Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Death of Nasib

Gurcharan Singh Gill, my mother's father, was the second of ten children. He had one older sister, with whom he was very close, and eight younger brothers.

His sister, Naseeb, had gotten married and was teaching elementary school when she got sick. My grandpa was with the group that took her to the hospital for treatment in the middle of the night--only to be refused by the doctors because it was late, and the hospital only accepted patients during standard working hours. My grandpa saw his sister die that night before the hospital opened its doors.

Two of my first cousins have Naseeb as their middle name, as does one of my mother's cousins (who is younger than I am). Someone--my mother, my grandfather, my grandmother, or maybe one of my aunts--told me the story when I was young. It's written down in a family book as well, but perhaps because there's still some pain attached to it to this day, it's not a story we tell often.

My mind has come back and back to it, over the years, though. As a kid, I used to imagine what sort of person Nasib, this sister my grandpa had lost, this aunt I didn't have, was. Maybe that's how I first developed the mind of a writer: by knowing there was a space I could never, in this life, fill.

I've thought about Nasib since and what her death says about the vulnerability of humanity. I think it's my awareness of that vulnerability that makes me so committed to religion: because life is delicate, I feel like we need to love and be good to each other, as Jewish, Sikh, Mormon and countless other faiths' prophets have taught.

The story of Nasib's death, maybe, has also shaped the way I think about past, present, and future. I feel like both the pain and the love that filled the past are things we need to remember. I am grateful for a present in which I've been blessed to live past twenty-five: the age when my testicular cancer would have killed me, if something else hadn't. And I want to work toward a future that is better: one in which fewer Nasibs die of treatable conditions outside of a hospital at night, a future in which the good my family does becomes on of many ways in which Nasib is remembered.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Passports and Peach Trees Part 2

E_mirror Guest Post by Vilo Elisabeth

I moved out of my parent's house a few months before my 19th birthday, to attend college in another state. I packed up everything—even the things I was not taking with me, since my youngest brother was going to be moving into my bedroom once I left. My mother did not help me pack, she said that she was in denial that I, her oldest, was really leaving. My father decided to drive me from Ohio, where we lived, to Utah, where I would be attending school. I appreciated both the extra room to bring more things with me and the chance to spend quality time with him. On the three day drive I asked him questions about his college days, and how he met my mother. I had heard many of the stories before, but never tired of hearing them, and loved the new fragments that would surface. He, anticipating my budding romantic life, gave me some advice on dating.

Although it was a big change for me, going to college in Utah also had many reassuring comforts. I was born in Utah, and had lived there for over 13 years. My Grandfather Gill had taught at the college that I was attending, and all 4 of my grandparents, not to mention 2 of my great-grandparents, had attended school there. My brothers and I had spent countless hours exploring the campus with my grandmother on weekly outings, and had attended many concerts and performances there. I would be living with cousins, in the basement of the home that my mother had grown up in, and where I had spent much time over the years. On one of my first trips to the campus bookstore, the cashier looked at me and asked if I was Vilo Gill's daughter. It was the first, but not the last, time that someone would recognize my heritage by my face alone.

I started to learn what it meant to be an adult. Going to the grocery store, it occurred to me that I did not have to buy what I knew my parents would. I alone was in charge of my time and my plans. But I had my older cousins to turn to for help and advice, as well as my great-uncle Carl and his wife Dolores, who were living upstairs. Around the corner was my aunt Janice and her family. My parents and grandparents were just an email or phone call away. Since my grandparents still owned the house, I did not have to pay rent, and my Grandfather Art had given me some money for school, in addition to my scholarships. I did not get a job that first year.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

"Tie" is also a kind of Spanish...

My five-year-old daughter Kira and I had a race to see who could get his/her seat belt on first after my church basketball game Thursday night. I gave her a five-second head start, which was just right for our seat belts to click at the same time.

"It's a tie," I told Kira.

After celebrating her near-victory, Kira said, "Hey! Ty is in my class."

Perhaps because I've been thinking so much about language lately on my Mormon Midrashim blog, I decided to use the opportunity to talk about words with multiple definitions. I did not burden her with any discussion of the bizarre and inexplicable spelling differences between words that sound exactly the same.

"What else can 'tie' mean?" I asked her.

"Like the kind of tie you can wear" she said, and made motions to indicate a necktie.

"Good!" I said. "What else?"

She got stuck, then, so I pointed out that you can tie a bow, and talked about how cool it is that a word can be something you do (a verb) and a thing (noun). I thought that distinction might be a bit advanced for her age, but figured I'd mention it anyway.

She was quiet a moment, then said, "Tie is also a kind of Spanish."

I was incredibly confused. I think she noticed.

"It's the kind of Spanish they speak where Judith lives," Kira said, "in Thailand."

And I'd thought I had something to teach her about the way words can overlap and take on multiple meanings!

Friday, February 19, 2010

My Beard & BYU: Part Five

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 Five: Your Cause is Just, But I Can Do Nothing for You

When my class found out about the university's refusal to grant Akash a beard waiver, Maria, who was in the class as a sort of hobby while finishing law school, suggested contacting media, bringing in camera crews, and shaming BYU into changing. I was apprehensive about that approach for several reasons, which I discussed with her and Akash:
1) Though reprehensible, the university's stubbornness on the issue probably had more to do with ignorance regarding Sikhism than ill intent. It might be preferable to go to them first with information and a moral appeal than to go to the outside. (Jesus said something like this, I believe: if someone offends you, go to that person first before making a public issue out of it.)
2) BYU and its sponsoring church were often intentionally misrepresented and ridiculed in various media. Bringing in media immediately might put the issue in the wrong light and make BYU feel attacked. We didn't want that.
3) People often see a negatively-charged piece of news like this story could be without ever subsequently hearing the conclusion. If media came in and BYU changed, many people would likely associate BYU with its mistake and never hear about the change. Our society, unfortunately, is often more interest in who to condemn than whose repentance should be celebrated.
By making the issue internal to BYU instead of public, I hoped we'd avoid the issue getting out of control and possibly damaging Mormon-Sikh or Mormon-Indian relations.

When I'd spoken, Akash laughed. He said that I was talking like a Gandhi while she was talking like one of the more militant early independence fighters. Maria and Akash said I should go ahead and try first.

The first thing I did was to go visit the Honor Code Office official who was then over beard waivers. I'd talked to him before when my own waiver was granted: he seemed like a kind man who'd explained the policy, asked me to be respectful and not make other students feel jealous, etc., so I didn't feel alarmed to approach him about this issue. He listened quietly to what I had to say as I told him about Sikhism and Akash. Then he said something like "my heart goes out to guys like Akash, but I don't make the rules, so there's nothing I can do about it." I asked who could do anything about it, and he said that the Honor Code was set by BYU's Board of Directors, a supervising committee outside of the campus that included members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, one of the Church's leading bodies.

I left my appointment wondering how it would be possible to reach members of the Board. These were extremely busy women and men: as far as I know, you can't just make an appointment with any of them. People are discouraged from even sending letters to Apostles, who, despite the official discouragement, always have giant piles of letters to deal with.

The first thought that came to my mind was a petition. If circulated only on campus, a petition could keep the issue mostly internal, but also draw attention to the importance of the issue. Even busy people will often read a document with a few hundred hand-gathered signatures on it. And I was fairly confident that the vast majority of BYU students would be sympathetic to Akash with even a very basic understanding of the facts.

I drafted a short petition that started with the quote, "Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you." Those are the words Martin Van Buren, then President of the United States, used to respond to Joseph Smith's plea for legal redress over the beatings and murders of many Mormons, and the final extermination threat and expulsion of all Mormons from their properties in the state of Missouri at the state governor's order--one flagrant example of America's failure to fully live up to its promise of religious freedom. "Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you," I said, was exactly what the Honor Code office was being forced to say to people like Akash whose religious practice was at stake. It would be far better, I argued, to reinstate a religious beard waiver and to risk a few people abusing it than to block even one student from practicing his religion with full integrity on our campus.

Before circulating the petition, I took it back to the man in the Honor Code Office to get his opinion. He told me that officially speaking, he couldn't speak for or against such a thing, but he said it sounded reasonable to him and he wished me luck. (I never saw him again--by the next year, he was no longer working there.)

Friends and I then began circulating copies of the petition to our friends and classmates and gathered a few hundred signatures. Along the way, one signatory, who'd interacted with the administration before, mentioned to me that petitions had to be approved before circulation. She gave me the office number of the Dean of Students and I went by right away and filled out their official "request to petition" form and left it at the office. I asked my friends to stop circulating copies of the petition until doing so was formally approved.

I was more than a little surprised when I got word shortly thereafter that approval to circulate the petition had been denied and that I needed to come meet with Assistant Dean Jonathan Kau. I came, hoping for some answers.

I was shocked and upset when he told me that the issue was actually in the hands of Dean of Students Vernon Heperi and Student Life Vice President Jan Sharman, not the Board, and that they'd discussed it and the issue was closed; also that I was attacking the Honor Code, that I may be allowed to have a beard because I had a certain look, but that if I didn't immediately stop raising the issue, my own beard waiver could be revoked. "I'm not threatening you" he immediately added (note to readers: if you ever have to tell someone you are not threatening them, you probably actually are).

There have been several times in my life when I've felt as if my heart has just been broken, and very few of them have been romantic in nature. That meeting with Jonathan Kau was so painful that to this day, I try to avoid walking close to the Dean of Students office when I walk through the Wilkinson Center on BYU campus.

I don't ever like to be wrong (it's a major fault of mine), but it's hardest to be wrong about thinking that people will be basically honest, respectful, and fair and then finding out they're not.

It was particularly difficult because I am a Mormon who passionately believes in the ideal of Zion: that through our faith, we could create a society of goodness, equality, humility, reverence. It's hard, believing that, to get hit in the gut, hit down in the part of your soul where five hundred years of family history goes, with the terrible distance that often exists between our Mormon community and our Mormon ideals.

Next up: In Part Six, I stop circulating the petition and try to continue asking for change, but in what I hope will be a more acceptable way.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Maulana Azad Memorial Lamppost of Panipatnam

Just finished my first draft of a story by that name. The story is pretty strange, but I think that central image is good: countries everywhere name streets after famous leaders, and India is no exception. There are probably tens of thousands of Gandhi roads in the country. Maulana Azad was India's first Minister of Education. In my story a boy who, like my uncle's father-in-law, stayed up late studying by the light of a lamppost because his family couldn't afford fuel for use in a light at home, decides that the lamppost in his fictional village of Panipatnam deserves to be named in honor of Maulana Azad in recognition of its key educational function.

There are real universities named after Azad, of course. But I'd like to think he'd be happy to also have a lamppost named after him in my story, as a recognition of the many ways in which people have experienced education.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

My Beard & BYU: Part Four

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 Four: Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa

One of the best parts of transferring to BYU was getting the opportunity to take a Hindi class. Hindi, in addition to being the language of Bollywood cinema, is closely related to Urdu, a language with a poetic tradition I'm particularly enthralled with, and to my grandfather's native language, Punjabi (which, despite my great-grandmother's efforts, I'd never learned). Understandably, the small liberal arts college I came from did not offer Hindi, so I was very excited to be in a school that did.

As it turned out, my teacher, Akash, was a native Punjabi speaker! He was an international student from Deradun, in northern India, who was in his final year in a computer science degree. I also noticed he was wearing a kara, the steel bangle which is one of the "five Ks," symbols of Sikhism. Because Akash was clean-shaven, though, I assumed he either wasn't part of the Khalsa (the Sikh lay priesthood) or else wasn't orthodox.

I'd been in class for over a month before the subject somehow came up, and I found out I was wrong. Akash had been raised into a devout family and never cut his hair for the first eighteen years of his life. He was accepted to BYU and arrived still wearing long beard and carefully-combed hair under a turban. Only then did he discover that BYU would require him, also, to cut his hair and shave. He tried meeting with various officials to be granted an exemption, but was told that BYU no longer granted religious exemptions to this particular provision of its Honor Code. They had once done so, but were concerned that some people had faked religious convictions to be allowed beards, and the administration's solution was to stop granting any waivers.

Akash was left with basically two options: give up his admission and accompanying student visa and return to India and hope for the best for another school year somewhere else, or break his religious covenant to keep certain symbols as expressions of his faith in order to remain.

He talked to his family who, he told me, were split on the issue: his grandfather, in particular, didn't want Akash to compromise his faith and assimilate. His mother, in particular, was more concerned about the high stakes in terms of getting education and preparing himself for a stable economic future.

Akash chose to stay. When I knew him, though, he still hadn't reconciled himself to his decision. "Guru Gobind Singh told us: that's your identity" he said of the kesh, or uncut hair, "No one can take that away from you." And yet, in a way, they had: Akash had been given a choice, true: he didn't need to come to BYU (although I doubt they made a point of telling him that his faith wouldn't justify a rules exemption before he came); he didn't have to stay. And yet with all the opportunity BYU presented and the university's failure to make clear their position in advance, is it really fair to say this was all a matter of Akash's choice? Even if we are always technically free, certain pressures are strong enough to count as coercive.

Akash was forced, by a religious university, to compromise his own religion. That's wrong. It's especially wrong that for the sake of some church films I, a non-Sikh, could keep a long beard where as he, who had made a promise to God not to cut his hair and beard, had not been granted an exemption.

At the time, I thought of it basically as a tragic oversight: BYU officials, ignorant of Sikhism (they'd even initially listed Akash as Hindu on their records: a clerical error that particularly upset him as someone who grew up in the shadow of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots), just didn't understand the implications of their policy for Sikhs. If someone could just explain to them, in Mormon terms, what they were doing, they would see that the policy needed to change. . . wouldn't they?

Next up: in Part Five, taking action to encourage change.

Friday, February 12, 2010

My Beard & BYU: Part Three

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 Three: Instant Carma

After finishing my paper on Sikh-Mormon parallels, I spent most of my December 2005 Utah trip cooking for my sister and helping out with move prep and odd jobs while she put the finishing touches on her BFA Photography project (which, incidentally, was about family history, included a huge bearded picture of me, and was put on display in the same library I'd been kicked off computers in).

This is the picture from my sister's project, taken in
the summer of 2005. Image courtesy of Vilo Photo.

One day, while I was shopping at Day's Market for dinner ingredients, an elderly but unusually energetic woman stopped at the end of the aisle and unabashedly stared at me. I noticed, but pretended to stay focused on my search for Garbanzo Beans. She walked down the aisle toward me.

"You have a beautiful profile," she told me.

"Um...thanks," I said.

"Have you ever been in the movies? I feel like I've seen you before..."

I explained that no, I hadn't and then that no, I wasn't from around here, but had family in the area, and then that actually, I would be living here soon, and then she was telling me that she was a costumer for several local Biblical painters and I really had to give her my phone number and would I be willing to model for them?

Sure, I said. But it would have to be soon, since I would be starting at BYU in a few weeks and would need to shave then.

"Oh, no!" Carma DeJong Anderson said. "That would be criminal."

She told me she would contact the University at once and get me a beard card.

"OK" I said.

Over the next few weeks I'd see Carma periodically and wear different costumes while she took pictures and told stories. She'd call painters and leave messages saying things like "I found a new model and you'd be a fool not to use him" and then she'd send them pictures of me. One day, she handed me her keys and got into the passenger side of her car while explaining to me that she'd been feeling light-headed, so I should drive us down to the LDS Motion Picture Studio, where she'd show me off to the Casting Director, who would be a fool not to use me. Not knowing quite how to disobey anyone with Carma's dizzying energy, I drove ahead, even past authorized personnel only signs, until we were stopped at the security gate, where some poor young man had to spend several minutes explaining to Carma that she couldn't simply drive in without authorization and an appointment.

Carma made an appointment. Before long, we got in.

By the time school started, three painters and the Motion Picture Studio all wanted to use me. I had strict instructions from all of them not to even trim beard or hair--but still no beard card. As it turned out, this particular waiver was complicated for two reasons: the artists weren't on campus and needed to be checked out first, and the request was for an untrimmed beard, rather than the closely-trimmed one allowed in medical and most artistic cases.

This put me in an awkward situation: I couldn't exactly cut a year's worth of beard to keep the rule, and then instantly grow it back once I had permission. I also didn't want to let down the numerous projects which were now counting on me, though. But I couldn't register, get a student ID, use library computers, print on campus, or take tests in the testing center with an as-yet-unauthorized, highly conspicuous, year's-length beard.

Sigh. At least I was living off campus with extended family, so I wouldn't have to spend a few weeks being homeless while waiting for beard clearance as well.

We managed to work around the situation's constraints fairly effectively. My roommate, Michael, went and registered in my name. No one asked him to confirm his identity, so that went fine. I avoided activities that required a student ID. I made sure to do all my word processing and printing at home. Luckily, none of my professors asked questions. A test in the testing center was coming around the end of the first month, though, and I couldn't think of any way around that.

A day or two before my first test, an official "beard waiver" finished being processed based on a request from someone in the Art Department on behalf of the painters. The terms of the request, though, were that the painters had two weeks to take pictures of me for painting reference, and then the beard had to go. I took my test.

By the time the two weeks were up, the second request, from the Motion Picture Studio, had finally gone through. Because the Motion Picture Studio is an official church entity, the terms were much more generous on that. Permission for me to have an uncut beard had been granted through the filming of an Old Testament visual resources project in late May, and for a month or so after that in case re-shooting of any sequences became necessary during the editing process.

The timing worked particularly well for me--I would graduate about a week or two before my "beard card" expired.

In Mormonism, we believe in what's called "the Spirit of Elijah," a force that turns our hearts back towards our ancestors. I'd grown and kept a beard largely out of that feeling, as a tribute to my ancestors' faith.

I couldn't help but think, after all the worry and last-minute saves as far as timing, that God had saved my beard. That I had been almost miraculously allowed to keep it because He was pleased with this particular way I chose to remember and honor Him and my family's long and often costly sense of connection to Him.

Next up: in Part Four, joy turns to sadness.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

My Beard & BYU: Part Two

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 Two: Interfaith Irony

I left Otterbein College from 2002-2004 to serve as an LDS missionary in the former East Germany. In accordance with missionary guidelines, I was clean shaven all that time. The night before I went home from my mission, I stayed with two missionaries I knew well who were serving as Assistants to the Mission President. In the morning, as they got ready to take me to the airport, I left my razor on their bathroom counter and told them I wouldn't be needing it any more. They laughed. Many of the missionaries had seen old pictures, and knew about the beard I was waiting to grow back.

After my mission, I didn't cut beard and hair at all. I wanted a litte bit of the Khalsa look of my maternal-side ancestors back. This helped when I hosted a Sikh holiday function on my college campus as a way to break down some post-9/11 stereotypes against Sikhs. The beard meant more connection to my paternal-side history, too. When I substitute taught for my father, a Jewish friend of his gasped. She told him later I looked like I'd walked straight out of a shtetl into the school. A professor of mine, himself Jewish, invited me to be part of a production of "The Merchant of Venice" that would work innovatively against the play's anti-Semitism.

More importantly, I felt like myself again. It was nice to look in the mirror and see the beard which is an important part of my own self-image. I was happy to have it back.

Tuition had drastically increased at Otterbein, though, and the scholarships were in fixed-dollar amounts that didn't change after admission. If I'd been re-entering as a freshman, I might have been offered a package that covered all school costs again, but as a returning sophomore, the difference between new costs and old scholarships was something like seven thousand dollars, and increasing each year. I only stayed in school for two quarters before dropping out and trying to transfer.

Very few colleges offer much scholarship money to transfer students, so I needed to find a place that was more inherently affordable. The obvious option was church-sponsored, low-tuition BYU. I applied, got accepted, and braced myself to shave my beard in January 2006.

Since I wasn't yet a student, I did not shave my beard before visiting my sister, who was just graduating from BYU, the month before.

The day before I got on the plane to visit her, I saw a call for submissions to the Student Religious Education Symposium on the BYU website. Any student could submit a paper on a variety of religious topics, including comparative religion, to the symposium. Good papers would be given a conference slot; the best prizes would also be given a significant cash prize. I'd won an award in comparative religious studies at Otterbein six months before, so this seemed like a great opportunity. The one difficulty was that the paper was due 5 pm the day after I'd arrive.

I packed several books with me and spent the plane flight outlining a paper that described various strong parallels between Sikh and Mormon faiths. I thought it would be a great gift to give a Mormon audience--the awareness that across the world, other religious teachers had advocated ideologies and adopted symbols which were not unlike what our own faith had experienced and taught.

When I got to Provo, my sister took me with her to campus. She'd need my help in the evening, but she logged me into a library computer so I could type up my manuscript for submission during the day. She'd come check on me periodically, she said, and I could use her student ID to print. I sat down and began to type furiously in a mad race against the clock.

It didn't last long. An attendant came by and asked to see my "beard card," proof that the University had authorized me to grow a beard on medical grounds or for an approved artistic project. I explained to the attendant that I wasn't a student yet, but would be the subsequent semester and was eligible for the contest. It didn't matter, he said. Without a beard card, I needed to leave the area. Hoping that this particular attendant was unusually strict, I found a lab several floors away and asked permission to work, but was denied there as well.

With only a few hours until the deadline, I found myself sitting on a bench in the atrium of the library, frustrated that because I looked like a Sikh, I might not be able to finish a paper that suggested the possibility of strong positive Sikh-Mormon relations.

My sister found me there and took me to a computer lab deep in the basement of the Fine Arts building where she personally knew the attendant and asked him to turn a blind eye to my presence. I finished the paper at 4:45 pm.

I hadn't been happy, before that day, about the prospect of shaving my beard to finish college, but I'd been fairly resigned to it. What place doesn't have a bizarre but basically harmless rule or two? Besides, I had kept such a rule for two years as a missionary: I could manage for the six months it would take me to finish my undergrad. Having been thrown off of library computers where I would have otherwise gone unnoticed made me uneasy, though. Was this rule entirely harmless?

Next up: in Part Three, I go back to school--but not quite the way I'd expected.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Sikh Day Parade

E_mirror Guest Post by Vilo Elisabeth

Madison Square Park has become a little piece of northern India today. All around us women’s chunnis, traditional scarves, swirl and flutter like bright tropical butterflies. Everywhere Roseline and I look there are turbans, chunnis, and balloons in the sacred saffron of the Sikh flag. We have worn our own salwar kameez, and here they do not stand out.

We look greedily around us, absorbing the sights, sounds and smells. We are enraptured and nostalgic. Delighted to be among a sea of Sikhs and experiencing a keen longing for the time we each spent in India.

We meander through the park, taking in musicians standing in loose groups, picnicking mothers whose children are too busy playing to eat, and the occasional bemused westerner turned foreigner in their own city. We catch the end of the parade, with the Council of Sikh Women delegation, the float proudly bearing a prophet’s face, and a spinning display of choreographed swordplay.

On another side of the park a flock of folding chairs are arranged in orderly rows. I am amused to see the clusters of people, bent intently over their plates of food or waiting for the rest of their group. It is a familiar scene, but I am used to seeing it in a wedding hall facing the bride and groom, rather than directed at a City of New York Parks and Recreation trailer. An official looking gentleman hands me a commemorative program, this is the parade’s 20th year. I flip through it, and seeing mostly Gurmukhi script decide to save it to send to my grandfather, who will be able to read it.

When I stop a family to ask where they got their “Sikh Pride” tee-shirts, the father shakes his head and says, “Not here.” I wonder if he’s considering why I am so eager to know, I, who with my short brown hair and olive skin that are not quite dark enough for a full-blooded Punjabi do not quite fit in, even here. But he does not say anything else, and everyone seems happy to heap my plate high with plump samosas, the spinach dish saag, and chole, a chickpea curry. Smiling men press cups of mango lassi on us. Roseline laughs at me when I accept a whole plate of sticky sweet jalebis, asking if I really like them. “They are better fresh,” I admit. It’s more the memory of my aunties swirling ribbons of the rosy dough into oil and ladling one out for me to eat before the big wedding party. We finally find kulfi, the ice cream that Roseline is craving. The food is comforting, it’s just right. Like what my great-aunts would serve at a family gathering. It is my kind of Indian food. Amid these strangers in New York, I feel unexpectedly like I am among my family.

Friday, February 5, 2010

My Beard & BYU: Prologue

I think it's time to tell a long story I don't like telling very much. I don't like it because, for the most part, the cultures I come from have gotten along all right with each other, especially in my own life. Not everything works smoothly all the time, though. This is the first installment in a long story about how the symbol of the beard, which shows faith and identity in Sikhism, is connected with tradition and learning in Jewish memory, but has been frowned upon to varying degrees in Mormon circles since the 1960s or so, has caused particular trouble for me since late 2005.

Prologue: The Boy Who Wouldn't Trim His Sideburns

When I was a kid, I already loved beards. That may be because my father had one more often than not, or may be because of my Sikh uncles with their full beards and beautiful turbans, or maybe more because I already had a little tuft of hair under my neck by the end of third grade, and decided that if I was going to be hairy, I might as well enjoy it.

I think I was seven or so when I drew my dad's close friend, Roy Kanno (who we called "Uncle Roy") with a beard, only to realize when I was done that he actually just had a mustache and I'd drawn a beard instead by mistake because I liked him so much. This is my clearest memory of strong pro-beard prejudice.

I was probably nine or ten when I got the idea that beards developed gradually out of uncut sideburns and consequently refused to let my sideburns be trimmed for several consecutive haircuts. The barber teased me about Elvis. Other people wondered if I was trying to look like Spock. In different clothing and with a little curl, I would have looked more like a young Hasid. At some point, I figured out that no new hairs were about to start growing under my sideburns and stopped.

I first grew a beard when I was 14. With the exception of a brief period at the end of my freshman year and a play I shaved for senior year, I had a beard all through high school. I enjoyed the look, and also found that it was morally useful. When you're tall, relatively mature, and bearded in high school, people question your decisions less. Don't drink alcohol? You're obviously doing so out of genuine conviction and not fear of punishment, or you'd be out passing for 21+ and buying for everyone (at a reasonable service fee).

Brigham Young University has a rule against beards. Because my grandfather taught there, and my parents and all four grandparents had attended, I knew this. It didn't bother me much: I simply planned on steering clear of BYU. LDS missionaries also didn't wear beards, but a mission was so strange I figured I could stay clean-shaven for that. But for real life? No thank you. I'd take my pick of other colleges.

That decision only made a difference once, when my attendance at early morning religious classes (called seminary) was low and my bishop tried to encourage me to attend more often. He pointed out that to get into BYU, you had to pass seminary. I smiled, explained that I wasn't interested in BYU anyway, and he let the matter drop. I still went to seminary from time to time, but never enough to pass. I wish now that I'd attended more often. I wonder: if BYU allowed beards, would the bishop's attempt to encourage me have carried more weight?

When I finished high school in 2001, I was offered several scholarships to Otterbein College, where I'd be in a top-notch Theater program. All the scholarships put together paid for tuition and housing, so off I went with a beard I'd recently taken to wearing long and uncut and long hair to match. I brought my little brother and sister up to see campus when I moved in: a friend later told me that when he saw me for the first time, I was holding my six-year-old sister by the hand, pointing up toward what was actually my dorm room but he mistook for the heavens. Jesus is here, he thought. I am seeing a vision of Jesus on our campus.

Which, looking back, is particularly funny because on BYU campus, where trying to be like Jesus is a central ideal, I would have looked extremely out of place. I know this because four-and-a-half years later, I did.

Next up: in Part Two, how I ended up transferring to BYU, and a strange experience in Utah a month before I started.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Only Child

At the dentists' office yesterday, the hygienist asked Kira if she was the oldest kid in her family.

"No" she said--which surprised me.

"Are you the youngest?" asked the hygienist.

"No," said Kira. "I'm the oldest of the youngest."

By now, I was thoroughly confused. I am quite sure that Kira does not have an younger siblings. But then Kira made everything clear:

"Ethan is the oldest" she said "he's twelve." Ethan is Kira's oldest first cousin. She has two first cousins younger than her: since she's in kindergarten and other cousins are in school all day, she probably plays with the youngest two most frequently, reinforcing her sense of being the oldest of the youngest.

I think it's a great tribute to George and Sandra, my parents-in-law, that Kira thinks of all her cousins as being the "kids in her family." Strong extended families are becoming rare in America, and it's nice to be part of families on both sides (mine and my wife's) which have maintained a sense of extended family identity.

I hope we'll be able to maintain Kira's strong sense of connection to her cousins even after we move away from this area. I believe there's a strength in ties like that.

Monday, February 1, 2010


Kira asked for couscous for dinner tonight and burst into tears when there wasn't any in the cupboard. Luckily, we had some in our "office" (which we use primarily to hang laundry and as an annex to the kitchen--I prefer to write on the couch or in bed). Kira calmed down, I got dinner ready, and life was good.

My dad used to make couscous a lot. Like with oatmeal, he never left it simple. I remember having it with diced apricots, candied ginger, various nuts, spiced chicken.

Here's a question: did my dad get interested in couscous because of his maternal family's connections to the Middle East, because of his visit to Israel, or just because it tastes good?

Here's another question: how did I manage to find a wife who loves buying and cooking the same foods as my dad?
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