When I was in graduate school, my advisor, Saki Bercovitch, used to say proudly that he counted among his students one from the oldest religion in the world (Zoroastrianism) and one from the newest (Mormonism).
Full disclosure: my father is a Parsee, and I had a navjote ceremony when I was in the third grade, making me–officially–a Zoroastrian.We had trouble finding someone from the priest class to perform the navjote ceremony, however, because my mother was a Filipino and a Christian–a Protestant, oddly enough, her mother having converted to a Pentecostal sect before my mother’s birth.
My parents met at the International House at Columbia University, my father coming from Pakistan to study mathematical statistics, my mother from the Philippines to study literature and drama. We weren’t religious at home, though we did celebrate Christmas and made it a point to attend the Christmas eve services at Riverside Church in New York, a few blocks up the street from where we lived. My mother sometimes liked to attend Easter services there as well. It was always assumed that I would become a Zoroastrian, as my mother explained it, so that I could keep my options open. I could convert to Christianity but not to Zoroastrianism later, because Zoroastrianism didn’t accept converts. But, when the time came during third grade for the ceremony to be performed, we couldn’t find a priest. We kept hearing excuses along the lines of, “I would do it, but my mother-in-law is very old-fashioned.” Finally, we managed to secure the services of a priest from Bombay who was traveling in the U.S. and spending some time in New York.
It was an early lesson in the dynamics of culture, though it would take me years to recognize it: my parents’ marriage was an emblem of cosmopolitan cultural mixing, while the priests’ belief in the importance of cultural purity served as an emblem of all the forces that are arrayed against cosmopolitanism. When I was growing up, strangers would ask me, “Where are you from?” and I’d say, “New York” or “the upper West Side.” They’d look vaguely disappointed and then say, “No, I meant, ‘What’s your background'”?
I wasn’t really being disingenuous, though I was well aware what the first question really meant. It’s just that I never particularly identified with either of my parents’ cultural traditions. We spoke English at home, and my parents had gradually lost their fluency in the mother tongues (Gujarati and Tagalog, respectively). What I identified with was being mixed and being able to slip from one cultural context to another.
That strikes me as a typical New York story.
Cyrus R. K. Patell is Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Honors in the English Department at New York University.
Department of English
New York University
13 University Place, Room 504
New York, NY 10003-4556
FAX: (212) 995-4019
PREVIOUS ACADEMIC APPOINTMENTS
Director of Undergraduate Studies, Department of English, New York University, 2001-04
Assistant Professor, Department of English, New York University, 1993-99
President’s Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of English, University of California, Berkeley, 1991-93