[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/10/16/art.obama.diwali.jpg caption="President Barack Obama lights a traditional oil lamp as Sri Narayanachar Digalakote, Hindu Priest from the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple in Maryland, chants in observance of Diwali, or the 'Festival of Lights.'"]
As a first-generation Indian American, I am inevitably faced with many interesting cultural experiences.
Growing up in a small town in the Midwest, I often felt as if I lived two parallel lives; I was an American in school and Indian at home. I was truly conflicted and felt unable to share my Indian heritage during my elementary school years, despite my attempts to share the meaning and traditions with others.
My favorite holiday? The festival of Diwali, also known as the Hindu New Year.
Diwali is such a bright, colorful holiday celebrating the epic triumph of good over evil. This holiday is filled with sweets, vibrant clothing, and spending time with families. Not being able to share this with friends and colleagues was similar to a hypothetical situation where Christmas and Chanukah were ignored at schools, department stores, and at work.
Fast forward many years to 2006 when all of a sudden I was faced with a lot of Diwali questions. “When is Diwali this year?” I remember a teacher asking me. Shocked, I had no idea what prompted this newfound cultural awareness. A few days later it dawned on me: the hit NBC sitcom “The Office” actually filmed an entire episode devoted to Diwali.
At first, I was reluctant to watch. I’m so used to the typical “Apu” jokes from “The Simpsons” and wasn’t sure if “The Office” was going to be laughing at or with the Indian culture. Safe to say, the creative team at “The Office” laughed with us, creating one of my favorite television episodes ever made. The buzz about Diwali eventually faded a bit after memories of this episode withered away.
Imagine my surprise as an email landed in my inbox. “Subject: White House Celebrates Diwali.”
The White House, led by President Obama, lit the traditional diya (oil lamp) to celebrate Diwali. This is the first time the White House celebrated Diwali with the full attention of the president, as past presidents had not attended the ceremony.
While this news may have been lost to others more concerned with health care and the economy, it struck a chord with many around the world. I hope that small steps, such as celebrating important holidays around the world, will help to raise cultural consciousness and awareness, if only the slightest bit.
Although at first I was unsure of the impact of this gesture by the Obama Administration, minutes later I received another email from a co-worker with two simple – yet heartfelt – words:
I’m not sure who to necessarily thank, but I think both President Obama and (the fictional) Michael Scott had something to do with it.
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