Punjab: Muktsar Sahib and One of Your Parents is Indian

Good morning everyone,

Sorry I’m behind on the blog guys.  Power has been a challenge here this past week.  It’s made getting on here and writing difficult.  I’ll try to catch up over the next few days while I’m waiting to go to Kashmir.

Today’s topics are a little mixed in terms of time.  I went to Muktsar Sahib the first time on the weekend before I left for Agra and Jaipur.  Then, once in Agra about a week later, I had the “one of your parents is Indian” experience.

Muktsar Sahib is an important historical spot for Sikhs.  Those of you who have been following the blog and those other of you who know about Sikh history will know that our tenth Guru – Guru Gobind Singh Ji – spent much of his guruship defending the Sikhs against Mughal attack.  The Khalsa was formed and the Sikh army raised to great heights as a result.  From the time that Guru Gobind Singh Ji was 19 years old, he was engaged in battle after battle with the hill tribes and the Mughals.  These battles occurred not only in and around Anandpur Sahib but there were also battles in Bhangani, Chamkaur and Muktsar Sahib.

During one of the battles at Anandpur Sahib, the Mughals and hill tribes had blockaded the Sikhs.  While fending off attack, they were living on little rations.  Some Sikhs went to Guruji and told him that they were worried about their families at home, they did not want to starve and they did not want to fight any longer.  Guruji told them that they could leave but that they would have to put in writing that they were no longer Sikhs of the Guru and that he was no longer their Guru.  They wrote this and each signed their name to the letter.  Guru Gobind Singh Ji then released them from their service and they returned to their villages.

Some of them were met there by Mai Bhago, a fierce Sikh woman and a warrior.  She belittled the men for abandoning the Guru during battle.  Other women in the villages also shamed the men for having left.

Eventually the fighting came to Mukstar Sahib.  Mai Bhago herself led 40 of these men back into battle at the Guru’s side.  They died bravely to a man at the Battle of Mukstar.  As the last lay dying, Guruji took the letter they had written previously and tore it up, forgiving the Sikhs their abandonment and declaring them Mukta.

That’s the story in brief and, as always, I beg forgiveness for any errors that may result from the brevity of this post.

Muktsar Sahib is now a small town, a little less than five hours south of Amritsar in the Punjab.  It has four gurdwaras, which we visited with the host unit, little sister and a reasonable driver.

On the way we stopped for lunch at a dhaba.  I don’t think the dhaba was prepared for visitors.  They had only one table set up with a few chairs in a very large hall.  There was a heap of garbage that someone had swept up (maybe from a party the night before) in one corner of the room and they were hosing out (that’s right – with a hose) the bathrooms in the hallway nearby.  We ordered anyway.  They had almost nothing from their menu and we ended up with channa, dhal and rotis.  The channa masala was obviously leftover from the day before (I seriously hope it was the day before) and so was the dhal.  There was way too much ghee in the dhal.  The rotis came too thick and a little raw in the centre.  But options are limited on that road between Amritsar and Muktsar Sahib, so what are you going to do?  Not every dining experience in India is going to be fantastic.  We were just happy that no-one got sick.

Once we reached Mukstar Sahib we realized that the whole place existed on tiny market streets.  It took a very long time to get through the streets to find somewhere to park.  Luckily the four gurdwaras we planned to visit were all very close together so once we were lucky enough to find parking, we could just walk.  And walk we did.

The gurdwaras are beautiful and were quite crowded the day we were there.  They were Gurdwara Tamboo Sahib (Mai Bhago), Gurdwara Shri Tutti Gandi Sahib, Gurdwara Shaheed Ganj Sahib and Gurdwara Tibbi Sahib.

At the gurdwara dedicated to Mai Bhago there were a group of 6 or 7 young girls who stared at the pale chick and even followed me around.  That is until they got up the nerve to say “hello”.  People here are so, so shy that this happens.  I said hello back to them which set them off in giggles.  Sweet kids.

After leaving Muktsar Sahib we also stopped at Gurdwara Shri Guru Angad Dev Ji, which is the birthplace of our second Guru.  This is the gurdwara being worked on (lot of scaffolding) in the pictures.

Okay so on to Agra and the inquiry into my lineage.  When I checked in to my hotel in Agra, no-one batted an eye at the pale chick with the Sikh name.  Yay, because that has not always been my experience.  Checking out however… was a different experience.

The young man at the counter told me I look like an Indian woman.  I laughed and said “thanks, I think.”  Then I thought I must be wearing my Punjabi suits a little more comfortably lately… Nope.  He wasn’t talking about my suit.  He then said that some Indian people have green eyes like mine.  “No doubt.”, says I wondering where he was going with the conversation or maybe he’s going nowhere and is just a little awkward in making conversation.  Then he asked me where in India my parents were from.  I looked at him and wondered if he was making some sort of awkward joke.  My silent stare must have been an invitation because then he said “One of your parents must be Indian.  You look Indian.”  Okay.  Dude.  No.  “Thanks but my DNA says Spanish.  I’m not from India, not that lucky friend.  I am a Sikh and that is why my name is Kaur.”  “Your mother is not Indian?”  “No.”  “Your father?”  “Nope.”

He handed me my passport with a look that said “I don’t believe you.”  I smiled at him and wished him a great day.

Now if this was the first time something like this happened, I might write it off to someone who was curious about the name and was fishing for more information rather than risking offence by coming right out and asking about my name.  But this is not the first time something like this has happened.

Years ago, when I first met my friend Vy, he asked me whether one of my parents was from Asia.  He also thought my eyes were very Asian, and my stature.  He said I reminded him of some women in a Hmong family he knew.

Standing in line at a bank (remember when we had to do that?) with my infant daughter on my hip, waiting to deposit my pay cheque (remember those?)… the bank guard tells me how cute my daughter is.  Yeah, she is, thought I.  You’re Amerasian?, asks the guard.  Then the teller asks me if my father was a soldier during the war?  What war?  The Vietnam war because you’re mother is Asian but your father was probably an American serviceman… What?!?!?

It wasn’t the name either.  Until I handed over my bankbook (remember those??), they had no idea that my married name was Vietnamese.  Then they were sure that I was the product of a Vietnamese woman and her American soldier lover.  Yeah no, nothing quite so romantic.  My mother was a cashier most of her life and my father never wore a uniform much less fought in Vietnam.  (Those of you who read the blog will know that my father had some pretty strong ideas about governance in Vietnam despite that…)

My lovely daughter chose that moment to have her one and only temper tantrum ever… so she spared me any further questioning what with her losing her mind on the floor of the bank.  Afterward, I took my tired and bored child out for an ice cream and I wrote the people in the bank of as crazy while I played with the happy, giggly child that reappeared.

Then there was the time I met my sister in an airport and we took some pictures.  She commented that I really looked Asian, something about my eyes… my sister.  Flesh and blood.  Yeap.  If she also thought so, I guess I would have to stop writing people off as crazy.

Being mistaken for Asian of some fashion (I’ve been mistaken for part Chinese, part Vietnamese, part Indian and even part Afghani) has been a common though always strange experience.  All who have done it, with the exception of two people that I remember, have been Asians themselves.  One woman at a wedding even berated my husband for being with an Amerasian woman,  She told him that my mother worked in a brothel in “served” American soldiers and I probably had no idea who my father was.  It is not uncommon that the children of these unions faced that kind of talk.  She also said some other nasty things that don’t need repeating.

So how do I feel about this?  I don’t feel any way in particular usually.  I find it curious most of the time and every single time I stare in the mirror and try to figure out what about my face makes people think these things.  I haven’t figured it out.

Most of the time I also realize that people are naturally curious animals and I’m glad that they feel free to ask questions or make comments.  But why does it have to be about my race?  I’m a glorious genetic mix of all who came before me, as is my daughter (who is, for those who has asked, a mix of races) and every other human being on the planet.  Why does my race matter to you?  Why does this question even come to your mind?  I don’t ever recall being curious about someone’s race so I don’t understand where it comes from.  Is it really the natural curiosity that goes along with being homo sapien?  Is it racism?  What are you thinking?  What does this mean for my daughter and for her children?

Sometimes, just sometimes, it’s a little frustrating and upsetting.  I realize that I’m pale and I live a life filled with most of the privileges that white folks have.  I realize that I am also not a Caucasian and that I have passed into that world anyway.  I realize that I have a responsibility anyway because I ride this racial fence.  But it is frustrating that the fence is even there.  That in 2014 we still haven’t figured it out and it’s still about race.  I sometimes worry that it will ALWAYS be about race because human beings, as curious as we are and as capable of learning as we are, are never going to learn from our history.  I think we’re never going to truly be one tribe because even in the subtlest ways, we keep putting people in freakin’ meaningless categories and then we make up some meaning for the category that suits us in the moment.

Here’s a hint, based on my experiences:

– Green eyes are rare, about 2% of the population according to various studies I was able to find.  That’s still 350 million people on the planet.  My eye colour does not make me more or less compassionate, more or less intelligent, more or less loving, or a better cook.  Get over it.  If you like the colour, just say that.  I didn’t do it, they were selected through the process of natural selection – a.k.a. my ancestors had sex.  Thanks evolution for the conversation starter!

– The slightly almond shape of my eyes is a product of my genetics.  My kid has them.  Her kids have them.  It’s been a long time but I’m pretty sure my mother also had them.  Again, no extra compassion there, no extra intelligence, or love or any particular skill comes with them.

– It’s just rude to ask people about their parents’ race unless you really know them and even then… still probably rude.  I know you’re curious but stop.  Stop it.  Don’t do it because it doesn’t freakin’ matter to you really.  Just because that question bubbles up in your mind doesn’t mean you have to ask it.  Try any of the following alternatives when getting to know someone:

     – So what’s you’re name?
     – Where do you live?
     – Are you enjoying your trip to India?
     – What about your trip are you enjoying the most?
     – I like the colour of your eyes.  Did your parents have green eyes?  [See totally safe question  
       about the folks]

– I know you’re not meaning to be rude but we’ve all been rude at times without knowing it.  Get over it.  It happens.  Just please stop doing it now that you know.

– Pale folks come in all shapes and sizes and configurations.  Some of them are white, some of them are not and some even have no idea what their racial heritage actually is.  For those that aren’t white but are living with white privilege, it becomes super complicated.  Unless they make it an issue or want to talk about it, it’s nunya business.

– Asians also come in all shapes and sizes and configurations, as do South Americans, Africans, Europeans, North Americans, and Australians [have I covered the inhabited continents?].  Some with green eyes, some with brown, some with amber and some with the most incredible hazels I have seen yet.  Still, no special super powers based on eye colour or maybe I just haven’t met (or heard of) that guy yet…

– A name is an arbitrary label assigned by one or more parental units to their offspring.  Sometimes it’s a traditional name handed down through the family and sometimes, because humans are so creative, it’s just completely new.  A name gives that offspring… wait for it… no particular skill or quality.  It’s a name.  Names are sometimes also changed – by marriage or adoption or religious conversion or because the bearer just really hated having two androgynous names for a first and middle is all.  Letters that form a word.  That’s all it is.  If you’re curious about the spelling or origin of the name, then ask that question.  But the response is NEVER “Ms. Kaur, which of your parents is Indian?”

– Most of the time it DOESN’T bother me but don’t be the guy who asks the question that is bothersome, k?

– Finally, if you know me and you figure out why people do this to me, fill me in.  After all these years I’m just really curious to know.

Until next time when we’ll be headed of to Agra and Jaipur,

Peace and love all
– Himmatpreet

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