I believe that ours has become a culture of fear. Not only, but especially since 9/11, we have begun to fear those of different cultures and those of different appearances, more than I think we ever have before. While many of you may find this a very controversial statement, I think it has become a truth that we all live with everyday. As students in a foreign country, we spend our time fighting this growing reality. We study other cultures, we learn about the unknown so that we will not fear it. But ultimately, Americans live in a society that is suspicious of the unknown.
So when we entered the Sikh Gurdwara in Southall, I’ll admit I was uneasy. However, it is not about that uneasy feeling, the uncomfortable awareness of difference, that I mean to write about tonight, but rather something that our generous guide earnestly said to us. After covering our heads, removing our shoes, washing our hands, touring the Gurdwara, and hearing about the Sikh faith, Professor Qualls asked our guide about the traditional kirpan sword that practicing Sikhs would normally wear at their side at all times. The guide did explain –to my understanding—that they are allowed to wear them on the street etc, because it part of their faith and is not considered a weapon. However, he did note that they are still not allowed to travel with them on airplanes. He stated that, “[Sikhs] sometimes stand out because of what we wear. People may see us with a kirpan and think we are going to try to take over the plane. But it would be better if we could take them because if someone were to try to take the plane, we would be able to stand up and say ‘no! do not do that!’ I know that someday we will be able to take them with us when we travel. People will see us with it and say, ‘No, he is a Sikh, he will not hurt us. Let him have it.” Perhaps I am more of a jaded American city girl than I ever thought, because hearing this man honestly tell us this belief for the future moved me more than anything else said that morning.
Part of the Sikh tradition is to protect the innocent. They carry this sword with them at all times because it is their duty to protect themselves and those who cannot protect themselves. This man had such faith in the British people, in the American people, in the growing cultural world, that someday he saw people not only accepting his faith, but understanding and allowing him to practice all the aspects of it, even if it involved carrying weapons.
It was a deeply powerful moment, to feel someone else’s hopes, however naïve you may think them, and to know, that are not in any future you foresee. As much as this experience in another culture, which despite similar languages is very different from my own, has opened my eyes to many wonderful differences and helped me to be even more accepting, I do not know that I can believe the same openness is possible on a worldwide scale. After all, we are a people who are afraid of differences. And while that can change one person at a time, we still have a long way to go.
Note: No photographs were allowed in the temple so I did not bring my camera along on this trip. However, if you would like to see images of the area, check out Google Images of Southall.