"You look like Osama."
"Get the fuck out of my country!"
One of my favorites came when I was about 6 or 7 years old. Bright, sunny summer day. I had just gotten ice cream and was walking back to my parents' office.
"Hey kid! Let me get that towel off your head so I can wipe my ass with it!"
I turned around to see four college-aged frat boys. They laughed and drove off. I dropped my ice cream and ran to my mom, tears streaming down my face.
Not going to lie. It sucked.
Still, it helped me become stronger and more self-assured (I think). Adversity in life is a good thing, and helps us question what we do, why we do it, and challenges our beliefs. Those beliefs that we find productive and useful become even more powerful in our own lives.
Long story short, I get that kind of stuff a lot.
One of the things I continue to struggle with is how to respond to a situation like that.
As a Sikh (and a person of color) my actions have an impact on others in my group. In my case, I consider myself part of the Islamic group, since our families and groups are so intertwined (from a public image perspective).
Good things I do reflect on others Sikhs. "I LOVE Sikhs! Everyone I meet is SO nice!" Bad things too. "I hate Sikhs. They're such extremists." Still, I appreciate being part of a larger group.
Because of this, how I react to people plays a role in how others perceive Sikhs and Muslims.
A bad example of this occurred back in 2009. I sat outside the Bellevue library on my laptop, chatting with this girl I crushed on. This older white guy, in his 60's with a rough look, walked by and said "Hey, you look like Osama."
"What did you say?" I asked as he walked away. He ignored me.
"What did you say?!" louder this time.
He kept walking, now 30 feet away. "Hey dude, what the fuck did you say?!" My hands trembled. Rage boiled inside.
This time, he responded. "Go back to your fucking country!"
Next thing I knew, I stood 2 feet in front of him.
"Never say that again."
"Hey man, I was only joking." He put his hands up.
"That's not a funny joke. Say sorry."
"Alright alright, sorry man. Jeez." I wanted to hit him. I walked off in anger.
As I walked back, I wondered what I did. My hands trembled.
Thoughts flew through my head. Why did I do that? He shouldn't say that stuff. What if he had said it to a kid? I thought back to the college frat boys. The idea of another kid going through that pissed me off. Hopefully that taught him. For some reason, I felt like it wouldn't.
In the following days, I reflected on the exchange. I hated myself. What good had I done? I still felt angry about it, up to a week after it went down.
A lot of people might have watched. What did it look like to them? A young man in a turban yelling and threatening an older white man. As shitty as it seemed, I realized I gave everyone a reason to doubt and distrust other brown people. The guy himself must have felt shocked, and then reassured in his conclusions about brown people. My uncontrolled anger only made the ignorance worse. I needed to change.
A few months ago, I hopped onto a bus home in Minneapolis.
It was a dark, winter night. So cold that my mustache froze and my nostrils stung from the crisp cold air. People covered themselves in any way they could.
The bus was packed. Barely enough standing room. That made it much warmer though, enough to take off my hood.
I walked towards the back to let more people in the front. I heard a few guys laughing and joking loudly. It sounded like they were making fun of other people in the bus. They reminded me of the jocks from when I was younger.
Some guy sitting down had wrapped himself in a scarf, only revealing his eyes. The cold required it.
"That dude looks like he just rode a camel." Said the guy making the jokes. He sat in the back seat, facing the front. He was white, maybe late 20's. He had tattoos on his neck, and looked to be 200 lbs, with a solid frame. Hardly ripped, he seemed active. Face-wrap guy sat to tattoo-guy's right.
I started feeling more tense. I sensed tattoo-guy might say more. I wanted to confront tattoo guy. I was still too far off to say anything.
We reached another stop, and people got off the bus. A spot opened up next to face-wrap guy, and I took it.
"How's it going?" I asked face-wrap guy. I wanted to relieve some tension and help him feel more comfortable.
"Good man, just headed home from work." We chatted about his work a bit. He asked about my law school books, which I held in my hand.
"What are you studying?"
"He's studying bombs." Tattoo guy said.
This was the moment to act. "Why would you say that?" I felt my blood start boiling again. This time I'd be controlled. This guy wasn't getting away with it though.
"Nah, nothing man, it was a joke."
Not good enough. "Why would you say that?" I asked him again.
"Because of that damn hat on your head."
"He's a Sikh." Someone sitting in the back corner said.
I pointed to my dastaar and looked at tattoo guy. "Do you know what this hat means?"
"No, I don't know." Seemed he didn't expected anyone to stand up to him.
"Do you know what this hat means?" At this point, I felt the heavy tension in the packed bus. People shifted around, unsure of what would happen.
"No man, and I don't give a shit." I half-expected this guy to get physical. I was ready.
"This hat means that you're my brother." He never expected that one.
"Fuck that. You're no brother of mine." Killing em with kindness.
"This hat means that every person on this bus is my brother and sister."
"I don't care. Just stop talking dude. You don't know what I've been through. You don't know what I've seen in the war. Just shh." He held his finger to his lips.
I glared at him. He knew that if it got physical, I'd fight back with everything I had. He seemed shaken up and confused. I continued staring at him, then broke the gaze. At that second, I realized I didn't know what he had been through.
Tattoo guy pulled out his phone and started playing on it. Silence blanketed the bus. You could feel the tension hug your skin.
I turned to face-wrap guy and said sorry about that. He said sorry about tattoo guy, then asked if I'm a Sikh. I said yes, and mentioned that it's ok, it's not that guy's fault. "We had no idea what he's been through in his own life," I mentioned.
We chatted about face-wrap guy's work. I reached my stop, and bid him farewell. I told him thanks again.
Walking home, I reflected on what happened.
I got angry again. This time, I was able to channel my anger. With Vaheguru's blessing, I could focus on my connection to the guy. I reminded him (and myself), that he was my brother. I stopped when he asked me too, trying to stay respectful of his own wishes and life experiences.
I'm not sure whether what I did was right or wrong. I think I could have controlled my emotions better. Whatever happened is over and done. All I can do now is try to improve for next time it happens.
I work to see the day when exchanges with strangers bring us value and happiness, every single day.
I hope you do too.