'So, What are You?
By Charlotte Crystal
Mana Anandsongkit wondered how to answer his classmate’s question because there is no simple answer.
Anandsongkit, 19, was born and reared in Bankok, the bustling capital of Thailand. But his family comes from the Punjab region of India – a northern state to the east of Pakistan and west of the Himalaya Mountains. After moving to Thailand, the family took a Thai name to help them assimilate. Anandsongkit’s Indian name is Manak Singh Muchal.
His Indian name indicates that he is also Sikh, a member of a religion founded in the Punjab more than 500 years ago. Sikh men take the middle name “Singh,” which means lion. They also observe certain customs, such as leaving their hair uncut to show their devotion. Many Sikh men cover their long hair with a turban; a do-rag covers the knot of Anandsongkit’s long hair.
Though he attended a small, private, international school in Bankok, Anandsongkit is used to a cosmopolitan environment. “There were 69 people in my high school and we represented 20 different countries,” he said.
As he considered colleges in the United States and Canada, he was attracted by the University of Virginia’s ratings and reputation. The University’s physical beauty didn’t hurt, nor did its location in Charlottesville — he was interested in experiencing life in a small college town.
Having recently completed his second year, Anandsongkit says one of his biggest surprises here has been the University community’s emphasis on diversity.
“Diversity was how I grew up,” Anandsongkit said. “I didn’t see it as an issue until coming here. It was a bigger deal than I expected.”
While a small high school meant that he knew everyone, it also meant that resources were limited. But at U.Va., he has enjoyed the array of opportunities available at a larger institution.
“You have access to professors who are really smart, who think on a different level,” he said. “You have these great resources: sports facilities, libraries, special stacks. You have an academic environment that is competitive, but in a healthy way.”
Another surprise for the outgoing Anandsongkit has been the friendliness of the University community and the openness of faculty and administrators. “You can have lunch with faculty,” he said. “I’m also very impressed that school officials are very accessible. One day I’m walking along the street and talking with [U.Va. President John T. Casteen III].”
Apart from academics, two activities have captured a great deal of Anandsongkit’s time.
He participates in Leadership Consultants, a program developed by the Office of the Dean of Students, to help student leaders and student groups. Three graduate students currently train and supervise about 18 undergraduates interested in helping other students increase the effectiveness of their organizations. Anandsongkit enjoys wrestling with the problems that come up and the interaction with other students.
He also has spent a lot of time exploring his identity since arriving in the United States. “Coming here has gotten me in touch with my own culture more than I expected,” he said.
Already fluent in Thai and English, he is learning Punjabi. He is pursuing independent research on Sikhism. And he is active in the Sikh Student Association, which he currently serves as treasurer.
Offering a potpourri of educational and cultural programs, the association’s activities include religious celebrations, instruction and performance of Bhangra, a Punjabi folk dance, and of course, social occasions involving traditional foods.
“My grandmother is so happy,” Anandsongkit said.
One of the tenets of the Sikh religion is that everyone is equal before God. Another is that everyone has a duty to contribute to the community.
2006 by the Rector and Visitors