Sagar Patel

Interview and Profile by Lia Choyce

Video Recording by Sunnie Ko

Interview conducted on 4/27/09, Harrisburg, PA

Sagar Patel is a second generation Indian-American born and raised in Harrisburg, PA. His parents immigrated to America from Gujarat, India in the early 1970s, to pursue education and the dream of a land of opportunity.

Sagar believes his parents were attracted to the US for opportunities in education and careers. Sagar’s father came to Harrisburg and attended Harrisburg Area Community College. After receiving a degree in accounting he returned to India and married Sagar’s mother. Sagar’s father was sponsored by a family member and eventually all of Sagar’s family was able to immigrate to America. By moving to America, Sagar’s parents gave him opportunities he may never have had if they had stayed in India, because as Sagar described, “They were raised in a village where they wouldn’t have a pair of shoes to walk in.

As a second generation Indian-American however, Sagar faced some difficulties with identity:


With the second generation, there’s a lot of conflicts. Or just questions, and so many different perspectives that they get exposed to that sometimes it’s hard for them to really figure out who they are. Like, who am I? What do I believe in? You know, not really just with religion, but you know, do I want to follow in [the] footsteps of my parents…”

Some of the challenges Sagar’s parents faced after arriving in America were similar to struggles he later had to work through, as a child with two cultures. Balancing the two cultures was a difficult task for both Sagar and his parents, and he says, “Struggle is always there. Meaning that it’s hard sometimes—there’s always cultures with misunderstandings. There’s a lot of stereotypes with Indians, and there’s a lot of stereotypes with Americans also.” As an example, coming to America meant arriving in a society where vegetarianism was not the norm, and his parents found it difficult to find food options that didn’t include meat. Growing up, Sagar had to explain to friends and classmates why he didn’t eat meat. However, he believes that these cultural differences are getting easier with globalization: “No doubt it’s much easier now. The world has gotten smaller to an extent, meaning that a lot of people know each other’s cultures much better. The stereotype isn’t as much there as it used to be. So it was hard, but I’m just thankful that the new generation, it’s not going to be as difficult.

To maintain the balance, Sagar learned Indian traditions through communication with his family: family dinners, speaking Gujarati at home, hearing stories of life in India, and through explanation of the traditions and festivals the family celebrated. Language in particular is very important to how Sagar’s family maintains their Indian roots as he says, “We really believe that language is the basis of culture.” He describes keeping culture and tradition alive as a struggle, but one that is extremely worthwhile. He firmly believes his parents had a strong influence on how he formed his identity as an Indian-American, and that they gave him core Indian values:


Yeah, and that’s a struggle, it is a struggle because you know, you don’t have many resources, you don’t really have anyone telling you that this is the right thing to do. It’s much easier just to kind of forget about it, or just go with the flow and not really worry about your own culture. But they just had that strong upbringing; religious upbringing, family upbringing, that they didn’t want to let go. Not only did they not want to let go but they wanted to teach their children and I’m really proud of my parents for that.”

Sagar and his family identify religiously as part of BAPS Hinduism. This sect of Hinduism believes in preserving Sanatan Hindu Dharma, or the core Hindu beliefs. Sagar also say that BAPS promotes family harmony and volunteerism, or giving back to the community in some way. When Sagar’s family first arrived here, there was only a very small community of South Asian families, and he said that religious teachings were up to the family to maintain. As he got older however, there was a small community of BAPS followers, and devotees would host gatherings at their house for prayers. Eventually, the BAPS temple in Harrisburg was built as the community grew larger.

Sagar is now involved with the BAPS temple in Harrisburg as a youth leader that teaches children some of the subjects they offer, such as Gujarati, instrumental music, culture, and BAPS Hinduism. To describe the community nature of the temple, he says, “To tell you the truth a temple is not just a temple, a house of worship per se, in our community we feel that a temple is more of a community center.” In terms of this community center aspect, he also feels that religion is a significant way to maintain culture for South Asian immigrants:“And I think I can speak in general that any Hindu temple is there to preserve that culture…I am very thankful that I have this different perspective, this different culture that I’m part of. It actually helps me strengthen the American culture also, I can respect that more because I have different perspectives.”

At home, his daily rituals include performing aarti and puja. Aarti is a ritual where a small candle is lit and circled before the deity while singing traditional Hindu songs. For Sagar, puja involves taking 10-15 minutes out of his day to read scriptures and pray to God. He also celebrates the festivals in Hinduism, and goes to the temple for aarti whenever he is able to.

Sagar has visited India only three times, most recently two years ago. Despite this, his connection to the culture is so strong that he feels completely comfortable when he is there, almost as if he’s returning:


For me, it feels like I’m returning somewhere. You know, I think of myself as just as comfortable in Indian culture as much as the culture here. So it’s like transitioning, I’m not saying I transition effortlessly, but it’s kind of like you have to, whether it be if you’re at work one minute and you’re at home you speak in another language totally different, that kind of thing. Since we practice it here, I don’t feel that it’s a problem going there, we actually find it very fun and very interactive, and like a learning experience to get deeper into your culture and religion. But it’s not something where it’s different or a different world. It is a different world, literally, but for me it’s something that I’m comfortable with.”