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A few weeks ago I happened to hear a bunch of residents going back and forth about Hopkins, a new TV show with underlying themes similar to most medical TV shows: trauma and drama. Although I groaned after I realized it was also a glorifying advertisement for the institution, the characters in this series prevented me from outright disliking it. They include Herman Singh Bagga, a fourth-year medical student at the time of shooting. ABC proudly displays his synopsis on its site: “He says being a Sikh puts a special responsibility on him because he may be the only member of his group an outsider meets. He views wearing a turban as an advantage because it makes him easy to remember.”

Born and reared in Erie, Pennsylvania, Herman is now at UCSF for his internship and residency. Awesome to see the Sikh identity intact and its representation held strong and celebrated in full force from schools, hospitals, resident banter, and TV screens coast to coast.

Earlier this afternoon, tristate-area Sikhs marched through the streets of Richmond Hill, Queens and demanded the New York City Department of Education to take action and protect Sikh students from bias-based harassment. The Sikh Coalition, in its press release, commended the Department of Education and Chancellor Klein “for pledging to create a system to monitor and address incidents of bias-based bullying in city schools” although it falls “short of the protections called for in the Dignity in All Schools Act passed by the City Council in 2004.”

Hold up, though. It doesn’t look like the large, loud, and colorful posters will be stored in a sevadar’s basement just yet. The press release notes that the community intends to continue marching in larger and larger numbers until the Department of Education: 1. informs and trains teachers on the particular dangers faced by Sikh students and 2. teaches students about Sikhs and Sikh concerns in order to reduce bias and bigotry.

To all those who organized and participated in an effort to protect each child’s right to freely practice his faith: thank you.

It could have been me. Easily. Move the location 1.4 miles east, go back 14 years and I could have had the same experience as Gurprit Kaur.

Mind you, both Gurprit and I went to public schools in one of the most diverse cities in the world. Most of my friends were curiously open-minded. Yet, the evils of harassment and ignorance crept up in some from time to time. There were a few kids who’d nervously laugh as they asked “so what would happen if we took this scissor and snipped your hair?” And I’d look them in the eye as I sternly replied “that isn’t funny; you know why I don’t cut my hair so keep your scissors away from me.” I guess the look I gave and tone of my voice was enough to help them distinguish right from wrong.

Stern looks and terse voices don’t have much effect anymore. Or any effect for that matter. On June 8, 2008, one of Gurprit Kaur’s classmates intentionally cut three inches of her braid as she sat in her English class. Stern looks and terse voices don’t seem to catch the attention of local and national media either. Either the media is unaware of the blatant infringement of Gurprit Kaur’s rights or has deemed the story un-newsworthy. Type “Gurprit Kaur,” “P.S. 219” or any combination thereof in search engines and you’ll end up empty handed. Seems completely ridiculous as this is the third instance of physical harassment and religious discrimination towards Sikh children within a year, the last one taking place five days prior to Gurprit’s unfortunate attack.

The Sikh Coalition has recognized the lack of attention and is taking matters into their own hands by organizing a march to push the New York Department of Education to end bias-based harassment of Sikh children in city schools. Help the Coalition in our community’s collective efforts by joining in “Sikhs of New York City to March for Sikh Children” on Monday, June 30. We can’t have our young ones practice their faith in fear any longer. Take a peek at the flyer below for more information:

Many, many thanks to organizing/activist extraordinare Sundeep Singh for spreading the word.

Have you ever watched a commercial repeatedly and then come to realize that you never quite figured out what it was attempting to advertise? You’ll remember the jingle and the characters, but not much else. And then, out of nowhere, neurons fire, and whoa, you’ll finally realize that someone was trying to make you buy something and that both the someone and the something are very clear.

I remember going to the gurdwara as a young Kaur in the summer and asking myself when is that day going to arrive– that day when the sangat distributes wonderfully cold and sweet rose-flavored milk. Year after year I remember that day finally arriving: the contrast of the cold cement supporting my feet and the stagnant heat finding its way through my chuni while taking the first delicious sip of refreshing ruhafza before chugging it down and looking for more. But year after year, even after listening (and not passively either) to kathaa about the significance of this service, I would forget all the painful history that led to this tradition. Similar to the way I typically fail to recognize a product placement in an ad, I missed the boat completely when it came to Sikh history. Unlike the commercial, however, the boat wasn’t a campaign designed by a marketing agent to sway my purchasing power. Rather, the boat was exponentially more important: it was a part of Guru Ji’s message and a reflection of my spirit.

Guru Arjan Dev Ji, the firth Guru of the Sikhs, came to this world in 1563 C.E. as the youngest of three sons of the fourth Guru, Guru Ram Das. In 1581 C.E., Guru Ram Das designated Guru Arjan Sahib as his successor Guru. During his stewardship of the faith, Guru Arjan Sahib continued his predecessors’ work of spreading Guru Nanak’s message of faith, hope, prayer, and love and unity of all faiths… Guru Arjan was tortured to death on June 16, 1606 in Lahore and his body was thrown into the river Ravi. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ and Socrates’ death by poison are the only historical parallels to the unwarranted torture and resultant death of Guru Ji. Guru Arjan, a messenger of love of God and among all people, was executed because of his growing popularity. Sikhs often refer to Guru Arjan Sahib as “Shanti de Punj, Shaheedan de Sartaj,” or “the embodiment of peace, the supreme martyr.” The martyrdom took place during the hottest part of the year, and the torture included seating Guru Sahib on a hot griddle and pouring hot sand over his body. After four days of torture, one devoted follower forsaking personal safety managed to get cold fruit juice through to the Guru. Since then, it has become traditional for Sikhs to observe the anniversary of Guru Sahib’s martyrdom with congregational prayer, taking out processions singing prayers, and performing “Chhabeel” or serving cold refreshing drinks to all, irrespective of religion, race, or caste. The drink traditionally consists of diluted milk sweetened with sugar and often flavored. Juices or cold water may be offered as well.

The Boston Sikh Sangat is commemorating the anniversary of Guru Arjan Dev Ji’s martyrdom by holding a Chhabeel on Sunday, June 14. Hopefully with your help this year the headlines in the Boston Globe will differ from years past. And hopefully I’ll remember more than just the cold yummy drinks in the years ahead.

A probing public service announcement made by the folks at rethinkbias.org/A More Perfect Union/Virginia Interfaith Center (probably with the help of both SALDEF and Sikh Coalition) is being streamed on TV stations across the Virginia/D.C. area.

Watch “Airplane” here.

Dramaticized? Reactionary? Exaggerated? Yeah, a little bit. (And perhaps I showed my own ignorance when I first saw it and thought hey, why is that Jack Bauer/Kiefer Sutherland dude being such an awful character?) But it relays the message clearly to the viewer: education and outreach are the answers to ignorance and intolerance.

As a mediocre “writer” I look up to and try to learn from publications such as The New York Times. Sometimes they win my complete admiration. And sometimes they make me go up in arms. Why, oh why, do they have to make our relationship so tumultuous and difficult?

The Times apparently likes recycling stories. Especially ones as interesting as the multitude of faiths practiced in the diverse town of Flushing located in Queens, New York. But even I, blogger-unextraordinaire, know it’s possible to freshen up a recycled story by including perspectives and views that may not have been addressed in the past.

Back in 1999, they published an article titled “A Snapshot of World Faith; On One Queens Block, Many Prayers Are Spoken.” The piece briefly acknowledged the existence of a Gurdwara in the first paragraph of a two-page article but nothing more. It made me upset at the time, but I somehow managed to keep it together and get over it.

Fast-forward to 2007. The same topic is drafted into an article for their Travel section. Omitting multifaith options in New York is the best way to describe it. This time around the sangat and Gurudwara aren’t even mentioned. I was pissed enough to write a blog entry, and had begged you to write letters to the editor.

May 2, 2008. I take a moment to check out the main page of the Times website. Oh look: the same topic has now been released as a video report and as an article in the Arts section. And oh look: there’s still absolutely NO mention of our lovely gurdwara and sangat.

Let me once again illustrate where our “forgotten” gurdwara is located in relation to the other religious venues that have somehow managed to capture the attention of three different NYT writers over a span of a decade:

FYI: The Hindu temple and Gurdwara are less than a block away from each other!

  • Sri Shirdi Saibaba Temple = 46-16 Robinson Street
  • B’Nai Abraham synagogue = 75-03 Main Street
  • St. Paul Chong Ha-Sang Roman Catholic Chapel and Center, Evergreen Presbyterian Church, Hazrat-I-Abubakr Sadiq mosque = take my word for it: they’re all close by as well

If I drew a map there would be a bunch of dots within a mile radius of each other and the Gurdwara would be right along side all of them.

This is absolutely frustrating. Should I direct my strikes towards The New York Times or the sangat and sevadars of the Bowne Street Gurudwara who may have not picked up on the ignorance of my typically very unignorant newspaper? I would be crushed if this was recycled again for the fourth time and I didn’t see any mention of our house of worship and spirited, presumably civically-engaged people. I think it’s time for desperate measures… either a stern letter to the editor/op-ed piece or boycotting my once beloved and favorite newspaper.

Props to Sikhswim for bringing attention to Sukhvir Singh’s uplifting story published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on April 21. Props to the Editorial Staff at the PI for publishing the following Letter to the Editor three days later:

Thank you for Robert L. Jamieson Jr.’s aptly titled Tuesday column, “Meet the opposite of a ‘terrorist'” and describing the shared experience of Sikhs through the story of Sukhvir Singh. Singh’s principles are a reflection of his faith and the values of his adopted nation; his belief in compassion, humility and forgiveness is a defining attribute of both the Sikh and American identity.

As a Sikh born, raised, educated and working in the United States I carry the pride of my country in my heart by remembering that my success and comforts are a result of each and every immigrant’s trials and tribulations. I, like all Americans, am hopeful that the hate and intolerance plaguing our national and worldwide community can be reversed with education, reflection, shared discussion and articles such as Jamieson’s.

You can find it temporarily here.

Props to media outlets that don’t push for spin or outrageously unbalanced headlines but rather honest and fair stories that resonate with the larger community.

The first novel written in Punjabi has been adapted into an animated film!

If this is the musical score then the movie is sure to rock.

Published in 1898 Bhai Vir Singh’s Sundri (or Sundari) was written with the aim of “boosting the morale of the Sikhs [of their own history and cultural heritage] after the downfall and subsequent annexation of the kingdom of Punjab.” Written with a literary rhythm and flow I could only hope to emulate, Bhai Vir Singh paints Sundri as a heroine who embodies the Khalsa virtues of discipline, courage and compassion through her strength as a woman and her fighting and equestrian spirit.

Read the short story for yourself.The movie is to be released in May and June 2008 in different cities across North America.

Caution: debatable word play follows.

  • Newsday: The US Secret Service gave the World Sikh Council a choice: leave your ceremonial daggers at the door or forgo a meeting with the Pope. So the Sikhs will not join a Washington, D.C. interfaith gathering with Pope Benedict XVI in April. The Secret Service considers kirpans a security issue, but Sikhs consider carrying the curved blade one of five sacred duties.

Headlines of nearly every article published in American and British media on this story suggest that Sikhs gave the hand to the Pope. And some continue in their brief summaries to describe the kirpan as a dagger.

I can imagine what editors were thinking when selecting synonyms for kirpan: “hmm, sword, the cutting edge of an enlightened mind, weapon, dagger. Eh, same thing.”

And why is the kirpan still a security issue with the Secret Service? Why hasn’t our work with the TSA carried over to other agencies? How could they not be aware of our panj kakaar when Akal Security provides security services to a range of government agencies including the U.S. Army and the Department of Homeland Security?

The World Sikh Council’s press release is aptly titled “Sikhs To Miss Papal Event, Secret Service Bars Kirpaan.” It has all the elements of a good headline. Catchy. Accurate. Avoids hyperboles. Why couldn’t I have woken up this morning and seen this in the paper instead? Let’s put it this way: if I did you may have been spared from another dull blog post.

The Pew Forum, through their recently released “US Religious Landscape Survey,” provided information regarding a niche that the US Census manages to avoid: religious affiliation. You could imagine my excitement as I clicked on religions.pewforum.org to check it out and learn what the survey found in regards to Sikh Americans.

And that’s when it all started moving in slow-motion.

“Main page.” I scan through it. “Where’s the category for Sikhs? Okay, no worries. Perhaps we’re buried in the ‘Religious Composition of the US’ table in Chapter 1.” I move the edge of my finger over the mousepad ever so slightly so as to scroll down the page inch by inch. “It’s there, it’s there,” I tell myself reassuringly. “Wow, categories for Eclectic, a little bit of everything, own beliefs, New Age and Native American. Okay, seriously, where are we?” I shoot back up to the top and carefully re-scroll downwards. “You wouldn’t want to publicly hate on a survey for no reason. You’re definitely missing it.” I re-read the text. No luck. Re-loading the page doesn’t work either. “This can’t be for real.”

The record in my head came to a screeching halt.

After going through the entire frickin report I feel comfortable declaring that Sikhs were not included as a category in the study. We are neither a religion, an other world religion, an other faith nor an unaffiliated religion. I don’t get it. Out of the 35556 people over the age of 18 surveyed not one Sikh was reached? We weren’t away from our phones having post-Vaisakhi celebrations between May and August of 2007 (the time period the survey was conducted). How we got shafted remains uncertain.

It’s one thing for you and me to not be able to experience the joy that comes from seeing statistical data published on Sikhs. And trust me, our joy is of major importance to me. But it’s entirely problematic when a survey of great political importance snubs a huge percentage of the American diaspora.

…Muslims rival Mormons as having the largest families. And Hindus are the best-educated and among the richest religious groups, the survey found.

“I think politicians will be looking at this survey to see what groups they ought to target,” Professor Prothero said. “If the Hindu population is negligible, they won’t have to worry about it. But if it is wealthy, then they may have to pay attention.”

Experts said the wide-ranging variety of religious affiliation could set the stage for further conflicts over morality or politics, or new alliances on certain issues, as religious people have done on climate change or Jews and Hindus have done over relations between the United States, Israel and India. (NYT, Feb 26)

I hate to admit that certain groups are lobbied in greater preference than others and politicians cater to certain groups for self gain, but it’s sadly the nature of the beast. Our exclusion from this study is a big loss for our community. We must make sure that this isn’t repeated again. Speak up, people.

Status quo. Acceptance. Rediscovering yourself and your faith. Finding the path to inner piece.

I would say those are reasonable and cool themes to explore in a movie.

But throw in a Sikh transplant surgeon and a love story and you got the makings of Ocean of Pearls, a very-soon-to-be Hollywood release.

oop1.jpg

Sarab Singh Neelam, director and co-writer of the film, founder of Lightpost Pictures, Toronto-ian, and gastroenterologist, will debut Ocean of Pearls at the Miami International Film Festival on March 2nd.

Although our protagonist, Amrit Singh, is a surgeon, his story is common to many Sikhs outside of medicine as well. I have seen one too many brother and sister struggle with adapting to western standards while compromising their Sikh identity. I would be lying if I didn’t admit to feeling the pressure myself from time to time.

oop2.jpg

Although the film centers around issues of Sikh heritage and principles, the director adds a healthy reminder of the realities and complexities faced by most in our current health care system. In an interview he commented “most Americans do not realize that even if you have health insurance and earn good money, an accident or a health crisis can bankrupt you.”

oop3.jpg

Awesome to see folks like Sarab Singh Neelam pursue change for the community though diverse creative outlets. To see our experiences translated through characters such as Amrit Singh and the medium of film, art, and music is a beautiful gift I hope both our community and the general public will appreciate.

A pain assessment usually begins with the following question: on a scale of 0 to 10, how would you rate your current level of pain? During a long day of asking people to describe and illustrate their pain through words I tried to find a bit of humor by imagining whether this scoring system could be adapted and applied elsewhere…

Twenty-five years ago, when Kanwaljeet Anand was a medical resident in a neonatal intensive care unit, his tiny patients, many of them preterm infants, were often wheeled out of the ward and into an operating room.

The journey of a Sikh and his career is described in a main article in this Sunday’s Times magazine. Wow. +3 points.

Known to all as Sunny, Anand is a soft-spoken man who wears the turban and beard of his Sikh faith.

The author highlights the physical emblems of our faith. +2 points. Yet, what did this comment add to the article? -1 point. I wonder why Singh was omitted from his name. -1 point.

Anand says he does not oppose abortion in all circumstances but says decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis.

How do Sikhs approach the issue of abortion? Is all life, no matter whether he will be born with defects or endanger his mother, entrenched with a blessed spirit? How do we feel about aggressive medical care for those nearing the end of their lives? Is this in some way meddling with Waheguru’s plan for our destiny? +5 points for getting us to think about this.

In the push to pass fetal-pain legislation, Anand’s name has been invoked at every turn; he has become a favorite expert of the anti-abortion movement precisely because of his credentials. “This Oxford- and Harvard-trained neonatal pediatrician had some jarring testimony about the subject of fetal pain,” announced the Republican congressman Mike Pence to the House of Representatives in 2004, “and it is truly made more astonishing when one considers the fact that Dr. Anand is not a stereotypical Bible-thumping pro-lifer.” Anand maintains that doctors performing abortions at 20 weeks or later should take steps to prevent or relieve fetal pain.

My, what an observation. He is not a stereotypical Bible-thumping pro-lifer. -0.5 point.

Total: 7.5 points. A considerable amount of pain on a scale of 0 to 10, but not bad on my imaginary scale of a good read that raises awareness of our community and promotes open discourse on important issues that are often pushed aside.