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 religious traditions.
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.”
About 2.6 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 Hindu religion.
“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 American citizen.)
“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 http://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?”
“Those young people who invest in their ethnic backgrounds,” she said, “seem to actually do more with their lives than less.”