Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Strange Exchange

Kira's other dad, who lives far away and hasn't visited in several years, called tonight. Kira told her dad about how we'd just taken Bapuji and Grandma Gill to dinner, and then asked him "Have you ever had Indian food?"
"Oh, yeah" he said.
Nicole, sitting close by, added, "When you were little, we used to go get Indian food all the time."
"Why?" asked Kira, as is her habit. Before anyone answered, though, she put forth her own theory: "Because you knew you were going to marry an Indian guy?"
I can't remember the rest of the conversation. But that snippet suggests that my daughter wants a story for her life that makes logical, if not chronological, sense. She wants a story in which Indian things go with the Indian side of her family, in which the trajectories of influence are clear and consistent.

I don't think the world works like that.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Merging Generations

"We were slaves of the Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord our God brought us forth from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. If the Holy One, Blessed be He, had not brought forth our ancestors from Egypt, then we and our children's children, and our children's children, would still be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt. Therefore, even if we are all learned and wise, all elders and fully versed in the Torah, it is our duty nonetheless to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. And the more one dwells on the Exodus in Egypt, the more is one to be praised."

"In every generation one must see oneself as though having personally come forth from Egypt, as it is written: And you shall tell your child on that day, This is done because of what the Lord did for me when I came forth from Egypt."

-both above quotations taken from the Passover Haggadah

To speak as though we are not entirely distinct from our ancestors goes against the expectations set by a contemporary culture saturated with the ideal of the individual.

And yet, for all my love of my own individuality, I can't help but feel that human beings are not made to be alone, that we need the people we have come from and who continue to speak in our voices, gestures, inclinations, that it does us good to speak sometimes in words that have passed the lips of our forbears from long before the times when our oldest living forbears were born.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Great news! U.S. Army accomodates Sikhs

Khalsa Sikh service in the United States military began in World War One, in the days before Indians, being "non-white" could become legal citizens of this country. Observant Sikhs served in the U.S. military during that war, World War Two, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and other less famous conflicts.

That pattern came to end in 1984, when the U.S. military removed its religious exemption on its ban on facial hair. For the most of my lifetime, American Sikhs have either had to compromise their religious practice or avoid military service.

I had no idea about this until my dad sent a link to an article celebrating the Army's recent accommodation of Tejdeep Singh Rattan. Capt. Rattan has been allowed to keep his beard and turban during his service. At least one other Sikh is currently cleared to do likewise. Hopefully, many more will follow.

Capt. Rattan at officer school graduation

I am particularly encouraged by this news for two reasons:

1) The murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi and other hate crimes against Sikhs after 9/11 show that prejudice against bearded people matters. Having bearded Sikhs in the U.S. military strengthens our country by showing that we are capable of unity in diversity.

2) If the United States army can accommodate Sikhs again 26 years after eliminating their exemption, it's possible that BYU will also accommodate Sikhs again. Perhaps it would help if someone (who is not me) would send Stephen Baker, Jonathan Kau, Vernon Heperi, and/or Jan Sharman copies of articles about Tejdeep Singh Rattan?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Anbrothers and Anticipation

Kira has greatly enjoyed St. Patrick's day. Yesterday, she reminded me at least ten times to wear green and at least three times that she is an Irish girl. She requested a story about St. Patrick at bedtime. It is entirely possible, come to think of it, that she enjoyed the day before St. Patrick's day as much as St. Patrick's day itself. She's five years old, and anticipation means the world to her.

Over dinner tonight, she asked me what holiday comes next. I told her that this year, it's Passover. She asked what Passover is. I told her about how our ancestors used to be slaves in Egypt. She asked if she and mama and me were slaves in Egypt. That's a tricky question, because in two weeks, when I start the seder, I will say that we were slaves in Egypt--but now, I feel like I should keep past and present a little more separated. I tell her that if we lived way back when our ancestors did, we would have been slaves with them. We would have had to work all day and been whipped across the back when we felt tired and slowed down. Then I tell her about how Moses went to Pharaoh and go on at some length until our ancestors are on the far side of the Red Sea, free. She askes me again if she and mama and I were there. I say: we would have been. She asks me if her other dad was an "and brother" or "anbrother" or something. I have no idea what she's talking about, but I say sure.

Kira wants to know more about ancestors. She asks me if our ancestors are dead. I say yes, the ones who were slaves are dead, but her grandparents are also her ancestors: Grandy and Grandpa are alive, my parents are alive, Grandma and Grandpa Christensen are alive, Grandma Gill and Bapuji are alive. They are also her ancestors. She says, "But Bapuji is a boy."

I say, "Yes, he is."

She says, "Boys can't be ancestors. You mean anbrother."

I finally realize that to Kira, I've been talking about ansisters for maybe twenty minutes.

Monday, March 8, 2010

My Beard & BYU: Part Eight

This is the latest installment in a long story about my struggles with BYU's administration after finding out that although I'd been allowed a beard in order to act in Church films (despite a rule BYU has had against beards since the late 1960s), a Sikh friends of mine had been denied permission to keep a beard in accordance with Khalsa Sikh religious practice. If you're interested in this story, you should probably start reading at the beginning.

Part Eight:

Here's a question: did I get banned from Student Activities in December of 2006 primarily because I had a beard (and would therefore be a poor representative of the Church according to BYU's thinking) or primarily because I'd written letters arguing for a policy change (and would therefore be a bad influence on poor, innocent theater students who never doubted any BYU policy on anything)?

I'll probably never know the answer, but given that I was kicked out after my photo got in the campus paper and that my letters were specifically mentioned to Rodger Sorensen, my guess is that both lines of thinking were somehow involved. I also think they're both flawed, and that the reasons why say important things for any future decision-makers who happen to be reading this blog.

1) Representing BYU:

BYU is very concerned about image. This is pretty standard for any company or organization, especially since about the beginning of the twentieth century, when media became a more pervasive part of everyday culture. BYU may care more than most organizations, though, because both BYU and the LDS Church which sponsors it a) want to be seen as good and maybe even liked for it, as Jesus' sayings about letting light shine, being a city on a hill, etc. suggest and b) get attacked and stereotyped more than their fair share, a pattern which goes back to about 1820, when Joseph Smith first starting telling people outside his family what his ideas about God were.

Because BYU wants to look good and is afraid of being attacked, it invests a lot of effort into projecting and controlling a certain image.
For example, I've heard that the publicity department performs background checks on faculty members before featuring stories about their research on the campus website. That sounds excessive, but is probably the product of long years of experience in which misdeeds by people connected with BYU or the Church are almost invariably used against BYU or the Church.

The concern with image and how they want the campus represented is probably part of the reason why the late-60s beard rule has lasted forty years. BYU believes that by producing universally clean-cut alumni, it will win the public trust.

What BYU seems to have missed is that in contemporary culture, a controlled image frightens more people than it attracts. The old anti-Mormon stereotype was that we were a fringy, radical group of polygamists who didn't believe in basic decency. The new anti-Mormon stereotype is that we're a white, hyper-conservative cult where everyone has the same haircut and matching mind control chip. The trouble is that we've been so busy fighting against the old stereotype, we haven't responded well to the new one.

When I lived in Columbus, the missionaries loved to take me to discussions because many of their investigators were worried about Mormonism's perceived lack of diversity. When they'd start meeting members like me and coming to church, they'd realize that ours is a multiethnic, multinational church--not at all what they'd expected. The physical diversity made them feel like they could fit in. That inclusiveness as far as physical type is probably far more important today than projecting a specific physical image.

If they understood the larger culture better, BYU would probably realize it's in their interest to gather all the righteous diversity they can get. Someone wondering what Mormonism has to say to the world will be more impressed by the testimonies of a dozen people who look completely different and/or have completely different interests than they will by prescripted testimonies from an endless number of church spokesmen who look and plan in exactly the same way. Diversity among university or church representatives can suggest that our morals and beliefs largely match because they work in a wide range of lives, not because we're trying to act like clones of each other.

Someone like me--who doesn't drink or smoke, believes in prayer and loves to read and talk about scriptures, who loves coming from a family with a lot of Sikhs and Jews and loves wearing a beard--is actually a great representative for a campus that needs an image more obviously welcoming of heterogeneity.

At least that's my opinion. And it's one reason why, despite BYU administrators' belief that I'm a bad representative, I don't feel embarrassed or ashamed to talk about my church as if I'm a just-fine example of it.

2) Protecting Students from Dissent

It wasn't just my beard, of course, that got me banned from student activities. They also mentioned my letters. It's possible that being banned from activities was designed as some sort of punishment intended to show me, personally, the consequences of "attacking the Honor Code." A more charitable reading of the situation, however, is that BYU administrators were honestly and sincerely concerned about the negative impact I might have on impressionable young students.

They probably didn't know, of course, that I was rare among theater and film students (and, I think, part of a minority among BYU students in general) for largely avoiding R-rated movies (I've seen maybe ten in my life), in accordance with LDS teachings to be careful about entertainment with sexual, violent, and crude content. They probably didn't know that negative attitudes about Mormonism in the professional theatre community are shared by a vocal minority of the BYU student community, and that I served as a strong voice with artistic credibility (people knew I wrote well) for Mormon values in theatre. They probably didn't know that plays overtly critical of Mormonism get written in BYU classes, and they also didn't read the play of mine Rodger sent them so that they could know that I was writing as a Mormon invested in the experience of faith, not--as so many artists have done--as someone who was raised Mormon but stands outside the community and takes it as a subject of ridicule.

My guess is that BYU students who don't like the Church don't typically go ask the administration for change. They probably assume that it's a lost cause anyway, and they probably don't mind breaking BYU rules quietly--something countless students get away with.

If I'm right, then targeting people who ask for changes (especially changes as innocuous as putting back an Honor Code provision which once existed!) will mean that you mostly punish those who want to be good influences while those who want to be bad influences go about their business largely unchecked.

BYU would do well to be more selective about who it considers and treats as an enemy precisely because it already has critics and enemies enough.

In conclusion:

That I got kicked out of student activities at BYU is not, in and of itself, a big deal. I am confident enough in my religious commitments that it hasn't made me distance myself from the church, and my collaborators were brave enough that we were able to do great faith-driven theatrical work off campus after the ban. But the patterns suggested by what happened to me are more alarming. Our community will do better as we do more to embrace personal differences and focus instead on our shared core faith, instead of associating faith with certain non-gospel-essential looks or life choices. We will also do better as we learn that not every difference of opinion constitutes an assault on the church: that many differences of opinion, in fact, can help us think more deeply about what is best and what is simply tradition, habit, or under-informed policy decision.

Next: In Part Nin
e, I'll skip forward a few years to the next part of this drama.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


In Hindi, "Kahani" means "story" and "Kahan" means "Where?"

I wonder if the two words are somehow etymologically related. If we tell stories to reach out toward something which cannot be present.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

My Beard and BYU: Part Seven

This is the latest installment in a long story about my struggles with BYU's administration after finding out that although I'd been allowed a beard in order to act in Church films (despite a rule BYU has had against beards since the late 1960s), a Sikh friends of mine had been denied permission to keep a beard in accordance with Khalsa Sikh religious practice. If you're interested in this story, you should probably start reading at the beginning.

Part Seven: Help (Not) Wanted

My own beard card had lasted past my graduation, so I
looked like this in 2006-2007.

It was sometime in the summer of 2006, I believe, when I stopped writing letters to the BYU administration on the subject of future Sikh students and beards. I had graduated from BYU, but found work in Provo so that I could stay in town and work with some playwright friends on developing as faithful writers.

Let me stop and say here that I believe in the power of stories. Our choices are often limited by the ways we know to see the world: a good story increases our ability to choose good by helping us see the world more richly. I think it's very important for Latter-day Saints, as people of deep faith, to have our own stories that expand and enrich our vision.

That's why in April of 2006, some friends and I had come up with the idea of a theatre group called New Play Project which would produce new, short works that were driven by our LDS-values-inflected views of the world. We figured that if we could work with writers who shared our basic values to create better and better plays influenced by our values, we'd be more likely to be able to continue to tell compelling moral and spiritual stories when we moved on to other places. We were also interested in getting at least some practice telling LDS stories in LDS terms while we were still here--our faith community, after all, has its own religious language and we wanted to be able to try out writing in our religious "native tongue" at least once in a while.

Since the other New Play Project founders were all still in school at BYU, we decided to keep productions on campus at first. BYU Experimental Theatre Club sponsored campus productions, and I contributed some of my producing and script development experience to make things happen. Since I was a recent alum, and alumni often worked with various projects on campus, we didn't see any problem with me volunteering for free. The Department Chair and most of the faculty knew what we were doing, and were excited to see additional energy going into extracurricular script development at BYU.

Our first show, in August, was a great success. We performed in an auditorium in the math building (which didn't typically see weekend use) and filled it. The props were simple and the sets were next-to-nonexistent, but the scripts related well with audience concerns and experience, so the show reached them in ways that far "better" productions of more distant plays can't. We felt good.

For our second show, we produced several short overtly Mormon pieces, including my play "Maror," which was based on the true story of parents whose young son falls into a pool and suffers an extended coma before they finally decide to pull the plug. The play looks at the way faith can be challenged and then refined by incredible adversity. I've been told by parents who went through such things that it's accurate but also somehow affirming. I've been told by students who later went on to watch relatives die that the play helped prepare them to face some of the difficult things they did.

I was directing one of the seven short plays in our third set of plays, and so I was at the auditions. I'd come straight from one of my jobs at the time, doing exterior work, so I wasn't dressed particularly neatly, but as a director being at auditions on time and a little disheveled is better than being late and missing actors. A reporter from the campus newspaper, The Daily Universe, also came to cover our auditions and apparently took a picture of me, which apparently made it into the paper.

A week or two later, the BYU Experimental Theatre Club President called me up with bad news. He said he'd been told that I couldn't be involved with the theatre group in anymore, and that the Department Chair, Rodger Sorensen, wanted to meet with me to explain. I knew Rodger fairly well--although I'd only been in the Department for six months, he'd made an effort to make me feel welcome and supported as a student.

When I got to the appointment, Rodger explained that although recent alumni often volunteer on various projects, the College had authority over the Department in matters of non-student involvement in student activities. He told me he'd been shown the picture in the paper by a superior and asked something like "Is this what you want representing BYU? Do you know this guy?" They advised Rodger to end my involvement in his department's activities immediately.

Rodger replied that yes, he knew me, and that he thought I was one of their best recent students. He was excited about the work I was helping with an wanted to see it continue. He even sent them a copy of my play "Maror" and said, "If you want to know who this student is, read this."

Dean Stephen Jones' reply to Rodger specifically mentioned the letter I'd gotten from Janet Sharman in response to my letters about accommodating Sikh students. It was made clear that because of my letters, Rodger was to tell me that I was barred from involvement in any student activities. Ultimate authority over involving non-students in activities did not belong to a department chair, so Rodger had no choice but to agree.

Rodger told me he was sorry I had to go, and that he appreciated me. New Play Project finished the current show on campus, but chose to incorporate and move off campus rather than lose me. I spent another two and a half years with the organization, which required a lot more financial worry and adminstrative effort off-campus, but still managed to do great work artistically and in terms of connecting with the community. Getting banned from student activities worked out just fine, even if it had been a little jarring at the time.

The memory I return to most often from this particular experience, is, in fact, not so much that I got kicked out as that when Rodger Sorensen was asked if he knew who I was, and what I was like, he sent them one of my religious plays.

We are always choosing, out of the facts within our reach, how we want to see people. At the same time I was being seen by various figures in the administration as a troublemaker and an enemy because of my perspective and commitments, Rodger tried to show them my heart as he saw it, manifested in my commitment to God and in the good I did.

I want eyes like Rodger Sorensen's.

Next up: in Part Eight, I pause the narration for a moment to discuss some broader implications of this incident.

Monday, March 1, 2010

My Beard & BYU: Part Six

This is the latest installment in a long story about my struggles with BYU's administration after finding out that although I'd been allowed a beard in order to act in Church films (despite a rule BYU has had against beards since the late 1960s), a Sikh friends of mine had been denied permission to keep a beard in accordance with Khalsa Sikh religious practice. If you're interested in this story, you should probably start reading at the beginning.

Part Six: Letters

After my terrible meeting with Jonathan Kau, I stopped circulating the petition. I could have continued to circulate it off-campus, of course, but it seemed clear to me that this mode of communication was not going to do well. I decided to try to use the power of information alone instead.

My next step was to ask Akash to schedule a meeting with Jonathan Kau's immediate superior, Vernon Heperi, the Dean of Students, to re-explain the situation. Akash was a little reticent, since his previous experiences with administrators had been negative as they quickly dismissed his questions and requests, explaining that this rule was just part of BYU and that was that, but he agreed to try anyway. The only time Dean Heperi was available, though, was during exam week: something went over, and Akash missed the appointment. That was his last semester at BYU, so the issue for him ended there.

I was concerned about future Sikh students though, so I made an appointment to meet with Dean Heperi and prepared to tell the story, from Sikh history, of why Sikhs first covenanted not to cut their hair. I hope to reach him that way and maybe get him to reconsider. When I showed up for my appointment, though, the secretary informed me that Dean Heperi had cancelled it. When I asked to reschedule, she explained that he'd cancelled it not out of time constraint, but because he did not want to talk to me about the issue.

Since I'd walked forty minutes to campus expressly for this appointment, I was more than a little disappointed. Note to readers: if you are ever going to cancel an appointment with someone because you see him or her as an Honor-Code-attacking rabble rouser, please make sure your secretary calls, preferably 24 hours in advance.

I was a little tempted to revive an early Mormon practice of shaking off the dust from your feet at the door of a persecutor right there at the Dean's office, but I decided that would not be appropriate, especially on the basis of one bad appointment, and another canceled one.

I began to write letters instead, moving figure by figure up the organizational ladder. I told about Sikh history. I suggested that barring a Sikh from keeping a beard would be like another university barring a Mormon from wearing temple garments. I checked with the campus Interfaith Chaplain, to confirm that Protestant and Catholic students were (thankfully!) officially allowed to drink communion wine although alcohol consumption is against both the LDS faith and the Honor Code and argued that a beard exemption on religious grounds is the same in principle. I warned of the possibility of hindering church work in India, a country with one-sixth of the world's population, if some important Sikh official happened to have a relative affected by the current short-sighted policy.
After I'd written the Dean, the Vice President, and the President, and a member of the Board over the course of perhaps two months (the remainder of my time at BYU), I got a letter from Vice President Sharman telling me personally that the issue was closed and BYU was not willing to grant beard waivers to future students for religious reasons.

It's possible, of course, that someone read my letters, but I think it's more likely that they were quickly perused to determine basic content, then forwarded to Sharman or Heperi to deal with. I'd imagine those two started with the assumption that I was causing trouble, and never got around to considering what I had to say.

In my frustration, I wrote a reply to Vice President Sharman explaining that I'd been treated badly despite making every attempt to do things internally, and that maybe my classmates had been right and I should go to the media next.

Before I did, though, my grandmother had an awful thought: what if such efforts created further problems for a current Sikh faculty member we knew (who wasn't orthodox but had still been hired years before with permission to wear a short beard)? My grandmother told me about some of the troubles he had already had with some intolerant Deans as a non-LDS professor at an LDS institution and said he'd struggled enough. She asked me to let the issue drop, and to stop writing letters.

I listened to my grandmother for three reasons: 1) she's wise beyond her years, and she has plenty of years 2) I had no particular reason to believe anything I could do would result in change anyway 3) I believe in the possibility of spiritual promptings: that God sometimes warns people what they should or shouldn't do through unexpected thoughts that won't go away. I wondered if God was warning my grandmother, who knew how to listen, about a possible negative consequence of my course of action, and the possibility was enough for me to listen to.

I thought my part of the story would end here, in the summer of 2006, just after my graduation, when I stopped trying to make a difference and starting learning instead to accept that pain I still felt over the way that the university I'd attended, sponsored by the faith I was devoted to, committed itself to a course of action I found devoid of empathy, counter to our faith's professed commitments to interfaith respect, and indicative of the ways in which Mormon organization still isn't particularly good at protecting against abuses of authority. Those are all difficult things to face, but probably also productive: lapses in empathy and respect and rampant abuses of authority are basically the human condition. No one has figured out how to prevent those things, so if you want to live on earth, you have to figure out how to live with them without surrendering to them instead. It continues to be good for me, I think, to wrestle with the questions raised by my experience with BYU over the issue of Sikh beards.

I was wrong, though, in thinking that having dropped the issue would bring my role in it to an end. The other thing I still had to learn is that sometimes even well-intentioned actions bring with them years of hard-to-swallow consequences. I was done trying to change the administration, but they were farther than I ever would have imagined from forgetting me.

Next up: in Part Seven, unexpected consequences catch up to me.
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