The somewhat nice thing about traveling is that I’m able to ignore what’s going on back home, at least to some degree. At a time when Islamophobia and white supremacism seems to be on the rise, it’s nice to be able to disengage and just focus on what’s in front of me.
Home seems both very distant and very near right now. As I enjoy the tropical weather around me, I’m thrown off by the abundance of Christmas carols and decorations everywhere. I rarely read the news, but I also don’t need to because every time I meet someone and they hear I’m American, they share their views on the election and most recent Donald Trump incident, keying me into the fact that things are, essentially, still getting worse. For the first time in my life, I’m actually thankful to be away from home because I truly believe that I am safer outside the US than I would be in it. The worst interactions I've had in the last few weeks have actually been due to the animosity of fellow Americans. And those feelings alone are ones that I’m having trouble reconciling with my traditional feelings of home.
Recently, my brother found out he was accepted into U of M for next fall, to no one’s surprise but his own. After the initial excitement died down, we started talking about logistical things that come with college, whether he decides to attend U of M or not. Discussing potential majors and programs, sports and extra curriculars, we landed on the subject of roommates. Knowing that I went in blind for roommate selection my freshman year (and had a wonderful result), my brother started mentioning the idea of doing the same.
I paused for a moment, first asking him whether one of his closest friends, a Muslim boy from his school, had been accepted. My brother said he had. “Well, you know, not that this should be the only reason you guys are roommates, but it may be smart to live together. Just because, you know, as a practicing Sikh and practicing Muslim, in this day and age, you can’t really guarantee that going in blind will be okay, or even safe, anymore.” As soon as the words had left my mouth, I immediately felt ashamed for even putting the thought in his brain. “Actually, sorry, forget it.” “No, no, you’re right…I’ll talk to him.” Our conversation moved on.
I am constantly in awe of the South Asian, but specifically Sikh diaspora, that I see throughout the continent. In Hong Kong, in Bangkok, and I’m sure in other Asian cities I will visit, the Sikh community has truly thrived. I was fortunate enough to be in Hong Kong when the Sikh community there was protesting against current social injustices in Punjab (which you can read about in my past blog post). I only had a few hours before my flight to India, but I was able to join them, and it was an eye-opening experience.
As we marched down streets from the gurdwara to the Indian embassy on Hong Kong Island, we saw crowds gather and traffic stop. Police was guarding the cordoned off lanes the entire way, but I felt something different from what I normally feel in the US. Rather than feel nervous, that the police were there to ensure that we didn’t do any damage, they actually felt like they were protecting us, the protestors. Many on the street engaged in conversation, and cars stopped to take photos of the signs that youth were carrying. At no point was there any animosity, simply curiosity for what had taken over Hong Kong’s busy streets that day. Honestly, it was how things are supposed to be in a modern community.
Ironically, it was in South Asia, where Sikhism was created, that I have faced the most trouble. I was denied entry to a Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka because I refused to remove my dastaar (Sikh turban), which the guards saw as a security threat. In India, I had to be careful in my own home state of Punjab as police and government prevented Sikhs from peacefully protesting the unjust conditions that the government has created for decades. In a conversation with some close friends the other day, we realized the sad reality. In the two places we should feel the safest, the US and India, we are probably the most at risk. In our homelands past and present, it is where our identity is most misunderstood and targeted.
In Islam, the traditional greeting is “assalam alaikum,” directly translating to “may peace be upon you.” Ironically, this faith community is one that is experiencing anything but peace right now. Through the demonization of an international community, the safety of Muslims, and other communities, has been forgotten. As in the US, I’ve been mistaken for Muslim more times than I can count on this trip, even by other Muslims themselves! Yet it has brought a strange calm, because rather than the confusion being led by anger, disgust, and hatred, it comes from a place of love and familiarity. It comes from people who are also trying to find their place in the world through a community that they love, and are simply being accused for the bad actions of a few.
I’m discouraged by the fact that my home is a place that I can no longer trust to keep me safe, but also inspired by the success stories of community that I’ve seen through my travels. I’ve seen that it is possible to cherish many types of people without hurting others and it is possible to be knowledgeable about various identities, and even be respectful if you aren’t. Most of all, I hope that the US can start to re-learn that the most success happens when you realize that there is always room to improve, and that there are always more strides to go to reach the top.