Growing up Hindu in Utah: The story of 24-year-old Preeya Prakash

SALT LAKE CITY — Preeya Prakash is difficult to define — even for Preeya Prakash.

“I consider myself an American,” she said during a recent break in classes at the University of Utah, where she is a 24-year-old graduate student with a BA in neuroscience from the University of Southern California. “And I’m a Utahn. I was born here in Salt Lake City. I have lived here all my life. I’ve got the accent and everything.”

She is also Indian. Her parents were both born and raised in India, and her hair, skin and handsome features bear the genetic imprint of a country in which she has never actually lived.

“When people ask me, ‘Where are you from?’ I always say, ‘Well, I was born here,’” she says with characteristic wit and good humor. “And then they look at me and say, ‘Well, yeah, but where are you … you know … from?’

“I know what they’re asking,” she says, smiling. “I just like to make them squirm.”

Things get a little more complicated for Preeya when you throw her Hindu beliefs and culture into the definitional equation.

“Culturally, I am Hindu — and a pretty traditional Hindu, at that,” she said while relaxing in one of the Marriott Library lounges. “For me, I kind of look to my faith as a guideline for how I should lead my life. It’s the part of me that keeps me grounded, that tells me who I am and that I am part of something bigger than myself.

“I may not be the pillar of Hinduism,” she continued, “but it’s a big part of my life. I go to the temple as often as I can — at least once a week. One of the things I love about my faith is it doesn’t prescribe a set way that you have to do things. I say the prayers, I participate in the festivals and holidays and I observe the celebrations. I do what feels right to me — the things that I have been taught to do my entire life. Being Hindu is a big part of who I am, and will always be.”

For Preeya, growing up Hindu in Utah has meant being part of a decided minority — racially, culturally and religiously. According to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Utah’s 9,000 Hindus comprise .5 percent of the state’s population — a number consistent with the percentage of Hindus throughout the United States.

Preeya’s parents, Ramesh and Vijaya Prakash, were both raised in India and are highly educated. They immigrated to America in 1985, when Ramesh was working at Cornell University.

“They wanted us to do well academically, but they also wanted us to be well-rounded,” Preeya said. “In India they really focus on academics, but they don’t do much else. Our parents didn’t want that for us. So in addition to sending us to private school for our education, we also played the violin and we played sports like soccer and tennis.”

But more than anything else, Preeya said, the Prakash home was a Hindu home.

Well, a Hindu-American-Utahn-Indian home.

“I credit my parents for teaching me how to balance our Hindu culture with the culture of Utah,” Preeya said. “We were Americans, we were Utahns, we were Indians, we were Hindu. We were all of these things, and we embraced all of them fully and completely.”

Which can be confusing to children — especially when they are just becoming aware of the differences between people. And although Preeya said she never felt persecuted or harassed, there were occasionally awkward and uncomfortable times.

“A lot of kids don’t understand the differences,” Preeya said. “As a child, you’re just focused on fitting in, and you don’t want anyone pointing out anything that makes you seem different.”

For example, she said she and her sister Naeha would often take Indian food to school for lunch. “People would be like, ‘What is that?’” Preeya said. “I wasn’t ashamed or anything, but I was just, ‘I don’t want to explain this to you.’ So you kind of hide it.”

As an elementary school student at a private Christian school, she felt a little of that awkwardness during Bible study classes.

“It was just kind of weird,” she said. “I was like, ‘This is not my religion.’ Everyone knew I wasn’t Christian. I never saw the differences in cultures until we were in a religious setting, and then you could see that there were those differences.”

Preeya is not alone in this experience. Krishnan Anand, another Utah Hindu who is closely associated with the Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple of Utah in South Jordan, said her children are sometimes “confused like crazy.”

“Everyone surrounding them is following a different system of belief,” Anand said. “You have to constantly teach and remind them that everyone worships in their own way, and no one is better than any other. But this is our way.”

For Preeya, she said it helped that she had a really strong family.

“I was raised to be very secure and confident,” she said. “My parents helped us to focus on the values we shared with the other children. We all valued our families. The Mormon kids also believed in abstaining from alcohol, and all of the kids were about leading life the best that you can. So we focused on those things we had in common.”

And now, as a young adult, she says “it’s cool to be different.”

“I have friends who come over and want me to make Indian food for them,” said Preeya, who has come to the conclusion that “your differences are a big part of your character. They make you who you are.”

“And,” she adds with a chuckle, “they are a good talking point.”

Still, Preeya allows, there is much to be said for having things in common. She enjoyed her time at USC, where for the first time in her life she found herself living among a rather large number of Indians.

“It was a little bit of a culture shock for me,” she said. “They had on-campus Indian organizations, and there were a lot more Indian kids my age than I was ever around growing up. It was cool to see other individuals who had the same background as I did, growing up in the States, learning about Indian culture from our parents and having that love and appreciation for our culture instilled in us.”

Although she returned to Utah to continue her education, the USC experience convinced her of one thing: “I would like to be married to an Indian.”

“I want to find someone who shares my beliefs and values,” she said. “I realize there are a lot of Indians who don’t have the same values and feelings about the religion, but I would like to marry someone who shares my values and culture and beliefs. I want to be able to pass on my culture to my children in the same way that my parents passed it on to me. It would be a lot easier to do that if the person I’m married to felt the same way.”

But, she adds quickly, “you know how life is.”

“It might not work out that way, but it was a good thing in my life,” Preeya said. “My parents encouraged us to embrace our culture — all of our cultures. It helped me to understand the intricacies of other cultures and religions. Having parents who exemplify and teach that kind of cultural appreciation is important if you want to have children who are compassionate and well-rounded.”

Even if they are difficult to define.