Obama and Me by Sweta Vohra
on February 6, 2009
Sweta Vohra/Special to Oakland North
In my predominantly Christian Texas town, among my predominantly Christian high school friends, I did my best to avoid any talk of religion. On Sundays, when my friends went to church, I went to a makeshift Hindu Sunday school that was run out of a senior citizen community center. But, of course, no one knew that.
So, one day, when a fellow high school classmate, Kevin, had asked me what my religion was, I had cautiously but honestly answered “Hindu.” And when Kevin decided that “Hindu” wasn’t really even a religion because he had never heard of it, my chest had filled with anger and hurt. But I did not defend my religion or myself, because, Hindu or not, I was still a teenager and did not have the courage or the desire to be different.
I am still angry at myself for not say something more that day but angrier still because it’s a scenario that could still happen among school kids around America. There was always a balancing act that occurred in school – Indian and Hindu at home and American at school. And I see this still practiced in many of my younger cousins and friends.
But that could have all changed on Inauguration Day.
I didn’t think Obama was going to list it among the others. It’s so common to hear about Christians or Muslims or Jews, and the make-up of America is usually left to those three religions. But not anymore. Obama’s exact words: “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers.”
It was just one acknowledgment out of so many other elements, including an unprecedented recognition of this country’s nonbelievers, but hearing Hinduism validated as an American symbol by our President made it seem ten times louder. And I’m sure my classmate Kevin heard it.
For the first time, I, and even my parents, who emigrated from India forty years ago, feel like part of the fabric of America. And that’s not something I felt ten years ago, perhaps even a few years ago.
Hindu and American are no longer mutually exclusive terms. And though, since my school days, I have found a stronger integration of my Hindu ideals alongside my American identity, there has been little acknowledgement of the many faces of Hindus that are doing the same within our country. We are not just products of our parents’ heritage. We have taken that heritage and molded it to create our own unique American identity.
Obama has recognized this new group of Hindu-Americans and has changed the course for our generation. Among the many participants on Obama’s transition team are Sonal Shah, Parag Mehta and Nick Rathod. He chose an American economist, a gay political activist, and a former civil rights attorney, respectively, who all represent the South Asian community. We are no longer hidden faces.
Beyond finding identity, we are finding a voice. A voice in some of the highest ranks in the country, which I hope can lead our country’s reputation to a respectable place once again in this world.
I may not be able to go back to that day in high school to give Kevin the talking to he deserves, but I am confident that my child, in the same situation, will not be ashamed to say she is Hindu. All she has to do is quote the 44th U.S. President.
Oakland North is an online news service produced by students at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and covering Oakland, California. Our goals are to improve local coverage, innovate with digital media, and listen to you–about the issues that concern you and the reporting you’d like to see in your community. Please send news tips to: email@example.com.