"Tacky the Penguin," Belonging, and a Study in Empathy

March 29, 2024

JJ Kapur and his first grade class during "Turban Time," a Sikh Awareness Presentation put on by his father

By: JJ Kapur

In elementary school, I read a book called “Tacky the Penguin” about an eccentric penguin who marches to the beat of his own drum. From wearing floral Hawaiian shirts in the Arctic tundra to performing staged plays and cheerleading instead of hunting for fish, Tacky never quite fit in with his penguin peers. This was a feeling I could relate to.  

Tacky the Penguin

At school, I was never “white enough.” In my yearbook pictures, my patka (a sports turban for Sikh boys) always seemed to stand out. And although my mother speaks Punjabi fluently, I only ever grew up speaking English at home, so at the gurudwara (or Sikh temple), I was never quite “brown enough.” I only ever knew enough phrases to fill the first page of a pocket translator—a fact my father liked to point out by calling me an "ABCD: American Born Confused Desi."

One day, a friend at the gurudwara heard me mispronounce a Sikh prayer, and he called me a name I hadn’t heard before: “The Coconut.”

“What’s a Coconut?” I asked.

“Someone who’s brown on the outside and white on the inside,” he said with a big grin.

I forced a smile, but beneath my smile, I was wounded. I hated having a label placed on me, even if it was a label I couldn’t argue with.

I like to spell the word “belonging” with two parentheses around its prefix, “(be)longing.” To me, belonging is “a longing to be” … a longing to be seen, a longing to be heard, and a longing to be understood.

At school, I longed to be “white enough.”

At the temple, I longed to be “brown enough.”

It wasn’t until I arrived at Stanford and enrolled in Psych 1, the Introduction to Psychology course, when I realized the profound strength Coconuts like me have to offer.

Professor Jamil Zaki was giving us a guest lecture on the topic of empathy. He lectured in the basement of Jordan Hall, ironically, the site of the Stanford Prison Experiment, which had to be stopped because of physical assault, a not so empathetic experiment, the building named after David Starr Jordan, a former Stanford president and eugenicist, a not so empathetic man.

Professor Zaki started the lecture with a story about his childhood. Both of his parents divorced when he was young. Early on, he traveled regularly to both his parents’ houses. Each time, he learned strategies to adapt to each home environment.

I was already sitting in the front row, a spot reserved for a sycophant like me, but upon hearing this unique metaphor of the “empathy gym,” I sat on the edge of my front-row seat. Suddenly, it hit me: I, like Professor Zaki, grew up between worlds. For me, it wasn’t switching between my parents’ houses, but rather, it was switching between my parents' cultures: an Indian mother and a Singaporean father. Outside of the home, I had to also learn how to adapt to my predominantly American peers. These experiences formed my tri-national identity and made my empathy muscles stronger.

I drew upon my lived and embodied experiences when I designed an experiment to test how CultureALL's Open Book increases empathy, with the help of my mentor and dear friend, Dr. Joshua Woods.

You can find the full research report here.

JJ and Dr. Woods

As my Stanford advisor once told me, "Research is 'Me-search.'” This experiment arose from my genuine curiosity. What specific pieces of equipment in an “empathy gym” help us build “empathy muscles"? I feel profoundly lucky to offer these findings to my organization, CultureALL, and to the academic community.

All these years later, I still feel like Tacky: the character I loved so much from school. I now know that Tacky was a Galapagos penguin who could live in the Arctic’s freezing cold and the tropics’ melting heat and feel just as at home in both places.

I can, too.

CultureALL believes that sharing the cultural richness of our community with others will elevate our society and the quality of life for all.