Growing Up Sikh In San Antonio
As a kid in Texas, Simran Jeet Singh and his brothers were the only boys around wearing turbans. Hear what it was like to stick out because of his faith, the existential question he struggled with as a teen, and what he now calls a Sikh ‘superpower’.
Follow Simran Jeet Singh on Twitter @sikhprof.
Simran Jeet Singh OK, so this is another memory that I've never shared before and that it's horribly embarrassing.
Lee Hale Yes. My favorite kind. (laughter)
Lee Hale From KUER and PRX, this is Preach. I'm Lee Hale.
Preach is a show about the messiness of faith. And my guest this week is civil rights activist and professor Simran Jeet Singh.
Simran is a member of the Sikh faith. That's S-I-K-H — which I'd often heard pronounced two different ways sometimes "sick" and sometimes "seek". So before we jumped in I asked him what he preferred.
Simran Jeet Singh It's original Punjabi we say Sikh with a short ‘i’. The long pronunciation comes through the colonial British pronunciation, then it becomes Sikh. So both are common in modern English, but the form that I prefer is its original Punjabi ‘Sikh’.
Lee Hale The Sikh faith originated in the 15th century in Punjab, an area of the world now divided between India and Pakistan.
It began with Guru Nanak whose teachings were about meditation communal prayer and selfless service.
Observant sick men like Simran are easily spotted. And that's because they're not supposed to cut their hair their whole lives. And so the long hair gets wrapped up in turbans on top of their head, which is an important sign of their faith.
And it wouldn't stick out that much if you were in India or Pakistan. But Simran grew up in San Antonio, Texas in the 90s. His parents moved from India to Texas in the 70s.
His dad got an engineering job and the warm weather reminded them of home.
Simran Jeet Singh There was no real community for us to grow up around. At least not a big one. And so two things happened, I think, in order to transmit Sikhism to us, our parents taught us at home.
And that meant the language and history and scripture but also things that they themselves didn't know that well. Like the musical tradition we started learning early. My mom had just sort of learned it on the fly before she had left India.
And so what would happen was the community was so small we didn't have our own place of worship. We would just meet in people's homes and a lot of the time my brothers and me would end up leading the service because we were some of the only ones who knew, you know, we could recite the scripture. We could read from it in its original language. We could sing the Kirtan on the instruments.
Before we had even become teenagers we were already, in a way, learning how to be ambassadors of the faith.
But also, a lot of it had been transmitted through us almost out of fear that it would be lost in the sea of strangeness if my parents didn't make an active effort to preserve it through us.
Lee Hale And obviously, with your turban, you stick out right?
Simran Jeet Singh It's interesting it cuts both ways, right? So certainly there were times when it was a problem but there are also ways I think in which it would actually serve to crystallize our relationship with our heritage.
Think about this. You have four brothers who are pretty close in age from top to bottom. We're five and a half years apart, my brothers and I, so we're very close. And you’re walking around and traveling all over South Texas. You know, we're all really heavily involved in sports. That was pretty much our lives.
So we're going to all sorts of places where people have never ever seen someone who looks like us before and sometimes would turn into a nasty encounter.
Actually the first moment of racism I can remember, we walked into a roller skating rink and the manager basically yelled out ‘You can't skate in here with those rags on your heads,’ and essentially was kicking us out. And my mom organized the whole group who is with us, the entire — it was fifth-grade party that we were there for — to walk out in protest.
It was this really powerful moment and we had this conversation about, you know, you can't control how people treat you but you can always control how you respond. That's been central to who I am for all these years.
But a lot of times — a majority of the times — there was nothing malicious about the ways in which people talked to us. They really just wanted to know who we were and why we looked the way we did. I mean, I remember in elementary school even like just learning from my parents how you talk about the reasons for your being different. Why you choose to look that way when you have the option of not looking that way.
Lee Hale What would you have said if somebody was asking questions about why you wear that or why you believe a certain way?
Simran Jeet Singh When they asked me why I wear the turban I'll say the thing about my hair being long and so I wrap it up to keep it covered. And if they follow up I say this is something that we do in my family and that everyone in my family does.
I would say that people in my culture have worn this turban as a sign of equality, independence, justice - all these things that are so core to who I am as a Sikh and what my beliefs are.
And then when I personalize it in that way and connect it to ideas that they understand as being valuable, I think that they sort of understand that this is something that has deep personal meaning.
The turban is not just a religious article of faith. It's also something that ties us to our families and keeps us bonded together.
Lee Hale Was there ever a low point or where you seriously considered stopping wearing the turban?
Simran Jeet Singh You're pushing all the right buttons ... Or all the wrong buttons. This is something I haven't talked about before but there is one vivid memory I have of actually being in elementary school. And it's not something I've ever talked to my family about. I was trying to go to the bathroom. I was in the second grade. These kids were like giants at the time they were play fourth or fifth grade.
I tried to go into the boys bathroom and then they pushed me out and said ‘you have long hair, go in the girls bathroom’ and you know at that age being ostracized by the big kids is like the most humiliating thing that can happen to you. And so I remember coming home and thinking, you know, why do I have to be this way?
And actually I remember I snuck a pair of scissors under my pillow that night and had planned to cut my hair when my parents were sleeping. And you know I don't really know what happened. I think I fell asleep before them. Because again, I was in second grade. So I fell asleep and woke up the next morning and decided to change course. So it never actually happened.
But I think that's it's not just the closest that I've come it's the only real time that I can remember seriously entertaining the idea of abandoning my Sikh identity.
Lee Hale What do you think your parents would have done if you cut your hair?
Simran Jeet Singh I don't know what they would have done, but I have a sense of what they would have felt because now I have kids of my own and I have friends and family members whose kids have made that decision. Or family members who have made that decision. It's just gut-wrenching.
Lee Hale I had this experience when I was playing baseball, like, Little League baseball. And I have eight siblings we are a big Mormon family with a big van.
So like in that way like we stick out, right? And I remember coming to this pizza party that we had and all my siblings came, and it was just so many people — my entourage was so big, right? And it was really embarrassing. I just thought like we're so obviously different.
I was living in L.A. and there weren't a lot of Mormons around. I was grumpy and I was kind of sulking in the corner one of my brother said ‘Oh does it make you uncomfortable that we're all here?’ And I said yes because I thought he was going to console me.
And he just said, ‘get used to it.’ Because it's true that sometimes even the things that aren't necessarily negative, as a kid it's just like any extra attention can be a challenging thing, right?
Simran Jeet Singh Right. Right, exactly.
Lee Hale Whether you're an athlete or whatever you just kind of want to be one of the kids on a team. And I say that as somebody who didn't have any outward clothing that signified my faith. But I can relate to that feeling a little bit of just like, well, this is going to be part of my conversations with people, right?
This is something that comes up and people will see and they're going to ask about. Bit by bit I realized, like, I have to do this in a way that I actually feel proud of, right? That I actually own it in a way that feels right.
How did you understand who God was as a young person?
Simran Jeet Singh This is another memory that I've never shared before in that it's horribly embarrassing.
Lee Hale Yes. My favorite kind. (laughs)
Simran Jeet Singh So my mom would drop us off at our babysitter's house once a week. We would end up watching TV in her living room. Usually it was CHiPS — California Highway Patrol I think it is. And then afterwards, a televangelist would come on.
And I don't know who it was but it was this like, you know, 50 to 60-year-old white man, gray hair slicked back, very clearly had plastic surgery done. And that for some reason I don't know — I was probably like 6-7 years old at the time — I thought that was God talking.
Lee Hale That was God!
Simran Jeet Singh And we never actually watched it. I never actually knew who it was and we never actually sat in front of the man speaking. But for some reason for the first few years of my life, that was my image of God.
And maybe I should ask my brothers if they registered the televangelist as God. I doubt they did.
You know, in the Sikh tradition it's very clear that God does not come down incarnation in a particular form. The way that we think about it is that God is without form almost like a force that permeates this world. Because God is permeating every aspect of our world, God is every form.
I would believe that Jesus was divine or the Prophet Muhammed was divine or whoever, but no more divine than any one of us, like each and every one of us are equally divine. That's our theology and that's our tradition.
Lee Hale Mormonism is all about answering the big questions like: Why are you here? Where are you going after you die? Why do bad things happen to good people? I was really into, like, eternity and like what that would feel like, what that would be like.
And so I'm just wondering for you, like, were you told as a kid that your faith tradition should be an answer to questions like that and did you have questions like that?
Simran Jeet Singh In many ways the Sikh tradition doesn't ask some of the questions that we expect religious traditions to ask.
Let me give you a specific example of that. That really confused the hell out of me for a long time. Growing up through my teenage years especially I couldn't find a satisfying answer to what Sikhs believed about the afterlife. And I hated that.
Like, it drove me crazy because everything else I had studied or read and learned about Sikhism, I liked it. I thought it made sense. I accepted it.
Lee Hale Well, also it's Texas, right?
Simran Jeet Singh Right. I was living in Texas and all my friends one of their primary frames for thinking about and talking about religion was about afterlife.
Enough people came up to me and said ‘You know Sim, we really love you we care about you we think you're a good person but we want you to be saved. And so please consider converting.’ (Right)
Again, not malicious. It was very loving. Then people would say ‘Well, what do you believe in?’ And I would say I don't really know. They would say ‘Why don't you know? Isn't that important? Isn't that a motivating force?’ And so for years it just drove me crazy.
Lee Hale Where were you looking?
Simran Jeet Singh So through my teenage years, there are these camps that happen all over the country where sects get together.
Lee Hale Like summer camp?
Simran Jeet Singh Summer camp, winter camp.
Lee Hale Was it theologically dense? Like were you learning a lot or were you mainly having fun just around other Sikh kids?
Simran Jeet Singh It was theologically dense, so we would have history class, theology class, we call it Gurmat, the Kirtan class where we would learn music. The thing that was super remarkable about them was it would attract a lot of young-ish — so if I was a teenager these would be like 20 or young thirties, you know, people I would look up to and feel like I could connect with — people who I could go to for wisdom either about life or about theology or history, you know any sort of burning question that I had.
Lee Hale Like camp counselors? Like they were the counselors there?
Simran Jeet Singh Exactly. They were the counselors. And so those were the types of people I would ask and some of them were steeped in the theological training. It was at a camp like this in India that I went to one summer. Each day, instead of a lecture, we could lead a discussion and bring up any topic. I think I was 16 or 17 at the time and so I chose afterlife. I was like ‘If I get to pick I'm going to pick this one and hear what everyone has to say and come up with some answer before I go home.’
Lee Hale How would you have worded that question at that age?
Simran Jeet Singh I think it was: What do Sikhs believe about afterlife? And we had a long discussion and everybody shared their different perspectives and nobody had a clear answer. And then our mentor at the end of the session, the last 10 minutes, he flipped the question on me.
Which I guess is what a good professor does now that I know what a professor does. He flipped the question on me and he said ‘Why are you even asking this question? Is this a valid question?’
Lee Hale We all die! In my Christian mindset right, I think, like, this is THE question.
Simran Jeet Singh Exactly. But what he was basically saying was, look, you grew up in Texas. All your friends are asking this question because they're Christian, but we're not asking this question because we're not Christian. Because we're Sikh.
His explanation to me was essentially that the reason I wasn't finding it a satisfying answer was because there is no answer in the Sikh tradition. There's no clear answer.
And his point was if you do an in-depth study of the scripture you'll find over and over again the point that it's not what happens afterwards that matters it's what happens to us now that's most important.
And so we should focus on this life. And that to me it was like this mind-blowing moment of ‘oh maybe this thing that I've been so obsessed with isn't even a thing within our tradition’. And so how do I think about these questions and think about my own relationship with my tradition in a way that's more, I guess, authentically indigenous to it.
Lee Hale That's beautiful. And I don't think that would have satisfied me. Do you ever have any anxiety about the afterlife any more? Does that ever pop up and surprise you?
Simran Jeet Singh I don't actually. And even when I was saying that I was sort of thinking in my head this was such a silly phase where it mattered so much to me.
And actually I get a lot of young people asking me about it in the same way that I was asking, you know: ‘I'm looking for answers, I can't find one, I need one, can you help me?’ And some people are satisfied with the explanation that I'm able to give and some aren't. And I think that's fine. That's part of the journey.
What was remarkable about those camps was, you know, growing up I didn't have anybody who looked like me. It was amazing to just be surrounded by people like that, where I felt like I could take off some of the weight from my shoulders and not have to constantly worry about representing an entire religious community, right?
Lee Hale We called it ‘Especially for Youth’ was the Mormon summer camp and we’d go to college campuses. There were a few Mormons at my school but not that many. I had one Mormon friend. But I would go into these auditoriums with all these kids, you know, like I don't have to explain myself to anybody, right? (Exactly.) And it was, like, really exciting.
It also fun to flirt because I was like, you know, I don't know what the dating guidelines were for you. But, like for me it was, like, you weren't supposed to date till you're 16. And then on top that you should be dating a Mormon girl. So it's like ‘All these girls are options?’ Like that's crazy, right? It seemed endless.
Simran Jeet Singh (laughs) Yeah exactly.
Lee Hale Coming up, Simran and I get a little nostalgic for when we're in our spiritual primes.
Lee Hale As Simran and I talked we realized that, as much as our faith made us stick out sometimes in uncomfortable ways when we were kids, there are other spiritual things that we really missed from back then. And now as adults we appreciate them a lot more. A big one for Simran is that Sikhism teaches there is divinity in everyone.
Simran Jeet Singh I think I just sort of took this for granted that I grew up believing — sincerely believing — that God was in every person and learning to respect everyone and treat everyone equally.
I had always heard that as a quality that everyone admired. You know, even in school or in my classes, you know people would say these sorts of things.
But I think the logic of it for us — which I'm teaching this to my daughter now — that God is equally within every single person, and sincerely believing that — and then believing that there is no place for any sort of mistreatment or discrimination or supremacy or anything like that, that's something that I actually felt and I've only really come to cherish.
I never saw it as as a superpower, like I think it's a superpower to actually really believe that everyone's divine and everyone's equally deserving of respect.
As you look around the world around us right now that would be an amazing thing if people were able to adopt that superpower somehow.
Lee Hale For us it was important to know that you have divine potential and that you are divine and a child of God. But also it was to have a relationship with God almost like this kind of personal prayer, I would call it, in Christian terms. But was there a way were you encouraged to have a relationship with God?
Simran Jeet Singh Yeah definitely. The Sikh teaching is the relationship with God is the most powerful thing that we can have. And it is a way of overcoming our own suffering that we have in this world.
And what that relationship looks like, like we use the word love — capital L love. I mean I think that's the closest English translation of it.
And I think the reason it works is because it captures the emotive aspect of it, but it also captures the sort of psychological aspect of it.
And what I mean by the psychological is there is a constant remembrance of all that we receive. There is a constant gratitude that occurs when we come to be in a relationship of love with God where everything we encounter reminds us of that relationship. That's the ideal state within the Sikh tradition.
There is a line we recite every day. We say … when I'm in remembrance, I live. And when I forget, I die. And again, this is a point, also, about focusing on life as we know it now as opposed to focusing on the afterlife. Like real death is not physical death. It's about forgetfulness. And so that's the goal. That's the ideal state within the Sikh tradition: to always be in remembrance.
The pinnacle of that experience for me was when I was in high school. When I was 17-18. It coincides with like the best soccer I was playing in my life.
Lee Hale What position?
Simran Jeet Singh Sweeper. So I played in the back.
Lee Hale You’re in your prime. You’re in prime condition.
Simran Jeet Singh Yeah. And I'd say both spiritually and physically. This was, like, I think about myself as being spiritually connected at this time, like, the happiest most connected I've been. Constantly remembering. Constantly feeling grateful.
I used to keep a gratitude journal as a 17, 18-year-old which made me a total nerd. I didn't tell anyone. But like I felt so spiritually connected. That's been something I've been trying to recapture ever since.
Lee Hale That was arguably the worst time in my life. I mean I think that some people flourish in high school. But it's so interesting you had like almost this transcendent experience when a lot of us were like really like just in the pit of despair.
Because I'm thinking about, like, there's so much about high school that can feel superficial and temporary and frustrating. And do you credit your faith, as like you were able to kind of just live above that? Like that was not what was on your mind every day?
Simran Jeet Singh Oh yeah, totally. Soccer was like everything to me at the time. I'm talking about junior, senior year of high school. 9/11 happened when I was a senior so, obviously devastated as an American but also the racist backlash that occurred — we were on lockdown at home for several days. It was an intense time.
And to somehow, I don't know, to have something that helped me rise above that. This is an interesting thing about faith in general for me. My experience with it and especially through my family has shown me the ability to transcend circumstances that would otherwise seem inescapable. Like things where you would expect people to just be crushed by them and then somehow overcome them — seeing that over and over again. I'm like ‘Yeah that seems right. This is something that I could buy into.’
I'm not saying like we survived the racist backlash of 9/11 because, you know, some prayers put us over the top. But I think like actually the commitment to the values that we espoused and constantly promising ourselves that we're not going to give in to what might be easiest or what might help us in a momentary situation. I think that really helped create some level of mental and ethical fortitude that I've just really been grateful for.
Lee Hale I'm guessing that at times the remarks you heard were probably really disgusting and really really painful. How do you not get angry at that? Like that just seems like you must have heard some really terrible things?
Simran Jeet Singh Yeah. I mean there's plenty of racist stuff and there's plenty of racist stuff today, it hasn't really changed all that much in the last 20 years.
And many people who have experienced this sort of stuff before would say, you know ‘I'm 35 years old I've been hearing the same slurs my whole life.’ And so, yeah, that stuff is painful. I think being clear about my values and remaining committed to them is what has allowed me to keep myself from becoming embittered.
The other thing that I would say about how I've been able to sort of rise above the hate that comes my way, it goes back to this idea that everyone is inherently divine. Like humanizing them even when they refuse to humanize me. That comes down to this idea of divinity and all and remaining committed to my own beliefs and values.
Lee Hale I'm really curious about how you talked about yourself as a teenager in the last year of high school and that beautiful transcendent state of spirituality. I mean the word that keeps coming to mind is like almost like a state of nirvana, right? And I think you even said that in a way you think you might have been a spiritual peak there. Why do you think you aren't quite in that same spot now?
Simran Jeet Singh That's the million-dollar question, I think. So, I wouldn't say that I was you know this like spiritually enlightened person and everything was perfect. But I was better than I am now. And things felt better than they do now. And that's not to say that my life is terrible now, I feel like my life is great. But spiritually I'm not at that state and I've been trying to recapture it ever since.
Lee Hale When you say better what you mean?
Simran Jeet Singh I mean I felt more connected then, in that things — like I use that word intuitive, I don't know what else to really use — but I felt like things were coming to me more naturally and gracefully at that time.
Lee Hale Mormons talk about being in tune with the spirit. It's all about, like, you need to live in a way where you're sensitive to God's Spirit because God will basically dwell with you as long as you allow God to. You know, God's always willing, it's us that close ourselves off.
I've had some pretty spiritually transcendent moments and I worry now that I'm too jaded to have them like that again. I worry that, like, in my pursuit of knowledge sometimes, or at least my pursuit of whatever it is ... It's like, just growing up and accepting that life is different now. And then I know I can't really go back to the way things were.
I miss my childlike faith, like, I miss believing just full-heartedly, and now when I think about my faith it's so complicated. It's a mix of cultural friction and historical confusion. And I don't think that's how you see your faith. But for me, it's like I don't know if I can ever experience that again. And sometimes that makes me really sad. I don't know if that at all connects to how you feel whatsoever. But for me, it's like sometimes I wonder, as you grow up do you kind of forsake that potential you have as a kid to just feel it, you know? Just deeply feel it?
Simran Jeet Singh Yeah I'm reflecting on everything you're saying and it's ... I'm wondering now did it have anything to do with the life stage, right? I was describing being a 17-18-year-old. No responsibilities. And you asked me, you know, what's preventing you from that right now? First thing that comes to mind is time. I have two kids at home. I have work. When would I have time to do everything? I mean, it's not that it even requires everything, and I sort of jump to that as a question not of time, but more of responsibility. But even that seems like an excuse more than a genuine explanation. But the responsibility piece, I think, is interesting because this sort of freeness I was talking about. It's hard to even imagine having that in my life right now.
Lee Hale What brings you the most solace and peace when it comes to your faith right now?
Simran Jeet Singh There are very few moments in life at this point for me where I feel like I can forget the weight of everything else around me. And a lot of that is work-related, especially because I work on issues like race and racism that are particularly heavy right now. I work in civil rights. It's heavy right now. And so it's really hard to release some of that tension.
Lee Hale What are the most spiritually meaningful moments to you personally right now in your life that aren't necessarily public moments?
Simran Jeet Singh It's spending time with my kids, you know, they're 3 and they're 1. So they're so young that they don't really have any baggage that they carry at this point.
Lee Hale But you also literally believe that God is in them, right? Like that is a key belief for you. So in that way it's like, do you see the divinity in them?
Simran Jeet Singh I do. And for me actually, sincerely, like that is the most spiritual that I feel is when I'm spending time with them. Even things that are as mundane as going to the playground, or swimming pool or something like that, I actually really feel a sort of liberation. They see the world through a different sort of lens and so the purity of the kids is what gives us you know that glimpse into the beauty and the potential of the world.
Lee Hale Thanks for listening to Preach.
Simran isn't just a great podcast guest. He's also a great Twitter follow. His handle is @sikhprof, that's p-r-o-f, short for professor.
His bio says: Everyone needs a Sikh friend, I'm happy to be yours.
This show is a production of KUER and PRX. We have a newsletter. Find the sign up link at preachpod.org. Or just chat with us on Twitter @preachpod.
This show is produced by me Lee Hale along with Tim Slover.
Tricia Bobeda is our editor.
This episode was mixed by Ania Grzesik.
Our digital producer is Chelsea Naughton.
And our executive producer is Joel Meyer.
And if you're really liking the show, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. It helps other people find the show.
whyitsali gave us five stars and says I have never had an existential crisis and I love this podcast a lot.
Really? Never? It's going to happen eventually I promise.
Lee Hale Next time we'll need to talk about underwear (laughs) sometime in the future.
Simran Jeet Singh Yeah.
Lee Hale Because we're two of the faiths that get asked about our underwear probably more than most.
Simran Jeet Singh That's really funny, yeah. Yeah that's true. We should do a big piece about underwear for NPR.
Lee Hale I'd love it.