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?
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