Updated 8:04 am, Apr 28, 2021

Being a turbaned Sikh in the Western World | SNE

By  SNE Guest Columnist Surinder S Sarin .
Apr 09, 2017

There is hardly any country in the world where Sikhs have not settled. Whenever people of any nationality settle in large numbers outside of their motherland, the natives of that country do not accept the new comers readily. Sikhs however usually face more problems than others because of their unique looks. Canada where Sikhs have settled in large numbers and where they are very well established today had also to face similar treatment in the beginning. Here is my own story:


We have come a long way IN TORONTO
There are about half a million East Indians living in Toronto today. They ascribe to various religions, including Hinduism, Sikhism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and so on. Very few big cities in the world today allow as much religious freedom or multiculturalism as Toronto. There also currently appears to be an excellent bond between the original settlers (i.e. Natives/ British/ French) and later immigrants, including the East Indians. Religious/cultural functions are celebrated together and people of different cultural traditions enjoy each other’s cuisines. Today, East Indians are one of the most thriving communities in Toronto, and are well represented in many high-powered positions, in the field of medicine, law, engineering, business, technology, and politics (e.g., CEO’s, MP’s, MPP’s).

However, the climate between East Indian immigrants and Torontonians has not always been so amicable. East Indians began settling in Toronto in the late sixties/ early seventies. Life for these settlers was not that comfortable; they were faced with many challenges. Residents of Toronto were not prepared to accept people of a new race settling amongst them. They attempted to dissuade East Indian immigrants from settling, through the frequent use of threats and even overt violence (e.g., throwing eggs at their homes, breaking windows, or writing graffiti such as ‘Paki go home’ on home facades). Yet most of the Indians that had come to this country to start a new life had exhausted their life savings in doing so. They, therefore, had no other choice but to face these difficulties in the best way they could, and to continue to fight for their acceptance by the original settlers. They worked extremely hard, impressing their employers, and were ultimately able to secure decent positions in the job market. However, this soon became the cause of another problem: the native Torontonians became convinced that these immigrants were taking away their jobs, thereby creating unemployment amongst them. This resentment was handled well by the Indian immigrants who were prepared to work night shifts and on weekends when few others wanted to work.

The majority of the first East Indians to immigrate to Toronto were single men. At the time, there were no Indian restaurants or Indian grocery stores, and most of these settlers missed their native food. Eventually, a Gurdwara was established in downtown Toronto. This Gurdwara became a weekly socializing place for many of these new immigrants, and Langer (community kitchen) fulfilled their longing for Indian food.

Of all the East Indians to immigrate to Toronto, the Sikhs faced more problems than any other religious group, largely due to their turbans and their unique appearances. They were also singled out due to their non-Western and exceptionally long names. In my next post, I will address how both of these issues were handled by the Sikhs

In my first post on the subject, I discussed how Sikhs had to face more problems than other East Indians because of their turbans and their unique appearance. Antagonistic remarks were made towards them, such as by calling them ‘ragheads’ and ‘nomads’ etc. Sometimes they were stopped and asked ” why are you wearing a towel on your head ?”. On occasion, young thugs would knock their turbans off. Many Sikhs were not able to remain strong in the face of this kind of discrimination and decided to cut their hair and remove their turbans to better assimilate within western society. In fact, more than 75% of Sikh males removed their turbans.


At the heart of all of this discrimination, however, was a lack of knowledge about the Sikh religion & the turban. I remember having been stopped in my neighborhood and asked all kinds of questions about my beard and the way it was groomed, and about my turban and whether there was any significance in its color or style. Instead of getting irritated as some people did, I would take the time to explain these things, knowing fully well that their questions were rooted in ignorance and inquisitiveness. At times I would even voluntarily offer information about the turban to a group of teenagers because I realized that after understanding the facts, these teens left me alone and even befriended me.

Then came the ‘Hippie Movement’ – a more carefree society that embraced the motto ‘live and let live’. They did whatever pleased them. To get attention and express themselves, they would color their hair red, green and yellow or make them spiked. Realizing that these people appreciated difference, many Sikhs thought the fact that they stood out because of their turbans could prove to be a positive thing if they could present themselves well. Although a lot of Canadians at that time would have said all Sikhs looked alike, I realized that they could differentiate between a well-tie turban /beard and one that was not done so well. Moreover, they would treat a well groomed Sikh differently. Due to the British influence, Canadians were aware of the Indian Maharajas and I was told that people thought that this well-groomed lot of Sikhs belonged to the class of Maharajas. I distinctly remember an incident when I worked for a manufacturing company in Toronto making parts for a Japanese manufacturer. During a visit by the President of the Japanese company, everybody in management was introduced to the visitor.
A couple of years later, the same gentleman visited our company again and during the introduction gathering, this gentleman (Japanese visitor ) walked over to me, shook my hand and said, “Hello Mr. Singh.”All my fellow managers were surprised that out of all of us he remembered me. I knew in my mind though, that he did not remember me but my turban and the fact that all Sikhs went by the family name of SINGH. This further confirmed my belief that a turban could be a very positive tool. With a large number of Sikhs immigrating in the mid-seventies, a Sikh face was not that of an alien anymore and they got the acceptance they desired.

As discussed in my last post, the Sikhs initially had to face many problems due to their turbans and otherwise unique appearances. However, in addition to this was the problem of their long and non-Western names. A lot of Sikhs were compelled to Westernize their names (or they voluntarily did so) with the objective of assimilating better into mainstream society. For example, the name Surinder became Sam, Gurdeep became Gary, Harjit became Harry, and so on. The situation felt similar to when the British occupied India – they found the names of Indian cities difficult to pronounce and decided to westernize them (e.g., Mumbai became Bombay and Kanpur became Cawnpore.) It was those in positions of authority that dictated what new form these names would take.

On a personal level, this situation of name westernization reminds me of a story about a friend of mine named Surinder. He worked for a major manufacturer in Montreal. When he was interviewed for the position, the interviewer (who happened to be a French Canadian with a typical French last name) asked my friend if it would be alright if they called him Sam. Surinder had heard stories of other Sikhs who had been offered jobs conditional upon removing their turbans or changing their names etc.
Surinder paused for a moment and responded,” Sir, what is there in a name. You can call me whatever you want, but would you mind if I called you Ramachandran?”. “what is that?” the interviewer asked. “It is an Indian name and much easier for me to pronounce,” Surinder replied. “I get your message and will call you by whatever your name is”, the interviewer said. Then Surinder explained to the interviewer that Surinder sounded very much like ‘surrender’ – a word that was commonly used. To Surinder’s astonishment, only a few hours after he joined the company he heard the receptionist paging him on the intercom, with the correct pronunciation of his name!

Ultimately, with so many East Indians immigrating to Toronto in the mid seventies, Canadians were left with no choice but to familiarize themselves with East Indian names.

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