SIKHS IN AMERICA: STRESS AND SURVIVAL

"Caucasian immigrants socially assimilate into the host communityusually within a generation. Their communities are relatively large andnon-visible i.e., not identifiable at sight. Their chief survivalinterest is in maintaining a link with the parent country's language andculture which, in general, is not difficult if the parent country is afree nation. The immigrants, and their children after them, can continueto define their cultural identity simply by reference to the "homeland."In some cases, the national origin may also define a church affiliation.In these cases, the religious and the ethic identities reinforce eachother improving the chances of survival.

South Asian and other non-white immigrants, the "visible" minorities, fallinto two groups. Some assiduously seek assimilation and eventuallyacquire the culture, habits and even the prejudices of the host communitygiving up their native language, dress, and diet as well as the observanceof religious customs. Most of those who were non-christians at the time oftheir immigration do not adopt Christianity as their new religion andessentially become non-religious. However, because the host communitycontinues to regard all persons of one skin color as a single distinctminority group, this group finds social assimilation to be elusive.

Other South-Asians are willing to accommodate, adjust and adapt in respect of dress, diet and language and even acculturate but retain their links to the parent country and religion and attempt to pass these on to the next generation through the establishment of ethnic and religious subsystems.Many ethnic subsystems take the form of population concentrations.

​STRESSES FACED BY SIKHS IN AMERICA

         a. Interaction with the Host Community

​Stress for a member of the minority community arises primarily from feeling of being treated as an outsider by the majority community. On occasions the majority has acted deliberately to exclude the immigrant and even the following generations from the mainstream. Active hostility against "Asians" and "Hindus" forced the early Sikh immigrants in to low-paying jobs confining them, with some notable exceptions, to the lowest economic groups in society. They were not allowed to bring their spouses from Punjab and if they married an American citizen, she would lose her citizenship by such marriage. They had been declared ineligible to acquire citizenship and land laws provided that aliens ineligible for citizenship could not buy, own, or lease agricultural land. Many married catholic Mexican women and their children grew up as Catholics. Social interaction with the host community was limited by language. As far as the host society was concerned the only distinction they retained was the involuntary one of skin color they shared with all South-Asians. The host society treated them as members of this larger minority.

Later, highly educated immigrants too had to face difficulties in finding employment, accommodations, professional advancement and education of their children in spite of the existence of anti-discrimination laws and absence of restrictions on acquiring property. A common question at job interviews has been: "Are you prepared to adopt the American dress?" The real question is: "Are you willing to cut your hair?" Sikh employees who became citizens are asked by their supervisors and colleagues if they plan to cut their hair.

Discouraged in their quest for suitable employment in their fields of specialization or having had unpleasant experience on the job with respect to advancement and recognition, many highly qualified Sikh engineers and scientists have found alternative careers in owner-operated businesses.There are cases of Sikhs with Master's degrees unable to find any employment primarily because of the reluctance of the employers in hiring"different looking guys."

In looking for housing, this writer was once told by a landlady: "We do not rent apartments to people with whiskers." In 1978 an American Sikh citizen, accompanying his wife at her naturalization was ordered [4] by the U.S. District Judge to remove his turban or leave the court.In 1982 an American Sikh was told [5] by his employer to comply with a new safety policy that directed men to be clean-shaven. In 1984, a Deputy Registrar in Ohio refused [6] to renew the driving license because the American Sikh would not agree to have his picture taken without his turban.As recently as 1990, a Sikh child in Ohio was told that he could not play basketball in his middle school because of a rule forbidding headgear during play. There have been numerous such incidents.

Dress codes for employees, membership of an association, laws requiring helmets and other safety headgear, etc. have contributed to create stressful situations for Sikhs. The immigrant or the convert Sikh understands the situation and may either succumb and cut his hair or insist on his right to practice his faith and fight, sometimes successfully, to get the rules changed. However, Sikh children do not understand why people won't let them be Sikhs and find such confrontations extremely troublesome.

The first group consists of those who gave up their religious belief altogether and essentially merge into the larger minority of South-Asian immigrants. This merger involves losing their identity as a Sikh. The second group consists of those who succumb to pressures of obtaining a livelihood or advancement at work and pass the blame on to the host society as being intolerant. The third group do not believe "Amrit"ceremony (formal initiation as a Sikh by taking "Khande da Pahul") is necessary and dispute the necessity of keeping hair. They insist that the distinguishing Sikh symbols (the five k's) are anachronistic and that the faith does not require them.

The religious services in various Gurdwaras do not follow any uniform pattern. Over the last several years, yet another intra-community stress has been due to the situation in Punjab, the Sikh homeland. Sikhs are alarmed at the Indian Government's persecution of members of their faith.They are concerned about the rampant human rights violations.

          c. Sikh Children

Sikh children are involuntary victims of stress. They are placed in a situation which is not of their making and in which they often are unable to comprehend. The feeling of isolation, rejection and helplessness can play havoc with their self-esteem and personal well-being.

                          i. Interaction with host society

A young Sikh child finds it extremely disconcerting that his peers at school find him strange and are unfriendly. Being stared at while walking down the street is awkward enough for anyone but specially so for a little child or an adolescent. Older children will often pull at the Sikh child's hair or play with it. Sikh boys are often asked: "What is that on your head?" This stressful situation often makes the Sikh child withdrawn,uncommunicative, and worried. Teachers not used to having identifiable minority students in their classes have on occasions interpreted this as evidence of a learning disability, further aggravating the problem. Some teachers advise Sikh parents to use English at home to accelerate the process of acculturation even though there is ample evidence that bilingual students are better learners. In fact, children of immigrant parents are known to be able to switch accent when talking to their parents or grandparents. Changing schools and "getting to know" a new set of peers all over again is a very trying experience for Sikh children.Young Sikh males find it extremely troublesome to be often the only students in their schools with a turban. They have to face official indifference to their concerns, social isolation and often hostility.

They are not allowed to participate in certain sports. The teachers are not sympathetic to a religious belief different from their own. Even when they excel academically, the "different" children are discouraged from representing their school or class. Many children as well as teacher shave been known to refer to the lone Sikh child as "that Indian boy(girl)."

                         ii. Stresses at home

For many children, the most stressful situation is their elders' adherence to a "foreign" culture. Brought up in America, they do not have an understanding or appreciation of the culture their parents grew up with and are attached to. They are culturally American, because of the school education and the interaction with their peers, but are racially Asian.The host society insists on regarding them as foreigners. They feel that they belong neither to America nor to their parents' country of origin. They can identify with neither and feel isolated and rejected. Unable to escape their racial identity, many children would like to reinforce it with knowledge of their heritage and pride in their ancestry. However, the information they get about their religion is often contradictory. They wish to be able to proudly say where their parents or ancestors came from, but there is no Sikh country anywhere in the world.

Their "homeland" Punjab is part of India. It is difficult for them to identify with India as a whole, and most Americans would not know where Punjab is. Many understand Punjabi when it is spoken at home and some have learnt to read it. Few know it well enough to read from Shri Guru Granth Sahib. Growing Sikh children are quite confused over the difficulty of finding marriage partners in the endogamous option preferred by their parents and of preserving their faith in an exogamous one for which greater choices might be available.

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