Last night, my family gathered around the television to watch Nikki Haley be interviewed by Stephen Colbert (click for full interview) on The Colbert Report. The Governor of South Carolina has been doing a book tour to promote her memoir Can’t Is Not an Option, and has been appearing on many talk shows in New York.
As she comes from an immigrant Sikh family, many American Sikhs have a curiosity around Haley (she has been written about on this blog several times). She is often viewed to have converted to Christianity to bolster her political prospects. Indeed, when campaigning for the Governor’s seat, she was the target of bigoted slurs by her opponents in reference to her ethnicity, and she often sought to reiterate her Christian credentials to South Carolina voters – a state that has been called one of the most religious in the nation in a recent Gallup survey.
It was obvious from the interview that she was intent on promoting her book and herself (by also praising South Carolina as much as she could), which is what one should expect from a politician on a book tour. In the Colbert interview, she mentioned that her parents came to the United States from India with $8 in their pocket – a story common to many of our parents when they emigrated from India since that country placed heavy restrictions on taking money out of the country. She also suggested that South Carolina has come a long way in terms of race relations by electing an Indian American woman as Governor, and claimed that this made South Carolina a good place to do business. Admittedly, this last statement made me contort my eyebrows in confusion.
However, Haley said something very telling and salient to the Sikh American experience in another interview she did with the New York Times:
I did read Indian scriptures when we could get the English versions, but the problem was I never took the time to learn the language. Really, what it comes down to is that I knew the emotion of faith, I knew what my parents were trying to teach me, but we always said “no” when my mom was trying to teach us Punjabi. Now I wish we had learned, but that is why I think I made the transition.
I understood the language, I understood what it was saying and so much of what Christianity brought. With the Sikh faith, I understood the feeling of the faith, but I never understood the words so that’s really what it was. Michael and I talked about bringing up our children, and it was just natural that this was the religion that spoke to me.
There is definitely a lesson for those of us Sikhs who have maintained our religious affiliation in this country and wish to continue our Sikh heritage.