything seems to be fine--they'll hold her for observation (thank God for doctors and their families who let them sacrifice for the rest of us!) and then she'll be able to come home. Things sound good.

After I got off the phone with him, I started sobbing. It's crazy, I'm here alone in an office on BYU campus and I turned off the lights and curled up on the floor while I cried. There's something about the sense of relief that makes it more OK to acknowledge how much something has shaken you.

I believe in God because I believe in the eternity of memory. That when beautiful and profound things happen, like my grandmother deciding to marry my grandfather even in a time when their "mixed race" marriage was illegal, somewhere written on the face of the universe, that stays. I really believe that's not just a good thought, that's how things are. What we do in life matters. The ways we are connected matter and are infinite and eternal: healed and purified relationships are heaven.

This is maybe why I care about history and ethnicity: they are threads that bind us to those who gave life to us, those who shaped our souls with their love.

And if you want to know who I am: I am someone who absolutely refuses to give up on that! I am, or at least want to be someone who never lets the very real and heavy burden of life get in the way of the healing burdens of inherited love.


A long conference with a student meant I was running late to class today--at 1 pm, when I should have been in the classroom with my ringer off, I got a call from my younger brother saying our Grandmother had just fainted and not gotten up and that Grandpa had called an ambulance and gone with her to the hospital.

I remember something like this happening several years ago--I think they lived in California at that time--and everything came out just fine then. I'm assuming that the same will happen now, but it's still scary. It's not so much a feeling of worry over her, she's a good woman and will be all right no matter what--it's a sense of my own vulnerability in the possibility of her absence.

To think that her presence could suddenly be gone, her memories lost to immediate access, is overwhelming. I've certainly been grateful before that I've gotten so much time with my grandparents; I've tried to soak up what I can from them, to take advantage of the chances to talk. I've known that they are (in spite of all appearances to the contrary) mortal--but I've come to depend on them not to do scary things like this!

The world makes sense to me partly through the strength of my grandparents. I think of all they've done, all they've learned, all they went up against and emerged with more love and richer senses of humor--these are the kind of people who keep the spirit of God in the world. While I realize that my grandmother will still exist no matter what happens, it's difficult to imagine a world in which I don't have direct access to the way she tells her stories, the way she keeps her house, the way she plays games with her youngest grandchildren.

My brother will be ordained an Elder in our church on Sunday: it's a moment in which he is invited to embrace adult responsibilities in the community. I will be married next Friday: that's a moment in which I will accept responsibilities we see as binding (and rooting) us through the eternities.

It seems impossible to me at this particular moment that we will live up to all these responsibilities in anything like the way my grandparents have. Numerous ancient religions used to worship ancestors, to project them as somehow larger than life, and I feel like I can understand why.

Perhaps if we hold tenaciously on to their memory and spirits, the stories can give us access to some of their strength and power. But please God give her much more time to live: I don't want my daughter to grow up without her!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Trouble with Racism that it's become a counter-productive term.

There was a time, say sixty years ago, when plenty of people were still happy to openly admit that they thought of their own "race" as superior to all others. The term "racism" served as a productive way to label and combat those attitudes. Public schools, for example, decided that teaching about the dangers of racism should be part of their curriculum. Being opposed to racism has become a deeply embedded value in our society to the point that to call someone a "racist" is not simply a description of their ideology, but an accusation or insult.

That's a great achievement in many ways, but a major problem in others. I'm glad, on the one hand, that we no longer live in the days when people could hold lynchings in conjunction with picnics and weren't ashamed to take pictures of themselves doing so. I'm worried, though, that by teaching that racism is evil without acknowledging that cultural frictions are natural keeps people from acknowledging and working on living together in harmony.

It's common and normal, after all, to think that food from other cultures smells strange. It's a problem, though, if the biggest factor in your relationship with a neighbor is how much the smell of their food annoys you. It's common for people from different backgrounds (esp. different cultural/historical backgrounds) to be sensitive over different subjects. How do we negotiate those sensitivities and get over the unintentional offense we receive or cause? Minority cultures almost all struggle against definitions of what is normal or acceptable (in clothing, writing, music, hair, whatever) that are based on majority cultural standards. How can we learn not to try to force the wrong standards onto those who don't want to fit?

Our focus on racism has made it difficult to talk to about such cultural issues without putting people on the defensive. "I'm not racist" is the response you're likely to get if you try to raise an issue: which does nothing to resolve whatever friction exists. The word "racism" makes minority individuals excessively defensive, too: because "racism" is a often seen as a choice and racism is as actively evil, the term "racism"makes people from minority groups more likely to interpret tensions with individuals from the majority culture as signs of evil than as natural friction.

So, is it time to try to throw the term "racism" out, or at least put it into a narrower place?


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Parable of the Circle

Several weeks ago, I incorporated some excerpts of this blog along with some new material into an essay for a class. One piece of feedback I got from several students was that they wanted the resulting piece to involve more of me and my personal presence. Why so much time on brothers, great-grandparents, the politics of distant lands when I was directly described only in a conversation with my soon-to-be daughter?

Maybe they're right. Maybe I should spend more time directly engaging the experiences I've had in my twenty-six years on earth. Maybe there's something to be said for the orienting effect of a strong autobiographical presence in this kind of cultural writing.

I couldn't help but wonder, though, if that also says something about our cultural obsession with the narrowly defined self. Do we expect personal writing to be about someone's direct personal lifetime experience because we live in a culture dominated by egoism? Is it entirely true that the events which most profoundly shape us happen within our lifetimes?

Maybe we should loosen the grip of our desire to want to "know" a person by looking directly at them and what they do. Maybe we should look more at what comes around them: how they interact with their ancestors, history, the world around them as it exists now. Maybe viewing people less as self-contained artifacts than within the webs of people, places, and stories that make up their natural context would help us be more thoughtful and ethical in the way we turn and see our lives and world.

If I draw a circle, after all, my pencil should never touch the center--does that make the center less clear, meaningful, relevant?

Can we change the way we read to access this different approach to the world?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Yom Kippur

Sunset tomorrow starts the holiest day of the year for Jews: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

I can only recall having gone to Yom Kippur services once or twice, but I fast every year and I try to be a good "Google Jew" and study the appropriate prayers and traditions on the internet the night before--tonight--in preparation.

Two parts of the Yom Kippur liturgy, in particular, mean a lot to me. One is Ashamnu, a prayer expressing collective confession for sins. The other is Kol Nidre, a renunciation of all the vows that we will make during the coming year.

Kol Nidre has been, and in certain circles still is, highly controversial. Some take it as evidence that Jews are inherently untrustworthy--why believe someone who has already publicly renounced all the year's vows?

To anyone who follows the rest of the liturgy, however, it is clear that Jews take honesty very seriously indeed. Kol Nidre, in fact, was developed specifically because Judaism advocates strict integrity--in classical Jewish thought, you are accountable for broken promises even if they were made thoughtlessly, or even if circumstances change such that keeping them becomes impossible. Kol Nidre is to remind us that we cannot always do what we hope to do, that we do not have the power to truly guarantee the fulfillment of even our most sincere promises. It was a comfort to medieval Jews forced to accept medieval Christianity or die. It is a comfort to parents who can't do everything they'd wanted for their children, and for children who can't be everything that hoped to be for their parents.

While writing a set of very short (300 word or less) stories last year, I decided that the idea of Kol Nidre speaks in a special way to many immigrants' experience. Below is the story I wrote based on this idea:

Kol Nidre

Abuela, whose grave I had promised to always visit—I'm sorry.
That garden plot, mother, I told you as a child I would tend when you got old and your joints turned hard—whisper my apologies to the weeds.
My wife, who can't go see her brother at his wedding, in case she somehow wouldn't be able to make it back past immigration—forgive me.
Mijo, I said you would have it better than me, but now—we'll see.

My father, who prepared me to live in a world he didn't know was disappearing—have I disappointed you?
Ernesto, who wanted to go through the best and worst with me—if you have a steady one, could you send me your address?
Everyone who is still somewhere, every sun that rises over my old home and does not see me, every drop of rain God sends to nourish crops I haven't sown—what happened to the life I'd thought I would lead?

All vows, all the vows I didn't dream I wouldn't be able to keep—please, please, release me.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Passports and Peach Trees (part one)

email from G.S. Gill to his eldest granddaughter on 11/23/05:

"I left India in June 1954 at age 19 with the intention of getting an education in U.S.A. My parents bought me a ticket to San Francisco with about five dollars left in my pocket. I took a bus to Stockton and was met by an elderly blind gentleman with an escort who brought me to Selma California to Labh Singh Gill's home. Labh Singh was in his sixties and had come to USA a long time before. He was from my home village. He helped me find farm work in the grape vineyards with local farmers and get admitted to Fresno State College. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays I attended college and worked on the farms the rest of the time. It was difficult to pick peaches with a turban because it was getting caught in the branches all the time. So, I got a haircut and took the turban off. This was the first loss of a tradition from my culture. On the whole I stayed within the Indian community both inside and outside the college."

Gurcharan Singh Gill's passport, age 19

email from G.S. Gill to his extended family on 9/8/09:

"These bewildered pictures shows how nervous I was after spending two years of crop money to come to USA and blow it all up on the PAN AM Airline ticket of US 350 dollars. It included two years of my helping Dad on the farm full time. At the San Francisco Airport I had $5 left. The consolation was that money grew on trees in USA and I could pick it off the trees during the Summer if I flew instead of taking the boat. Well, the money on trees was picking peaches on a Peach Farm in Yuba City California. I was not told about the heat, sweat, Peach Fuzz, and nightly leg cramps etc. But I made enough money to make up for the splurging on the Airline Ticket and paid for my tuition at Fresno State College which is now University of California at Fresno. I also knew that Dad had no money to send me for college. So, I had to swim or sink. I chose to swim. It reminded me of learning to swim, when my buffalo grazing buddies picked me up when I was sleeping under a shady tree at noon and threw me in the water canal because I was not swimming with them! If you feel like complaining because college is hard etc; just remember that I made a choice of education over farming and have not regretted it. However, it took me over forty years to get the farming out of my head. Enjoy your college days while you can because they end all too quickly!"

Gurcharan Singh Gill with his brother Bachittar Singh Gill on
their share of the family farm in Dhudike, March 2005.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Balbir Singh Sodhi

Eight years ago today, Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot five times in the chest while planting flowers in front of his Mesa, Arizona gas station. Frank Roque, the shooter, didn't know anything about Balbir except that he wore a turban. Balbir died while Frank drove away.

I was 18 at the time, and had just started college--9/11 was my first day of classes. I didn't wear a turban, but I had uncut hair and beard like my Sikh ancestors. People had told me well before 9/11 that I looked like Osama bin Laden. (Then again, other people said I looked like Jesus. Let me tell you--it's tough to be a human Rorschach test.)

In Columbus, Ohio, where I lived, gas prices shot way up the day of the attacks. Word spread all over campus--if you have a car, go get gas now! People didn't know how far the attack would go yet. An apparent accident had turned into an attack, planes were in the air, no one knew who had done this but most people suspected it was Arab terrorists...I was nervous to leave campus to go to a store, not knowing how people would react to people like me in their midst. I went anyway. Most people were busy watching the TVs there and didn't notice me at all.

I wonder if a few people tried to hoard gas in Mesa, too, on the 11th, though I don't think there was price gouging there. Wonder if Frank Roque went to Balbir's station that day and came back three days later, or if the reports in later newspapaers were right and he was just driving around looking to take vengeance on the "towelheads" he blamed for the attack.

On September 15, 2001 Balbir Singh Sodhi died. Some Sikh community websites posted a memorial sheet you could print out for him. I did, but was afraid to put it on the front of my dorm room door, where everyone could see. I emptied out my top dresser drawer and put it there instead for the first few weeks. (If I'd have been among the children of Israel in Moses' day, I would not have been passed over.) After a while, I got braver, or else--who am I kidding?--America turned out to be calm enough that I no longer needed to be terribly brave to put a poster up for the dead.

The poster I kept in my drawer for the first few weeks.

This is a good country. There have been times and there are places where an event like 9/11 could have sparked thousands of senseless killings and not just a few. There are places where suspicion and hateful speech pour over into violence far more easily. In America, the decency, sensitivity, and humility of the majority of citizens are stronger, in most cases, than the voices of anger and hate. Plenty of scary things happen. The most provocative talk show hosts rant and rage (may the blood of the innocent haunt them)--but most of us know not to listen or to let resentment run away with us as they do.

When Frank Roque was arrested, he shouted "I am a patriot!"

Thanks be to God for Americans who think that patriotism is more about loving our neighbors than finding something un-American to hate.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


Presented with Nicole today at the annual Jewish American and Holocaust Literature symposium on a Joann Sfar graphic novel called Klezmer.

We talked, among other things, about the different ways you can talk about family and cultural memories that have simply been lost. How do you approach the gaps and empty spaces in your family's past?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Darfur and the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20

My grandmother's family lived in the state of Chihuahua during the 1910-20 Revolutionary period in Mexico, and it has become one of the wars most prominent in family tradition and memory.

Her grandfather used to say of the later phases of the revolution that there were three factions: the Carrazinstas, the Villistas, and the bandits--and it was often very difficult to tell the difference.

General Martin Agwai, departing commander of the UN's Darfur force, recently said the war in Darfur is over. "Over" may be difficult to define, however: as my great-great-grandfather's experience suggests, factionalization and banditry can be as difficult to live with as outright war.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Local Politics

Went to a meeting last night to hear from the city's six mayoral and seven city council candidates. It's interesting to me how the more likely it is that my vote could affect the outcome of a race, the less likely I am to really have any idea what's going on. We tend to follow national politics far more closely than local politics in this country: maybe it has to do with the advent of television; maybe we just got lazy somewhere along the way.

I am thinking about my great-grandfather, Ram Singh, who got involved in village politics to help put an end to gang violence and stayed sarpanch (mayor) until his wife beat him in an election years later (more on that another day). I've heard stories about his work developing the village for years, and only last year found out when my great-uncle Surinderpal ran across some old pictures that Ram Singh had once met Nehru (India's first prime minister).

Nehru is on the left. Ram Singh is in the third row back, second from the left.

The world of my great-grandfather was Dhudike, I think. He lived in and for the village. Then, without any clear time of death, that world ended. His sons were caught up in state, country, world. You had to be--you still do. The kind of village Ram Singh had known simply faded away: he himself died in California in a new millennium when people like me would spend an hour or two trying to sort out candidates we'd never met and most potential voters wouldn't do anything more than notice yard signs as they sat and watched events on the opposite side of the continent rehashed by four talking heads and a scrolling stream of headlines on Fox News.

We can't have quite the kind of community he once had, and probably we don't want it--the village was not without its own problems. But are we, and ought we be, content with what we have? Is there a new and satisfying way to generate and foster community, and an accompanying method for giving those communities a political manifestation?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Three Memories of Food

1. LA

We used to visit my grandpa Art once or twice a year before we moved to Ohio in 1995. Art lived by routines, and so we'd do the same sorts of things every time. We'd go down to Santa Monica to a park on the beach with a playground and a stone dragon. We'd stop by Brentwood Library where Art liked to raise hell. We'd go to a bookstore and each pick out something. And we'd eat a deli: Frohmin's or Junior's (their respective owners may be dismayed that it never mattered much to me which one and I can't distinguish one from the other in my memory).

I remember baskets of nice, dark rye bread. (Being a hungry kid, I loved a basket of anything, which may explain why there's a special love for rye bread in my heart to this day.) I remember ordering a bagel and lox every time or at least almost every time. I'd take the green, unpitted olive off the top and give it to my father but I loved the rest. Lis remembers the blintzes best--it's interesting to me that we never remember the same things, so that even people who have been through exactly the same experiences will emerge with radically different histories.

2. The Mojave Desert

The food was actually from Delano, picked up as we visited Gill cousins on the way back from LA. They sent some extra with us for the road, though. We stopped somewhere in the Mojave desert, on a route that went Bakersfield, Barstow, Baker through the heat and unwrapped a few for a snack. Time spreads spice and the day-old-but-still-soft stuffed flatbreads were so good. This is my first vivid memory of aloo paratha.

Time spreads spice well, and by high school a friend told me that when I'd been out working and came back inside, the sweat smelled just a little like curry.

3. Provo

We lived in Orem, in those days of frequent trips to California, and my grandparents lived where I live now in the northern part of Provo. All but one of their children lived there, too, in the days before we started our international game of danda dook, and we'd meet once a month, I believe it was on Fast Sundays, for food and the time together that inevitably goes with it. We'd drive down one hill and up another to their house, or else mom would drive while Dad and Lis and I got to ride our bikes.

Taco Salad was a favorite at these extended-family dinners, a carryover from the days of my mother's childhood, when her mother found that the only way to keep seven children from asking and asking when they would get to eat on a fast sunday afternoon was to give each of them a food preparation task. Taco Salad was a great Mormon socio-theological statement: it came together through the collective delegated work of the whole unit, everyone involved, the grater-of-cheese no greater or less than the dicer-of-tomatoes or the-masher-of-beans, the feast open to all as they had room to receive it.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

California Memories

E_mirror Guest Post by Vilo Elisabeth

I was introduced to the term Caucajewmexdian by my brother. It's a shorthand he invented to describe the ethnic mix that we share. Useful for saying things like “He's one of the best Caucajewmexdian writers.” or “she's a top Caucajewmexdian photographer.” I'm sure it will catch on. The breakdown is Caucasian, Jewish, Mexican, and Indian. India Indian, as we used to say to differentiate from American Indian, or Native American. What most people would call Eastern Indian. It occurred to me the other day, while I was floating blissfully in the Atlantic Ocean, that the CA in Caucajewmexdian also stands for California, where our father was raised.


My father grew up in Mission Beach, living in a summer home that the family eventually lived in year round. The story, as I remember it, was that Grandma Betty asked the children at the close of one summer if they wanted to leave. They said no, so she said alright, and they stayed. They had a house in another part of San Diego that they used to spend the school year in, I'm not sure what happened to it.

This summer house was known by all as the beach house, and for a brief period called the sand house by my youngest brother. You could sit on the second story porch and look through the tree boughs to the expanse of Mission Bay directly in front. When my father was young, the house was surrounded by empty fields. By the time it became my childhood vacation home, it was 3 blocks through narrows walkways between closely packed condos and bungalows and across one busy street to the Pacific Ocean.


My father learned to swim by chasing an escaped boogie board to the middle of the bay, against his better judgment, which kept him from participating in swimming lessons. He was halfway across before he realized that he was swimming. My mother's father, by comparison, learned to swim in India by hanging onto the water buffalos' tails when he took them to the pond. Years later, this same man took his children to the beach in San Diego. When my father first saw pictures of my mother on a beach trip from her childhood, he recognized the water—it was his own bay, just the other side. Who knew that his wife was waiting across the water for him all those years ago?

It was my mother and then my grandfather that taught me to swim in the city pool, standing in the water and beckoning me to leave the safety of the wall and traverse the distance to the safety of their arms. But it was my father that taught me to love the ocean. He stood by me, holding my hand, and showing me when to jump to keep above the waves. It is a skill that I carry with me to this day. I don't remember if I was afraid of the ocean before that, but I was a timid child, so I very well may have been. My maternal great-grandmother, who once ran against her husband for mayor and won, had not seen the ocean until crossing it to come to America. She couldn't believe that her grandchildren were allowed to play near the water— “it has no end!” she exclaimed, and locked herself in the car, refusing to join them on the beach. She did think that America was a great country for the fact that you could by crisped rice—an essential ingredient for the Indian delicacy Maroondas (known to Americans as Rice Crispy Treats) in a box at the grocery store.

But the fact that you cannot see the end of the ocean does not bother me. I find peace in the rolling waves, serenity in the rise and fall of the water. I let my mind and body relax, and enjoy the expanse of water, sand, and sky. I think of the first woman I saw give birth, and how she reminded herself to “ride the wave” during rough contractions. Now I live near the Atlantic Ocean, and although it is still not as familiar as the Pacific, does bring thoughts of my family. I miss my brothers, who would have fought with me to pass through the breakers. We would have bobbed in the water together, talking and watching for the next swell.


When Grandma Betty, the woman who raised my father and the matriarch of the family, passed away, I met my father in San Diego for the funeral. After the funeral we went to his favorite spots—the beach where the seals congregate, Sunny Jim cave, the beach house. As we walked he told me about his childhood, and the places he used to go. The places his father would take him when he came down to visit. We each took a few books from the built in bookshelves at the beach house. A reminder of the time I used to spend bobbing on an ocean of words during our stays there, curled up in the window seat with the gargoyles carved in wood near the ceiling gazing down.

It was sad to realize a certain time and place was now inaccessible, except in memory, photos, and the stories we tell each other and ourselves. No more will my siblings and I race from the car to be the first to open the wooden gate to the beach house. To hear Grandma Betty call down from the upstairs porch. To eat her tamale pie or her corn cakes out of sea shell plates while we watch the bay. I can tell my children about my summers there, but unlike my father I cannot take them back to the house itself.

I will, someday, take my children to the ocean. It might not be the Pacific, but I can still stand next to them, hold their hands, and tell them to jump.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Mattathias Singh Goldberg Westwood

Geneological connection: Matt is Caucajewmexdian #4 (out of five) i.e. a brother of the writer(s)
Name Origin: Mattathias (Hebrew: Mattisyahu) and his five sons were the leaders of the Maccabees, who led the revolt against the Greeks that is commemorated by Hanukah--a holiday with great family significance as well as some Jewish religious significance. "Singh" is a Punjabi word meaning lion. It is the name the last Sikh guru took upon himself and gave first to the Panj Piare, or "five beloved" and then to all male Sikhs who joined the Khalsa, or Sikh lay priesthood (women were given the name Kaur, meaning "princess.")
Random Meditation on Name's Origin: Five literal sons who followed Mattathias, five first "sons" of the Khalsa order. Further Khalsa/Maccabee parallels are worth pondering. Both are fundamentally religious orders who had to shift into modes of militant self-defense when their religious freedom was severely threatened. Both differed in matters of appearance from the rulers of the time. Both acted with reverence in the presence of sacred texts and were fixated on their respective temples. Both created traditions that gave my brother his name.
Age: 18.
Height: Tall.
Hobbies: Keeping up with Eastern European friends from trans-Atlantic Diplomacy camp, drinking mango lassi, spending way too much time with every paper he's every tried to write because he wants to swallow the whole world every time he opens a book or picks up a pen, joking around with little sister and partner-in-insanity Judith.
Stories: A child named Matt used to watch Bill Nye the Science Guy and get inspired to do his own experiments: one involved finding out if his dresser draws were watertight by filling the top one as full as he could. The verdict: not watertight. Another bedroom experiment involved flour, though I can't remember the details.
A young teenage Matt once sat groaning on the couch as I sat at the computer and tried to extract the finishing touches of a report on the Carpathian mountains out of him. I wonder if he can't stand to finish writing because he's smart enough to know that you're always going to be leaving too much out.
When I left for Germany, I left Matt a $100 computer I'd been using for a while. I didn't realize he would read everything on it, and, possessing a memory far superior to mine, become better acquainted with my intellectual development than I am.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Turbans in the Palace Guard

Simranjit Singh and Sarvjit Singh join Queen's Guard

Bravo to Queen Elizabeth's staff for having two new members of the palace guard, both Sikh, maintain their turbans on duty. This is a big move, considering that palace guards have their own strict traditional attire, but considering Sikh history and recent developments in the world, I think the Queen's people made a great choice.

Since the seventeenth century, when Mughal Emperors tried to destroy the Sikh faith through systematic violence and intimidation, Sikhs have placed great value on the distinctive appearance that helped them foster a spirit of resistance and survival. This distinctive appearance is based in the Five Ks, but also traditionally includes the turban for men.

Prejudice against turbaned individuals following the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attack led to some backlash against Sikhs in Western countries. In popular culture in the West, turbans of any kind quickly became associated with terrorism. Sometimes this prejudice manifested itself violently: Balbir Singh Sodhi of Mesa, AZ was shot in front of his gas station on Sept. 15, 2001 by a complete stranger. In France, the manifestation was more systematic: fears about religious extremism were channeled into a ban on religiously distinctive clothing in schools, a law which most directly affected Muslim girls and Sikh boys. (That France, of all countries, should behave with such intolerance is particularly tragic: the British army had so many Sikh soldiers during World War I, that there are probably more Sikhs soldiers who gave their lives defending France in that war than Sikhs who live in France today.)

That's why I find it particularly encouraging that the British have chosen to bend their own traditional garb for palace guards and invited Simranjit and Sarvjit to keep uniform turbans on duty.

Here's hoping that every step in raising the profile of turbaned Sikhs anywhere will help contribute to better treatment for beard-growing, turban-wearing committed Sikh men everywhere, from France to Brigham Young University.

Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh.

Thursday, July 30, 2009


Met a couple from Bengal the other day--they rent out a portion of their house as a separate apartment, which I was moving some friends out of. Very gracious and engaging people, my new Bengali friends. They come from the opposite side of my grandfather's country, but the feeling of their home is still so inviting and comforting to me. When Kira arrives, she immediately announces: "It smells good in here!" (Good, of course, is in the nose of the beholder, so I'm particularly pleased that she agrees with me.)

During our conversation, I didn't ask Ram and his wife when they first came to the U.S.A., but it was probably some time ago because both of their children seem to be firmly established here. Ram did mention that he and his wife have been in Utah for seven years, since he was transferred out of New York to work at a corporate headquarters in Utah Valley (the opposite of what you might expect, but true!). The economic ups and downs of the subsequent years have been complicated for him, but he and his wife have come to love it here, in a quiet neighborhood with their outgoing and solicitous Mormon neighbors.

Ram mentions more than once that I look very Punjabi to him, his wife points out that I even wear a kara. Why is it that I am always a little uncomfortable to be told I look ethnic, yet always a little flattered to be told I look Punjabi?

Part of it may be that describing someone as ethnic or exotic is typically distancing, while describing someone in a way that implies an interconnected history has the opposite effect. Names can be magical: even being lumped into a category can feel good if the category is specific enough to show a better-than-average familiarity.

Like I said, I barely know Ram, and yet I automatically believe us to be somehow loosely connected.

My impression is that Punjabis made up the first wave of emigrants from India to Europe and America, and that Bengalis were the second wave, but that may be only because Bengalis have such a strong literary tradition that they naturally over-represent themselves. (Tagore was a Bengali, Jhumpa Lahiri seems to write almost exclusively about Bengalis, the Apu Trilogy, some of the most critically-acclaimed films to come out of the subcontinent, were Bengali. Come to think of it, Amartya Sen and Muhammed Yunus, both Nobel Prize Winners in economics, were also Bengalis--how thoughtful of them to come from different sides of old Bengal, so everyone is represented!)

Here's a thought: is it the overlapping knowledge we have more than any limited intersection in appearance that connects us? Can you begin to build a bridge between cultures just by knowing the kinds of trivia I list above? I think it's more this sense of shared information and experience than any concept of loose kinship or shared blood that gave rise to the concept of a desi community. While the information alone doesn't make someone a desi, I think it can greatly reduce the social distance created by our uncertainty about how to approach difference. Asking someone why they look ethnic and then having only the broadest of stereotypes to connect with their answer isn't terribly productive. Learning enough in advance to connect a little is far better--because place is made up as much of ideas and culture as land, learning is a kind of visiting, making someone else's home less foreign and more familiar: a good first step to harmony.

And in the age of the globalization and the internet, this approach to harmony is more realistic than ever. It's easy to learn just a little bit about different corners of the world to have a starting point for learning more as you get to know someone. Just having explored this post, for example, you're an important step closer to connecting with the next Bengali you meet.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Yesterday's Bumper Stickers

Drove behind a car yesterday with bumper stickers sharing the following slogans:


My grandmother's grandmother, Bertha Wilcken, had a master's degree in English and spoke fluent Spanish (and possibly some of her father's German) as well. She would probably have pointed out that any single person who claims to be "a minority" probably doesn't speak English in the strictest sense--which actually puts the driver in a worldwide majority: people who struggle with their own native language.


Let me get this straight: you feel such a strong sense of entitlement that the added effort you have to take to press a button is more important than the question of access for an entire subset of the larger community? (That is actually a fairly standard historical approach to minority accommodation, I'm afraid.) Or is it that you believe such businesses to be active in a plot to destroy the United States by selling stuff to recent immigrants and their grandparents?

I wish people would realize how much we benefit from living in such an interconnected global community. For those who feel that the prosperity of our country is based on solely on native, English-language influences, I suggest the following:
-Refuse any medical treatments originally developed in other languages and countries or administered by doctors whose relatives don't all speak English.
-Boycott all states with Iroquois-inspired two-chamber legislatures.
-Stop using any foreign terms that have polluted the English language to avoid the insidious Latin influence inherent in words like "insidious," "influence," and "pollute."
-Don't buy anything. Somewhere along the line, virtually every product available on the market has been touched by someone who doesn't speak English. If you want something, make it yourself.

Alternatively, of course, you could just suck it up and press one for English. (Or press two for Spanish and see what that feels like.)

Monday, July 20, 2009

Danda dook in America

There were 26 people in my grandparent's house after church this Sunday, all of us related (most also under the age of twelve). We have a family tradition of spilling drinks at any meal of such scale, but during lunch, someone managed to spill an entire extra-large pitcher of orange juice all over the kitchen floor. Aunts quickly sprang into action, quickly deciding to keep this cleaning project for themselves rather than risk spreading the juice even further by delegating it to children. The younger children, however, had a hard time understanding that it is not helpful to forage for food when doing so involves crossing an orange juice reservoir--between the cleaners and the would-be foragers, the kitchen was getting quite crowded when I decided to play the pied piper and lead the children outside for some games until the crisis was over.

(Explanatory note: I have a strange power to lead children. Perhaps this comes because of my position second in birth-order among the twenty-eight first cousins of my mother's family. Perhaps it comes from years spent with my mother's daycare children, who liked to sit in a line on my back looking at books when I would nap on our living room floor, and from time to time to troop down to the basement with me to draw pictures while sitting in old laundry baskets with blankets over their heads. Perhaps it comes simply because I like to listen to them, something few adults care to really do, or else because I think like them, something few adults dare to admit.)

In any case, once outside, I had to come up with a game to play in keeping with my promise--and decided that this was the perfect time to try to adapt danda dook to a banyan-tree-less environment.

We went to the front porch and found a stray piece of plastic to use as a stick. Kent asked to throw first and I volunteered to be"it" first. He threw left and the children dashed off right as I rushed after it. By the time I'd put our faux-stick back on the porch to go chase them, they'd all gotten to the driveway and hidden behind various cars. These, I found, served nicely as a sort of banyan tree: parked at diagonals to fit, they forced me to choose who to chase and who to risk letting escape to safety. (How appropriate that cars, as absent in my grandfather's childhood as they were ubiquitous in his grandchildren's, should be our key to adaptation.) I managed to catch one before they all got back to the stick, and then threw the stick myself to start round two.

As the game progressed, we noticed that the set-up of the front porch also worked well. There are three ways of approaching the porch: from the left, from the right, or from a walk between the house and a wall of trellises difficult for the "it" to cross on a whim. The diversity of approaches, plus a rule keeping the "it" off the porch itself, helped discourage a strategy of unabashed puppy-guarding.

I was impressed with the length of the children's interest in the game: the same ones who hadn't wanted to stay out of the kitchen during the juice spill had to be called back in and ordered to eat before they could come rejoin the game. We kept things going until I, for one, was drenched in sweat and ready for the thorough American patriotism of a long shower. Sariah asked me to stay on, however, to referee a kabaddi match--and how could I refuse?


Kabaddi. Kabaddi kabaddi kabaddi kabaddikabaddikabaddikabaddika...and I inhale. It's the king of games, I'm telling you. Rules vary from place to place, but in our family it's always gone something like this:
-Split into two teams of balanced size, speed, and strength
-Find a grassy area about the size of a sand volleyball court to play in, with a clear line marked down the middle (with jumropes or a hose, for example, rather than simply relying on landmarks)
-Teams alternate turns sending a raider into the other team's area. Once the raider crosses the center line, he or she cannot take a new breath until return without admitting capture. This is traditionally done by repeating the term "kabaddi" again and again, but can also be done by repeating "lalalala" or any other phrase.
-If the raider gets even one finger over to his/her side before taking a breath, the raiding team is awarded one point for each person touched by the raider or who touched the raider.
-If the raider is caught by the defending team and takes a breath before returning, the defending team is awarded one point.
-The first team to score a predetermined number of points wins.

Kabaddi can be relatively tame or extremely rough, depending on the players, but is almost invariably exhilarating. I've taught the game to dozens of people: it became the favorite sport of the six-grade class I was a camp counselor for (a group of boys delighted the students and puzzled the teachers with a last-night campfire skit depicting a parody "celebrity kabaddi match" complete with George W. Bush. Kabaddi was officially banned at Jones Middle School a few weeks later by concerned staff). I've played with engineering students in Boston (I almost passed out while wiggling free an arm to get just over the line when the score was tight), at the Ohio Governor's mansion, just outside the Brigham Young University Art Museum with some actors and a museum guard.

The thing I've noticed in all these matches is that there's far more to kabaddi than simple athleticism. The best athletes, in fact, tend to struggle with the game at first: they overestimate their own abilities and plunge too deep into enemy territory, essentially dooming themselves to capture too far from the line for hope. It's those who can trick the opposing team into some complacency who make some of the most spectacular plays, doing less to tag everyone than to get touched by those who think they can make an easy catch and stray too close to the line as they try to do so.

Our teams on Sunday were fabulously matched. The score crept up in ties and near-ties. One of the younger girls got away clean; an older boy was caught by the full opposing team so close to the line I wished there'd been a second referee to see if his hand made it over in the air or not--by the ground, though, he fell clearly short and I decided I had to rule him captured. The score was 9-8 when the rain started falling too think to continue.


What do we get out of the perpetuation of these games? America is a civilization unrivaled in its degree investment of time, resources, and ingenuity into myriad forms of entertainment--what is to be gained by preserving old Indian games?

The last time my grandfather told me about danda dook, he pointed out that it was fun without costing anything. The genius of children's culture fulfilled a need that simple economic prosperity cannot. And yet the culture of my young cousins is filled so much with the games that have been marketed to them, unmarketed games seem to have trouble competing for their attention. In promoting danda dook and kabaddi, I hope that I am promoting an awareness of the lifestyle and value system they came from.

I don't want to go back to my grandfather's past; I am grateful for the times in which I live. And yet I feel that our times ought to be an enriched by a dialogue with the past, with memories we can physically enact to channel the special kinds of life and joy that came from playing in the shade of a banyan tree on old Punjabi summer days.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

What is a Caucajewmexdian? (part three)

So, I've told you that a Caucajewmexdian is someone who has trouble explaining where he or she is "from," someone whose grandparents came from different corners of the earth, with their accompanying traditions and cultures; I've told you that a Caucajewmexdian inhabits a more complicated history than he or she is likely to be taught while sitting around at school--but I have not told you why a Caucajewmexdian finds it necessary to write a blog about being a Caucajewmexdian.

It's a legitimate question. Why should such a thing as this be written? What are the impulses behind this?


When my grandparents illegally married, the idea of mixed-race or multi-cultural children was still shocking and problematic in America. (Yes, the same America that just elected such a child as its President.) The creation of such children was to be avoided whenever possible; those who did exist were to be pitied, spoken of in whispers, swept under a rug and brought out only as a warning. Oh, but now so many of us are here and we (if it makes any sense to use the first-person plural for such a diverse catch-all grouping) are so good-looking!

Shouldn't we speak up while America is listening? Shouldn't we take advantage of the moment to let the country know why it's nice to be us? After all, in the advanced writing class my fiancee taught last semester, a student wrote against interracial marriage for her persuasive piece--using the possibility of mixed-race children as her primary argument such unions (this at the same university, ironically, where both sets of my grandparents met). Don't I owe it to her, or at least to her classmates, to help show that the life I live is not one that ought to be prevented?


My sister pointed out today that most Americans, ourselves included, eat certain foods at Thanksgiving, and learn certain stories about why they do so, without taking too much time for reflection. We spend the day, perhaps, expressing our thankfulness for football (its referees excepted) and move on with our lives.

Choosing which traditions, absent in the broader, dominant culture to keep alive, though--that forces one to search for meaning. You have to know why you want to burn certain candles on a winter night, why you want to tell your children about Ram and Sita. And you have to feel, when you go to recover knowledge and resurrect traditions that your parents or grandparents had to leave behind, not being able to fit everything through the narrow window of time and attention they shared with you, that you are going to gain something from doing so, something that will make more than a cosmetic difference.

This blog is about wanting to know, like Jewish children for three thousand years, what makes one night different from all other nights.


Such things should be written by every granddaughter or grandson because Malachi said so on Elijah's behalf: "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse."


I'm writing this to gather my thoughts for the sake of my daughter-to-be.

After we've read a story, after we've prayed, after we've tucked her in and turned off the lights, I lean close to her and tell her one last story for the night. I used to tell her make-believe stories about herself, but then she started asking for stories about my mom and my dad when they were little kids, for stories about my sisters and brothers and me. And when I finish and try to leave she hangs on my kara and I have to promise her I'll come back another night with more, always more stories, and I worry that someday, I'll run out, I'll forget everything, that someday she'll get older and ask questions and her children will ask questions and (God willing) her grandchildren will ask questions and I'll want to remember then, I'll want to be able to tell them about the things my grandfather's grandfather used to say to him.


Because knowing that there's always more to everyone's story, that Rambam was right when he said every time you kill a person it's like killing a whole world, is maybe the only thing that will keep us from participating in another Holocaust. At least that's what Levinas said.


Because sometimes, such a story is a key, and the chest or door it corresponds to is still missing. All the more reason to gather the keys, and quickly!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Inder Singh

Even when I put my fingers close together, there's a huge gap between the index finger and the middle finger. My aunt told me once it's a trait much more common among Asians than in Europe; I don't know if that's true. My mother's father, in any case, had the same trait when he was young, although the swelling of his fingers with age has since closed the gap.

His grandfather, Inder Singh, used to tell him that such hands meant he would have trouble holding onto money all of his life. (This suggests to me that Inder's own fingers were more tightly aligned: when the village's previous revenue collector died, three of his relatives came forward to claim succession of the hereditary position. Rather than sort out who was the legal heir, the official in charge of passing on the position said that whoever could deliver the amount of the upcoming year's worth of taxes within the next 24 hours would automatically be named the new numberdar. Inder Singh, though only a farmer, had enough saved to pay immediately and won the office for himself and his son after him. If history had progressed differently, that post would have been passed on to my grandfather next, but it slipped, instead, down the gap between his fingers when he left for America and married there.)

I am thinking of Inder Singh today because I ran across his name in the old village land records my grandfather has carefully transliterated and transcribed from the Urdu originals. He's done this for thousands of records from all over the district: from the 1850 census on through the rest of the British era, each landowner was be required to give the names of four generations of ancestors in addition to his own name, the best glimpse we have today of most families' histories. (My grandfather once told me that when he was a boy, professional geneologists memorized such information, but most of them were Muslim and left at Partition.)

What can I give my children to remember of Inder Singh beyond the survival of a name, linked by a chain of transliterated land records and American birth certificates to my own? If I lost all written resources today, here is what I would tell them:

-Many people used to think that children should keep quiet whenever possible, and especially that they shouldn't ask so many questions, but Inder Singh used to remind the boy who would become my grandfather, "God gave you a tongue so you can ask a question when you don't know something."

-Inder Singh was modest, mischievous, or some combination of both. At his sons' weddings, he wore a very simple homespun dhoti that led the bride's relatives to question the ability of his family to support their beloved girl--and then shocked everyone with the sum of money he gave as wedding gifts! Possible lesson: don't keep up appearances--use your money to take care of people instead.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Another Ooth

It has occurred to me, in the days since writing about the word my mother's grandmother taught me, that the Hanukah menorah my father's father gave to my parents was another kind of gateway. It was a beautiful thing: instead of a narrow stem dividing into nine branches, the solid base rose up into the image of a metallic lion above whom rested symbols of each tribe of Israel, and further up over them, room for the candles we'd light each year and watch until they burned down to nothing but a final tiny ascending plume of smoke. All year long the menorah stood out in our living room, a reminder of those winter nights filled with more than the usual stories and meaning. All year long the menorah stood out in our living room, and helped the faith of my ancestors grow into my own developing sense of faithfulness. Yes, like the miraculous oil it commemorates, that menorah served well in a transitional period, keeping alive a spark that can become a bridge from future to past and past to future if we choose to walk it.

Photo by Vilo Elisabeth Westwood

(If you look very closely, you will notice that the photo-within-a-photo in the bottom right corner features Judith and the Menorah.)

Saturday, July 11, 2009

How to Speak Punjabi Without Being Able to Carry on a Conversation

Beiji--that's my great-grandmother, Basant Kaur--succeeding in teaching me one word in Punjabi: ooth. You are probably already pronouncing the "oo" correctly in your mind, it is the long "u" that also comes at the end on the word "guru" (this same long u sound, incidentally, is not the first vowel in Punjab, as Little Orphan Annie would have you believe. The beginning of Punjab ought to be pronounced like the English word "pun." The second vowel is a long a, something we might spell "ah." Try it: Punjab. Much better. Let's get back to "ooth.")

The "th" in "ooth"--and any other Indian word for that matter--is not the soft th of "this" or "that." An h after another consonant in transliterations of words from Indian languages typically means a little extra air instead. (This distinction between aspirated and unaspirated consonants is where we get words like khaki from.) So the "th" in "ooth" is actually a breathy t which is also, as my grandmother taught me and as a textbook can explain, the kind of t pronounced when your tongue goes toward the roof of your mouth as opposed to the ones you get from putting your tongue behind your teeth. English transliterations, unfortunately, have no way of distinguishing between the two.

Now that you know, more or less, how to pronounce "ooth", I will tell you what it means.

"Ooth" means camel.

Of all the hundreds of thousands of words she could have taught me (such as the word "lakh," meaning "a hundred thousand"), I have sometimes wondered since, why did my great-grandmother so carefully teach me how to say only camel?


With the exception of things like counting to five, the names of various dishes, and a number of Sikh religious terms, my Punjabi-language education more or less stopped after Beiji taught me "ooth" until I returned from my LDS mission, grew back my beard, and got hungry for Punjabi again. Driving across the country with my grandfather in the summer of 2005, I started to ask for this word and that, a process which culminated in a gift from my great-uncle Bachittar of my very own Punjabi alphabet book. It was a beautiful blue, with color photos and illustrations and giving a word for each letter of the alphabet, and then starting over and doing so again (more on that later).

The first letter of the Gurmukhi alphabet (invented by the Sikh gurus for the spoken Punjabi language), it turns out, is ੳ (oorhaa), the first letter in "ooth." The word and picture given as an example next to it are, in the overwhelming majority of alphabet primers and textbooks I have since laid hands on "ooth," a camel.

Beiji taught me what came first, as a directive perhaps? or simply in hope?, that I would go on to learn what followed.


Life is complicated, though, and although I can (on a good day) write things down reasonably well using the Gurmukhi alphabet, I'm not even close, four years after being given my alphabet primer, to being able to converse in Punjabi. The only formal class I took, actually, was in Punjabi's sister-language Hindi. (The Sikh teacher was a native Punjabi speaker, but Hindi is the only South Asian language even most large universities are able to offer.) I have books on my shelf now on the three overlapping languages: Punjabi (the language of my ancestors), Hindi (the language easist to study), and Urdu (the language my grandfather found so many records in) but make slow progress, as I only find time to work with them once or twice a week for a few minutes at best.

Why bother? I may never be able to put together enough sentences to describe what I did in a single day. Why keep on my great-grandmother's mad quest for me? I live in America. What's the use of struggling with this thing called Punjabi?


At my fiancee's insistence, I started reading Midnight's Children recently. I knew the book was somehow about Partition and thought the title was quite clever: you see, both Pakistan and India were officially granted independence on the stroke of midnight (although thanks to time zone changes, their midnights were different). Rushdie's cleverness, however, is far from limited to the title: the work is brilliant at making oblique references to various events and ideas, of making jokes out of the slightest details. One minor character, for example, is named "The Rani of Cooch Naheen" which, as Rushdie doesn't bother to explain, translates to "The Queen of Nothing," an apt commentary on the state of Indian aristocrats at the time. A doctor's name is Sharabi, and though I can't write or speak a coherent paragraph, I know that sharab means alcohol because I leaned the word once (and then heard it again in movies and CDs and in some improvised songs at a family party)--Dr. Sharabi is the one the father goes to for a prescription for alcohol after his state bans recreational alcohol.

My familiarity with north Indian languages, however, goes beyond familiarity with a few key Hindi or Punjabi words. Partition, for example, is an English word, left, perhaps, by the Romans when they were building the wall against the Scots, but it's a word that means something much more specific in the context of India than the Romans ever could have foreseen. The English word has been cut into Punjab, bled all across it, and that I understand that is as much a part of my Punjabi as my English. (After all, Partition evokes more for me in images and emotions than in English words.)

Bhagat Singh is a name, one of have never read in a Punjabi language primer, and yet knowing the face that goes with it, and the story, associated the two words "Bhagat Singh" with the two words "Inquilab Zindabad" (Long Live the Revolution) and the single word Shaheed (Martyr).
I also understand why it's funny (and what it implies) when a family in the film Kal Ho Na Ho explains why they named two sons Bhagat Singh by saying "There are two films--why not two boys?" (Knowing certain stereotypes ought to be part of learning language.)

I may not be able to put together nouns and verbs properly to order food in a restaurant, but I know the names of the dishes as words that are neither English nor Punjabi, but rather the multi-lingual proper names for certain kinds of food.

What I am trying to say is that there is more than being able to assemble sentences to knowing a language. That because a language, like Kira's India, is a complicated system of associations, studying a language yields benefits other than those that come only with a rudimentary mastery of grammer.

The journey Beiji launched me on when she taught me how to say camel is serving and will continue to serve to bind me closer to her and her home, will help create me far after the moment of my birth, though I will never learn how to speak the way my grandfather's grandson would have if he had stayed in the continent of his origin, if he had not followed a set of strange pulls and peculiar hopes.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

What is a Caucajewmexdian? (part two)

Julius Goldenberg left Rumania around the turn of the century to dodge the draft. At least that's what I remember having heard was his son Leonard who told me, in 2001, that Julius had been a Goldenberg until he lost two letters on Ellis Island. My father, I believe, told me the draft story, but it may have been my grandfather, whose voice I still hear on nights like this one when I can't fall asleep. In either case, the story seems plausible. The 1890s were for the east Balkans what the 1990s were for the West: a decade of pointless and forgettable wars. My great-grandfather Julius would have been especially justified in skipping service in them because serving in the military was effectively the only civil rights that Jews had not been stripped of at that particular point in Rumanian history.

I found a record in a ship's manifest that may be his--it's the only one in the Ellis Island archive for a young Julius Goldberg during that period in any case. That record has him coming from Jassy, a city now called Iasi and pronounced Yash. A big city that used to be half-Jewish, that gave birth to the world's first Yiddish newspaper and possibly also the world's first Yiddish theatre performance--both before my great-grandfather would have left--and was the site of a weeklong pogrom during the Second World War which Axis powers didn't even bother to hide from the news.

I have it on Grandpa Art's cousin Edith's authority that Julius' (2nd?) wife, Anna Spegel (Spiegel?), my great-grandmother, had come with her family from Rimnicu-Sarat, a small village which I later learned was also half-Jewish. They married in St. Paul, Minnesota on the 9th of Sivan in the year 5680, which was also the 25th of May, 1920. Their certificate of marriage hangs on my wall, written primarily in a language I can neither speak nor read, though with a little English inserted at the bottom.

The second human consequence of that old worn piece of paper, a son they named Arthur Avrum Goldberg, married Grandma Judy (long before she became Grandma Judy) in 1956--what the Jewish year was, I don't know. Her father was a Westwood and her mother a Holladay. Her aunt had been at Pearl Harbor when it was attacked to bring the U.S. into one conflict, and would later be in Kuwait when it was invaded to bring the U.S. into another. Doc Holladay, who probably started the gunfight at the OK Corral by cocking both barrels of his formidable weapon, is supposedly some sort of great-great uncle. John Pemberton, famous for coming up with the recipe for Coca-Cola and selling it for next to nothing, is connected to the Holladay family in some way, too.

My maternal grandparents' marriage was illegal. At least by the spirit of the law, if such a dead law can have a spirit. The letter of the law prohibited a Hindu from marrying a White, the term "Hindu" being a pre-Independence way of referring to all South Asians. Less than 5% of the South Asians in the United States at the time were Hindus, I once read--some 90% were Sikh like my grandfather and 5% Muslim--but to expect a racist legislature to sort out such distinctions is unrealistic. As for my grandmother, she was in the United States primarily as a result of unrest that had never quite ended after stemming from a Revolution named after 1910, more than twenty years before she was born. "Mexico for the Mexicans" was a slogan that had been used against her Mexican-born parents often enough that they took the precaution of crossing the border to the north for each child's birth long before they fled permentantly in that direction, leaving cousins, homes, and memories behind.

While my grandparents waited to find out where they could appeal the clerk's decision not to grant them a marriage license on the basis of this law, a fourteen-year-old girl came in and was granted a license with no more trouble than having her mother's signature taken down. (This was some 600 miles from where I now live, some 17 years after the most famous of Iasi's pogroms, 9 years before the Supreme Court case Loving vs. Virginia would overturn all state laws banning interracial marriage, and 42 years before Alabama would become the last state to officially remove these now-unenforcable laws from its books, but only 23 years before my sister, the first Caucajewmexdian I've ever known, would be born.)

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A daydream

My 18-year-old brother is in Berlin at the moment and caught me on gmail chat. I tried to come up with some last-minute suggestions for things he should see and do there, having served an LDS mission in the eastern part of Germany and spent a significant amount of time in Berlin, but I didn't come up with much. A museum, a strange and broken church I couldn't describe for him but imagine he'll come across anyway, an old friend of mine, and a food recommendation.

He's got me daydreaming of Eberswalde, where I lived for eight months, instead.

Church then was in the Brandenburgisches Viertel, a sort of geriatric ghetto (the former East Germany has a lot of these, since most of the young people disappeard West to find work) surrounded, spectaculary, by dense forest on three sides, and again on the inside, in the courtyards of a half dozen massive apartment complexes. It's a strange feeling, after spending a year studying Soviet-era architecture (a pursuit occasionally interrupted by discussions on religion) to walk into the place: bland buildings rising up out of the woods, you can't help but be aware of the haunting presence of nature to your east, south, and west. You don't know, in those moments, whether they are the woods of Goethe or the Märchen, but it doesn't really matter--feeling their alive presence in this grey and aging place is enough. And then, on a Saturday, was it? to try to find an almost housebound, embittered old woman for a requested visit, to ring the outer doorbell and be directed, through the intercom, into the courtyard of a four-building concrete fortress to find exactly the same tall, dense growths of trees inside...this world, my friends, is a strange and breathtaking place.

Eberswalde is also home to my favorite zoo. It's out there, in the woods, somewhere between the Brandenburgisches Viertel and old Eberswalde, where we lived. I remember walking in, my first time, to hear this strange sound coming from the North American enclosure, home, among other things, to a grey wolf and a grizzly bear. In front of the enclosure was a sort of vending machine you could put money in to let out treats through a long metal tube directly into the enclosure, presumably to motivate the animals to come close so you could get a good look. The machine was shaking. When we went up close, we could see that the bear had dug out around the machine, leaned his head down and opened his mouth wide around the tube, and used his paws to shake the tube violently, shaking loose a few treats. I will probably never again see such an intelligent bear's open mouth from such proximity.

You could see the deer close, too, walking right along a big area they had free run of. And the could watch from the edges of their enclosure or else walk underground and come up in a glass booth right in the middle of it.

The best part of the zoo, though, was the lemurs, who walked free, who might hang down from a branch to look at you. Who gathered on the wall to chat and gazed out across the forest, and back into the zoo, and apparently always chose to stay where they knew they had a home.

The church is on the corner of Breite Strasse (Wide street) and Jüdenstrasse (Jews' street) now, apparently. At least that's what Google says. My brother can't go to the zoo, as it's on the way to Poland, and he'll be heading to Prague next instead.

Am I part of Eberswalde, as Kira would put it, still? Is Eberswalde part of me?

Banyan Tree Tag

The banyan is a big, strong tree which, as it ages, has the ability to send down branches to form new roots. As these branches grow thick, the tree seems to have more and more trunks and gains the stability to grow wider and wider. The largest living banyan tree covers a whole acre. For this reason, among many others, it is now the national tree of India, a token of hope that something so large and diverse can somehow remain connected and stable. When my mother's father was a little boy, however, there was no independent India for the banyan tree to be a symbol of. He and the other children in the village used a nearby banyan tree to play a kind of tag called danda dook.

The game went like this: one child was selected to be "it" and one of the remaining children was selected to throw a stick (danda) as far as he or she could. The child who was "it" would then run to fetch the danda while the other children scrambled up the banyan tree. When the "it" returned, he or she would have to leave the danda at the base of the tree and chase the other children vertically, climbing up after them and trying to catch someone (dook), often by trapping one at the end of an isolated branch. The catch? Anyone getting to the bottom of the banyan tree and touching the danda without getting caught was free for the round. A child who got caught, though, would then be new "it": the old "it" would throw the danda, and the game would begin again.

My grandfather came to the United States in 1954, joined a new church in 1956, married in 1958, and raised his family in Utah, so my mother and her three sisters and three brothers grew up without any banyan trees to play danda dook in. I myself have never spent time up a banyan tree, but I still find myself thinking about this game sometimes.

Lately I have this feeling that my grandfather, over the past sixteen years, has gone back to it.

One example: when I was a small child, my mother's whole family lived in Utah. I remember meeting once a month on a Sunday afternoon with all the available aunts and uncles, enjoying games and a huge patchwork feast. In 1993, though, our church asked my grandparents to go back to India for several years as missionaries, unknowingly throwing the danda to start a new game and, though it must have happened gradually, it seems that as soon as they were gone zoop! we all scrambled off to different places: Texas, Ohio, Wisconsin, New York, West Virginia, not stopping even when they came back, scrambling through states (and later countries) like monkeys until my grandparents had children on three continents. True to the game, of course, by grandparents left Utah and started chasing, moving all about the country (until of course, our parents sent the oldest of us grandchildren to the base of the old tree at BYU to look for the danda, trying to get free for the round, at which point my grandparents came back, the puppy-guarders!)

Another: when my grandfather left, back in 1954, he could scarcely have imagined how much like a branch of the banyan tree he would be, that he would set down roots here while still a part of his native family body, that he would make room for so much of the family to set down roots across North America, that the Banyan of the Dhudike Gills would stretch across oceans and plains. Oh, but then someone must have thrown a danda, because in 2003 my grandfather felt an overwhelming impulse to go to India, to find and record the history of his ancestors. He found old land records, serving as mouse-fodder in poorly maintained basements, but containing hundreds of thousands of names from the 1850 census the British took in Punjab, a census in which they required every landholder to identify himself by listing four generations of his ancestors. Up and up the tree my grandfather chased his forbears: searching for the histories of clans like Gill, Toor, Brar, Bhatti. Finding the history of the Jats leading back to the Sakas who came down from Central Asia nearly two millenia ago, and before that? Who knows...

And now I imagine the great banyan tree of eternity in which we are all tangled branches, one giant interconnected human family and oh! how I long to crawl up and down that tree, to remember its shady and forgotten places and to feel, in its arms, how much we all belong.
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