I’m not so different. My skin is a little darker than most, sure, and my name is barely pronounceable. But besides that, I turned out rather ordinary. I’ve always thought that I had a typical upbringing with typical results, but everyone else seems to disagree. No matter where I go, I’m culturally unusual. It’s less fun than it sounds.
Raised in an area of Calgary that is largely Christian and Caucasian, I was exposed to little of my family’s religion, Hinduism. As a child, I went to our temple with my parents nearly every Sunday morning. It’s a quiet establishment in the middle of nowhere, ripped from a scene in Aladdin and surrounded by under-construction parking lots and gas stations. Inside, women sit on one side while men sit on the other. Children run freely between the two sides, regardless of their gender. When I sat with my mother, she’d offer brief translations of the sermon while whispering gossip to her friends. When I sat with my father, he’d rub my head gently and promise an early lunch.
The temple served as a great community for my immigrant parents. It was a way to stay connected to the home they’d left so many decades before. But being a first-generation Canadian made me different: I didn’t speak the language or care for Hindu traditions. For me, going to temple was a guilt trip, a reason for a pundit to tell me — in Hindi — how I was living my life wrong. This was not home.
Around the time I lost interest in Hinduism, my Christian friend began inviting me to her United Church in Calgary. These people were different from our temple’s counterparts — they were jovial and talkative with me, whereas I was seldom spoken to at our temple. And they spoke English. Still, I was different. I attended the church with my friend and her family about half a dozen times. Each time, I was asked where my parents were from, where I was born, what we ate, what language we spoke and what I thought of every topic from the Pakistan-India conflict to salt. To comply, I suggested spicy recipes, taught middle-aged white women how to greet someone in Hindi and performed an Indian dance on a Sunday morning following the sermon. My presence alone could bring them to another world without the price of a plane ticket.
Being a first-generation Canadian made me unique and fascinating, but so foreign. I was an anthropology case study to pick at. It was exhausting, and eventually I stopped attending.
Hindus and Christians both put time, energy and money into their efforts to attract new and diverse members. But, with me, they did not succeed. My temple offered me guilt and confusion; my friend’s church offered me the role of the token Indian girl.
The desire to belong and to feel accepted is a basic need. The challenge for the United Church is to welcome diverse people without pointing out their differences ad nauseam. Congregations need to treat similarities and differences equally. Overemphasis on either can be disheartening and sometimes intimidating. I haven’t given up on the search for a fit. But if I turn up at your church, please don’t ask for my butter chicken recipe.
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