Featured photo by Nancy Sidelinger Herring

In celebration of AAPI month, TCB will be sharing stories by PAVE NC, a local volunteer-run organization that highlights the stories of Asian-Americans in the South for the month of May. Find this and other stories at pavenc.org.

This week, PAVE NC sat down with Sangeetha Shivaji, a communications professional at UNCG. In our conversation, Shivaji shared her experience fleeing Sri Lanka as a child and her complicated relationship with her Asian identity.

Sangeetha Shivaji is well traveled, but doesn’t remember most of it.

Her mother and father are from Sri Lanka, and are part of the Tamil ethnic minority there. That’s where Shivaji was born. But she had been conceived in Jordan, where her father was completing a post-doctoral program at university.

“My mom was pregnant but wasn’t comfortable with the medical care in Jordan so she went back to Sri Lanka to have me,” Shivaji shares.

Then her family immigrated to Texas, and by the time she was three years old, they had moved to Mississippi. That’s where Shivaji’s earliest memories are rooted.

“It is so funny, people think that if they know where you were born, they know a thing about you, but it’s complicated,” she says.

As a communication manager in the Office of Research at UNCG, Shivaji is used to crafting other people’s stories, but when it comes to her own life, she’s been pretty reserved. And that’s partly because of her complex background.

Sangeetha Shivaji works at UNCG in the Office of Research (photo by Nancy Sidelinger Herring)

Experiencing civil war as a child

Part of the reason why Shivaji’s parents left Sri Lanka was because of a civil war that was raging in the country at the time involving a separatist movement for Tamil people. 

The summer before she went to third grade, Shivaji visited northern Sri Lanka with her mother. The political situation had been calm before their trip, but while they were there, war broke out again.

“We were stuck there for months — no gas, electricity,” Shivaji recalls. “There were shells falling from the sky. I was a kid, so I thought it was the best thing ever. When we could hear the helicopters, which sprayed bullets, we would go to the middle of the house for protection from the interior walls. I just thought it was so fun because we were all sleeping together.”

At the end of that summer, she, her mother, and her cousin found a way out of Jaffna, the city they were in, via a van, a boat, and a stretch on foot, as they crossed from separatist-controlled to government-controlled land.

“One leg of the trip was at night in a boat where we were told to stay really low,” Shivaji recalls.  “The next thing I remember there was a van; there was no door on the back; there wasn’t room for everyone – my cousin had just his feet inside and he held onto the roof.

A lot of people from the Tamil community left the country, Shivaji says.

“We were not refugees, but it was not great to be in Sri Lanka,” she continues. “A lot of people landed in London or Toronto.”

Shivaji’s family settled in Mississippi where the closest Indian restaurant was in Atlanta, five hours away.

“We would drive just to go there and then drive back,” Shivaji recalls.

Expanding her identity

As an ethnic minority, Shivaji has had trouble explaining her identity in neat boxes for people. She’s from Sri Lanka, but doesn’t quite consider herself Sri Lankan. She’s from Mississippi but also feels like the state “is its own country.”

“I don’t feel like I have a strong label identity that I identify with,” she says.

For years, she said she had a hard time identifying as part of the Asian community at all and would self-select herself out of the broader Asian diaspora. But, as a person from south Asia, Shivaji says that she’s excited about the rising consciousness of the area’s culture in the United States.

“Typically when people say Asian, they’re thinking about support for an east Asian community,” she says.

Right now, the term “South Asian” is her strongest identifier, she says. But really, the way she describes herself depends on the day and who’s asking. And that’s why she prefers being on the storytelling end of the interaction.

“I think that’s why I enjoy what I do,” she says. “It’s translating depending on the needs of the audience; if you’re a child of immigrants, you’re familiar with that need.”

Sangeetha Shivaji works at UNCG in the Office of Research (photo by Nancy Sidelinger Herring)

In school, Shivaji was an English and Biology major, but she found that conducting research was not her thing.

“What I realized was that I really love to learn about other people’s research and convey it,” she says.

It’s something that she feels uniquely qualified to do.

“I love doing that sort of conversion and bridging,” she says.

When it comes to forming bridges with other Asian communities and expanding her own understanding of her identity, Shivaji says it’s a work in progress.

“I feel like it’s been a maturing process for me,” she says. “Being willing to form community, to say that I am Asian enough to have shared experiences, to have this shared connection…. It’s more about reading the intention of the person giving you the label. If they are trying to create community with you, take the label. If they are trying to put you in a box, I don’t take the label.”

Do you have a favorite Asian meal?

Well, my real favorite food is chicken and dumplings. But I do love sakkarai pongal which is something you eat during the harvest festival at the beginning of the year. In the morning you worship the sun and the whole house has to be clean. You lay out a kolam and you do a prayer. To make it, you boil milk and then add rice and add other ingredients. First you boil the milk until it boils over and, depending on which direction it boils over, it tells you what kind of year it’s going to be.

What about a favorite Asian show or movie?

My favorite South Asian movie is a movie from the early 2000s called Kannathil Muthamittal. It’s in Tamil, and has the big Tamil star of the era. The story is about how he adopts a little girl from Sri Lanka who eventually tries to find her mother. It’s extremely well done and beautiful, and seeing this Sri Lankan girl who isn’t quite Sri Lankan anymore trying to understand her home country resonates with me.

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