Days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Parwinder Singh got a crash course in racial and identity politics. If the lessons left the 20-year-old New Yorker a lot wiser, he insists they haven't made him any happier.
Sporting a cool floppy hat and a neatly trimmed beard, Singh barely resembles the photograph of the turbaned young man on his New York cab driver's hack license.
The new look came after Singh recently joined the growing ranks of Sikhs in America who have been victims of hate crimes since the terrorist attacks against the United States.
Mistaking their traditional turbans and long beards — a religious requirement for Sikhs — for an association with terror suspect Osama bin Laden, their attackers have beaten up, verbally abused and in at least one occasion, killed a Sikh man. During the week after Sept. 11, the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations received 960 complaints by people who said they were targeted because of their ethnicity, or because they appeared to be Middle Eastern. Sikhs, however, hail from northern India and practice Sikhism, a religion founded in the 15th century in the Punjab region of South Asia.
A part-time college student and cab driver, Singh got a taste of hate a few days after Sept. 11, when he was assaulted by a group of youths after he had dropped off a customer at a Brooklyn neighborhood around midnight.
"I hear them saying, 'There's Osama's relative, let's do the job now,' and they starts to smash the windows of my cab with their beer bottles," explains Singh in his faltering English as he sips coffee in a Manhattan cafe.
He managed to drive away unscathed, but days after his terrifying encounter, Singh discovered he couldn't quite recover. "I was thinking, 'I didn't do anything, why did this happen to me?' I was thinking, 'I want to look American.'"
For Singh, "looking American" would have to entail getting rid of his turban and long beard, but as he well knew, a shorn look for a Sikh male is easier said than done. Sikhs consider hair a natural part of the human body and chopping of one's locks — or even shaving — is a serious religious offense.
But memories of that night in Brooklyn combined with growing reports of harassment, including the killing of a Sikh gas station owner in Phoenix, strengthened his resolve.
Five days after he was attacked, Singh walked into a local Rite Aid store, bought a pair of scissors and a floppy hat and waited for a day until his father, Sukhdev Singh, a limousine driver, had left for work.
He then walked into the family bathroom and with tears blurring his vision, trimmed his beard. When he tried on his new hat though, he found it didn't fit right. A few snips to his long locks rid of a few precious inches of his hair, enough for the hat to sit comfortably on his head.
A Family Drama
But if the days leading to his shearing were days of painful self-searching, the days after were worse.
The minute his mother, Kanwaljit Kaur saw him, she burst into tears, reveals Singh. His little sister returned from high school to gaze at him, angry and shocked. And when his father returned from work, he couldn't stop himself from screaming, "What did you do, why did you do it?" in his native Punjabi.
The extended family of uncles, aunts and cousins were brought in. Some of them advised Sukhdev to throw his son out of the house. Others suggested he be locked in the house. Aunts wept, cousins taunted him with, "You just want to be American" and dinner on the table turned cold as almost everyone discovered they had lost their appetites.
But while the pull between tradition and modernity is a tug-of-war being played out in many immigrant households across the country, this one was particularly poignant since it was an act brought about not so much by individual considerations but by social terror. And for a tight-knit community already beleaguered by the backlash after the Sept. 11 attacks, the implications of the younger generation being forced to break with tradition were enormous.
"It's different if people do it of their own accord and they are happy with it," says Gurinderjit Singh, a family friend, as Parwinder Singh desultorily stared into his coffee. "But if it is done because of a fear, then it is going against everything that we hold dear to us — not to give up and give in. Look at him now, he's sad and depressed with what he has done."
‘I Went Against My Religion’
It's difficult to tell if the cause for the 20-year-old's obvious distress is the harassment he faced on the streets of Brooklyn, or the shearing his locks, or just the burden of having to put up with the wrath of his family and community. But whatever the cause, Singh's distress is genuine and his remorse real.
"I am not happy that I cut my hair," he mutters softly as a group of community leaders around the table carefully follow his words. "I went against my religion and I disrespected my parents."
Asked if the original purpose of his actions was served, if he does indeed feel safer now, Singh simply shrugs. "My father says everyone has been facing these threats. He told me 'You are my son, I have to look after you.' I don't have to fear. And besides," he adds brightening up, "things are better now, peoples have calmed down."
Civil rights groups attest to the fact that reports of harassment among American Muslims and immigrant groups have been tapering. According to a report by CAIR, harassment reports in immigrant groups have moved from public threats on the streets to racial profiling and discrimination at airports and at work.
But Singh claims he is now not afraid to face any threats, obvious or subtle. "I am growing my beard and maybe by next week, I will start wearing a turban again."
Published in ABC news.