Confessions of a TRM Student in Seattle

Orn-wipa Thamsuwan meditating (Photo by Faizah Aditya Aziz)
Orn-wipa Thamsuwan meditating (Photo by Faizah Aditya Aziz)

An insider’s look into the perspectives and issues of a TRM – Transfer Religious Minority student studying in Seattle.

Think of it this way – you grew up in a culture, a certain community. Your community (including you) follows a religion which is the majority. Now fast forward to where you land in Seattle and suddenly the community is different, the faith they practice is different and your religion is now a minority. Ever wondered how that would be – Having to suddenly adjust to what Seattle’s own KUOW radio station terms it as the “Godless City”?

According to PEW Research Center, Seattle is notable for a striking 37% religious “nones” (atheists, agnostics and people who have no particular faith). Among the remaining population, comes a majority 57% Christians. So what exactly are some of the confessions – issues and perspectives a religious minority such as a Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist might have living and studying in Seattle?

“I believe Seattle has helped me practice my religion better!” said Orn-wipa Thamsuwan as she started her conversation, a content smile playing on her lips. Living here for the past 7 years, Ornwipa is originally from Thailand, with a Buddhist majority culture. Remembering old days, she mentions her community conducts a lot of ceremony; something she believes prevents her from practicing the third major teaching of Buddha – to purify the mind. Back in Thailand, temples are frequent and available, but here they are far and sparse. This has been an obstacle in frequenting temples along with the fact that no bus goes to the place. However she acknowledges just how much the presence of one friend practicing the same faith can impact your own level of practicing. But she ended her conversation on a positive note saying, “having the freedom to not indulge in ceremonies from my community, I have more curiosity to learn, read the Tipitaka (Buddhist scripture) and eagerness to practice Buddhism on a daily basis.”

Swetha at her family home (Photo by Faizah Aditya Aziz)
Swetha Kannan at family home dressed for a ritual (Photo by Faizah Aditya Aziz)

Swetha Kannan is a practicing Hindu who has been in Seattle for 9 months now. She had a different take on the matter. Reminiscing her days back in India when she visited temples as many as 5 times a week, she expresses how difficult it is to do the same here. Not having temples nearby or proper items to do rituals, and the dilemma to ask others for car rides, Swetha expresses how less she gets to practice her faith now. A vegetarian for religious and ethical reasons, she also shares that even though vegetarian and vegan options are available here, the food usually doesn’t have much variety neither much taste. “It has been very difficult for me, and I think not having any friend around me who practices like I do also impacted me negatively.” When asked whether this is typical to her or something many practicing Hindu Indians face in Seattle, she replied, “I think it is equally difficult for all of us, not having to perform rituals that our family does back home.”

Rafsanul Hoque finishing up his salaah (Photo by Faizah Aditya Aziz)
Rafsanul Hoque finishing up his salaah (Photo by Faizah Aditya Aziz)

Rafsanul Hoque had taken time out from the interview to pray, laying out a clean towel on the floor to kneel on as he had forgotten his janamaz or prayer rug back home. He is a short-term exchange student, only here for 3 weeks now and a practicing Muslim from Bangladesh. He explained the hardships of finding halal (permissible) meat around Seattle. Although available, as a student on a demanding schedule, he shares how difficult it then becomes travelling far to reach such places. “Many places don’t know what halal meat is and so on most days, I opt for vegetarian food,” says Rafsan. However the conversation gets really interesting when he mentions how he is careful with his words when discussing about Islam. Basing it on stereotypes and the recent islamophobia news going on around the USA, he says, “I try to avoid discussing controversial issues with people in Seattle, like the other day, I was taking the light rail and this aggressive looking person just came up to me, asking me where I’m from and assuming if I’m Muslim. My friend diverted his attention but it kind of makes me guarded, so I mostly focus on sharing easy positive. I mean Seattlelites are not very conversational about discussing religion.”

Although differing in perspectives, each three individuals focused on how accessibility of ingredients, items and temples affect them majorly and so does the presence of a friend practicing the same faith. They also emphasized how these experiences in the Seattle culture has made them more open-minded, open to other religious views and criticism, as compared to the religious extremism often present in their own home communities.

This article definitely does not seek to generalize and speak for every single individual coming to Seattle but this does give a peek into a new perspective and open up the floor for discussion about an increasing group of people that are making their way into Seattle and becoming a part of it.

This story was produced by a student in the “Study of the U.S. Institute (SUSI)” program, a collaboration between The Seattle Globalist and FIUTS, supported by the U.S. Department of State. The program brings 20 undergraduates from Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh and Nepal to Seattle. Participants study journalism and new media, and participate in volunteer and service activities, leadership workshops, and cultural excursions. The story is an example of student work and has not yet been through the Seattle Globalist’s standard editing and fact-checking process.