For Anita Akerkar, every new person means the same old debate. “How am I going to introduce myself? Will I be ‘Uh-need-a’ or ‘Uh-nee-tha?’ ” She asks explaining that she alternates between the English and Indian pronunciations of her name depending on the audience.
That daily reminder, that her life straddles “two worlds” between the United States and India, is part of the story she’ll tell at “Storywallahs”— a live storytelling event on Sunday that showcases the experiences of our region’s South Asian community.
Storywallah is a word that borrows from English and Hindi (a blend sometimes described as “Hinglish”) and translates loosely to “storyteller.” It’s the brainchild of National Public Radio affiliate KUOW and local South Asian art and culture nonprofits Tasveer and Pratidhwani.
Anyone in the South Asian community is welcome to sign up to tell a five-minute story inspired by the theme “misunderstood.” And for co-organizer Rita Meher, this opportunity hasn’t come a moment too soon.
“People are not aware of how fast our population is growing,” says Meher, citing data showing a 173 percent growth rate in the South Asian population in the Seattle area over the past 10 years.
Despite this growth, Meher says, South Asians are often misunderstood in the workplace — where she herself says she’s experienced discrimination based on the way she dresses and talks — and beyond. She expects the theme will help bring to light some tough issues, though she imagines “there might be some funny stories too.”
Joyce Paul Siamak, who came here from India in 2001, says cross-cultural relationships result in all sorts of humorous mishaps — like the time a younger man attempted to ask her out.
“[Women in India] can only date someone who is older to you,” she says laughing. When she arrived in the U.S. a man five years younger than her expressed interest but she says she only saw him as “a little brother.”
“He was trying to show it in many ways that he was interested,” says Siamak, who plans to tell the full story on Sunday. “I went to see a movie with him, and we went to have dinner. And for him it was a date [but] for me it was not a date.”
Meher is looking forward to a range of stories and participants on Sunday — a cross section of the South Asian community in our area and not just the “IT person, highly educated and living on the Eastside” that she says serves as a local stereotype.
Just as important, says Storywallahs moderator Aneesh Sheth, is that this event helps include South Asians in a larger discussion of diversity in America.
“There’s a very big conversation happening in this country about race,” says Sheth “Many South Asian families feel that this fight is between white and black people, and it doesn’t have anything to do with us. But how we all fit together is an important thing.”
To that end, the Storywallahs organizers hope the event draws people from all backgrounds. In fact, many expressed frustration regarding segregation of the South Asian community from the non-South Asian community in the Pacific Northwest.
“We’re becoming a block of sorts that has its own unique identity shaped by Seattle, and Seattle is a town that is in a small way being shaped by the Indian community,” says organizer Agastya Kohli. “It’s time we stirred the melting pot.”
Anita Akerkar agrees that it’s time to stir things up. In fact she’s done so in her own life by recently making a final decision about her first name.
“I can live and be in two different worlds and appreciate both sides of myself,” she says after ordering a tall, nonfat, no foam, extra hot, no water chai tea from Starbucks (she says it’s the closest thing to the milky north Indian tea she loves). “But I’ve recently decided that I am going to be ‘Uh-nee-tha’ no matter who you are.”
Storywallahs will be performed at 6 p.m. Sunday at the Kirkland Performance Center. Tickets are $12 at the door, $10 in advance.