After almost half a century, I am reminded of a young girl in tears, trying to hide her face in the folds of her mother’s flowing silk sari. On the street, urchins were making fun of her mother who spoke a different language and dressed differently. This little girl was ashamed of herself and of her mother who didn’t belong. That little girl was me.
Today I am ashamed not of myself, but of many, many others who differentiate between human beings. I feel sorry for those who build narrow walls around themselves, refusing to appreciate the culture, civilization and ways of life of others. I do not blame them, for I know they have not had the sometimes bitter experience that I have had.
My experiences have taught me how empowering it is to open myself to other cultures. I was educated in Kerala where the spoken language is Malayalam, different from my mother tongue, Tamil. So I had to learn a new language and I did, proficiently enough to become a writer in this language. I enjoyed its literary beauty just as I did the immortal works written in Tamil.
It was when I was taught Shakespeare in school by an English lady, I felt awe when I realized the striking similarities in thought expressed by Tamil writers and English writers, born on opposite sides of the globe.
Later, I had to live and work in Madhya Pradesh, where the spoken language is Hindi, India’s national language. The customs, food, and culture were foreign to me at my new home. I learned to absorb and to like the new culture I was exposed to.
I remember the stone I felt in my heart when I heard of Kennedy’s assassination. I was just a teenager at the time. It’s the same stone I felt when I heard Mahathma Gandhi was shot, over the radio. The world mourned Gandhi’s death. I can still remember my English teacher teaching us, “Oh! Captain, My Captain” from Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. She said Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi were lucky; both died immediately after victory came to their causes. “Don’t grieve,” she said. “There is no better time to die.” I’m reminded of another great leader and follower of Gandhi—Reverend Martin Luther King who died by a cruel hand. What mysterious, unifying principles exist in the death of these great leaders? Where are the borders?
When I read books of Eastern and Western philosophers, I cannot stop wondering at the unity of thought expressed by these great men. Nor do I fail to notice the striking resemblances of certain foods, dances and native medicines and even landscapes of Mexico to the country where I was born.
I relish Western classical music just as I do Hindustani. I learned Karnatik music, but I equally enjoy rock music, though not hard rock, yet.
I am not treated always as I want to be. I am ridiculed, ignored, or treated shabbily because I look different. I know my accent is funny because I was taught by the British.
I’m often asked if I am Arabic. During Khomeini’s time, I was thought to be Iranian. Other times I am shouted at as Gandhi. This, I know, is out of sheer ignorance. But I feel elated when someone says “adios” to me, or when someone thinks my last name sounds Armenian. A colleague of mine once expressed her feeling that passports should not have nationalities on them since we are all citizens of the world. I know the complications this idea might present in practice, but I am drawn by the unifying idea of one world where everybody belongs.
I cannot even for a moment forget the fact this country, this melting pot of all cultures, is the closest example of “one world” we have. The Statue of Liberty is not just words but a way of life.
Few people have had the opportunity to experience and appreciate unity in diversity. I am indeed thankful to feel mature enough to smash the narrow wall that is around me. I do not need to hide in my fear of my differences. Maybe when we inhabit the moon, we will all be stamped “Earthians.”
Padma Mani has taught math at a high school in San Jose for 30 years. She received the Teacher of the Year, as well as the Outstanding Teacher of the Year awards in 2015. Many of her students are below the poverty line. Initially she would get angry at their low study skills, but as she got to know her students better, she realized that what they needed was compassion and patience. Though she still faces a lot of challenges, she manages competently, even at her age of 80+.