Unicorns and Idlis

October 9, 2017

“We produced scholars, doctors, engineers. What have you produced? You have produced terrorists. Doctors save people from death; terrorists send them to death.” This was a sound bite emanating from the United Nations a few weeks ago. The words were spoken by India’s Minister of External Affairs in reference to Pakistan, India’s time-worn nemesis. And I’ll admit, when I heard it, a part of me smirked with smug condescension. Pakistan was finally getting its proper comeuppance after slinging their own insults earlier in the week. I had also been following the recent name-calling of “Rocket Man” and “Dotard” between world leaders with growing alarm and a bit of wry eye-rolling at those who disagree with me.

So, at having been tasked with writing an article that speaks to the importance of embracing other cultures, I suddenly found myself in front of my metaphorical mirror as a writer, and I was ashamed of what I was beginning to see. I had become content to feed my own biases in order to foster the health and happiness of my own limited perspective.

At a dinner party a few years ago, while talking about the challenges that cultural nuances present in life and my own experiences with it all, a friend told me, “I am always afraid of offending you or saying something stupid, so a lot of times I don’t say anything at all.” It was jarring to hear a friend say this, and furthermore, I was saddened because buried in that statement was the assumption that I would not extend any grace to someone who was different from me, even someone who was already a friend. The statement made by my friend also painted a picture of previous, long-standing, and limiting behaviors toward people from other cultures. In protecting himself from saying the wrong thing, my friend had callused his heart to the possibility of seeing and experiencing another culture in its fullness, the way I would have wanted someone to interact with me.

I have heard variants of this statement too often during my time here in the USA. I was raised on the other side of the world in Bangalore, India. My skin color is a deep tan, and I’m blessed with an (albeit slight) British-Indian accent. I am married to a white American; our children are blended. All of these things being the case, I find that people often approach me in two distinct manners. Some act with extreme caution and uncertainty around me, while others ignore me completely. Due to this conditioning, I have instinctively developed mechanisms to offset this awkwardness.

Recently, at the gym during a water-break, I was chatting with a friend when she gently said, “You know you’ve mentioned that you’re from India five times in three minutes, right?” I began to wonder if I do this as a pre-emptive apology for how I live my life. Maybe it is my way of acknowledging when I want to say something that I know it might potentially offend someone; I want to excuse my behavior as a cultural thing. Now that I am aware, I see this pre-emptive apology getting tossed out liberally these days, to cover all my bases during highly-charged times.

These are tough times, and even simple conversations can become seemingly endless minefields to negotiate. However, in their midst, beauty blooms. Like a spectacular mural in a dismal neighborhood, these little moments need to be attended to, because within them lie keys to usher in a great shalom for painful times.

A while ago, I was playing at the park with my children when another child approached me and engaged me in a rather hilarious exchange. It went like this:

Little boy: What color are you? Are you black?
Me: I’m kinda brown. Maybe tan?
Little boy: Your hair is black though.
Me: Yeah, I guess I have a little black (and gray, haha) there. I guess I have brown, black, and gray?
Little boy: Oh! Like a unicorn?

I love an exchange like this because, in a microcosm, it tends to be how life has played out for me in the United States of America. The funny thing is that it was not until I moved to the US that I considered myself in the binary of majority/minority. Prior to life in the US, I was a brown-skinned kid in a land of a billion. And, it was not until I moved away from India and spent significant time apart from my motherland that it slowly dawned on me that, because of my faith journey as a Christian, I would technically have been considered a minority. I began to read the Indian newspapers and websites through that lens, and my life in India became much more clear and vivid.

Growing up in India, I was not a fan of my own Indian cuisine. Oddly, I always craved the American foods that I saw in the media, like burgers or meat and potato dinners. Yet, it wasn’t even two months into college life in Iowa that I began to miss my mom’s home-cooked Indian food. Well, most of it, that is! I still could not stand the thought of the idli, the soft, fermented, and steamed rice cake of South India.

As my months overseas stretched into years, and my years into decades, I have grown steadily in my knowledge of all things Indian. I have learned about Indian politics, the various faiths that have sprouted and/or made their home there, the societal evils, the beauty of the people and the landscapes, the discriminations that seem to plague my people, and the stories of hope and redemption in the face of travail. These things fill my heart constantly. This is India. It is complicated, it is beautiful, and it is who I am.

I did not see India this way until I left it. In fact, I learned much of my knowledge about India during my time in NW Iowa, and therein lies a truth for me—and, I believe, for all of us. Often, you must leave something to really know it intimately. I love bringing my bi-racial and bi-cultural children to India. I love walking the well-worn streets with them. I enjoy watching them mimic their cousins’ accents, pick up colloquialisms in different languages, eat with their fingers, and ask me difficult questions about ‘why people beg’ or ‘why kids don’t go to school.’ Looking at life through their eyes offers me new depth of understanding about a place I love so fiercely.

We embrace cultures not (only) because we need to honor those who look different from us, not (only) to enlarge our own perspectives of this world, but to make ourselves better versions of who God has called us to be. I have often shared that I learned more about India, about my story, and about my faith when I looked through the cornfield-colored lens of NW Iowa. While the lens analogy is apt, I also think Iowa was a mirror. I came to see my own biases, my scars, my strengths, and my weaknesses. In seeing them, I was able to heal, to be aware, and to ultimately be a better person because of it.

This posture of wanting to better ourselves might be the best reason to embrace other cultures. When we take a good look at life in the lens that also serves as a mirror, we become intimately aware of the scabs, the blackheads, and the pimples that scar our face; but, I think, in it we will also be able to appreciate the beauty of our imperfections and, in that, maybe a desire to heal and learn.

And, while I am certainly no unicorn, I have with time also learned to love the idlis.

About the Author
  • JP Sundararajan serves as the India-Asia director for Audio Scripture Ministries, which works with national organizations around the world to produce and distribute audio recordings of God's Word in a variety of languages. JP travels in and around India and other parts of Asia, helping local organizations with audio Scriptures. He also spends time in North America, promoting Audio Scriptures' work and building bridges between the cultures. JP is a graduate of Western Theological Seminary and is an ordained pastor and missionary for the Reformed Church in America.

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