I was born in Punjab, India – the eldest daughter of a Sikh farmer and housewife, and the granddaughter of a retired colonel and former sarpanch of the village. Life was great!
My grandfather wanted to make sure my sister, brother and I had bright academic futures and every opportunity – both were threatened by the violent political unrest in Punjab in the 80’s before and after the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. When the immigration papers arrived for the family, my grandfather didn’t waste a minute getting us on a plane headed west. We landed in Cleveland, Ohio during the cold early spring of 1987, the year I turned 10.
Without a doubt, the first few years were tough. To save money in our first year in Cleveland, our family of 5 lived with my aunt’s family of 4 in a 2 bedroom apartment. My siblings and I spent the first summer in Toronto to make things less crowded, away from our parents with our aunts and uncles.
While both my parents worked blue collar jobs – sometimes more than one at a time – to make sure we all had what we needed, I was busy trying to fit in at school. I couldn’t stand out more if I’d tried – I had waist-long hair, a dad with a turban and a mom with colorful clothes. Sadly, I didn’t appreciate the value and beauty of being different until I was much older.
I excelled in school fitting the South Asian stereotype and got made fun of for having a slight smell of curry from my mom’s cooking. Curry wasn’t as popular a smell in the 80’s as it is now.
Growing up, I teetered between two worlds – the one at home with desi food, tight family structure, traditions and rules and the one at school, with its promise of freedom, individual self-expression and new way of life. Both were at odds with each other. My American friends didn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to cut my hair. And my parents didn’t understand why I wanted to go over a friend’s house or a party.
My dad would later tell me that he and my mom didn’t know what was right or wrong so they just said no to everything to protect us. I guess I get it.
Beyond the struggles of my parents trying to make it in a new country and my own personal identity crises, things weren’t too bad. We never felt like we weren’t wanted or perceived any threats.
That all changed on 9/11. I had just moved to Seattle for Graduate School and suddenly I felt very brown and had a sudden, strong urge to display the American flag wherever I could – my apartment, my car, etc – to make sure people knew I belonged.
We heard the news of a Sikh man being killed in Arizona in a hate crime. Not long after that, a man approached my dad at a gas station and said, “You look like Osama Bin Laden.” Without skipping a beat, my dad responded, “You look like Timothy McVeigh.” The other customers inside the store cheered.
I always laugh, with pride, when I tell this story to my friends and talk about how hilarious my dad is. But we weren’t laughing when it happened – knowing that my dad was an easy target with his turban.
The thing about my dad is that he’s a proud man. Though I was worried about fitting in with my long hair, he never considered cutting his hair and removing his turban. He still defiantly, and maybe a bit dramatically, says, “I’d rather have my head cut off than cut my hair or remove my turban!” Maybe it’s a bit extreme, but I really respect and am proud of his decision to determine his own identity.
And now, with recent political events and a renewed climate of hate, I worry again about my father. He’s now a real estate agent and sometimes does open houses for his clients. The idea of my dad being alone in a house in the county with some sign outside with his picture on it scares the hell out of me. I actually don’t even know if his picture is on the sign but that’s the image that’s in my mind.
I talked to my brother and sister about it and both of them responded defiantly that we can’t live in fear. We have to live our lives and continue doing everything we do, which I agree with in principle. Both of them changed their tune after the recent violence against South Asian’s in the Pacific Northwest and other parts of the country.
My dad on the other hand, stands strong with his identity as a proud Sikh American. As do I – with my own identity as an immigrant, an American, an optimist and proud daughter.