Tag Archives: cultural diversity

Penn Museum and Penn Cultural Heritage Center

My son invited me to celebrate Mother’s Day in “the city”, which in our case means Philadelphia. This is where we went:

Penn Museum

Hello India

I highly recommend both the Penn Museum and this special exhibit! First, the Museum. What a beautiful place! If you need peace and quiet and beauty, here it is. I think you can dine in the cafe without even entering the exhibit area.

Our first stop was the special exhibit “Cultures in the Crossfire”. One of the heartbreaking aspects of war is the destruction of artifacts, buildings and neighborhoods – all the things that make up a way of life. People are displaced. Language and identify become blurred. This is what the Cultural Heritage Center has to say about itself: “…(our) mission is to activate conversations about why the past is important…” The stories from Iraq and Syria conveyed in this exhibition are very sad.

We moved on to one of the classic permanent exhibits. Who can resist mummies?

Finally, we visited an additional special exhibit, “Native American Voices: The People – Here and Now”. I especially admired the contemporary silver jewelry.

We decided to continue the multicultural theme of our day by dining at an Indian restaurant with a great buffet, the “New Delhi” at 4004 Chestnut Street. Highly recommended! Let’s not forget that culture includes food.

“The Laughing Sutra” by Mark Salzman

I’m creating a new category for this book, which I read about 15 years ago, long before I had this blog. The category is

ADULT BOOKS THAT TURN OUT WILDLY POPULAR WITH KIDS!

Certainly Mark Salzman’s first book, the nonfiction Iron and Silk, an account of his time in China, was intended for adults. So when I came across his novel The Laughing Sutra, I expected the same. And initially, it was adult fiction. In fact, kind of scary. We witness a murder. But that was just a prologue… As I read on, and got to know the characters, I was amused and entertained, and wondered what my eleven year old son would think.

Hsun-ching and Colonel Sun are an unlikely pair of adventurers. Hsun-ching is a orphan, raised by an quiet, old monk. Colonel Sun is confused, wild, strong and lives for excitement. They join forces to seek a sutra (religious poem) wanted by the old monk.

When these two make it to the USA, the intercultural confusion blossoms into hilarity.

I started reading this book to my 11 year old, but the six year old was also captivated! We cackled our way through to the amazing climax, when Hsun-ching and the Colonel try to re-enter mainland China. (At that time, no one re-entered China. The border guards weren’t ready…) Colonel Sun became part of our family repertoire, like the characters in “Ghostbusters” and other favorites. He was at least as real to us as Superman or Johnny Appleseed. Who wouldn’t want Colonel Sun for a companion? I won’t spoil the surprise by telling you the source of the Colonel’s amazing powers.

So read “The Laughing Sutra”. I also liked Salzman’s next (and entirely entirely different) novel, “The Soloist”. I hope he keeps writing.

So far, I haven’t been able to think of another adult book that worked so well with kids. Any nominations for my new genre? I’m curious.

“Audrey Hepburn’s Neck – A Novel” by Alan Brown.

Pocket Books, 1996. 290 pages.

This novel was way ahead of its time – everyone’s into “diversity” and “global awareness” these days. This lively cross cultural romance is too good to miss! It has the added attraction of being a “coming of age” story, likely to appeal to young adults. I plan to nominate it as a “common reading” at the University where I work. (Not that my nominations have gone anywhere…)

Toshi, our hero, is a young manga artist with a passion for American women. He studies English and dates any American woman he manages to meet. His long term best friend is a gay American who reluctantly accepts Toshi’s heterosexuality and coaches him in the nuances of the American psyche.

Toshi has left his remote childhood home for the bright lights of Tokyo, but suddenly his family’s past catches up with him. He has never understood his mother’s sadness, his father’s silence, and their divorce. After his father’s death, his mother reveals her shatteringly traumatic past and the nature of the bond between her and Toshi’s father. So unexpected and profound are her revelations that Toshi must reconstruct his entire identity. By good fortune, his most recent American GF is an ideal partner in this undertaking.

This novel, which received numerous awards, fell through a crack at some point and has been so forgotten that it is not available for e-reader! I trust that will soon be remedied. Wikipedia states that a movie version is pending. I think it will be great! Alan Brown has been more active as a filmmaker than a writer. I look forward to his future work in both of these media.

“My Beloved World” by Sonia Sotomayor

This is a blockbuster autobiography. Sotomayor’s life is the “American dream”. She came from a very poor Spanish speaking Puerto Rican family in the Bronx. Her family travelled “back to the island” regularly , giving her access to the richness of Puerto Rican culture, but she had almost no contact with the wonders of nearby Manhattan. She became a lawyer, then a judge, and now serves on the Supreme Court, as its first Hispanic appointee. She is sometimes referred to as a “poster child” for affirmative action.

As a small child, Sonia took charge of her diabetes, which was diagnosed when she was seven. Her parents couldn’t handle the necessary daily injections of insulin, so Sonia administered them herself, understanding perfectly well that mismanagement of the disease could disable or kill her. Another turning point of her childhood, a few years later, was her mother’s decision to speak English at home. Sonia’s ability to cope with school increased exponentially. Much later in life, she was part of an organization that went to court to establish that public schools must provide bilingual education. Before then, many Spanish speaking students were classified as disabled or “slow” because teachers could not communicate with them.

In her autobiography, Sotomayor writes about learning how to learn. As early as elementary school, she approached high performing peers and asked them HOW they got good grades. Her parochial education placed a heavy emphasis on memorization, and she was floored when, as a junior in high school, she was asked to write an essay and EXPLAIN her ideas. At Princeton, a helpful friend kept passing her the “classics” she had missed, like Alice in Wonderland.

Finding mentors became a habit that benefitted Sotomayor at every stage of her education and career, though she was stubborn and admits she often listened carefully to advice and then did something else. Parts of this book should be required reading for college students. Sotomayor got in over her head time after time, and worked her way up with gritty determination.

Now a Justice of the Supreme Court and the first Hispanic to hold such a position, Sotomayor deals daily with the most important issues of our day, including immigration law. Her autobiography ends with her first judgeship, but I look forward to a second installment. She’s an energetic writer and a clear thinker, and has a wonderful life story to share.

“Leaving India – My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents” by Minal Hajratwala

This book was a special find because it deals with emigrants from Gujarat, where most of my Indian neighbors come from. I study yoga at a local Hindu temple. Some (older) temple members speak only Gujarati.

This book also deals with a specific caste, the Khatri. There is tangential mention of “Patel” as a caste. It is a very common last name here, usually the most common name among our high school graduates, with 5 or 7 or 9 in a graduating class.

Members of the Khatri caste historically were weavers, but have moved into trade. Around here that means motels, restaurants and a wide range of small businesses. The author of this book is atypical. She is a journalist. Her father was an engineer/scientist, her mother a physical therapist. Their family of four included four nationalities – Indian, Fijian, New Zealander and American, the later two being the birthplaces of the author and her brother. (Possibly some of them have dual citizenship.) The family was in New Zealand at a time when Indians were normally excluded by racial quotas, but Hajratwala’s father had urgently needed scientific skills.

Hajratwala is also exceptional in being openly gay. (I may be jumping to this conclusion. I don’t know the local Gujaratis well enough to be sure.)

I cannot imagine having SO MUCH FAMILY! Hajratwala travels around the world visiting cousins and aunts and relatives by marriage… She records their life stories in vivid detail. 

This is a great book for people adjusting to or curious about America’s current level of diversity, or for anyone with a geographical frame of mind and/or an interest in India. (It says next to nothing about yoga or meditation, which seem to be most irregularly distributed around the Indian subcontinent.) The focus of the book is on individual and family experiences. A little religion, and no politics.

I originally read this in October of 2009. Four years later, I’m still happily going to yoga class at the Hindu temple two or three times a week.