A Balancing Act

A Life of thinking globally, acting locally, and seeking peace internally.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Upcoming Presentations

March 21 at the Troy Museum & Historic Village at 7:30

Troy Historical Society Evening Lectures: Wednesdays at 7:30pm

Our region is home to cultures from around the globe. In this series, we will explore ethnic groups, hearing their stories and how they found a place in Michigan.
  • January 18: Arab-American
  • February 15: African-American
  • March 21: Indian-American, Padma Kuppa, Outreach Chair Bharatiya Temple & Executive Council, Hindu American Foundation
  • April 18: Japanese-American, Mary Kamidoi, Japanese American Citizens League
  • May 16: Romanian-American, Marius Sidau, Cultural Anthropologist

April 11 at Macomb Community College at 9:30.
Library Fair: A Vision of India
Religions of India
Speaker:  Padma Kuppa, Executive Council member of the Hindu American Foundation
Padma Kuppa will be speaking on the various religions of India. She is an Executive Council member of Hindu American Foundation, an advocacy organization for over two million Hindus in the US, focusing on interreligious cooperation. She has also served on the Advisory Council of Hindu American Seva Charities, a national service organization for Hindu Americans.
Sponsored by the Macomb Multicultural International Initiatives (MMII).
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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Striving to be American...

The Super Bowl ads in and about Michigan this year really created an ache in my heart  – creating images of an America that I believe we can be and also an America that we shouldn’t be. The Chrysler “Imported from Detroit” ad that was inspiring and the MI Republican senate candidate ad that used stereotypes had me seesawing between these two images, and I wondered how we can move toward the ideal ensconced in Clint Eastwood’s call to America.

America is a symbol of promise, the freedom to do something or to be free of something: freedom to worship, to create, or freedom from oppression, from want, from fear. The PBS show, Destination America came out several years ago, to chronicle the immigrant experience. It was made about a decade ago, around the time that there were 11.5% foreign-born people in the US, close to the 15% high of 1910. More recently, PBS interviewed 12 famous Americans to answer two basic questions – What made America? What makes us? – in Faces of America, another study of the immigrant experience. Both programs echo how much this country is shaped by the energy and diversity that immigrants bring to it. As Clint Eastwood said, “We find a way through tough times, and if we can’t find a way, then we’ll make one.” The collective immigrant work ethic has helped create that attitude and is what makes America unique.

But as these shows illustrate, previous waves of immigrants have also faced difficulties, especially during tough economic times, and our generation is no different. When the Hoekstra ad came out, I heard from friends across the Asian American community. The image of an Asian woman speaking broken English, who rides a bike through rice paddies as Asian-sounding music plays in the background smacks of a negative stereotype – one that many of us have railed against for decades.  An anti-Chinese sentiment was also heard in the chambers of the Troy City Council, and it too caused stir in the community.

It seems that some people still have trouble accepting people welcomed to our shores or those they share the planet with – as evidenced not only by these two incidents, but the recent desecration of a Sikh house of worship in Sterling Heights, MI. The vandalism was reminiscent of the first hate crime after 9/11, where a Sikh (confused for a Muslim) was murdered. The gurudwara, still under construction, was vandalized around the same time as the Super Bowl, with graffiti using offensive language, racial epithets, anti-Muslim statements and references to 9/11.

Friends reached out to me about Hoekstra ad and the Troy Council comments – from APIA Vote, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that serves the Asian Pacific Islander American community through civic participation, advocacy, and education; from Michigan Campaign for Justice, a non-profit organization founded in 1983 as a civil rights advocacy organization to fight for justice in the aftermath of the baseball bat beating death of Vincent Chin. As soon as I learned of the desecration of the house of worship, I reached out to friends – to members of the Troy-area Interfaith Group, which was formed due to a 2005 incident of exclusion in Troy; to members of the Hindu community, represented by the Outreach Committee of the Bharatiya Temple of Metropolitan Detroit; to members of WISDOM, a women’s interfaith organization that seeks to build peace in our region and our world through creating friendships; and to my friends in the Sikh community.

And we are living out the promise of America… We came together for a press conference at the gurudwara in Sterling Heights, defending religious freedom and protesting bigotry. We came together to launch the 2012 Respect America, Respect Michigan Candidate Pledge, asking all congressional (and other political) candidates in Michigan to take the pledge to respect Michigan’s diverse communities.   We continue to do what Clint Eastwood said Americans do…”We all rallied around what was right, and acted as one. Because that’s what we do. We find a way through tough times, and if we can’t find a way, then we’ll make one.
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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Losing Libraries, Banning Books... Abandoning Saraswathi

An ad campaign was used to help Save the Troy Public Library in the summer of 2011 – one that was reminiscent of some horror stories in history books. The idea of holding a book burning party when the millage required to keep the library open failed to pass did not appeal to people. There were more votes the third time around in the battle to keep our library funded – and the residents of Troy, MI still have a (partially-funded, partially-open) library. Not far from Troy, another book-related controversy was reported on NPR in January 2012 in the Plymouth-Canton Community Schools, a middle-class school district in Western Wayne County. Canton and Troy, located in nearby Oakland County are similar for their ethnic mix – especially in their public schools: we have many people of Indian origin and our school districts reflect the high academic achievement of many immigrant children. While these are seemingly disconnected – book-burning and book-banning – I found a common thread: few from the Hindu community are actively engaged in protecting Saraswathi.

The Indian community here in southeastern Michigan is largely Hindu. The Hindu community regards the Divine as both formless (Nirguna) and beautifully-formed (Saguna). Saraswathi is a deity, and symbolic of the beauty found in knowledge, learning and the arts. She is depicted wearing a white sari, holding the veena, a stringed instrument, and in one of her four hands is a book. While most non-Hindus may find the four arms curious (or downright strange), I would not have complained – but they are symbolic of different things, such as the four aspects of the human personality (mind, intellect, vigilance, and ego), or the four Vedas (the Hindu scriptures). The book, likewise, is representative of multiple things – Saraswathi’s mastery of the Vedas, the scriptures themselves, or literature particularly in the form of prose. A book can also represent Saraswathi herself, and thus my children – like many other Hindu American kids – have been taught never to step on, kick or move a book with their foot. They touch it in reverence if they do something accidentally. Books are sacred, as symbols of knowledge and learning – required on the path to realization or moksha – and worthy of one’s protection.

But I am an actively engaged member of the Hindu community - and visibly (and loudly) protested our public library’s closure. For the tiny part I played in its survival, I even made it to the front page of our local Troy Times’s Year in Review issue, megaphone in hand, surrounded by children who would feel the impact of shutting down a community space serving our need for exchange of information, borrowing books and much more. Perhaps it is the interfaith activist in me that brought me to a City Council meeting to quote 20th century Roman Catholic Cardinal Terence Cooke, “The reflections and histories of men and women throughout the world are contained in books.... America's greatness is not only recorded in books, but it is also dependent upon each and every citizen being able to utilize public libraries.” Or perhaps it’s just that I am an American and protest the banning of a book. “Congress Shall Make No Law Respecting an Establishment of Religion, or Prohibiting the Free Exercise Thereof; or Abridging the Freedom of Speech, or of the Press; or the Right of the People Peaceably to Assemble, and To Petition the Government for a Redress of Grievances.” When we stand for freedom, we should also stand for the freedom to hear opposing ideas. America was built on a stage of clashing ideas - the Constitution was hammered out only after different voices were heard. Laws that supported pluralism came into being, and eventually led to my activism, seeking to build a life devoted to its protection.

From the Bible, “In the beginning there was God and... the word was God.” From the Vedas, “Let noble thoughts come from all directions.” Across faith traditions, we value not only scripture but also the written word. Keeping faith means supporting public libraries, and objecting to book bans. Let us not abandon the wisdom and knowledge of Saraswathi.
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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

An Invitation to Walk and Build the Beloved Community

On Monday Jan. 16, 2012, the City of Troy, MI - like many other cities and entities around the country - celebrated the life and legacy of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

As I have been doing for over ten years, I woke my children up, and we headed to the City's morning event, held at Athens High School, one of the wonderfully diverse schools in our community - a community that, unfortunately, has been struggling with new issues around which exclusion centers, again. When exclusivism and pluralism (the concept that people of different beliefs ) collided in Troy seven years ago, Harvard University noticed - I remember, since I was in the midst of that maelstrom. We made it to the New York Times for our current difficulties.

I decided to use a special opportunity to recognize the challenges our community has, and the young people who are at the center of what is happening now. What was that special opportunity?... I was welcoming people to the City's MLK Jr. event and leading a symbolic unity walk. Here's what I said:

Good morning, and welcome to our annual celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In years past, I served on the Troy MLK Day Committee, drawing on the support of both the City of Troy and the Troy School District. Today I am honored to welcome you and walk with you as we remember why we are here. Troy, Michigan is home to many cultures, faiths, and people willing to build the Beloved Community that Dr. King spoke of and worked for. He walked in the footsteps of someone from the other side of the world, Mohandas K. Gandhi, otherwise known as Mahatma – the Great Soul. Gandhi was 61 when he walked 240 miles over 26 days, to protest against the salt monopoly of India’s British colonizers. Gandhi preached a fundamental Hindu practice or yama: ahimsa, nonhurtfulness in thought, word or deed. This wasn’t being silent, it was about doing something constructive, bringing people together. He followed the principle of Satya Graha, holding to the Truth, and took actions to create peace and justice in the world. He was an activist, and moved a nation to civil disobedience. This same “holding to the Truth” was something that inspired Dr. King and the civil disobedience that he inspired. Both King and Gandhi were great souls and activists who each inspired a movement, who walked the path to peace through action. They knew that while words are great tools, they are never enough. Dr. King wrote many calls to action through sermons, speeches, and several books, and the title of the last is relevant even today: Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?

We are here at Athens High School, where our football team and marching band have had an amazing season. For this reason, I couldn’t stop without bringing up Dr. King’s sermon about the drum major instinct: “And there is deep down within all of us an instinct. It's a kind of drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first...” He also said, “If this instinct is not harnessed, it becomes a very dangerous, pernicious instinct. For instance, if it isn’t harnessed, it causes one's personality to become distorted. ...One ends up trying to push others down in order to push himself up. The drum major instinct can lead to exclusivism in one's thinking.” So while we want to take the lead, we also have to find the balance, in order to seek peace and justice in our community - to determine where we go from here so that we are not in a state of chaos.

We are here with high-schoolers Zack Kilgore and Skye Curtis, and many others like them – teenagers who have gotten up early on a day off. :) These young people have taken action, have voiced their opinions in the public square, have harnessed that drum major instinct, trying to build the Beloved Community that Dr. King dreamt of.

Let us all walk with them, together as a community, knowing that we have the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to celebrate today and everyday.

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Thursday, January 5, 2012

New Year, New Resolution... New Post

I wanted to do something meaningful with my new year's resolution for 2012. My 2011 resolution was to NOT watch Lord of the Rings (the extended edition, mind you), in the hope that my activism would be less fierce. The reasoning behind this? Perhaps by abstaining, the obsession I have for the saga (in either movie or book form) with its objective to create peace in the world of Middle Earth, would diminish the obsession I have to create peace in mine.

I wanted my 2012 resolution to be something I was for – not something I was against. The reasoning behind this? In 2011, my community was divided by a group of people against things – against providing adequate funding for our public library, against certain lifestyles (our mayor, anyway), against a transit center that would boost the local economy. I wanted my 2012 resolution to be something that looked forward, that would stay with my family in the years to come. The reasoning behind this? I wanted to look to the future, to create a ritual that my first-born can also take with her when she leaves the nest in 2013.

I examined the rituals I have – and some which I no longer hold. As an immigrant, rituals from India are critical in helping me hold on to the cultural connections I have with my mother’s land…such as wearing new clothes on my birthday. If I am lucky, it’s a trendy sari that my mom has sent me - and wrapping the six yards of material in the traditional way also cloaks me in the comforting memories of the garment that she always wears, and keeps me in touch with fashions half way around the globe. As an American seeking to put down roots, rituals acquired in my new homeland help me to acculturate and create a sense of belonging for my family. A family friend of my parents who became a second mother taught me to bake – and each Christmas season, I honor the season of giving as she taught me, by baking various cookies with my children, and sharing the bounty with friends and neighbors (yes, Santa’s Kisses are a favorite!). As a Hindu, rituals assist me in maintaining a link to my faith tradition, since as a minority, one always has to be cautious of not being swept away by the mainstream currents. While the local Hindu temples do a great job of providing rituals relevant to the tradition, not all of us Hindu Americans – even ethnic Hindus – find a connection. Ethnic Hindus from India celebrate festivals and holy days in many different ways, and not all are grounded in religious ceremonies. The pujas done at the temples don’t always make sense to other immigrants in my age bracket – let alone our children, who are often dragged to such services unwillingly. Several years ago, the compositions of a Hindu saint-composer, Sri Tallapaka Annamacharya, helped me to establish a relationship with the divine – through a monthly ritual. A couple who were IT professionals by day were also Carnatic musicians, and gathered a group of interested people every month to teach and sing the words of devotion found in his simple language. While my family still has the bond to the bhakti in Annamacharya’s works, our monthly ritual has ended – our gurus have moved, and the impetus to gather has waned. We also have pages of documents which I helped create – transliterating and translating the many keerthanas we learned over the years from my mother tongue Telugu.

I knew when determining my 2012 resolution that I needed to do something for me, and also something for my kids. And while the monthly singing of the holy hymns is no longer part of our routine, I can create other documents – and re-instate the blog I began more than 3 years ago with an essay about my core beliefs. I – like many others – have made resolutions to be more committed to physical exercise and yoga practice. And I am making one more resolution - to exercise my ability to write and revive the habit of posting to my blog. Happy 2012!
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