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.
“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.”
“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.
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.)
“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.”