When I was a kid, I didn’t really consider myself religious. “Being Sikh or being Punjabi” wasn’t really how I identified myself. I was just me. I would go to Gurdwara on Sunday mornings, sing shabads (Kirtan) and sit upstairs to do path (read prayers). Along with going to Gurdwara, I attended Punjabi school, the Sikh Society of Madison, WI: once a week, some parents would gather at the Gurdwara to put on Punjabi, Kirtan and History classes for their kids. It wasn’t anything fancy, but it was effective in building our foundation and literacy within our Punjabi Sikh culture (shoutout to my mom <3).
Thinking about these childhood experiences, they were never really about religion; rather, learning to practice Sikhi was a way to feel connected with our families, community and heritage.
In third grade, we were introduced to a lot of journal writing. Often there were prompts like “tell me about your life.” I had trouble because I wouldn’t know how to explain such simple things like going to Gurdwara or what it meant to me. English and Punjabi were indistinguishable in my head. I felt dumb and wrong, because my teacher or my classmates wouldn’t understand what I was talking about. It was around this time in my life that I found a book about Sikhism in our school’s library (much to my surprise). It was a DK Eyewitness book called World Religions, and after showing my teacher, she understood me and what I meant by “going to Gurdwara.”
However, I haven’t always had a book to resolve my issues of feeling distant from people at school. I felt different from many of them, not fully enjoying or belonging to any one culture. After the Oak Creek Shooting, ‘the need to explain’ became an unspoken responsibility in some ways. As a kid, I thought that it isn’t just about me anymore. It’s about rectifying a misunderstanding about my Sikh community here in Wisconsin.
Every time I clarified things like the pronunciation of my name or where I was from, I believed that “one more informed person meant one less ignorant person. Less hate, more love.”
As I have gotten older, I’ve come to see that the issue wasn’t just a misunderstanding that I had to clarify: a part of the problem is that this society has disproportionately favored the majority and their beliefs and traditions and has failed to honor and respect those of marginalized minority communities.
Sometimes I wonder whether it’s ever going to change — the whole ‘feeling the need’ to explain myself to justify my existence. Despite it all, I choose Sikhi because it keeps me grounded and has influenced how I have connected with all the people in my life. Sikhi taught me Ek Onkar, that we are one. I don’t know what that means in terms of where I think I belong or how that says anything about who I am, but all I know is that I am here.
Where do you feel like you belong? How does your philosophy of life help you negotiate or think about it?