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.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Winning with style

A story my grandmother likes to tell:

Late in the 1800s, when her grandfather was a young boy, his father needed to borrow a large sum of money. (Why? and what for? I do not know, and do not like to be asked, as it interferes with the progress of my story.) This was in the state of Chihuahua, which I can hardly spell, and there weren't too many people in that state at that time from whom one could hope to borrow a large sum of money, so my great-great grandfather was sent to go catch a certain Englishman after a race to make the request on my great-great-great grandfather's behalf.

This Englishman was an unconventional sort of person and had a significant amount of disposable income for two reasons: 1) he came from a quite well-to-do, aristocratic family 2) they had sent him to Mexico with the express understanding that he would be taken care of so long as he agreed never to come back and embarass them.

("Why would they do that?" my cousin Haruka interjected last night, as my grandmother began to relate the tale once again. "Listen to the story she's about to tell and you'll see" was my reply.)

Now, the Englishman had a reputation as a great runner and a greater braggart. He'd never been beaten, in his time in Mexico at least, in a race, to the increasing chagrin of those who were perpetually fed up with him. Some of these had recently hatched a plan to bring in a celebrated American athlete to humble their eccentric neighbor. Friends of the Englishman, believing in his ability to annoy those around him, hoped for an upset win and hoped that such a contest would, indeed, take place.

After the American had been contacted, the Englishman was approached regarding his own willingness to participate. He had agreed to a race, on two conditions: the runners were to wear sombreros and sarapes to the starting line, for the sake of local color, and the race was to begin from a kneeling position, for no discernable reason at all. His adverseries immediately agreed and the date was set. When morning of the race came, however, the Englishman's closest friends were dismayed to find him (as was not unusual) more than a little hung over--perhaps even still a bit drunk, and followed him to the track with despair in their hearts.

It is only because the day of this race coincided with my great-great-great grandfather's need that my great-great grandfather saw what happened next and passed it on down the generations. He saw the runners line up for the start, shrouded in their sarapes. He heard the pistol go off. And he saw the Englishman drop his sarape to run the course absolutely naked, which startled the superior talent straight out of his hotshot American competitor and thus won him the race.

Monday, July 6, 2009

What is a Caucajewmexdian? (part one)

College freshman orientation is a study in template. You see, everyone is trying to get to know everyone else, and so everyone gets asked the same questions again and again: what's your name? where are you from? and sometimes what's your major?

I often got stuck on the where are you from? first. Exchanges went like this:
Stranger: Where are you from?
Me: Here in Columbus.
Stranger: Oh, OK. What about before that?
Me: Well, I was born in Utah.
Stranger: ...And before that?
Me: ....

I assume that they were getting at: why are you a tall dark guy with a long black beard and long black hair and eyes that don't quite look like mine? There's just not an easy, polite, plug-in question for that. Poor freshmen. Their curiosity is admirable: I'd much rather be asked questions than denied jobs or mugged in an alleyway--perhaps questions are part of what make America great. And yet, I was always a little annoyed as well as amused to be asked about my pre-birth origins.

I also got tired of being told "you look very...ethnic" but probably only because I sort of wished there were a country called Ethnica I could claim as my ancestral homeland, thus fulfilling the asker's passing curiosity. Instead, I would have to go into an elaborate story about where my great-grandparents were born, and where their children moved, and which unions I was a product of.

Eventually, I came up with a one-word answer to questions probing at my mysterious origins. Caucajewmexdian. Short for Caucasian-Jewish-Mexican-Indian. It's not really the most helpful label, but it is amusing, which among my fellow Caucajewmexdians counts for a lot.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Are you part of India?

It's a question my daughter-to-be asked me maybe a dozen times before turning it into a statement. I don't know quite what she means by that, but I think that has more to do with the complexity of the subject than with the fact that she was four when she asked (she turned five yesterday--on the Fourth of July. We celebrated her birthday with a parade and fireworks and lots of food. Is she part of America?) Adults want to know exactly the same things she does but usually ask in terms of ethnic background, where I'm "from," etc. The words we adults use aren't any clearer than Kira's simple question. "Are you part of India?"

Kira & I (photo by my sister Lis)

If anything, they're less clear. Kira told me on Thursday when I skipped dinner that I "smelled like roti"--we hadn't told her we'd snuck off to India Palace to celebrate a friend's successful thesis defense, but she knew. Kira says that the bhangra CD she loves to dance to is "part of India," as are the kurta pajama I wear sometimes and a few of the evening stories I tell. She is probably aware that India is also a physical place, something like Florida where she knows she spent her earliest childhood and where some relatives live...but I don't think that she thinks the place is what India is. India is some mix of all these elements, some groups of people and things, that she is aware I am somehow inexorably connected with. I am part of India, she has decided, and somewhere in her mind I think she's still mapping out the rest.

Adults ask their questions for different reasons and with different emphases. They see my face and want an explanation as to why I look different than they do. For many, there's still a sense that face and place still must be closely connected (after all, they do rhyme), which simplifies questions but complicates the answers. Where can I possibly say that I'm from that will explain what they want to know? They're hoping for an answer about the world that will explain me, as opposed to finding things out about me that help give them access to new corners of the world. Kira, still relatively new to the world, is willing to work a little bit both ways, but seems to give preference to the latter.

I've wondered, for years, whether we should teach most of history this way. Instead of starting with the big events that affected everyone, why not start with some people's stories and go on to show which events and identities they were part of?

Maybe the intersections people embody would shed more light on history than the categories we would love to create.
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