Confessions of an AWMB Intern: What do I Sikh?

Dr Papa Reahal and I

Confession: I did not used to be proud of my culture. I did not used to be proud to be Sikh. In fact, I used to be embarrassed of my dad who wears the Sikh turban (worn to cover the symbolically uncut hair). Let me explain what changed, what didn’t and the part I now let culture play in the early stages of building my career.

First, a disclaimer: this blog isn’t intended to be religious (I am nowhere near educated enough for that!), I just wanted to share my story and how I think it ties into the wider struggles South Asians endure with their culture in business and beyond.

Back to my dad, my Papa. On the few days he could get off from his hectic schedule in the pharmaceutical industry, he would pick me up from primary school and wait at the gates with a grin bigger than his turban when his only child would emerge. I would be happy too (daddy time meant fewer rules than mummy time) but that would soon fade when I realised the other little girls sniggering. The sight of a South Asian was mystical enough for them, let alone a turbaned man. I knew I was going to get it the next day; they would make jokes about his “hat”, our skin colour and refuse to play with me. This got worse after September 11th but how could I blame kids for mistaking us for Muslims and then assuming all Muslims are wrongdoers when many adults were doing the same?

Back then my culture or more precisely, my perception of culture, hindered me. I wanted to keep it as quiet possible. I wanted to blend into the crowd as much as my caramel complexion allowed me to. I avoided several extra-curricular activities where I knew I would stand out like a sore thumb, I tried not to express my ideas for fear of being different in class and I was terrified when my mum pushed me into performing a classical Indian dance at the school talent show, something which is actually one of my biggest strengths. Some would have called me a “coconut”, the derogatory colloquialism describing someone who is “brown” on the outside but “white” on the inside, referring to a British Indian’s abandonment of his/her roots. I personally would have called myself a lone coco pop in a bowl of milk. Then I discovered being a loner coco pop wasn’t so bad…

My key turning point is when I went to do work experience with Papa in the City. Unlike the environments I had been put in, there he was, one of the few South Asians, but utterly admired for being it. I fell into conversation with one of his English colleagues about the “Sikh mentality”. He spoke of the religion’s key values of hard work, honest living, selfless service, sharing and equality that my dad practised in the office; working overtime and offering to do others’ work to get it done, sharing everything from his packed lunch to the credit he received for a project, being highly charitable and most significantly to his juniors, treating them equally or with even greater respect. This time I was embarrassed that I had not known this beauty about my culture, the beauty Papa had upheld so much better than I had ever done. The diversity he brought to the business was needed and celebrated.

And that is something we, as South Asians, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, can so easily forget nowadays. The limitations our culture can impose, be they mental or physical, blind us from the positives it brings. I have already touched upon the mental barrier of discrimination. The physical ones for people of various beliefs can be even more challenging. Take my Muslim friend who was raised in an Orthodox family and was initially obliged to pray 5 times a day. However, today she does it willingly and claims she is more organised and disciplined because of it, probably why she is now running her own business at 23. In the past she has also been told where she can and cannot work because she wears the burka, something turbaned Sikhs can also relate to. Just recently, two basketball players were asked to remove their turbans before an international game, leading to a huge uproar from fans on social media (#LetSikhsPlay) and Congress involvement; a campaign is currently being made against the ruling of the International Basketball Federation. Around the world Sikhs have fought legal disputes with schools, employers, industry bodies and governments to be permitted to wear their marks of faith. The battles are ongoing but South Asians are relearning they do not need to disregard their culture to succeed.

Furthermore, culture can be the catalyst to success like it was for my Papa. Now I am definitely not urging you to wear a turban (fashion magazines already seem to be doing this!) but I am encouraging you South Asian Women in business to embrace any part of you, from your morals to your outwards traditions, that differentiates you from the rest. An interesting change that occurred when I stopped separating myself from my culture is that other Asians stopped separating themselves from me; I became more approachable, more relatable. Asian people, whether in my university or jobs, wanted to help me simply because they could identify with my experience. People like the AWMB founders – Panna who has withstood her role in pushy sales teams lacking both women and Asians, and Rupinder, who is well-known in our community as a champion and voice for working British Sikhs. As my internship is coming to end, I want to thank them for connecting me to this network they have grown. I have never been understood, empathised with and supported as much.

And finally, I want to thank you, Papa. You had loyalty to your values even when you were racially insulted at work, even when other businessmen frowned as you refused to let your turban be roughly handled at airport security and even when your own daughter disowned these principles. I may not be very religious and to some I may still be a “coconut”, but I am no longer afraid to be myself and I owe that to you.

Businesses are itching to be multicultural. Multiculturalism equals diversity. Diversity equals fresh ideas and knowledge of whole new markets. As I know from being bullied, in the face of prejudice it is hard to embrace your culture, but once you do, it becomes your brand, your unique selling point and your competitive advantage.

Saijal, The Intern.

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