Bridge Between Cultures — Simran Kaur Sandhu

Growing up as a first-generation American is challenging at times: We’re the bridge between cultures, the children of the immigrants that have served as the backbone for this nation they call home. 

I was brought up in a Punjabi Sikh family and my parents were strict but nurturing. They put me and my siblings through school with many extracurricular activities and kept us busy with academic summer camps and jobs. They prioritized our education, character and work ethic, as these were the biggest reasons for their success in their lives before and after they immigrated to America. “Without a good education and personality (excellent academic profile) and having a good job (doctor, engineer, lawyer), leading a comfortable life would be hard,” they would say. Speaking to us in Punjabi, my parents taught us our heritage, and took us to Gurdwara (Sikh temple) to foster our bond with our faith and the foundation of our lifestyle, Sikhi. In addition to raising us like they were raised, my parents brought us up as American as they could. What they couldn’t prevent, though, was the clash of cultures that we were inevitably going to face and continue to face.

On the one hand, we want to be like everyone else (many who are white and “American”) and we seek acceptance from a group that doesn’t value our “foreign” heritage. We whitewash our names, take up “American” names to accommodate. In an effort to feel accepted by American society and becoming complacent with the pronunciation of our names, we become foreigners to our heritage. The tradeoff between accepting and compromising our identities leaves us feeling like we have to be validated by others. We feel incomplete because at home we’re American, and out in the world we’re from whatever country our skin suggests. Like a bridge, we’re stuck between two banks, two cliffs, two worlds with what seems like an insurmountable divide; but nevertheless, we persist. 

This summer, I spent my time indoors because of Coronavirus. During this time, I’ve been trying to practice better mental health habits because I was able to realize the acceptance I had sought for so long was something I first had to give myself. Things like validation or forgiveness were easy to provide others, but giving these to myself was something I rarely did. I was so consumed by being a bridge for others that I wasn’t even thinking about maintaining the bridge with myself.  

I applied for this fellowship with the CRGC because I believe that it will offer me space where I can rebuild the bridge with myself by embarking with others on this part of my journey with Sikh Philosophy. In the past, I’ve experienced the most learning about myself with the company of others, especially with those who show a genuine interest to unapologetically share their thoughts and beliefs. I hope that with this fellowship, I grow personally and get to share that experience with my peers.

How has your upbringing influenced your relationship with yourself and your identity? How do you hope to grow with your philosophy and spirituality?

21 thoughts on “Bridge Between Cultures — Simran Kaur Sandhu”

  1. I can definitely relate to this on a smaller scale. Growing up Jewish made me feel like an outsider in many ways. Sometimes it was having to get accommodations for holidays, or getting told “merry christmas” but never “yom tov”. It made me feel like I needed to hide being Jewish (which to be fair, I wasn’t very outwardly appearing Jewish anyways), but then I figured I liked the way Jewish spaces and practices made me feel, so I realized I just had to be vocal about being Jewish to avoid the discomfort.

  2. I underwent a series of moves as a kid, which ultimately made me feel displaced. At age 7, I moved from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin, after middle school, I enrolled in a high school out of town, and after my freshman year at UW-La Crosse, I transferred to UW-Madison. Hence, I have always felt that my constant moving has influenced the person I am today. It certainly made me more extroverted; I had to make new friends every few years. As a result, my identity is always in a state of flux. My dad is Jewish, while my mom is Catholic, so there is always vacillation between the two faiths. I feel as though I am pulled between the two faiths and between the places I have lived and called home. I want to say that I am like a gem under pressure – becoming shinier with every pressure – but it usually amounts to stress. As I read your post, I was constantly reminded of the pressure to assimilate and lose that sense of complexity. In your case, it is much more substantial than in my own experiences. Still, that tension is present for me. I too wish to rebuild a bridge with my past identities and realize further who I am. I feel that this interfaith program is a real opportunity to explore this area I typically ignore.

    1. Thank you! I’d like to remind you that shouldn’t downplay your experiences because moving around was substantial to you. Moving around is hard and being brought up in a household with two different philosophies is challenging. I’m glad you were able to relate to me and I hope you find it in you to advocate for your experiences to the best of your abilities! I’m rooting for you!

  3. This is a fascinating post, Simran! Thank you for your perspective. I have an interesting parallel to make – I also grew up between two cultures, Russian and American. My mom is Russian, and my dad grew up here in Madison. I certainly experienced my fair share of teasing in school, cultural misunderstandings, and even a few stereotypes, though none of it was serious or violent. Sometimes, it was hard to reconcile certain clashing cultural values in my mind. However, most people, upon finding out my heritage, would be fascinated and ask interested questions, wanting to learn Russian words or foods or facts. I think this points to a clear instance of both colorism and racism in American society. Though we both come from foreign cultures, our society assigned values to those cultures and was more interested in one (the majority white one) and more judging towards the other. Despite the foreign aspects to our families’ histories, I experience white privilege in this country, while you don’t. This significantly influences the ways in which we relate with our cultural backgrounds and with those around us. I would be very interested in comparing the similarities in how children of immigrants experience the American cultural and religious landscape, while also recognizing that there is a difference in privilege among us.

    1. Thank you Maya! Yes! I’m glad you were able to realize the similarities we share and that my words were able to provide that sort of relatability for you. I look forward to sharing deep and enriching conversations with you.

  4. I think that all religious minorities in the US go through some sort of journey in terms of their identity and how to mesh home life and culture with an outside world that is often very different. I grew up in a Jewish household in a very Catholic neighborhood and public school system. Since I don’t outwardly “look Jewish,” though, I had the privilege of determining my identity more on my own terms, without unwanted comments and pressure from peers who don’t know me. I have dealt with teachers who have never heard of my holidays and school events that served food I couldn’t eat (like pork hotdogs), but no one ever told me I wasn’t “American enough”, or any of the many other issues people of color face when trying to navigate who they are growing up in between two cultures.

    1. Thank you Azariah, I’ve also experienced what it’s like to get served food that I wasn’t able to eat. Traditionally, Sikhs are vegetarians, and so consequently I was brought up like that. As for being told for not “being American enough,” it is something I’ve learned to take in and let go. Maybe you’ve experienced some sort of isolating experiences or rhetoric and if you have, I’m sorry and I hope you’ve been able to work through events. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

  5. Growing up in a predominantly Christian community I never felt too out of place. As a Catholic I understood that my Lutheran and Presbyterian peers prayed to the same God I did, they also went to church on Sundays, they celebrated Christmas like me. It wasn’t until I began to get involved in nondenominational Christian orgs on campus that I realized there are a lot of parts to my religion that are not shared by other Christian sectors. My upbringing influenced how I viewed my identity a Catholic in respect to other Christians. Realizing later in life other Christians don’t kneel during mass, the Rosary I prayed so often wasn’t a staple to other Christians and the sign of the cross wasn’t so universal. Although Catholic tradition differs from other Christian tradition my upbringing as a Catholic taught me to love, to learn, and to accept. I am looking forward to learning more about the similarities and differences between my upbringing as Catholic and my Fellows’ upbringing in their religions.

    1. Yes and thank you, Anna. My best friend is Catholic and Indian, so details like you mentioned about kneeling and the Rosary are things I’m aware of. I look forward to deepening and sharing conversations about our faiths and their significances in our lives.

  6. I really enjoyed reading your blog post Simran! I definitely related to a lot of the experiences you described – especially those related to navigating two cultures simultaneously. My family also practices Sikhi, and I grew up in a Punjabi household. My parents wanted my sister and I to know our culture and heritage and made it a point to incorporate this into our childhood. As a result, we went to the Gurdwara quite often where we learned about Sikh history and prayers. Additionally, we learned how to read and write in Punjabi because it was critical for my parents to ensure my sister and I could recite prayers and communicate in the language of the land from which we came. As someone who was born in the US and went to schools where hardly anyone looked like me, I struggled with who I wanted to be. For example, as a child, I wanted to fit in, look like and even worship like my classmates — but this was impossible as I had thick, long braided hair, brown skin and practiced a different religion. Furthermore, I felt timid talking about my religion because I didn’t know how to explain it to a class of students that were primarily Catholic. Specifically, I remember describing the Gurdawara as a church and feeling incredibly uncomfortable while doing so because in my heart, I knew I was trying to cover up who I really was along with my religion. Holidays such as Christmas and Easter were interesting experiences in our household — my parents let us enjoy festivities of the season, but we did not celebrate the religious aspect of those holidays. As I grew older, I realized that my religion had greatly shaped my worldview. How could I be ashamed of a religion and heritage that gave me the confidence to be who I was? My religion and spirituality made me unique, and I will always be grateful to my parents for teaching us how to practice Sikhi as authentically as possible. Through this fellowship, I hope to better understand how Sikhi guides my interactions with others and decisions I make by hearing about how other fellows have or have not been guided by religion.

    1. Yes Bhene! I’ve also done the same thing when I was younger and called the Gurdwara ‘a church for Sikhs’ in an attempt to explain where I would go to worship on Sundays. I look forward to hearing about your experiences and going through this fellowship together.

  7. Simran I can deeply relate to the feelings you had of having to assimilate to fit in with your peers. As a Colombian immigrant, trying to fit in while at the same time holding on to the Colombian version of myself was an energy demanding task. For me though, religion was one of the few things I didn’t feel like I needed to change to fit in when I immigrated here. Although I grew up Catholic, my family was not devoted to the religion which then made it easy to transition to become a non-denominational Christian once my mom married a man of this religion. As a non-denominational Christian I never felt too much had particularly changed from when I was Catholic other than now we actually went to church on a consistent basis which strengthened my connection to religion. My religion played a very important role in my first years as an immigrant because it was the only thing I felt “had my back” when the feelings of isolation caused by language and cultural barries were so raw. This experience allowed me to develop a strong relationship with myself and find comfort in my own company because I realized I never am truly alone. Now I hope to seek understanding of other religions to see how other people’s connection to it has shaped who they are.

    1. Thank you Laura. Your experiences are so valuable for me to read about. Reading about your journey to America and trying to find comfort in your surrounding is definitely a challenge. I’m so glad you were able to find solace in your faith when you were going through the adjustment of living in America. I’m very interested to learn more about your journey and how your experiences have led you to where you are today.

  8. Being Afghan-American but being born and raised in Western countries, such as Russia and America I relate to your struggle Simran of being stuck between two worlds, and never completely being able to be accepted in either and fitting in neither. I really felt how you discussed that during the pandemic you came to realize that acceptance comes from within, as during the pandemic I was at home and came to realize that growing up between two worlds, both of them are a part of my identity. Additionally that it is okay to be part of two worlds, and even though it has made it difficult at times it has also enriched my life. I hope to grow in my spirituality through hearing from others how their faith or philosophy guides their life and to focus on my own faith during these uncertain times through prayer and reflection.

    1. Thank you Mukadas. I’m rooting for you! I hope that we can help one another in our spirituality through our time in this fellowship together and I hope that you’re able to find your spiritual anchor in these uncertain times. Sending good wishes your way 🙂

  9. As a Hindu Jain myself, I feel this on a personal level. As an Indian brought up in an American world with parents who grow up themselves in India, there was a lot of mixing of cultures which brought new and unique traditions in my life, but also many conflicts on values and beliefs. I think a huge lesson I learned growing up with immigrant parents, was that they will never fully understand every decision and belief that I have, and that goes the same for me. However, I think it was and still continues to be important for us to accept each other’s opinions and take that into consideration at the very least when making decisions. I have found that this has worked well with my family because it has allowed me to become my own person with my own beliefs influenced by my heritage and the American culture, while still showing my parents that I respect and cherish the beliefs they have and that I am greatly appreciative of the values that they instilled in me through my religion.

    1. Thank you Anusha. I really like what you say about you and your parents. I think that’s something I didn’t always understand when growing up but I’ve come to realize until recently. I do sincerely wish to be able to understand my parents and for them to understand me, but I know that we don’t have to know everything to love each other. I appreciate the depth of your insight!

  10. Thanks so much for sharing, Simran! I really enjoyed hearing your perspective on your upbringing and how’s that influenced who you are and how you interact with the world around you. I was actually planning on sharing something similar myself when I share my blog post.
    For me, growing up as a white Christian in Michigan, I had a different experience balancing my identity with the community I inhabited. Because, for the most part, everyone around me was the exact same as me, I really had to seek out people who were different from me and was always encouraged to do so from a young age. I was also lucky that Ann Arbor was such a diverse community that really encouraged interfaith and intercultural community. I was taught that the best way to establish deep connections with people and broaden my worldview, I must learn to appreciate everyone, the communities they inhabit, and where they come from.
    While this all sounds good, I also know that I was privileged enough that this was an active choice I was able to make instead of a reality I was forced to face. I’m so excited to use this experience to continue to learn more about other peoples’ experiences with this metaphorical bridge, and I’m excited to get to know you better!

  11. Thank you very much for sharing these powerful words, Simran! I really enjoyed reading about your experience as a first-generation American as I have had some similar experiences as someone who has been part of a very culture-filled household for the entirety of my life. Although I do not identify as a first-generation American, I am the son of an immigrant, my mother. My mother was born in Israel and moved here with her parents when she was three years old. My father, despite not immigrating to the United States, spent a good portion of his life in Israel. Both of my parents were taught to value hard work, a disciplined work ethic, and a good character. They passed these values down to my siblings and myself. Due to these values, I have been taught to embrace my identity as someone who is a Modern Orthodox Jew and also considers themselves a religious Zionist.

    I really liked what you said about how we want to be like everyone else and assimilate. This is something that I struggle to balance every day, assimilation, and remaining distinct. I wear my yarmulke everywhere in Madison and I am a firm believer in standing up for what you believe in.

    I hope that my deep spiritual connection will guide me in being proud of my identity while continuing to integrate myself into daily society.

    Thank you again for your empowering words.

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