A Sikh, An American

From “A Sikh Temple’s Century,” Bhira Backhaus, NYT:

“The Stockton Gurdwara in California — the first Sikh temple in the United States — is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.  Immigrants from Punjab, India, purchased the lot on Grant Street in early 1912.

“Once in a while, I bring out a black and white photograph of the gurdwara taken a few decades later.  The members of the early families fan out on the steps leading up to its main entrance.  I scan the faces, picking out my mother, my sister, brothers, cousins, aunts and finally, myself.

“On Saturday nights, when my white girlfriends were off to the movies on dates, I drove my mother to the nearby gurdwara for quiet evening services.  I would roll my eyes as I changed out of my jeans into a salwar kameez outfit that I prayed no one but my Indian friends would witness me wearing.  But I can recall very clearly the comfort of having my mother sitting beside me during the service, her bowed head draped in a white veil, the feeling of peace that washed over me when the hymns and chanting began.

“Eventually I left, in pursuit of an education….  And I married outside the Sikh community, causing a painful breach with my parents that had just begun to heal when they passed away.  But when they reached out to me at last, I understood that I still belonged to the community, always had.

“The Sikh communities in California have flourished over the years.  When I visit home now I am impressed by how comfortable the new generation seems in this country, whether they are developing advanced medical therapies for patients or dancing late into the night to bhangra beats.  They have chosen to preserve their heritage while moving forward in the world.

“But people still sometimes ask me, why can’t they assimilate more?  Dress like us.  Talk like us.  Perhaps, some seen to believe, that would prevent the sort of tragedy that happened in Wisconsin.  I never have an easy answer.  But I do know this:  to wipe away what has come before, who we have been over the centuries, also means to forget who our own mothers and fathers were.  It means that how they conducted their lives — the families they raised, the homes they built — didn’t matter. It denies us that basic human impulse, to remember their stories, the unique timbre of their voices.  It would be as if they had never existed at all.”

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