Dr. Rajinder Pal Singh
After a jogging session on the treadmill of North Carolina Hospital gym I came down to meet my boss, who introduced me to a guest speaker. As I was drenched in sweat, my boss said, “why the treadmill? It’s better to run on flat ground around the hospital,” To this, the guest speaker said, “because he will very likely be shot if seen running around the hospital with that turban over his head!”
This was no exaggeration! In the US, a man running around with a turban does run the risk of being shot for being a terrorist because anybody resembling the turbaned Osama is deemed to be terrorist by default.
The movement of a faith observant Sikh on the road fed upon the paranoia of some trigger happy semi-drunk average American in a pickup truck and led to his bid to eliminate a potential terrorist on US soil. Silly as it may sound, this hysteria assumed a dangerous proportion that caused several killings of Sikhs after 9/11 due to mistaken identity. Some of these unfortunate victims had come from India to visit the US, and were on a post-lunch walk.
Those turbaned Sikhs who weren’t shot did faced indirect indiscrimination in the work place and in career progression. Unfortunately, this led a large number of Sikhs to shave their hair and beards to look ‘normal.’ We attended a Sikh camp for children education in Milwaukee, and not surprisingly, we read a few years later that the Gurudwara affiliated to the camp was attacked by armed racist thugs and several Sikhs were shot dead.
Although I escaped from being shot in the US during my fellowship days, my turbaned persona did lead to prejudice for which I suffered both financially, emotionally as well as career wise. When I was to start working as a transplant fellow in the US, one of my bosses mentioned to me, “In the US, your turban will have to go.” However, his aspiration remained unfulfilled. In fact, when I finished my training, we organised a turban ceremony where I made my bosses wear a turban and captured the process on video.
My introduction to the US started on a positive note. I was on a US airways flight from Manchester to Philadelphia in 2007. While in the plane awaiting take off, there was a frantic announcement asking for a doctor to help attend to an air hostess who had developed breathing difficulties and hoarseness after taking peanuts to which she was allergic. I got up and treated her with the necessary medications that were available on board. She recovered dramatically and the US airways pilot upgraded me to business class.
The kindness extended to the staff presenting me a one litre bottle of champagne when we landed in Philadelphia. This bottle was confiscated during my check in for the connecting flight to Greensboro and no amount of ‘I saved a US airways air hostess’ worked. The more I tried the more suspicious the airport security became and therefore, I reluctantly gave up the bottle. A few years later, I saw a Hollywood movie based on a similar theme where the protagonist was a Sikh transplant surgeon facing similar issues. It did cross my mind that the narrative was inspired by my experience. I have not received any credits or royalties from the film producer.
The mistaken identity where Sikhs are thought of as Arabs was apparent throughout my US stay. One of my Nephrologist interviewers in the US greeted me with ‘Salaam Alekum’. Nothing wrong with that, but I did correct her about my actual ethnicity and mentioned that our greeting was ‘Sat Sri Akaal’.
One of the financial losses we had incurred was in the airport of Minnesota where my wife and kids were going on a break to India. As the flight was going through Frankfurt, the security officer, a racist bald white supremacist made it difficult for us as we did have return US visa that validated our India travel via Frankfurt. We returned from the airport and waited for my Canadian permanent resident Visa card which took a week to arrive and then we restarted our journey. This time, the personnel dealing with us was a Mexican who did not enquire about our visa status. When we showed him the Canadian PR card, he said that it was not required. I described our experience the week earlier to which he raised his eyebrows and apologised with an understanding look that explained it all.
The worst was yet to come. It was my fourth year in the US and I needed to visit UK for some work. I had three months left to complete my second fellowship training from Minnesota. I packed a small suitcase and came to London. My family was still in Minnesota where my wife was doing a small research project and the children were in school. My US yearly J1 visa had expired but the Home Office had provided me with the necessary documents to continue in US as a fellow. I was told to get the visa reissued from a US embassy if I went on a trip to any country other than Mexico or Canada.
When I went to US embassy in London, they refused to issue me the re-entry visa. The visa officers said that my application required ‘further administrative processing’ and the process could take anywhere between 3-6 months. I pleaded with them that I had only 3 months of my fellowship training left and that my wife and kids were in US, but to no avail.
An elderly Sikh attacked in the US while on his way to the Gurdwara (File photo)
For reasons unclear, the system perhaps generates suspicious activity for a turbaned Sikh travelling between UK, Canada and US with no permanent home.
I struggled to survive in London with a few underwear and a couple of jeans, with help from some friends in whose houses I stayed, but each stay was politely capped at two weeks at the most for their privacy reasons which are quite understandable. I was grateful for whatever help offered.
One good thing that happened that time was India lifted the cricket World Cup under my ever favourite MS Dhoni.
I then left for India and took my mother on a pilgrimage to Hazur Sahib, Nanded. As soon as I returned, with her blessings and those of Sacche Pathshah, I was offered a job in London supported by strong recommendation from my US trainers. Prior to that, my US trainers officially approached a US senator to help, but the Senator was told by the Department of Homeland Security to lay off as these were security matters.
My wife and children returned and my wife got her next gynaecology training placement in Watford. Therefore things were now falling in place. She single-handedly managed to bring a truck load of suitcases from US to UK.
After three months I did receive an email from the US embassy that my visa had been cleared, and I was free to collect it. I emailed them as: ‘thanks, I don’t need it anymore’. You can well imagine the amount of patience and self restraint that must have been required on my part to delete an email which I had initially drafted as a response to the US home office where I had wanted to use my choicest expletives. After all who cared now. But I deleted that email as it was pointless to send a barrage of emotional outburst to them. One cannot mess with the United States.
Later, while returning back from Canada after attending a transplant conference, it was revealed to me by a security officer when I was that there was a terrorist having the same name as mine. At that time he asked for my father’s name but this was not sufficient, ultimately my identity was established by my children’s name. It’s sad how the activities of a few black listed people can damage the community at large.
The misery sometimes gets carried-on to the inside of the aircraft. I have noticed that some US passengers who are unaware of the Sikh identity give a look of nervousness as they see me moving down the aisle trying to get to my seat.
It was not as if I was the only one suffering in US. Once we were invited in Minnesota to a respected Muslim friend’s house to celebrate Eid. He was a chest physician. As we were dining, there was a knock on the door. The cops were there on his doorstep because some concerned neighbours had reported suspicious activity as several strange looking bearded non-White Asian people had congregated together! My friend explained to me that this was a recurring phenomenon that he was used to, and cops would return soon after a cursory discussion. However this time it took the fun to a further exalted dimension as I was the newly added feature to my bearded Muslim brothers, with a majestic turban making me appear as their leader. The Osama of the gathered Al Qaeda trying to hatch a plot until proved otherwise. However in no time they realised that we were s group of too accomplished doctors and it spoiled their fun.
My narrative will be incomplete without referring to some good experiences too. I vividly remember a middle aged white American farmer I met in North Carolina. I had taken a cab to look at his apartment for rent. When he realised that it wasn’t suitable for me, he took me in his truck with his teenage daughter to three more houses until I found and sealed a suitable rental deal from among my shortlist! I don’t think I can ever meet such magnanimous and selfless person.
Likewise I was let off twice by US cops for inadvertent traffic violations while struggling to drive on the US side of road. One was for crossing a red light and the other one for crossing the path of a cop. The second time was a close shave as although I had dutifully stopped, I was trying to open my door and the police officer resounded a warning: ‘Stop! Stay inside the car. Lower the window!’ Being in my hospital blues invoked respect for me and he let me off.
Gun culture is slightly less in UK as compared to the US, perhaps due to strict gun possession laws. The possibility of getting shot by a random stray racist are quite low in UK, but does exist as it had happened few years ago when an Indian student from Maharashtra studying in Lancashire University UK was shot dead in Salford. However among UK racists too the appetite for killing a non-White is equally ravenous, and therefore they resort to the next best option – knife culture.
In the UK racism has raised its cobra head in some pockets. However, it here is polished to a superb finesse by experienced strategists. These small cohorts are quite adept in highlighting their racial invincibility and infallibility and making a travesty of laid down principles of equal opportunity.
And thus the system goes on!