As parents, our aim is always to try and pass on our values to the next generation. Especially for those who hail from one country and live abroad, the need to do so becomes all the more important. Most of us know that early childhood is the best phase of life to impart the gifts of language, culture and other values, but with so much going on in our lives, do we actually care to follow through with such urgency? Let’s meet Anu Sehgal, our next Woman of Substance, and the founder of The Culture Tree, who decided to take matters into her own hands, with her trademark determination and sense of purpose, so that our children inherit only the best that our homeland has to offer.
Hello Anu! Welcome to TWI’s Woman of Substance Series. We are delighted to have you here.
AM: Tell us a little bit about your background – educational and career-wise.
AS: I am the Founder and President of The Culture Tree. I live in New York with my husband and two sons. I am a marketer by profession. I hold an MBA from Yale University and have worked in the corporate sector for almost 15 years. In addition, I also hold a certification in Mindfulness and bilingual education in Hindi/Urdu.
AM: What led to the inception of The Culture Tree? How did it come about?
AS: I grew up in India and moved to the US more than 20 years ago. After the move, I was starved for authentic Indian experiences and community, and devoured anything that came my way: film festivals, exhibits, book readings etc.
Once I became a mother, the lack of quality and authentic Indian programs and classes became even more evident. I am an active parent and believe an awareness of one’s heritage, culture and language is key for children to become self-aware and confident individuals.
So, I initially conceptualized a language program primarily for my two sons, and within a couple weeks we had 13 kids enrolled in the program. At the time, I was working on launching my own food business and was spending most of my time on that. However, within a few months the program took off and needed more teachers and more attention. The Culture Tree continues to expand, though initially language was the primary focus, enriching cultural events and cooking classes, and building a sense of community are the current areas in which we are expanding.
I take a lot of pride as most of the kids that started with the program 3 years ago are now in the advanced class. They can now converse in Hindi and also understand and read and write the script.
AM: What are your views on Indian culture, and how important is it to pass these values on to the next generation, especially those children growing up abroad?
AS: I believe an awareness of one’s heritage, culture and language is key for children to become self-aware and confident individuals. I also recognize the immense benefits of being bilingual. The mission of our company is to bring the Indian culture to the forefront in America.
We have dual goals:
1) Raise bilingual and bicultural children of South Asian heritage who are knowledgeable and proud of their culture.
2) Educate the rest of the children and their families about South Asia, to remove any prejudices and stereotypes that exist about South Asians.
Children are highly impressionable and open-minded, so it is critical to expose them to new languages and cultures early on in their lives. I believe that when children learn about another culture, they are more knowledgeable, well-rounded, empathetic and thereby true global citizens.
AM: What do you think the challenges are of raising bilingual and culturally aware children in the US?
AS:Managing cultural duality is definitely not easy, both for the parents and more so for the children. Our children have to balance their academic and social needs, and the expectations of their parents to learn about their heritage. The key challenges are that of having sufficient resources, time and cultural options. And then maintaining the momentum in long run.
It is critical to provide our children tools for managing multicultural exchange from a young age. These don’t happen easily, but have to be imbibed from a very young age. Language, dance, music, activities and general awareness of a culture and country is critical to creating the right foundation for these exchanges. Additionally, having the forum where the entire family can participate in this exchange makes the whole process very rich. Some of the grandparents have told me that since taking Hindi classes, their grandchildren have been talking to them more via phone and FaceTime. It is priceless to know that we are able to make these connections and form stronger bonds.
We also firmly believe that language is a gateway to cultural learning and acceptance. Something that is critical for kids of South Asian heritage who are born and raised in the U.S. Cultural awareness leads to confidence and pride, and is critical to strong, independent and confident kids.
AM: As a one-person shop, how have you grown and branched out into the highly influential organization you are today?
AS: We want The Culture Tree to become a hub for any South Asian cultural and educational initiatives in the U.S. This year our emphasis is to focus on Museums, New York Public Library and Schools to host our educational and enrichment classes and events. We have hosted series of multi-sensorial events and bilingual story times at various institutions. Next year we are launching two new concepts and platforms for children’s programming, which we intend to expand to other cities as well.
We are also rapidly expanding our language classes to various after-school programs in schools next year.
AM: Do you bring religion into your teachings – why or why not? How about other cultural aspects such as music and dance?
AS: Though we celebrate most key festivals like Diwali, Eid, Holi etc., we try not to bring in religious teachings to our program. We are an educational institution with the goal of spreading the culture, talking about the diversity in South Asia, whether it be religious diversity or any other form of difference. But we are definitely not honing in on a specific religion or its teachings.
Though our core program focuses on languages and raising bilingual kids, our programming includes various other aspects of the culture. We make our events as multi-sensorial as possible, which include arts, culinary workshops, dance and musical performances and workshops.
AM: Tell us more about your partnerships with museums and libraries in Manhattan. Who else do you partner with to bring exposure to your organization and all the work you do?
AS: We work closely with the Indian Consulate, Incredible India, the Mayor’s office and with institutions such as India Centre, Asia Society to make the most of our synergies. We currently are exclusive South Asian partner at the New York Public Library (NYPL) and are executing programming at their various branches throughout the year. We are also holding bilingual story time (in Urdu and Hindi) at various NYPL branches. We have an amazing relationship with the Children’s Museum of Manhattan (CMOM), and were key participants at their highly successful “Indian Arts Series” in Fall 2018. We are also co-developing an Indian exhibit for 2021 at CMOM (depending on funding). I am currently also working with the CSMVS children’s museum in Mumbai to see if we can co-host an exhibit in Mumbai and New York at the same time. Next year we have two new platforms that we are intending on expanding to The Rubin Museum, The Met (Met Kids), Children’s Museum of Arts and Brooklyn Children’s Museum.
AM: Do you think there is a snob factor associated with speaking English only among Indians? How do you think that can be eliminated?
AS: The pride with which I see some other cultures immerse in their mother tongue is definitely absent from most Hindi speakers. Most of the immigrants from my generation have grown up speaking Hinglish back in India. When we meet another Indian (or South Asian), we connect with them in English. This can be because of the snob factor, or just habit or fear that they may not know Hindi. I try to use Hindi with any South Asian I see, especially when I am with my kids. I want them to have the same pride in using their heritage language as some other cultures do.
AM: Are your students mostly from a South Asian background or do you get interest from others as well? How do you educate them on a culture and language that is so alien to them?
AS: Most of our language students are heritage students, with at least one parent of South Asian descent. However, for our bilingual story time classes and cultural programming, we see students from different backgrounds.
The first way we orient children is to show them the map of the world and highlight where they live vs. the rest of the countries in South Asia, then we talk about key facts about the South Asian country. As we dive into the topic of any program, we try to draw comparisons to their lives so they can understand it better.
AM: How important do you think learning script is to learning a new language? Do you focus a lot on script-writing?
AS: While our focus is not on script writing per se, we introduce children to the script because it is inseparable when learning a language. We introduce letters after 10 sessions – it is a gradual introduction. We have noticed that kids love writing script, so not only does it keep them interested in learning the language, the script also helps them improve their vocabulary. Most of our students in our intermediate class are now able to read simple story books and write simple sentences in Hindi and Urdu.
AM: How influential do you think The Culture Tree has been in removing stereotypes about India and Indian culture?
AS: Our motto is to make a difference one event and one class at a time! Children at younger ages are extremely impressionable and we introduce them to a different culture at this critical juncture. We are not only helping raise bilingual children that are proud of their own heritage, but also raise bi- and multi-cultural children that are informed and empathetic. Most of the children attend events with their families, so the impact is not limited to the children but also their families.
AM: As a mom yourself, what challenges have you faced in raising your kids to be bilingual and have you had support from others in doing so?
AS: For me the key challenge as a mother is the clash of some cultural values that I grew up with (in India) vs. the ones I see in America. For example, in Indian culture respect for teachers and parents is highly emphasized. As a mother, I am trying to imbibe such values in my children.
From a language learning perspective, I wish my kids had more reinforcement of their heritage language, after school class options, friends speaking in Hindi, other families speaking in Hindi, an institution that acts as a hub of South Asian programming which they can visit at any time.
AM: What causes do you believe in and how do you contribute to them?
AS: I truly believe in educating children, especially at a younger age. Therefore, we support Pratham. Pratham is one of the largest non-governmental organizations providing quality education to underprivileged children of India. Pratham’s mission is “Every Child in School and Learning Well.” We support Pratham by leading their Readathon program in the tri-state area (NY, NJ, CT)
I also believe in healthy eating and teaching children how to cook. I have been assisting Wellness In the School’s cooking sessions. I personally teach Mindful Eating and Cooking sessions.
AM: If you were to name three books/movies that have influenced you deeply, what would they be?
AS: Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime, this is a compelling, inspiring, and at times comical story of a man’s coming-of-age, set during the twilight of apartheid and the tumultuous days of freedom that followed. Trevor talks a lot about learning new languages and cross-cultural assimilation.
Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, set it India, explores how the small things affect people’s behavior and their lives.
J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, set in New York (my current hometown), also deals with complex issues of innocence, identity, belonging, loss, and connection.
AM: How do you typically celebrate festivals in your home, and in The Culture Tree?
AS: At home I keep it simple, I read stories to my children and we prepare our traditional food together. My boys love decorating our main door to commemorate any celebration. We always celebrate with family and friends to make the festivals lively and fun.
At The Culture Tree, we celebrate all festivals in class by combining language learning with the story behind the celebration. We go all out when we celebrate a festival at a museum or library, thereby making the learning process multi-sensorial.
AM: What have been your most successful programs till date within The Culture Tree?
AS: Our bilingual story time series at the NYPL is very popular. By the end of each session the children and their families learn 5 -10 new words in Hindi/Urdu, something new about India or South Asia. We always end with a folk tale that conveys the way of life in India.
Our Diwali, Eid, Holi celebrations have been very successful at CMOM and have been attended by anywhere up to 1500 attendees. Currently, our Mindful Eating Culinary sessions are in high demand; here we not only teach the children about South Asian spices and recipes, but also teach them how to be mindful while eating.
AM: Have you seen a difference in the kids as far as interest in their culture and the advantage of a bilingual education?
AS: Absolutely, I see it first hand in my own children. As I introduced my older son to the Hindi language, he started to notice things related to India in his environment even outside the home, and taught himself to play the Indian national anthem on the piano. I see similar changes in our students, once the floodgate of cultural and language education opens, they absorb and want more and more of it.
AM: What have your experiences been with Mindfulness?
AS: I really believe in mindfulness and have actively started practicing it in my life and also teaching it to my students. Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not reacting to what’s going on around us. Though we have been having Mindfulness sessions through our educators, I have started teaching Mindful Eating Cooking Classes, in which we teach children the art of mindful eating and cooking.
AM: What are your future plans and projects in the pipeline? What’s next for The Culture Tree?
AS: We have two big platforms that we are working on for next year, which we want to take to all key museums in NY, DC, PA and MA.
Additionally, our Mindful Eating Cooking sessions are becoming very popular so we want to partner with some other entities to take it further.
Lastly, my sister Mona Sehgal, who is a children’s book author, is currently writing a book series that is inspired by our childhood in India, this series will introduce children to the Indian way of life especially from a child’s perspective. I am helping her with the development and marketing of this series.
AM: Thank you so much Anu, for speaking to us, and for all that you do and plan to do! We wish you all the best!