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, it was emblematic of how it can be difficult for the American melting pot to absorb some 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.
“I just thought it would be OK to let her embrace her heritage and her culture,” said Suzannah’s mother, Shirley Pabla, a Mormon born in nearby Salt Lake City. “I didn’t know it would be such a big deal.”
It shouldn’t have been, said Amardeep Singh, a Sikh raised in the United States and works as an English professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.
Singh said people ask him why he wears a turban. “As a child of immigrants, you often don’t feel fully American,” he said. “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.
Sandhya Nankani, who moved to the United States from India at age 12, said religion and culture in India are intertwined, but their expression varies widely in different regions of that country.
Each morning, after Nankani bathes her 2-month-old daughter, she makes a small ash mark called the “vibhuti” on the baby’s forehead, which signifies the “third eye” in her Hindu religion.
“Sometimes people ask what is on her forehead,” said Nankani, a writer and editor who lives in Manhattan. “I will probably not send her with the vibhuti to the playground soon. I don’t want her to be the center of attention in a way that makes her feel like she doesn’t belong.”
But Abhi Tripathi, an aerospace engineer in Houston and co-founder of the Indian blog www.sepiamutiny.com, said he gets fewer questions than he used to. “I feel like the general level of knowledge of Indian culture has started to gradually rise,” said Tripathi, who was born in California to Indian immigrants.