Monday, June 14, 2010

Proud to Be an American--Almost

Lately, Kira has been asking a lot of questions about whatever happens to be on the radio when she and I get into the car for adventures on the mornings Nicole teaches. Apparently, she's got a pretty good memory for what she learns: in the evenings before I get home from work, she's been lecturing Nicole and her Barbies on things like the impact of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on fishermen and the fears of regional economic ripple effects.

Today, the voices in the radio were explaining why the U.S. really has no choice but to push for stronger economic sanctions against Iran. Kira asked me if this had anything to do with the "emergency in the ocean by Florida." I said no. She asked if it was about another emergency. I said sort of, and explained that a country sort of by India "probably wants to build a dangerous weapon, and our country doesn't like that." She asked why they would do that, and I explained that Iranian leaders are "probably afraid we want to fight them." She asked why some more, and what about this and that some more, until I found myself explaining that when her mama was born, Iran was ruled by a mean king who sometimes put people who said bad things about him in prison and poked them with sharp sticks (how do you explain SAVAK to a five-year-old?), and that some of them died. I then explained that when her mama was still a baby, the people decided to fight the king, and won--but ended up with another scary guy in charge who also did bad things to people he didn't like. Kira said she didn't like that, and said that people there don't either. She asked what language they speak, and I told her it's called Farsi, and that the best Farsi poems are supposed to be some of the most beautiful on earth. She asked if I spoke Farsi, and I told her no, but that her uncle Matt had taken a Farsi class.

She stopped asking questions, then, and just processed for a moment. I thought about the many countries in the world where it's been normal, at this time or that in recent history, for people suspected of dissidence to just disappear. And I felt incredibly grateful to live in the United States, where things like that don't happen.

But then tonight, I read the news. Apparently, in 2002 the United States detained a Syrian-born Canadian named Maher Arar who had made it onto a terrorism suspect list based on shoddy, inaccurate evidence. Instead of deporting Arar back to Canada, the United States decided to deport Arar against his wishes to Syria, where he spent the next 10 1/2 months being tortured--which may be exactly what our government wanted. Eventually, he made it back to Canada, where he was cleared by a government probe and formally apologized to. The United States, however, is keeping Arar on its terrorist suspects list and refusing to disclose why or admit any wrongdoing.

Now, it is theoretically possible that the U.S. has good evidence that Canada is wrong, and that Arar is a terrorist. It is also theoretically possible that Arar was sent to Syria as a simple clerical error, and not as a way of outsourcing torture. I think it's more likely, however, that he is the innocent, regular guy Canada now publicly states that he is, but the United States prefers to hide behind the alibi of "state secrets" rather than explain in public what wrong we may have done.

I still think that America is a great country, but it's hard to be as proud to be an American tonight as it was in the car this morning. Are we always just a step or two away from being another country so paranoid it's willing to let people "disappear"?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Digital and Ethnic Identity (My Response to Heather)

Thanks to Heather, who is taking a class from one of my thesis committee members, for commenting earlier today on this blog and for referring me to a recent post of hers about online identity. Her post makes the intriguing suggestion that because the internet is a sort of new world, maybe there are instructive similarities between second-generation immigrant/minority identity formation and online identity formation. Specifically, she's interested in the ways that both situations encourage the developments of multiple identities which are also a new, single sort of hybrid identity.

While I think her idea is interesting, I'm going to focus in this post on the differences between ethnic identity formation and online identity presentation in my experience.


Dear Heather,

You asked about whether the different parts of my identity I explore in my three blogs are mostly separate or more unified.

The answer built on the inside of my body is that they're more unified. After all, I only have one brain and if I understand correctly, all the synapses in there are networked somehow together. I don't have one brain for satirical ideas, another for Mormonism, and a third in which I'm an American from a minority background. All my experiences are interpreted by and stored in a brain in which the various elements I try to describe in my blogs are all present.

Identity, though, as I'm sure you know, is not only a product of what goes on inside the body. Identity also has a lot to do with our social selves: the way we appear to others. Identity formation, maybe, is a negotiation between external social dynamics and the internal dynamics of thought and memory. Those negotiations are very different in real life and online.

Off the top of my head, I can think of four times I've been asked by police to explain what I was doing walking in a certain place in the middle of the day. If I was fourteen or older the first time--I can't remember for sure--I already was 6'6" and wore a beard. I do remember it was summer, and that I was shooting hoops alone at an empty school playground near my house in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. They wanted to know if I'd been in or near the school. The second time I was seventeen or eighteen. I was in Columbus proper clearing discarded shingles from the yard of a family friend to make some money. A police car pulled up. The officer asked me several questions, and then watched me work for quite a while before driving away. Our family friend got home later and explained that there'd been some crimes in the neighborhood and one of her neighbors probably called the police about me. The third time was in November of 2001 in Utah (I was eighteen and had a long beard), where I was visiting my sister. I mentioned to some of her friends one evening, when they asked how people reacted to me post-9/11, that pre-9/11 I'd been questioned twice by police basically for being outside. The next day I was walking near the campus creamery when a policeman pulled over to ask me if I was lost. I said no, and he asked me where I was going. I told him I was just wandering around, and he asked a few more questions until one of my sister's friends from the night before happened to walk by and tell the officer that I was with him. The officer drove away. The fourth time I was twenty-one. I dropped my mother's car off by the elementary school where she worked at about 3 pm to walk to the high school where I worked as the after-school drama club adviser. This time, I was intercepted at my destination by both the elementary school principle and a city detective. Apparently, some girls at the school had reported that a scary man with a beard had been following them. Luckily, the principle had recognized me as Vilo Westwood's son and followed me on foot and was able to get the whole thing cleared up quickly, even taking me to meet the girls so they could find out that I was not so scary and was not following them, just walking to work at the same time they were walking home.

I don't share these stories to suggest that police are bad or bigoted--in at least two of the cases, maybe all of them, they were responding to citizen calls, which is something I'm glad police do. I share these stories because my feeling is that they took place because my physical presence is the dominant immediate aspect of my real-world identity. Neighbors across the street or girls walking home from school take in only the expressions of identity contained in my physical presence. And--let's face it--being tall with a face and hair roughly the color of Osama bin Laden's and a beard to match comes across as threatening to many perfectly normal Americans. My most obvious identity is my physical body as perceived in the local cultural context.

In a broad American cultural context, "foreign-looking" beards are often associated with danger. In my own brain's context, though, a beard is associated with Sikh and Jewish spirituality and orthodoxy, values which in turn mean a lot to me as a Mormon. A beard is also associated for me "on the inside" with my father, with good looks, with extended family members, with history. If I shave in order to avoid a certain externally perceived identity, I'm also denying a very different internal identity. If I grow my beard to express more dimensions of my internal self, I do so at the serious risk of being radically misunderstood in an external American context. Whichever choice I make, I'm stuck with the ways people react to my physical presence.

Maybe that's why I so vividly remember my first visit, sometime in my teenage years, to Jackson Heights, a neighborhood in Queens with a predominantly South Asian population. Within a few minutes of getting off the subway, I'd seen several taller, lighter Sikh men who look A LOT like me. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before, and a part of me ached to live there, if only to experience a whole different way of physically being in the social world. A part of me believed that in Jackson Heights, there'd be a lot less obvious tension tied up in my identity, and a part of me desperately wanted that.

The way I sometimes feel torn between the waning influence of old cultures in which I would look fairly normal and an "overwhelming presence" of another culture, the one I live in, is the kind of experience I would guess Rocio Davis is talking about in the quote you use in your post. I live in America, I am very American, I wouldn't want to leave America for good. And yet--I'm obviously not "average" American in terms of physical appearance, inherited memory, or cultural outlook. So I have to form inside and outside identities through which I can negotiate all that.

Online identity formation strikes me as fundamentally different in that no one calls the police about me online. My physical presence doesn't come directly into play, meaning that the focus is more on my words: I get a more active chance to influence your view of my identity online than on the street. Also, no one is concerned about a stranger commenting on their neighbor's blog in anything like the way people can easily become concerned about a stranger hanging out on their neighbor's lawn: meaning that online identity happens largely in more interest-driven spaces, while real life identity forms in a more broadly public contact zone. Finally, I can put out a lot more information online before anyone has to react to me: you can follow the hyperlinks in one blog to another, find out as much about me as I and others have given you, before you have an obligation to interact. In the real world, someone might only find out I'm Mormon first and have to instantly recourse to their stereotypes before discussing any religious or political topic with me. Online, that person can examine examples of my religious and political thinking and have artifacts in the place of stereotypes.

This is not to say, of course, that the internet is some kind of paradise and the real world is terrible. There's a lot of richness possible in real-world, real-time interaction: the best of such interactions are, I feel, worlds better than the best digital interactions. But the internet is a very different space for formulating an identity than a country in which your physical appearance and family traditions set you far from the mainstream. It won't help us understand multiplicity in digital or minority culture identity formation to think of the two as closely related processes.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Good Conversation

I was washing my hands in a BYU bathroom today when the guy next to me asked if I was a Sikh--he'd noticed my kara, apparently, and recognized it. I told him I wasn't, but that my grandfather had been raised Sikh and I had a deep respect for the tradition. Then I asked him how he knew Sikhs. He said he'd met a few during his military service. Then he told me how he respected Guru Nanak's teachings about the oneness of God (he quoted the Guru's famous line "There is no Hindu; there is no Muslim"), about family, and about service. We had a good talk.

He went off again to study and I went off again to work.

And now I'm left thinking: the people who sit in authority and enforce rules here are apparently too busy to look up what a Sikh is, but the guy in the bathroom is always asking questions of the people around him and, as a result, has learned to see little details more deeply than others see.

And I take hope in the idea that all over the world there are people like this guy who are interested in and open to the stories others carry inside.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Kira Plays Wedding

Kira's cousin Natasha is over today to play. About fifteen minutes ago, they decided to go in the living room to dance. Kira asked Nicole where a Bhangra CD was, put it in, and turned it on. A minute or two later, Nicole heard Kira explain to Natasha, "You have to take off your shoes, 'cause we're in a gurdwara."

Nicole smiled and said to me, "Apparently, for Kira, whenever you're listening to Indian music, you're in a gurdwara."

As it turned out, though, there was more than Indian music involved. A few minutes later, we heard Kira telling Natasha, "You need to cover your head for the wedding." When I went out to check on them, Kira looked like this (use your imagination to correct for the poor cell phone picture quality):

My guess is that gurdwara manners are wedding-specific in Kira's mind. Since she's only been to gurdwaras for weddings, it's possible that she thinks weddings are the only things that ever happen in gurdwaras.

I am very glad that she's practicing different customs in her play. My guess is this works sort of like Kira's limited home experience with other languages: playing with different manners and customs could help make her a more sensitive, aware, and ethical person. Exactly the kind of daughter I want to raise.
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