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July 27, 1999
Discovering True America At An Indian Wedding
The Duke University was recently embroiled in a bitter controversy over an effort to introduce Hindi as a major. The opponents of the move asserted that multiculturalism was going too far on their campus and elsewhere in America. In this article first published in Duke's student newspaper, Edward Benson makes a powerful plea for multicultural contacts.
The weekend before July 4, my wife and I went to Philadelphia. We saw Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell and then went to the wedding of a friend.
It was unlike any wedding I have ever attended.
For starters, my friend hails from Bombay, his wife from New Delhi. So the crowd was predominantly Indian -- about 50 had flown for the occasion. The remainder had come from London, Ireland, Los Angeles and even northern New Jersey. There were at least 100 of them.
Also in the crowd were two dozen or so folks that were not of Indian descent. A few -- the groom's friends from his North Carolina State engineering days -- were from Spain, Turkey, France and other points from around the world. And then there we were, the Americans, some black and some white. Even those of us used to being the majority in the United States were just another minority in the crowd of Indians.
But we weren't threatened by that minority status. We were welcomed and respected by the group, warmly and honestly, regardless of where we grew up or where our grandparents might have called home.
It was a traditional Hindu wedding, a rich experience to which I could never do justice. Suffice to say, it went on for two hours, involving prayers and chants and so many sets of seven prayers and promises that I began to wonder if Indians elope on a regular basis. Luckily for the non-Hindus present, a handy guide to the ceremony was handed out and we had a long break before the reception. Which was good, because that event went on for another five hours, until the management finally shut down the party.
The whole weekend triggered a number of thoughts, several of which seemed worth sharing.
First was the energy and exuberance of the celebration. There was a sense of life and joy in every aspect of the weekend. This was especially true of two events: the night before the ceremony, a sangeet (a social, with excellent Indian food alternating with live music and dancing) went on for over five hours; and the reception, with still more great food, provided hours of continuous dancing by everyone still capable of walking. And the wedding itself, though dignified, was hardly a 3,000-year-old cultural relic; the participants and the guests all had genuine fun.
Second was the nature of American unity in diversity. E pluribus unum? You betcha. Much more than lip-service multiculturalism, this was a real gathering of diversity. And while only some of us were American, all of us were drawn together by the very nature of American society.
My wife and I learned that the Liberty Bell was cast to celebrate Philadelphia's religious freedom, an early embrace of diversity. And from that city came the astonishing liberal democratic view of 1776, that all of us "are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." That revolutionary extension of the Enlightenment was indeed, at length, "heard round the world."
The people at our friend's wedding were proof of that vision of differences united by equality and opportunity. Those in that room not by blood relation had made friendships with those present; not because of differences, but regardless of them.
Given the chance by the American experiment to do so, we had found common interests -- in science, engineering, art, dancing and yes, good food. In so doing, we found our common humanity. We realized that different people aren't so different after all, and that the differences that do exist are fascinating, and needn't threaten us in the least.
So finally, as I learned in my own collegiate days, when you study or experience things very removed from your everyday knowledge or experience, you sometimes see and learn things utterly unexpected.
Duke may choose someday to offer, as it does for Spanish or French, a Hindi major.
Whether Duke does so or not, the open-minded will find that there is always something to be gained from learning about the unfamiliar, even about other ways of living, believing, and being. Such learning does not necessarily require adopting those different stands but allows you to make connections with people and ideas you might never have imagined, granting access to a new perspective on your own life, values and perceptions.
And isn't that what academic -- or personal -- freedom means?
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