The first distinct memory I have of being not at home in my home country was the Iran hostage crisis, circa 1979. I remember my fourth-grade peers asking me why I couldn’t “go back home.” I didn’t know what they meant. Did they mean go back to where I was born, to Los Angeles? But we just moved to Huntington Beach a couple of years ago. I don’t currently consider myself a religious or devout individual (although I do consider myself spiritual), so one can surmise the effect religion had on me at the age of 9. Still, I recall watching the evening news and seeing one of the local Sikh community leaders being interviewed and proclaiming in an angry, defiant tone, “We are Sikhs! We are not from Iran! We wear turbans for religious reasons, we are not responsible for the hostages, and we are certainly not ‘camel jockeys’!” From that moment on, I was acutely aware that I looked “different” than most of my friends and peers.
I do not have a beard or mustache, although I did for my wedding ceremony (which were promptly shaved in time for the evening reception). I do not talk in an accent, unless you count “Southern Californian dude-surf-talk” an accent. I was born in Los Angeles. I grew up in Southern California. I went to school in Kansas. I do not wear a turban. In other words, I am an “American.” Born and bred. Yet, since September 11, 2001, I have caught myself doing double and triple-takes walking down the grocery aisle, getting gas for my car, and going out to eat at a restaurant. Late that night of the 11th, while the world was still in shock and denial and New York City was burning, my younger sister had to go out to a co-worker’s daughter’s birthday party. No big deal. Except, one of my friends called me to warn of people out in the streets, Neo-Nazi Skinhead types, who were cruising around ultra-conservative Huntington Beach and pulling dark-skinned people out of their cars and beating them for the events of the day. And all I could think of was, don’t walk out of Chuck E. Cheese alone, lock your doors, don’t make eye contact with anyone, don’t stop anywhere, and be brisk in coming home. This is the kind of world we live in now. This is how the world has changed, when you don’t feel safe coming home from a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese on a Tuesday night.
Most of the time, I don’t give being Sikh a lot of attention. It’s just part of my identity, it’s who I am. I’m a Kansas Jayhawk Basketball fanatic. I’m a Sikh. I’m married. It’s my identity. My grandfather is a devout Sikh, meaning he has never cut his hair or trimmed his beard or mustache. He prays everyday and reads out of the Sikh Holy Book, the Sri Guru Granth Sahib. His lifestyle includes “The Five ‘K’s,” as they are commonly known: 1) kes, for Hair (which is never shorn); 2) kara, for Steel Bracelet, which every Sikh wears; 3) kanga, for Comb, to be used for the hair; 4) kache, for the Undergarment which every Sikh wears under their clothing; and 5) kirpan, for the Sword that every Sikh has holstered around their torso. (As a brief comparison, I myself have one of the ‘K’s complete, the kara). He wears a turban, so that his hair is able to neatly and cleanly lie on top of his head. His middle name is Singh, which is translated to Lion. (Like most Sikh men, I also have Singh as my middle name; most Sikh women, including my wife, mother, and sister, have the middle Kaur, which translates to Princess). Again, like most Sikhs, my grandfather is a peaceful man, one who respects all but also demands respect. One who is not afraid of others and is not afraid of fighting for his or her beliefs. I consider myself Sikh, but not necessarily devout.
I consider myself Sikh because I believe in these principles. I may not wear a turban, I may shave and cut my hair, but I am still a Sikh. Since the devastation of the September 11 attacks, I have become more acutely aware of my culture and how it impacts not only my self-perceptions but also the perceptions that others have of me. Part of me wants to engage in proclamations, just like I remember that Sikh community leader on TV 22 years ago: “I am a Sikh! I am not Muslim! I am not Arab!”
This isn’t to say I don’t empathize with Muslim and Arab Americans – I do, and it’s unfortunate that my basis for empathy is now not only the fact they’re people and Americans, but also that they’re viewed with suspicion. Instead, this says something more about American society. There is often a fine line between being “American” and being “un-American,” and now, when we’re all in a state of crisis, for people who could potentially be classified by others as “un-American,” there has to be an even finer line drawn between groups of people who are fiercely loyal to America and those who aren’t. I’m not a terrorist. And neither are 99.999% of the Muslim and Arab Americans in the US. What scares me is that we’re all viewed with fear and mistrust.
Everyday occurrences and events that I did not give a second thought to a month ago are now potential causes of concern and reflection. My wife and I recently celebrated our one-year anniversary and we decided to have a few relatives and family friends over for a get-together. These get-togethers typically involve colorful suits and loud music. Yet, before the party, my thoughts generally included the following: How will neighbors react when they hear this “strange” music emanating from our house? When they smell these “strange” smells of this “exotic” food? When they see men with beards and turbans entering our residence while speaking this “strange” language? I felt defensive. And cautious. And aware. This is how my life has changed since September 11.
Occasionally, I attend religious services in our local community Gurudwara, or Temple/House of Worship. The first Sunday after the attacks on September 11, I attended the services and remained afterwards for a community meeting. As one can hypothesize, the main topic was how the Sikh community would publicly act and react to the attacks. A great deal of attention and energy was given to the fact that it was imperative for Sikhs to take every opportunity given to remind people of the distinction between Sikhs and Muslims, Indians and Arabs. Having been trained as a counseling psychologist, I immediately picked up on the level of paranoia at the meeting, and that’s when it hit me: these people leading the meeting were wearing Turbans, speaking with accents, sporting beards and mustaches. These men had probably taken a fair number of insults during the Iran Hostage Crisis, and were probably aware that there would be some backlash against Sikhs during this crisis, as well. I haven’t had to live with many of these concerns and fears because I have been able to “blend in.” I don’t have an accent. I don’t wear a turban. I don’t have a beard or mustache. But many of my uncles do. And they receive implicit and explicit threats primarily based on how people react to them, which are oftentimes out of fear and uneasy worry.
Much of this has everything to do with being an un-American American. I’ve already said I was born and raised here. But there’s something peculiar about an American identity, something so… white. For a long time, I had been troubled by the kind of generational gap between my parents and I – they wanted to arrange a marriage for me, while I didn’t want to do things that traditionally. A friend of mine would serve as my “white” conscience, addressing the American side of my Sikh American identity. The fact of having had that deal with him, as we discussed many times, came to mind as I was thinking about how people have reacted to me of late – American generally means white, more often than not in terms of culture, but occasionally – and most recently – in terms of skin color. So while most of the time I am able to blend in because my heart and soul are American, now it seems that I have to take greater pains to prove that to people.
So how have things changed since September 11? I would have to say, without trying to sound melodramatic, that they have changed forever. In very subtle, almost imperceptible ways, my life has changed and my definition of the term “American” has changed. I still critically question my government’s stance on political and social causes, yet I may be slightly more reluctant to air them publicly or in such a boisterous manner. I still consider myself patriotic (after all, I did stand in line for an hour to buy a flag from the only shop that had any in stock), yet am also more keenly aware of my Sikh heritage and culture and how it affects other people. But mostly, I am grateful that I am an American living in America, even if I may be an “un-American” American.
Author: Pavaninder Mann is a counseling psychologist and a member of the JMB editorial board. He would much rather be sipping Guinness at a fine British pub than having to write this kind of essay.