Crossing Oceans

by Nitya Chagti ’19

Nitya Chagti won second place in the 2017 Bailey Oratorical competition. This year’s prompt was: “At the heart of the liberal arts is civic engagement: How can we use the values of our liberal arts education to heal divides in our nation and world?”

Am I your family?

Think about it. Think about this question long and hard in the next eight minutes as I attempt to persuade you into believing in what I believe in.

Am. I. Your family?

Your immediate reaction is probably: no. After all, you didn’t grow up with me, we didn’t have the same household, and we don’t share any memories together. If you were really thinking about it, you would say I don’t have the same skin colour as you. My accent is different. My mannerism are not like yours. I am, in your eyes, a foreigner. A member of the OTHER.

Now think a little harder. I’m not your family, as we already established, and I’m not from your culture either. And yet I’m here on a stage, speaking to you. How do you know it’s safe to be in the same room with me?  What do you even know about me that you would think it’s safe? If, in this moment, you started to make a list of reasons why it’s safe to listen to me: she’s just a young girl, she’s an Indian so she’s probably a Hindu, she’s doesn’t look like she has a bomb strapped to her; Then, brothers and sisters, we have something to talk about. Because if you made that list, then you just acknowledged fear. You’re afraid that there ARE people out there – on the other side of the ocean – who are going to hurt you. They may not be me, but they exist.  That’s xenophobia. And xenophobia hurts people, creating irreparable divides. These divides are fostered solely by ignorance, but they can be mended by a liberal arts education.

We came to Juniata College thinking that we were going to be handed answers. But that’s not what a liberal arts education does. Instead, it makes realize that we actually don’t know what we thought we knew by challenging our perceptions of the world. So, it makes us curious. And curiosity is the key. The way to eliminate xenophobia, caused by lack of understanding, is to be curious.

So let me ask you this: what’s xenophobia? The word comes from the Greek for xenos, meaning stranger, and phobos, meaning fear.  This irrational fear of strangers doesn’t exist in a vacuum: it hurts people, and the tendency to lash out at strangers is the reason why I’m ashamed. I’m embarrassed of where I’m from, I’m embarrassed of my cultural identity. Here, I no longer share the food that I bring from home – because I’m embarrassed when my friends think that it looks funny.  Here, I pack on powder on my face every morning because I’m ashamed of my skin colour – because I wasn’t born pale enough to fit in.  Here, I usually don’t wear Indian clothing because I’m afraid that if I do, a black truck sporting a Confederate flag will go blazing down Moore Street, singling me out for being different – singling me out for being new.  And here, I’m called Nits. Every semester, I leave my name behind at home so I can fit in: Nitya, meaning eternal, never-ending; what a joke! No one can pronounce it.  Why are we expecting people to stop being themselves just because we’re afraid of them?

The less we know about others, the more we fear them, and the more we fear, the more we hurt people. Surrounded by oceans, we know so little about the seven billion other people that we share this boat with. But I’m guilty of this too. I’ve been uninformed before.  You see, four years ago I went on a walk with my mum and I came across the only Jewish synagogue in New Delhi, India. The synagogue was five minutes from my home and yet I’d never even heard of it.  It’s really surprising now that I think about it, considering that New Delhi is a vibrant city, and it is positively bursting with a variety of cultural beliefs, and to think I’d never even heard of Judaism. Of New Delhi’s 20 million residents, only 40 – forty people, can you imagine – identify as Jewish.  I was so excited! From that moment on, I was so curious that I made it my life’s mission to raise awareness about the Jewish heritage in India. So I organized a heritage walk, the first of its kind in the country, where I introduced dozens and dozens of people to the synagogue.  I believe that stories can alleviate this lack of understanding. As Melissa Flemming, the head of Communications at the United Nations Refugee Agency, once said: “My job is to make people care about the sixty million displaced people in the world. I wish I could tell every single one of their stories. Because if people knew their stories, I don’t think there would be so many walls.”

See, that’s the key: civic engagement isn’t about large-scale activism. It’s about curiosity. It’s about seeking out challenges, as liberal arts teaches us to do. And it’s not as impossible as it sounds. I’ve seen the community around me be curious before.  It all goes back to when I was a freshman, sitting alone on the floor of my room on the night of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, and feeling gut-wrenchingly lonely. Juniata’s Hindu population was negligible – so there were no streamers or lights or exchange of gifts that night. There was no music, dancing, or laughter in the air. I was alone.  “Never again,” I thought to myself. So I set aside my fear of sharing Indian food and of wearing traditional clothing, and next October, I organized the first Diwali celebration on campus. I did not – even in my wildest imaginations – expect the overwhelming response that I got. Ellis Ballroom was packed – over 80 people showed up! It was so unexpected, that we actually ran out of food AND space. That night, the Juniata community and the Huntingdon residents wrapped me in a warm cocoon of love and encouragement. I couldn’t have organized such a huge event without the people I hadn’t expected to help at all: my roommate, my closest friends, my fellow Plexans, and my Friendship Family. My wonderfully thoughtful friendship family, who Googled Diwali traditions and handed me the largest box of goodies that I’ve seen. So that I could have a little piece of tradition even if I wasn’t at home.  Without their curiosity, without their desire to help out, I would have been left, yet again, sitting alone on the floor of my room, lamenting the distance from my family. But they saved me. They loved me. So I said something that day which I still hold to be true: I see all of you as my family, my home away from my home.

Now, I ask you again: am I your family? There’s a reason why I’m asking this. When I ask you if I’m your family, I mean that the only way for us to heal the divides of xenophobia is to address the lack of understanding about the other, which can be done if we ask questions. It can be done if we’re curious. Rabindranath Tagore, an Indian poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, once said that, “you can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water;” Which puts me in mind of a Hindi quote: “Boond boond se sagar banta hai.” It means it takes mere drops of water to make a sea. So individual effort, over time, can bring about a larger change.  Each of us has to ask the questions that move us past ignorance. Because if we don’t – if we don’t – then we’ll stay separated on different sides of the ocean, isolated in our paranoia and hurt. Curiosity will move us past xenophobia, because it eliminates this lack of understanding.  That night in October, you cared enough to ask. I felt the magic – but it wasn’t just magic, it was the beauty of a liberal arts education, which teaches us to be curious, to challenge the world, to come out of our shells. We have to be curious about individual cultural expressions so that ONE day, when someone with a different skin colour, a different accent, and different mannerisms asks you: Am I your family? You WANT to say yes.

To watch the Baileys for 2017, click here.