Photo Credit: Judge Randhawa
Last June, I found myself sitting next to a young man, chatting in a trendy restaurant in Washington, DC. Gurwinder Singh, 19, is half my age. He lives in New York, and I live in California. We met as community advocates in training; our lives intersected, and we remain bonded as advocates and Sikh men growing up in the United States.
Gurwinder shared his experiences published in the book, Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post - 9/11 Injustice by Alia Malek. He was born in India in 1992, and immigrated to the United States when he was two years old. Growing up in New York, as early as he could remember, he was always considered an outsider by schoolmates, “It started when I was really young. I couldn’t get along with other kids, because my joora (the topknot of hair on his head) made me look different. They used to walk away from me, or if I said something to them, they wouldn’t reply.”
I was born in India almost two decades prior, and similar to Gurwinder, was brought to Edmonton, Canada when I was less than a year old. One of my earliest memories was my first day in kindergarten. At recess, I was surrounded by other kids who would point and laugh at my patka (a headscarf worn by Sikh boys and men) and joora. Later that day, to my mother’s shock, I walked in the front door of my house. Instead of returning to class when recess was done, I had left school and walked home alone.
For both Gurwinder and I, physical confrontation became a matter of daily course at school. Gurwinder recalled, “A kid in class came up from behind and started hitting me. There were six other kids with him; they had me on the floor, stomping on my arms and back.”
My own experiences were not as severe. However, school life became a matter of survival -- each day was an attempt to avoid humiliation and assault. I would walk the halls in fear of other students pulling at my patka. Despite my best attempts to avoid this, it happened every day.
Gurwinder never told his parents about his experiences in school and neither did I; I could not admit to my parents that I wasn’t fitting in, or that I was too weak to defend myself. I felt a sense of shame, and to admit to them what was happening in school was in some way to admit that I was a failure.
In effect, as Sikh American boys, we lived two different lives -- one at school, and one at home. To cope and survive, Gurwinder cut his hair and tried to erase who he was as a Sikh boy, while I introverted further and avoided making friends at school. We chose to be invisible, so we would no longer stand out. But in the silence of who we were, we both turned to the grounding elements of our spiritual faith. I took more interest in stories from Sikh history -- it became a source of strength learning about those who overcame all odds and gave their lives in defense of their faith -- and immersed myself in historical comics, books and articles.
And Gurwinder found inspiration in Sikh devotional music called kirtan. “In eighth grade, when I was thirteen, I started going to the gurdwara after school to learn to play the tabla. I felt really energetic when I played, and I liked the beats. I became very interested -- began to talk with people -- and it made me feel better,” he shared.
It was in Sikh spaces that we often felt at home and safe. There was a common understanding, and a common history; it was liberating.
Today, at the age of 19, instead of forgetting his past, Gurwinder uses historical inspiration in the most public of forums – writing newspaper articles, attending White House conferences and meetings, and engaging public officials on the topic of bullying. He stands up proudly.
Twenty years his senior, I see in Gurwinder the person I wish I was at his age. My journey of working to end discrimination, particularly against Sikhs, has taken a longer path, but it stems from the same origins as Gurwinder’s, and today we find ourselves in the same place, talking about our shared experiences and vision of the future.
Winty Singh is a Volunteer Advocate for the Sikh Coalition. He spends his spare time writing, playing ice hockey, and entertaining his pet terror Cosmo.
Additional editing was also done by Hyphen blogger Meeta Kaur.