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

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.
Read more Entry>>

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.
Read more Entry>>