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

Published: Friday, April 19 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

Preeya Prakash worships at the Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple of Utah in South Jordan Tuesday, April 16, 2013. Prakash is a student at the University of Utah.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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.

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