|I have lived in California my entire life. I was born in San Francisco and moved to Los Angeles shortly thereafter.
I work for a small wholesale clothing company that takes me around the world quite a bit. As I travel around to different parts of the country, people tend to notice that I have the accent, clothes, and personality of a Venice Beach surfer dude.
When people point this out to me, I take it as a compliment. I have a lot of pride in the country, coast, state, and even city where I developed to be who I am.
Growing up in America didn’t come without challenges, though.
I am often times reminded of a challenge I faced when I was in Grade I.
A group of friends were trying to play foil-arm baseball after school and a bunch of kids came up and started teasing me because of my turban. They did the worst possible thing they could do to a first grader - they pointed at me and laughed in a group. I had been teased by my brother before, but it never felt like this.
Luckily, I thought of a quick response.
I blurted out, “I have a genie in my turban and if you keep laughing at me, I'll call the genie out and have him punish you!"
They got scared and ran away.
As I got older, these types of incidents continued to happen.
I recall when I was in the tenth grade and my school basketball team had travelled to our rival school for a tournament. Just as we were about to start the game, the referees requested that I remove my turban in order to play.
Fortunately, I had fought that battle already and immediately showed them the letter signed by the league president allowing my turban to be worn. The referees allowed me to play, but I couldn’t help but notice the other team snickering. As the game progressed, it got more and more intense, and all of a sudden one of my teammates got into a little scuffle with the rival player.
We all quickly ran to separate the players, and I took my teammate aside and asked why he had pushed the other guy. He responded, “That guy keeps calling you a diaper-head, and it’s pissing me off.”
Such incidents happened quite infrequently, until September 11, 2001.
The months immediately following the tragedy in New York, Sikhs were faced with many challenges. The day after the tragedy, I remember waiting in line at a grocery store when a guy started yelling: “Go back to your country! This country is for real Americans.”
His eyes were full of tears, his face full of sadness, anger, and frustration.
I had experienced many similar incidents in those days and ignored most of them, but I felt compelled to do something when I saw the pain in that man’s face. I turned around, looked right in his eyes, and said, “I am an American, and it hurts me inside too.”
Without warning, I reached out to hug him. He hugged back, weeping. We walked out to the parking lot together and continued to have a 30-minute conversation.
My nephew Gurdaas is 3 years old, and I was recently at his Daycare Christmas performance.
Gurdaas and his classmates were going to sing Jingle Bells in cute little Christmas outfits. Before the concert, I went backstage to go hang out with him, hoping to shake any nervousness he may have been feeling.
As I walked backstage, all of the children were in their class groups. Gurdaas’ class sees me every day because I often take him to and from daycare. However, the older class children didn’t recognize me. I saw a group of little 5-year old boys pointing at me and staring with confusion. I also saw that Gurdaas noticed.
Knowing the attention span of 5 year olds, I quickly grabbed Gurdaas’ hand, walked him over to the group of kids, and made an introduction. “Hi, my name is Bhajneet and this is Gurdaas. Give me a high-five if you’re a Lakers fan!”
I held Gurdaas’ and my hand up, all 15 kids came and gave us a high-five. Some were running jumping high-fives and others were met with a comment like “Kobe is my favorite.”
Over the years, I have learned different ways of dealing with the challenges. All of these experiences have made me who I am today, I wouldn’t trade them for anything. I know Gurdaas will have similar experiences growing up, and I know it will make him stronger.
I just hope he has the strength to respond to these challenges with a graceful and positive attitude.