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Two Sikh Men, Two Lifetimes Of Looking Different

Surinder Singh and his son Rupinder visited StoryCorps in San Francisco in April.
Surinder Singh and his son Rupinder visited StoryCorps in San Francisco in April.

The tragic shooting at a Sikh house of worship in Wisconsin this month has turned the spotlight on the Sikh faith and the nation's Sikh community.

Earlier this year, Surinder Singh and his son Rupinder visited a StoryCorps booth in San Francisco, where they reflected on their own experiences standing out among their peers and neighbors.

Both practicing Sikhs, Surinder and Rupinder wear turbans, and maintaining that tenet of their faith has made for some difficult experiences.

Surinder raised his family in Canada, after immigrating there from India more than four decades ago. The entire family later moved to California in 1992. When Surinder first arrived in Canada, he recalls feeling very conspicuous in his new community.

"When I came in 1966, nobody knew about who a Sikh was," Surinder tells Rupinder. "For them, I came out as if from a zoo or a museum. I looked so different."

Surinder's appearance — namely, his turban — became an issue while he was working as a school teacher in Canada. "Once when I was desperately needing a job, they had hired me. But after two, three days, I was told that, 'Mr. Singh, you have to remove your turban ... you have to look like us.'

"I said, "Mr ... I won't do it.' And I gave up the job right away. He was very surprised, but I was not willing to give in," Surinder says.

Growing up, Rupinder also had to grapple with standing out.

"One of the memories I always have is being bullied when I was in kindergarten," Rupinder says. "It was recess, and I do remember being called some names. And I left school and just walked home. I must have been 5 years old. I walked in the door and surprised mom."

The taunts didn't stop, even as Rupinder moved on to middle and high school.

"It just became part of growing up for me, that this was going to happen wherever I went to school," he recalls. "The worst of it was really the eighth grade, ninth grade, just because it turned into something a little bit more physical where people were grabbing at my turban or pulling on it, as I walked the halls. So I used to rush from class to class and hope I'd get through without being touched."

All of the unwanted attention took a toll, Rupinder says. "I had a hard time opening myself up to other people because I didn't know who would be my friend one day, and change their mind the next day. And it was very hard for me to give my trust to people."

"Even at this age, I still get bullied sometimes," Surinder says.

But knowing that weighed on Rupinder's mind, even months before the tragedy in Oak Creek, Wis. "When you take walks every afternoon, it's always a thought of mine, like, you know, if someone's going to say something in a passing car," Rupinder says. "You never know about any kind of lunatic, or if somebody is going to do something."

Surinder says he won't let fear dictate how he lives his life, however. "Yeah, it does happen," he says. "But you have to maintain your strength, and you have to try to learn not to give up."

"Looking back, given all the experiences you've had, do you think that it's possible to live as a Sikh in this country?" Rupinder asks his father.

"Oh yeah. Most of the people that you deal with are really very good," Surinder says. "There are a few black sheep, and sometimes they spoil the flock, but, on the whole, I do believe that there is more good than evil around."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Anita Rao with Katie Simon.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.