In US, turban, beard still hair-raisers

CONNECTICUT: Sikhs in the US have been doing a lot of brandbuilding and hard-selling these last couple of years but not in the business domain.

The sticker “I’m a non-Englishspeaking Sikh. Sikhs do not have anything to do with the Arabs. Sikhs mean well for America. God bless America!” on Maryland trucker Jagtar Singh’s vehicle, is a desperate plea to be spared the fate of a Balbir Singh Sodhi or a Rajinder Singh Khalsa.

Sodhi, a Chevron gas station owner, was shot dead in 2001 while Khalsa, a limousine driver in New York, was beaten unconscious recently. The only provocation these men offered their assailants was their garb – the combination of turban and flowing beard,which, to most Americans, suggests an Arab.

In the aftermath of 9/11, many Sikhs in the US have become victims of such misdirected racial hatred. This correspondent was in the US as part of a Rotary Group Exchange programme to Connecticut State and experienced first-hand instances of misunderstanding regarding the Sikh identity.

Brian, an African-American working for former Stamford mayor Julius Willensiky, got paranoid when he saw the group study exchange team leader, a turbaned Sikh, visit the mayor’s house to pick us up.

Brian told Jennifer Willensiky, the lady of the house, that he could not work as he was scared of the ‘Arab’. “It took some convincing on my part,” said Jennifer, “I told Brian that Sikhs were a community that came from India and had nothing to do with Arabs.” She also told him that the new Indian prime minister is a Sikh.

I had sported a long beard for one month in the US but had to shave it off towards the end of the visit when repeatedly told that the ‘Al Qaida look’ was out of favour in the country. On another occasion, at a pub in Naugatuck, I mentioned to a lawyer that I was heading for Florida.

Pat came the reply, “I hope you are not going to learn some flying, friend.” Florida was one of the places where the 9/11 accused had learnt flying.

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