LUCAN, IRELAND – The first thing Sachman Singh, 7, does when he wakes up – before he goes to the bathroom, brushes his teeth, or even puts on his glasses – is ask his parents to help tie his turban.
“To tell you the truth, he feels that turban is part of his identity now,” says his mother, of the red wrap that covers his hair and signifies his Sikh faith. “He doesn’t like taking it off. He easily accepted it. I don’t know how come or why, but I don’t feel any trouble.”
Sachman and his brother Japnitt, 4, embody the confidence of a new, second generation of Sikhs living in Ireland. Both boys understand Punjabi but reply to their parents in English – with a distinct Irish lilt. On most afternoons they’re glued to their Nintendo Wii (“the whole day,” according to Sachman), but in summer they attend cultural day camps, where they learn Sikh martial arts and history. When they talk to their grandparents in India, it’s often by Internet video chat, which helps them better understand each other’s accents.
The family lives in Lucan, a middle-class suburb of Dublin about eight miles west of the city that experienced a housing boom in the 1990s. It’s now filled with patches of almost identical developments, and Marpreet and Jaskiran Singh purchased their modest two-story home here about four years ago. Their sons dart in and out of the living room on a recent Friday afternoon, plucking pieces of paneer pakora (fried cheese) off of a platter before running outside to play.
It would be an idyllic scene in any suburb, but this one has required a cultural balancing act for the Singhs.
“It’s not as simple as it looks like,” says Jaskiran, a soft-spoken woman who laughs frequently, between sips of steaming chai. “We do face difficulties as well.”
She and her husband immigrated to Ireland from Punjab, India, in June of 2001, months before the World Trade Center attacks in New York. The timing added an extra layer of challenges to adapting to a new culture. In the aftermath of September 11, Sikhs in many western countries were often mistaken for Muslims, and faced increased levels of discrimination.
The Irish Sikh Council has advocated for Sikhs in possible discrimination cases in Ireland, such as when a referee nearly forced a Sikh boy to remove his turban during a soccer game last fall. While the Singhs say they have never experienced hostility in Ireland, where there is a small population of about 1,000 Sikhs, they sometimes feel a wall in initial meetings with those who are not familiar with their religion.
“Irish people are very kindly, very good, and very hospitable,” Jaskiran says. “But after that, there is a pause, you know what I mean? You have to tell them who we are, have to tell them about yourself.”
One of the tenets of Sikhism requires that men grow their hair out and wear it wrapped in a turban at all times. Keeping long hair indicates one’s devotion to God, and it is considered one of the most important duties for a Sikh. Even male children forego haircuts, and both Sachman and Japnitt have worn miniature head coverings since they were toddlers.
Marpreet says that other kids at school have asked Sachman before about his long hair, which prompted inquiries at home.
“He would come back and say, ‘Why don’t I cut my hair?’ and “Why do you keep a beard?’ and all these things,” Marpreet says. Initially, it was a challenge for him and his wife to try to explain all the complexities of Sikhism to a then 4-year-old, so they stuck to a tried-and-true message for parents of any background: “Because we said so.” My dad told me not to cut my hair, Marpreet would explain to his son simply, so now I’m telling you not to cut yours.
“At this stage I have started talking to him more about the faith, why it is important, what is the significance of it,” he says. “‘Why do we pray in the morning? In the evening? Why do we go to the gurudwara?’ I think as he is growing he probably is going to pick up and understand it much better.”
He laughs. “Well, I hope so,” he adds.
Even in the most accepting environments, there can be hurdles. Sachman attends a local elementary school that is part of the Irish government’s “Educate Together” system, a non-parochial association that emphasizes cultural diversity and inclusion. Most recently, Jaskiran had to pull Sachman out of a school swim class, because he was not allowed to use a hair dryer afterward. She wrote a letter to the principal detailing their faith and why Sachman’s need to dry his hair was different: None of his classmates had to go through the rest of the school day with wet hair tied in a turban, she pointed out.
The principal refused to make an exception, saying it wouldn’t be fair.
“She has to mind 400 kids,” Jaskiran acknowledges. “But on the same hand, I feel that she should have understood my position as well. She’s not aware how important it is for us.”
For these reasons, among others, the Sikh community of Dublin has tried to actively promote the visibility and understanding of their religion. Members of the Gurudwara Guru Nanak Darbar, the Sikh center of worship in Dublin, raised over 25,000 euros to be able to participate in the city’s St. Patrick’s Day parades in 2007 and 2008. Because of financial issues, however, they decided it would best to skip the 2009 parade, and march every other year instead.
For Sachman, religious identity seems to be a non-issue. When asked how he explains his turban to his friends, he rolls his eyes and cocks his head, as if to illustrate the absurdity of the question.
“I have long hair just because,” he says with a shrug and a toothy grin. “I’m a Sikh.”
Amy B Wang is a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. In March, along with her Covering Religion class, she went to Ireland on a reporting trip. To see the class Web site, go to "Beyond the Brogue."