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The Turban in the Obama McCain Debate

by ARVINDER SINGH KANG

 

When the major U.S. news channels first began dissecting the presidential debate at the University of Mississippi last week and around 50 million eyes worldwide were glued to the television, an image of a blue-turbaned Sikh flashed across the screen.

Many of those watching Fox News and CNN screamed "Oh vekho! aapna Sardar!" (Look! A Sardar!).

I was part of the media taking photographs of the political players doing their post-debate Kabuki dance in the so-called "spin alley".

My phone started ringing within moments.

"Is that you on Fox News?"

"Mr. Singh, you are on CNN too!"

Never did I imagine that one turban could bring so much excitement.

I came to the U.S. in the fall of 2005, as a graduate student at the University of Mississippi. From a proud Sikh family, I was the first kid from my village and from my maternal and paternal lineage to come to America for studies.

I brought twenty-something Puggs (turbans). I knew Japji Sahib by heart and had been exposed to Sikh history more than I had been to comics. All through my undergrad years, I had taught my juniors how to wear a turban. There was no doubt, whatever the circumstances might be, I would always be a Turbanator!

While boarding a plane from London's Gatwick Airport, I sat beside a Sikh girl living in Houston who was born and raised in London. "...So it's going to be hard to keep a turban in university", she said in a lovely British accent.

"Much nee te kuch nee!" (What's a man without a mustache) I had quipped.

There was no doubt in my mind. "I would like to meet you again in another six months".

When I arrived at the University of Mississippi, I was not just the only Sikh, but the only Punjabi in the whole university.

"Durka Durka, Jihad", some drunk kid in a pickup truck yelled, showing a finger, while I was walking back home from the department at late hours during the first week. Someone had recently seen Team America, and his "I.N.T.E.L.L.I.G.E.N.C.E" had not been exposed to Sikhs ever before.

Every non-Indian kid I met at the school either thought I was a Muslim or was definitely from the Middle East. Most of them were hesitant to start up any conversation, and even if they did, it was something to do with the Islamic view of the United States. The South was definitely different from the Hollywood‘s America.

On the fifth day of the third month I was in the U.S., I was sitting in a salon, looking dumb and confused. The hairdresser, a petite blonde with short hair in her early thirties, ran her fingers through my hair. "Awww! You have got beautiful hair, you shouldn't cut it, sweetie". The voice of my conscience was speaking through other people.

Had I gone deaf, or had I mastered the skill of overcoming guilt? I still wonder.

The first time I got a White House press-pass was in January of 2006.

Helping a small newspaper, The Sea Coast Echo, on the Katrina-affected Mississippi coast, I attended a press conference by President George W. Bush.

"Is that you?" the security agent asked, looking at my turbaned picture on my driver's license. He then glanced over my potato-skinned face. "I am not sure", I had quipped, before he gave me a stern look, telling me no nonsense was allowed there ... except, I suppose, by a politician.

In 2006, I was chosen President of the India Association at the University of Mississippi.

I wore a turban on all official occasions; however, on normal days, I was all cut and clean-shaved.

In the summer of 2006, the International Program office invited me to give a lecture on Hinduism for the Annual World Religion Festival.

How could my "Sikh activist spirit" keep quiet?

I assigned a lecture on Hinduism to another Indian student and worked to include a Sikh lecture.

"A Sikh should not cut his hair", I preached, wondering if the locks of my inch-long hair were visible through my turban.

For two years, my father, a devoted Sikh, did not know I had shorn my locks. His broken heart was visible on his face when he saw me for the first time on his visit to the States. The mores of his family were broken by his own son. Maybe that's why, ever since, he has had no desire to come back to the U.S.

I had become exactly the very thing that I had disliked all my life - a hypocrite.

Last year, during the summer, I was camping out with an American friend. After devouring barbecued wings and having knocked back a few beers, he asked: "Aren't both of these forbidden in your religion?"

Ahaa! He was in for one of my talks on Sikhism.

"They are, but for committed Sikhs".

"Then what are you?"

"Aaaaa...Where did you get that barbecue sauce from?" was my quick answer.

"It's very easy to become a leaf, being knocked all around by each puff of breeze". The best poetry and random philosophical quotes often flow from situations where no one would expect them to be.

That very weekend, I spent time writing down on a piece of paper where I wanted my life to be in two years. I spent time listening to Singh Sahib Harbhajan Singh Yogi's lectures on Sikhism. For the first time, I started discussing the interpretation of Japji with my brother. I made two promises to myself: "I would not eat meat and would not cut my head hair".

A single commitment seldom works; two compete with each other. I was starting back at level zero.

It has now been a year and a half. I proudly wear a turban everyday to my office. My hair, when loose, falls below my shoulders. And I have not touched meat during the same period. I'm a far better Sikh (a student of life), and above all, a far better human in my own eyes, as compared to the shadows of my past.

Neither vices nor virtues come alone; both come in the company of others like them.

The annual talk on Sikh religion is in its fourth year. The Mississippians, at least in my county, know more about Sikhism now than they knew three years ago. And they hardly feel uncomfortable any more talking to the funny guy with a turban on.

"We saw you on the TV, Bro".

"Man! You should have done the Robot Dance!"

And myself, I am healthier, more content, and happier.

The path from confusion to self-realization is a tough one. However, at the end of the journey, the rewards for commitment are great - being content and feeling comfortable in one's own skin. There is hardly a bigger prize I can think of.

As for me, I'm not there yet.

I'm taking baby steps, but I'm moving towards the path my father and forefathers walked. The journey has suddenly become clear; the doubts have vanished.

I have a long way to go, but hey, I'm only twenty-five!

 

September 30, 2008

Conversation about this article

1: Anna (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada), September 30, 2008, 11:27 AM.

You are simply awesome. Your mom and dad must be proud of you. Keep up your good work and good luck with your future.

2: Manbir Singh (Irvine, California, U.S.A.), September 30, 2008, 11:30 AM.

Shahbash Veerji, for keeping your siddaq in the midst of a socio-politically challenging environment. I wish more Sikh immigrants to the U.S. would share the same pride, respect and courage you have shown to stand by your spiritual identity. I saw you in the "spin room" when CNN's Dana Bash was being interviewed after the debate. My whole family felt a sense of pride and excitement! Thank you for being an ambassador of the Dastaar. "Sardaaran de sir uchey! Bruaaaaaaaah!!!!"

3: I.J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), September 30, 2008, 12:47 PM.

In the final analysis, it is not the journey made by your parents, siblings or neighbors, but it remains a very personal trek. I say this but I don't mean to diminish the connection to history. Welcome to the path. Congratulations.

4: Nishchal (San Jose, Calfornia, U.S.A.), September 30, 2008, 1:33 PM.

Just a minor correction: "I was not just the only Sikh, but the only Punjabi in the whole University". This is not correct. I am a Punjabi myself and we coexisted at olemiss campus. To my knowledge, there were a number of others.

5: Arvinder Singh Kang (Oxford, Mississippi, U.S.A.), September 30, 2008, 2:45 PM.

Thanks Anna and Manbir. I.J. Singh Ji, I do agree with you, that connection to history facilitates in choosing the path. Thanks for pointing out my error, Nishchal. I should have said "Punjabi-speaking" Punjabis ... As for turban-wearing Sikhs, to my knowledge, I was the only one, to be joined a year later by Amrik Singh.

6: Manpreet Singh Waraich (San Jose, California, U.S.A.), September 30, 2008, 5:59 PM.

Just one line will say everything. "I am proud of you, Veer". I am touched deep inside by all the words you put together here. I wish people back in India read this too. You have raised our heads specially in the Sikh-American community. I wish you good luck in your future efforts and surely would love to see you marching forward to attain your objectives in life. You did what is next to impossible for most others. May you remain in Chardi Kala always. You have set an example for the rest of us. I wish I could do even one percent of what you have done in your life. Truely a great inspiration for a dumb kid like me.

7: Savraj (Pennington, New Jersey, U.S.A.), September 30, 2008, 7:57 PM.

Awesome! Thanks for this well-written, much-needed piece.

8: Parm Chahal (Brampton, Canada), September 30, 2008, 8:46 PM.

Great Story ... Well done ... hopefully, it inspires others.

9: James Church (Oxford, MS, U.S.A.), September 30, 2008, 8:54 PM.

Arvinder ... really enjoyed this article. You look good on national TV.

10: Simarjeet Sahota (San Diego, California, U.S.A.), September 30, 2008, 9:34 PM.

Veer, Bahut lamba safar kar leya inhaan 3 saalan vich. I clearly remember when I first met you in Chandigarh in June 2005, your turban was something that encouraged me to talk to you. I sighted you as an example to my fellow students here in San Diego. I did not know when you went on that path you told me you would never. But I am proud of you that you came back before it was too late. Finally, it was your turban that brought you accolades, without it you would have been just another guy in the crowd. Now, you should invite your dad back to the U.S.

11: P. Singh (Canada), October 01, 2008, 3:33 AM.

Beautifully written and shared, but I'm confused by the reference to "would not cut my head hair" and the pictures. Does the author look in the mirror daily to trim his dhari or are those old pictures? If the former, is this yet another interpretation of Sikhi?

12: Chaz Singh (Plymouth, United Kingdom), October 01, 2008, 4:31 AM.

Well done and hope this inspires one and then a generation. I know how you feel. Good luck in all you do.

13: Gursharan Singh Toor (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada), October 01, 2008, 4:44 AM.

Kaka, in reality, you were always a chip of the old block. We call it in our slang: "Pio da Puttar". You dont need any words of wisdom from us. You have given them to us - subtle and well articulated to produce a strong impact. Just keep the pace up. Our best wishes for you from Canada.

14: Preeti Jain (Boston, U.S.A.), October 01, 2008, 7:18 AM.

Hey Arvinder! AWESOME ... very well worded article ... and inspires to keep up with one's virtues even in difficult circumstances ... keep it up ... Bole So Nihal ...!!

15: Ranjit Singh Padda (Houston, Texas, U.S.A.), October 01, 2008, 7:26 AM.

I remember when I met you on your arrival in Houston. I was really proud to see you as a turban-wearing Punjab Da Puttar, but was disappointed to see you a year later, all clean shaven and turban-less. Thanks to that Almighty Waheguru, you are back on the track and become an inspiration to others. In Punjabi, there's a saying: "Swerey da bhuleya, shaam nu ghar aa jaave taan bhuleya nahi kehnde". So, keep up the good work. Sikhi is not limited to unshorn locks. "Rome rome vich Sikhi hai". These have been nourished by the blood of millions of our shaheed Singhs and Singhni's. So make your Mother and Father proud by becoming a complete Sikh, by taking those baby steps and, of course, by doing daily Ardas to get that strength from our Guru.

16: Navneet (India), October 01, 2008, 8:35 AM.

This is awesome. I am so proud to have a friend like you. Congratulations to uncle and aunti. May God give you strength, success and happiness throughout your life.

17: Tejwant (U.S.A.), October 01, 2008, 9:08 AM.

Arvinder, it seems your inner self and the outer Sikhi look had not found any connection in India - which has been the case for many of us. Hence the turban was a kind of paraphernalia rather than the true Sikh symbol of being outstanding while standing out. You had to shed the look to find the true Sikhi within. Suddenly, the stumbling blocks became the stepping stones. Now the turban does not only look better than before but the Sikhi gleam in your eyes enhances it even more. You have found the true essence of Sikhi and the ironic part is that the South, which used to be segregated, helped you integrate yourself back into Sikhi on the banks of the Mississippi.

18: Simran Kohaar (Hanover, U.S.A.), October 01, 2008, 9:31 AM.

Very well written and congratulations. I am sure you feel very content because "coming back" is not an easy task. But I am confused about what someone else has pointed out as well: "would not cut my head hair". Are you allowed to trim your beard (or, at least, that is what it looks like in the pictures, if it is the author)? If your head hair has grown to shoulder length, your daahra (beard) probably would have grown somewhat longer too. And, I'm also curious about what your role was at the event you've written about. An active participant in the campaign? Or what?

19: Arvinder Singh Kang (Oxford, MS, U.S.A.), October 01, 2008, 12:05 PM.

Dear friends, thank you for all the feedback. I'm humbled by all the kind words. As Simran ji and P. Singh ji pointed out, neither am I a pooran-Gursikh, nor am I pretending to be one. I still have a lot of shortcomings. I believe it's a very important subject we need to address. I'll try to do a post on it shortly and would love your comments and criticism, and am eager to learn from them. Simran Ji, I was actively involved in the debate preparations. I work for the University of Mississippi and I'm also a PhD student here. Among other things, I was part of a pre-debate panel on International politics. You can see it at http://tinyurl.com/4ulj96, if you wish.

20: Vikram Mann (Australia), October 01, 2008, 2:08 PM.

Very well done, Arvinder Singh ji!

21: Ravinder Singh (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), October 01, 2008, 6:00 PM.

Boleh So Nihal!

22: Munish Joshi  (Chandigarh, Punjab), October 01, 2008, 9:29 PM.

Hey Arvinder, You may or may not remember me. I met you in Chandigarh in the local coaching center where you were a instructor. It's a really good, real-life incident that you describe in your piece. Honestly, when I saw your picture with hair cut and shaved face on gmail, I was thinking that why people change their religion, name and other things, when they fly out from India.

23: Amanjot Singh Bajwa (India), October 01, 2008, 9:34 PM.

Chak de phatte ... Burra ... this is what is expected of him ... he proved his mettle.

24: Beeba (Australia), October 01, 2008, 10:56 PM.

"I would not eat meat and would not cut my head hair". I believe in being a 'Keshadhari' Sikh, face hair or beard is equally important. You are on your way and keep it up.

25: Parminder Kaur (Raleigh, U.S.A.), October 01, 2008, 10:57 PM.

Congratulations! I am sure you feel good about yourself. It is ironic that your non-sikhs friends were the ones guiding you to get back to being a Sikh. Even the hair dresser was trying to give you another chance to think again, while the Sikh woman you first met thought it would be difficult to keep your turban on. I am glad you heard the real inner voice, the one of your Guru talking. McCain Obama debate! yes, one Sava lakh Sikh attracted everyone's attention. Hope your story motivates others Sikhs who are confused about their real identity. Stay in Chardi Kalaa.

26: Kavinder Singh (Singapore), October 02, 2008, 12:20 AM.

Arvinder Veer, Tears rolled down my cheeks as I read the Pheonix story and imagined all Sikhs transforming their mindset towards the TRUTH. I am putting up this article on my Orkut community "Turbanators - Sikhs n Turbans".

27: Bandhan Preet Singh (Chandigarh, Punjab), October 02, 2008, 12:50 AM.

You deserve a pat on your back, bro! You inspire others too. You did all of us proud. God bless you, dear. Do good, Have good.

28: Charan (Nagpur, India), October 02, 2008, 12:51 AM.

When I was born, I was Sikh! When I grew up, I was Sikh. When I'm sick, I'm Sikh. When I go in the sun, I'm Sikh.When I'm cold, I'm Sikh. When I die, I'll be Sikh. For Sikhi, I shall give, For Sikhi, I shall live, For Sikhi, I shall cry, and only for Sikhi, shall I die.

29: Raja Singh (Jalandhar, Punjab), October 02, 2008, 1:00 AM.

Your real life story will encourage many of our young who have lot their way. However, as pointed out in other comments, you have come back a long way, the beard should also grow naturally; only then it is complete surrender before Him. We have to live upto His wishes. Your writings make the reader feel a Puran Gursikh, we wish to see you as Puran Gursikh. May Waheguru bless you. Chardi Kalaa.

30: Manish Uppal (Amritsar, Punjab), October 02, 2008, 1:40 AM.

Well done, Veerji! May God bless you and give you happiness and prosperity.

31: Manjyot Kaur (New York City, U.S.A.), October 02, 2008, 6:26 AM.

Congratulations, Arvinder! I'm sure your well-written article will be a wonderful inspiration to many. To expand a bit upon what Beeba (comment #24) has said, it is my understanding that in being a Keshadhari Sikh, it is equally important to keep intact not only head and facial hair, but all the hair of the entire body. May Waheguru bless you as you progress, at your own pace, along the Path.

32: B.S.Khalsa (U.S.A.), October 02, 2008, 9:34 AM.

Shabaash! Guru Gobind Singh will be happy to see your deep love for Sikhi. Both in and out must be according to Sikhi. Well done. Keep on.

33: Bhupinder Singh Ghai (New Delhi, India), October 02, 2008, 11:17 PM.

Congratulations, Arvinder. You were just not only standing out, but were OUTSTANDING. Welcome back. It just makes me ponder, is Arvinder just a drop in the ocean of waylaid young sikhs or if by the grace of Guru the tide has turned and is now flowing in the opposite direction?

34: Pawandeep Singh (Chandigarh, Punjab), October 03, 2008, 2:11 AM.

An excellent step forward. I wish soon you will walk in the Khalsa Path.

35: Dalbir Singh (Ludhiana, Punjab), October 03, 2008, 5:38 AM.

Dear Veerji: When did this vegetarianism come into Sikhism? Sikhs are always known to be meat eaters since times immemorial, as long as it is Jhatka.

36: Shubhkaran Singh (Chandigarh, Punjab), October 05, 2008, 1:00 AM.

First of all, after reading this awesome article, I'm sure it will energize the sinking youth back here in India and Punjab who are drifting without any barrier and forgetting our culture and values. You have inspired pride in us here. Also, I enjoyed the flow in which you have written this ... the open approach, like someone who has let go the strings of a kite to allow it to touch the sky, and the world can watch it do so, even feel it. For all this, many many congratulations to you and your family and thanks from the bottom of my heart for your contribution in giving due honor to the puggree, against all odds.

37: Arvinder Singh (Memphis, TN, U.S.A.), October 05, 2008, 6:37 PM.

Dude! Tussi chhaah gaye. I'm very proud of you. Kaafi chir ho gaya, miliya nahi. I recently moved to Houston, Texas. Sat sri Akal!

38: Atika  (Columbus, Ohio, U.S.A.), October 05, 2008, 8:16 PM.

In my opinion, the reason why many Sikh youth are drifting away from their religious values, whether in India or abroad, is because, unlike other identities (professional or political), we do not usually give young people the choice to explore their religion and form their own independent religious identity. Probably, that is why many Sikh youth cut their hair when they land on American soil, because they do not find social validation of their "handed-down" religious identities. Arvinder's come back to his religion this time around has been an active, personal decision. I admire the openness with which the writer has described his journey of self-exploration and I am confident that with the intrinsic conviction he has a long way to go. Also, building on Manjyot Kaur's comment, keeping unshorn hair is more than just a symbol of one's social identity - it has to be the core of one's self-identity - if one decides to walk the path. One needs to feel comfortable with one's body - all hair - the way we were born. External religious symbols are meaningless if one does not understand and act out the qualities they symbolize.

39: Renu Gujral (Albany, New York, U.S.A.), October 06, 2008, 5:10 PM.

Congratulations! Arvinder. Good inspiration for the younger generation.

40: Kanwarjeet Singh (New Jersey (formerly Kansas City)), October 08, 2008, 4:04 PM.

Sometimes the Almightly makes us walk through a difficult and dark path so that we can see the light. You have gone through the "safar" (journey/suffering) and now emerged stronger. Maybe Waheguru used you to illustrate a point to our community. May you always be blessed with this roop and swaroop.

41: Amandeep kaur (Houston, Texas, U.S.A.), October 09, 2008, 5:06 AM.

Well done, brother. Keep it up and good luck in your future. We are all proud of you. Hope to see even more Sikhi in you in time to come.

42: Preeti Saluja (Bangalore, India), October 09, 2008, 9:27 PM.

Congratulations! You must feel privileged to be given a chance to be on the path of Sikhi once again. It's like getting a second life. Very few people can say that they are God's special child ... but you are one among them!

43: Varinder Singh Malhi (Fresno, California, U.S.A.), October 15, 2008, 11:27 AM.

It was great to read your article. Good luck in your future endeavours. I have learned so much from you. Thanks.

44: Hirdepal Singh (Johannesburg, South Africa), October 16, 2008, 5:00 AM.

This piece is very touching and close to reality. I remember when I left India about 6 years ago, I also went through all these thoughts in my head. But Waheguruji was kind enough to give me strength and I sailed through. I'm sure many others will take inspiration from your writeup and drift in the right direction. Mayu Waheguru keep you in Chardi Kala!

45: Guri Dhanoa (Geelong, Australia), October 16, 2008, 8:52 PM.

Dil kush ho gayaa ... just keep on rocking, bro. If everyone starts thinking like you ... we will be not far away from attaining anything in the world. Chak de Phattey!

46: Ricky (Delhi, India), October 21, 2008, 12:11 PM.

Bhaaji, pugg barri sohni bandhey ho, tussi...

47: Chanji Singh (India), October 25, 2008, 12:33 PM.

Your article has captured the current scene well. True, those who are truly blessed are able to get themselves out of this. I feel the values being taught at childhood have allowed this phoenix to be reborn and believe this will prove to be an inspiration for many others. It is nice on your part that you open heartily accepted the comments (praises and criticisms), and it is really a moment of pride for your parents. I pray you will have the strength and wisdom to grapple with your remaining challenges. I know you will not only make it but will also enlighten others. Guru Fateh!

48: Kulwant Chowdhary (Australia), March 16, 2009, 10:07 PM.

Keep up the good work, brother! I am proud of you and may Waheguru's blessings be with you.

49: Guneet Kaur (India), September 13, 2009, 12:17 PM.

It's a very beautiful representation of all the reality going on, veerji! Facing a situation is far different from sitting back and writing comments. I find your courage and conscientiousness commendable and beautifully glorious, since it is a rare sight to find people who answer their conscience honestly. No doubt, Harvinder is doing so well cuz he's such a wonderful bro ... my best wishes to you both.

50: Jagandeep Singh (New York, U.S.A.), August 13, 2010, 8:26 AM.

Brother, I can relate to your story too. I come from a Sikh family and happened to cut my hair when I was working in Delhi. Later I grew my hair back when I was studying in the U.K.. It's a great feeling to wear a turban again. There is a great satisfaction I feel although I am not a complete Sikh yet.

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