“I ain’t here for no reason”: Stories of Sikh-American resilience

Jul 24, 2017

 

In May 2017, two men were convicted of a hate crime for attacking Richmond resident Maan Singh Khalsa the previous September. Before they attacked Khalsa, they threatened to cut off his hair. As a follower of the Sikh faith, Khalsa doesn’t cut his hair, and like many Sikhs, he ties a turban.

Sikhs have often been victims of hate crimes since 9/11, but they’ve actually faced violence since they set foot on U.S. soil a century ago. Today, in the Bay Area, the voices of young Sikh-Americans still tell stories of violence and trauma, but they also tell stories of healing and resistance.

Growing up as a Sikh in the Bay Area, I always felt part of a silent community. We are pointed at, stared at, whispered about, yelled at, beaten up, shot at, and sometimes killed. The one thing we almost never are is listened to.

When you’ve been silent for so long, sometimes you forget how to speak. In middle school people would tell me: “You forgot to shave your legs.” I wanted to tell them: I don’t shave because my leg hair is divine. Once, when a white man on BART lunged at me yelling, “You f***ing terrorist!” I wanted to yell back: “Remember Oak Creek, Wisconsin in 2012, when a white man shot and killed six Sikhs in a Sikh temple? It’s you who looks like a terrorist, not me.”

I want to unmute myself and my community. My dad often tells me that Sikhs are like potatoes. Potatoes can grow anywhere. They are resilient. So I asked the Sikhs around me: how do we survive in America?  I want to share stories of resilience in the Sikh community so, at last, we can hear ourselves speak.

Raaginder Singh was in elementary school when he told his parents he wanted to play the trumpet. They pointed him to the violin, instead. For them, the violin represented prestige.

 

 

Raaginder Singh
Credit Courtesy of Raaginder Singh

Now, Singh is an accomplished violinist and composer who goes by the stage name Violinder, but when he first came to the US, he was a turban-wearing Sikh immigrant kid with an accent, going to school in Hayward. He didn’t care about prestige, he just needed to make it through the fifth grade.

On the first day of school, Singh walked into class, a new kid wearing a turban. All eyes were on him. Then, a month later, 9/11 happened. Singh remembers people going out of their way to tell him, “Go back where you came from.” The students, the parents, and the other adults made it clear that he was not welcome.

“I remember being at that age and feeling very alone,” Singh says. “It’s very belittling and you feel like you have nowhere to go.”

For Singh, that feeling of being watched never really went away. “Being a brown person with, you know, beard and turban in America you still feel like the eyes are on you,” says Singh. “There's not a moment that you don't.”

Now, the turban is a source of pride, uniqueness, identity, and even fashion for Singh. It makes him different. Sometimes it makes him a target, but it also represents him. He says, “It is me at the core.”

As he grew up, Singh felt he had to give people a reason not to pick on him, a reason to like him. “First of all that shouldn't even have to happen," He says. "That's the privilege of people that aren't Sikhs.”

So, the violin became instrumental. It allowed Raaginder to become Violinder. It allowed him to be accepted, but more importantly, to belong. “Violins are like the queen of the orchestra.” says Singh. “When I play onstage, you know you have people watching you while you're playing; there's this sense of power. It just kind of feels like I can play anything.”

 

Coming to America

 

The feeling of being empowered that Singh has now, as an adult, is rare for many Sikh children in America. Almost 70% of Sikh children who wear turbans get bullied in school. But when did the violence against Sikh-Americans begin?

In 1904, the US recruited workers to help build the Panama canal. Some of them were Sikhs from India, who later moved to the US. According to Bay Area scholar and activist Jaideep Singh, “At that point you actually did have anti-Sikh hate crimes, because the newspapers were talking about the ‘tide of turbans,’ the ‘ragheads’ arriving in large numbers.”

The early Sikh immigrants harvested crops, chopped wood, and built railroads. They worked for lower wages than white workers, and racial tensions climbed and then erupted. In 1907 in Bellingham, Washington, a mob of angry white workers attacked hundreds of Sikhs. Soon after, the US passed a law that banned Asians from entering the country. In 1965, that all changed.

“The immigration act of 1965 removed five decades of racist immigration policy in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement,” says Jaideep Singh. “So it was black people dying and risking their lives in the streets that led directly to South Asians getting to this country in the first place.”

After 1965, Sikh immigrants came to America in waves from their homeland. When the British colonized South Asia, they left a border in their wake.  Like a great gash across the land, it split the Punjab region in half. West Punjab became Muslim Pakistan and East Punjab became Hindu India. That left Sikhs stuck in between.

My grandparent’s generation fled across the Pakistan-India border to build a new life in a new nation. Most of their children grew up during the 1980’s in India, when a movement for Sikh independence took hold. The Indian military and police shot thousands of Sikhs dead. The economy of Punjab was destroyed.

So my parent’s generation became a second generation of immigrants, seeking refuge in a place called “Amreeka.” That’s where I was born. My generation began life in a country that had once conspired against our being here at all. We were the third generation forced to learn resilience, like potatoes growing in infertile soil.

Keeping the language alive

When Sikhs came to America from Punjab, they brought the language with them. Today, youth are organizing to keep Punjabi alive in America.

“There are some words that are spoken in Punjabi that just don't exist in the English language,” says Ramandeep Kaur. “Like ‘Jakara.’ It’s a roar, a call out. It’s a call to action.”

 

 

Sikh youth volunteer with the Jakara Movement, registering voters in Sikh temples across California.
Credit Courtesy of Ramandeep Kaur.

Kaur is the Bay Area community organizer for the Jakara movement, which works to empower Sikh youth. One issue they’re addressing is the growing fear in the Sikh community that the Punjabi language is dying.

“I feel as though it's becoming more and more difficult to communicate with our elders and have meaningful conversations in our own language,” says Kaur. “You know, I’m fearful. Ten years down the line, when I have children, I want to be able to teach them the language that I spoke with my grandfather.”

Jakara organizes Sikh youth to advocate for Punjabi classes in their high schools. In Bakersfield, a group of high school students wanted Punjabi to be taught in their high school. So, they started a petition and collected 1500 signatures in one day.

“Having Punjabi as a language, it’ll help the students here, today, who are raised in America, to see [their] language is important,” says Kaur.

Jakara also uses language to build political power. Last year, they registered 3000 Punjabi voters in Sikh temples across California. According to Kaur, as they were registering voters, people were concerned about whether ballots would be available in Punjabi and whether they would be able to understand what was written in them.

Voting materials aren’t actually available in Punjabi because there’s no official record of how many Punjabi-speakers are in the U.S. This year, Jakara launched a campaign to change that.

“Resources such as voting rights, and even materials around health care access, get denied to the Punjabi community,” says Kaur, “and so we want to make sure that our community gets those resources.”

As young Sikhs in America, we find ourselves translating Punjabi into English and English into Punjabi all the time. We aren’t just translating words, but ideas, beliefs, and traditions. We’re transitioning between worlds. We’re acting as code switchers, like Jupp Gill.

 

"Between two worlds"

Gill shaves his head so he’s bald, but sometimes he ties a turban. This is unusual because most Sikhs who tie turbans have long hair underneath. It means Gill can switch identities with ease. “I live between two worlds. It’s weird,” he says. It’s definitely tricky, living in that sliver of space between Punjab and America.

Gill describes himself as a big big brown man with a beard. He says he gets racially profiled almost everywhere he goes. “At the airport, I like to slide in a joke or two,” says Gill. “I used to wear this shirt that said, ‘100% randomly searched at the following airports,’ with a map of literally every single airport on it. Every time I get patted down, I ask them if I have to tip for the massage because it’s an intense experience.”

Even today, despite the intensity of pat-downs and airport security, Gill doesn’t respond with aggression to being racially profiled. He believes if he did, he would only get twice as much violence or aggression in return.

“Sometimes you have to swallow your pride a lot in order just to let somebody else feel powerful for a minute,” says Gill. “Then, over time, you chip away at their ego, at their sense of supremacy.”

Gill is a yoga teacher from Fremont. He says he has often experienced the direct impact of Islamophobia in his life. Once, as a college student at UC Irvine, he was performing a Punjabi folk dance called Bhangra, with his teammates. They were dressed in traditional, authentic Bhangra outfits and had just finished an 8-minute routine, when they exited the venue for some fresh air.

A group of men who had been drinking in a restaurant next door began yelling racial slurs at them, calling them “ragheads,” “towelheads,” and “camel jockeys.” A fight started and Gill says he was kicked in the face. One of the men grabbed his teammate’s turban and ripped it off.

Gill says, “When I see other bald white guys it does bring that memory where I do re-experience that rush of fear and anxiety.”

Gill grew up keeping his hair uncut. Once, when he was about five or six, he was on a trip to India with his dad. While his dad was in the bathroom, Gill decided to cut his hair. Gill remembers that when his dad got out of the bathroom and saw what Gill had done, he grabbed a wooden chair and threw it. It broke.

“I don’t think he was prepared to deal with that type of emotional trauma.” Gill says. “He grew up in the 80s in India, Punjab, where people were literally getting killed because of their turban, and for him it was such a huge source of pride.”

Soon after, Gill decided to stop cutting his hair. He let it grow and began to tie a turban. In high school, he was proud of the fact that he had a turban and long beard. Eventually, he began to lose hair. Because he was balding, he decided to cut it again.

“I didn’t understand how big and profound it would be to other people,” Gill says. “One of my really good friends, he was offended. It hurt him seeing a brother of his, kind of like a fallen brother almost.”

 

 

Sikh Yoga teacher, Jupp Gill, teaching at his home in Fremont.
Credit Courtesy of Jupp Gill

Now, Gill does wear a turban sometimes —which he commands attention. He believes that when you wear a turban, you represent the entire Sikh community, and that determines how you should behave.

“The whole purpose of wearing a turban is that now you have the community behind you, that if somebody does attack you, they attack the community at large,” says Gill. “Everywhere you go, you represent the Sikh community. Not just you, but 25 million people in the world. And I think that’s a very awesome responsibility.”

 

Fighting injustice

Growing up, I did not tie a turban. I used to have a long braid that other kids pulled relentlessly. Not many Sikh women wear turbans, or dastaars,  but after I graduated from high school, I decided that I would.

I, too, wanted to represent my community. I wanted to feel the presence of a divine spirit, to wrap the stories and sacrifices of my ancestors around my head each day before I went out into the world. I no longer wanted to inhabit an individual body, but a communal one. I wanted my ancestors by my side at every moment. I wanted to be something more than a person. I wanted to be a symbol.

Long ago in Punjab, before the birth of the Sikh spiritual tradition, only kings wore turbans. Then came the Sikh spiritual teachers, or gurus. In 1699, the 10th Sikh guru created a new and distinct community, where all were royal, where all could wear dastaars, or turbans, regardless of caste, class, or color. A community that would act collectively as a sword, striking at the heart of oppression and injustice. And so Sikhs, like the United States, were born from revolution.

The Sikh tradition of fighting injustice is exemplified by Gatka, a martial art. Gatka players use swords, wooden sticks, nets, and shields in a style of mock combat training. They wear long blue robes called Cholas. Gatka players are traditionally men, but some, like Pooja Kaur, are women. As a woman playing gatka, Kaur is upending tradition while preserving it, resisting oppression as a woman, and as a warrior.  

“Gatka is not like a lot of other martial arts, you know. We connect with our history because of it,” says Kaur. “To be doing something that our ancestors did, it kind of [makes] me feel like I am what they are also. We are the same people, we have that same blood in our veins, we have that same connection.”

Kaur is 19 years old and a student at Chabot College. She started learning Gatka when she was about 10. At that time, she was one of three or four girls who learned it. While playing Gatka, Kaur wears a Chola, a long blue robe with buttons.

“Being in a Chola, I guess I feel like I have a family. It really gives you confidence and you can walk with your head held high,” says Kaur. “I’m wearing a Chola that usually men wear. Being a woman in a Chola is is like a rebellious thing to do.”

In school, Kaur says she often felt like a foreigner, but Gatka practice always felt like home. There were times in school when she would be bullied for wearing a turban. In eighth grade, she says, a classmate of hers kept trying to touch her turban and repeatedly called her “Gandhi” behind her back. When she told him to stop, he wouldn’t. So she turned around and backhanded him in the face. After that, she says he never looked her in the eye again.

For a while, Kaur didn’t play Gatka. “It made me insane. It was depression. I didn’t know how to deal with anything,” says Kaur. “I felt powerless.”

Now, when she feels alone, Kaur remembers that she comes from a long line of Sikh warriors, that she’s a part of Sikh history. “Sikhs are known to be a minority for so long—always fighting, never stopping the fight against injustice,” she says.

Kaur believes that for women, the act of playing Gatka gives them power, regardless of whether or not they are good at it. “It might be intimidating for some men to feel like, you know, in this space, a woman has power. She has just as much power as I do,” Kaur says. “I hope it’s intimidating because, shoot: I ain’t here for no reason.”

There is a hymn in Sikh scripture, written by the 15th century mystic poet Bhagat Ravidass. It describes the discovery of a place called Begampura. Begampura is a place without sorrow or suffering, where all are able to worship as they choose, where all are equal and content and free. It isn’t necessarily a real place, it’s more like a state of mind.

Striving for Begampura, both in the material world and in the mind’s world, is what it means to me to be a young Sikh-American today. That’s what these stories of Sikh-American youth are about. Begampura is what the United States of America should be, what it is supposed to be: hostile to none, home to all.