Being a Sikh III – Harjus Birk
by Misha Kapany Schwarz.
A student of Stanford University, class of 2012, Harjus has an abiding passion in the sciences and healthcare. Through out his high school years he has participated in medical research and hospital volunteering. His goal is to become a compassionate doctor. He is currently founding a clinical internship in India. Anyone who wants to learn more about international service can talk to him through our comment section below the article.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Southam, United Kingdom and raised in New York, San Francisco, and Redding
What made you become a Sikh?
I was born into a Sikh family and was exposed to the Sikh heritage and value and culture, so I decided to follow in my parent’s footsteps.
What are the core ideals of the religion or what do you like about Sikhism?
The core ideals are living an honest life and earning wages through honest living and hard work. I like that the religion preaches equality of both genders.
How does being Sikh affect your everyday life?
I wear a turban and have an uncut beard, which affects the way people see me. People confuse me as being a Muslim, and so I have to explain that they are two totally different religions.
What does it mean to you to be a Sikh?
Being a Sikh is something very unique and important. It means I will always live honestly, and have honor. It made me a unique person.
Have you ever had to deal with racial profiling and/or prejudice?
Definitely, during high school years, I lived in a Caucasian dominated city, so people would shout curse words at me, and I tried to flag them down and ask why they said that. I guess I am a victim of lots of prejudice; I am constantly pulled over at the airport because of my turban.
Is it difficult being a Sikh and living in America?
It really depends where you are in America. In New York, it’s heavily populated by Sikhs so you can blend in. However if you’re in a place such as California, it’s very Caucasian dominated so it’s hard to meet other Sikh families and feel like part of the community.
After 9/11 have there been any mistaken accusations of Sikhs?
Yes, especially at Stanford people have mistaken me for a Muslim, so that’s why I created the Satrang Sikh Student Association on campus. We have two or three events every year. The first is called kirtan, which is a prayer session, and it helps spread awareness about the Sikh religion on campus. It’s open to all students. And after, langar is held. The other event is lori, which is held every year. About 400-500 people come every year, and we have big bonfire and throw peanuts into it, to celebrate and pray to god that you will have a good life, and to thank god for being where you are today
How do you practice Sikhism in America?
There are Gurudwaras in almost every city, so I try to visit those as often as I can. My dad decided to build Sikh Center Anderson in my hometown, so every Wednesday night and Sunday morning we have prayer sessions and the whole Sikh community comes and it bonds us together. Everybody is welcome, no matter their race or color. After the service there is free food, or langar, for everybody in the community.
Are there many events in the Sikh community in America? Can you tell us about these events and/or festivals?
First there is Lori, which is held around the 28th of February. Then there is Vaisakhi on April 13, which signifies when our guru, Guru Gobind Singh, decided to establish Sikhism as an actually religion. There are lots of prayer sessions, and it is celebrated throughout the United States. Then there are also the various birthday celebrations of the ten gurus.
Do you visit gurudwaras often? Why or why not?
Yes definitely. There is one in Fremont/San Jose, and I try to go to it for the main functions. In Redding, my hometown, I go a lot more.
How can Sikhs educate Americans about Sikhism, and/or prevent discrimination against Sikhs?
If somebody says something to you negative, don’t get flustered, and build the courage up to confront them and discuss the Sikh religion with them. It shows them you are a caring and peaceful person, and knowledgeable about your religion. Another way to educate them is through prayer and events, such as Vaisakhi and langar, which are open to everybody. We can invite the non Sikhs into our religion by giving tours of gurudwaras and making ourselves as available as possible to answer any questions they might have.
Is there a problem with the Sikh youth today?
Sikh religion stresses not cutting hair, so there is a major problem with youth and having to live in America and deal with fashion and peer pressure. Lots of Sikh youth have decided to cut their hair because of this, and doing so is shunned in the Sikh religion.
Drinking and consumption of alcohol is also shunned upon in our religion, and with high school parties and college parties the Sikh youth are pressured to do it. It is simply the result of living in American society.
How can we educate the youth about Sikhism?
Encourage them to go to the Gurudwaras and review Sikh literature online. At the Gurudwara they can see the Sikh people bonding and they will see more turbans, and will realize it’s not a necessity for them to cut their hair to fit into America.
How does Sikhism affect your profession?
Currently I am a student at Stanford, but my goal is to become a physician like my father. Sikhism will affect my future profession because every patient will see me in a turban. Some will ask about it, and I will be happy to explain to them about Sikhism. It will be a great thing for me to explain why his religion is so important to me.
Harjus has an interesting post on the Stanford University blog “Cross Cultural Blog” where he has posted his comments on the “Power of Simplicity”. Check it out!