To 12-year-old Suzannah Pabla, piercing her nose was a way to connect
with her roots in India. To Suzannah's school, it was a dress-code
violation worthy of a suspension.
To other Indians, the
incident was emblematic of how it can still be difficult for the
American melting pot to absorb certain aspects of their cultural and
Suzannah was briefly suspended last month
from her public school in Bountiful, Utah, for violating a
body-piercing ban. School officials — who noted that nose piercing is
an Indian cultural choice, not a religious requirement — compromised
and said she could wear a clear, unobtrusive stud in her nose, and
Suzannah returned to her seventh-grade class.
"I wanted to feel
more closer to my family in India because I really love my family,"
said Suzannah, who was born in Bountiful. Her father was born in India
as a member of the Sikh religion.
"I just thought it would be
OK to let her embrace her heritage and her culture," said Suzannah's
mother, Shirley Pabla, a Mormon born in nearby Salt Lake City. "I
didn't know it would be such a big deal."
It shouldn't have
been, said Amardeep Singh, a Sikh who was raised in the United States
and works as an English professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.
"It's true that the nose ring is mainly a cultural thing for most
Indians," Singh said. "Even if it is just culture, culture matters. And
her right to express or explore it seems to me at least as important as
her right to express her religious identity."
Singh said people
frequently ask him why he wears a turban. "Sometimes it can be a burden
to explain that," he said.
"Most people presume I'm an
immigrant, a foreigner," he continued. "As a child of immigrants, you
often don't feel fully American. The presumption is that you are
somehow foreign to a core American identity. You always feel a little
bit of an outsider, even in your own country."
million people of Indian ancestry live in the United States, including
immigrants and natives, according to a 2007 U.S. Census estimate. The
Indian population increased rapidly after a 1965 change to immigration
law, which ended preferences given to specific European nations.
Sandhya Nankani, who moved to the United States from India at age 12,
said religion and culture in India are tightly intertwined, but their
expression varies widely in different regions of that country, "so you
can't make a blanket statement about what Indian culture is, or
religion or tradition."
Each morning, after Nankani bathes her
2-month-old daughter, she makes a small ash mark called the "vibhuti"
on the baby's forehead, which for her signifies the "third eye" in her
"Sometimes people ask what is on her forehead,"
said Nankani, a writer and editor who lives in Manhattan. "I will
probably not send her with the vibuthi to the playground soon. I don't
want her to be the center of attention in a way that makes her feel
like she doesn't belong."
Like Singh, Nankani is frequently
asked questions about her culture and religion — are Hindus really
polytheistic? (Yes, but all the Hindu gods are really one.) Does she
eat meat? (No.) Does she celebrate Thanksgiving? (Yes — she's an
"I've been to multiple dinners where the
entire two hours is us being asked all these questions," she said. "It
can get difficult ... it does feel like a load sometimes."
But Abhi Tripathi, an aerospace engineer in Houston and co-founder of the Indian blog www.sepiamutiny.com
said he gets fewer questions than he used to. "I feel like the general
level of knowledge of Indian culture has started to gradually rise,"
said Tripathi, who was born in California to Indian immigrants.
Schandra Singh, an artist born in New York to an Indian father and
Austrian mother, says her experiences are in some ways unusual because
she does not appear to be Indian. Sometimes when she walks unnoticed
past an Indian family on the street, she thinks they would acknowledge
her if her features looked different.
"It's weird, because it's sort of like living in a shell," Singh said.
But differences — like Savannah's pierced nose — are part of what make the world interesting, she said.
"Are we all trying to look alike? Is that what makes a better student,
a better school?" Singh asked. "Or a better country?"
young people who invest in their ethnic backgrounds," she said, "seem
to actually do more with their lives than less."