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Book Summary: The Light We Give – How Sikh Wisdom Can Transform Your Life

The Light We Give (2022) lights a defiant flame of hope for troubled times. Drawing on a lifetime of navigating racism growing up as a Sikh in Texas, it offers simple, guiding principles and daily practices that can help anyone live a more fulfilling, joyful life – regardless of their circumstances.

Book Summary: The Light We Give - How Sikh Wisdom Can Transform Your Life

Content Summary

Genres
Introduction: Find authentic happiness, even in turbulent times.
You can’t change what happens, but you can change how you see it.
Confront your bias to truly connect.
Finding the light in others brightens your world.
Sharing the light brightens the whole world.
Be an outsider to self-heal.
Summary
About the author
Table of Contents
Overview
Review/Endorsements/Praise/Award
Video and Podcast
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview

Genres

Motivation, Inspiration, Religion, Spirituality, Biography, Memoir, Autobiography, Self Help, Philosophy, Personal Transformation, Happiness

Introduction: Find authentic happiness, even in turbulent times.

There are lots of reasons to feel anxious and stressed these days, from a lingering global pandemic to climate change, war, terrorism, and widespread inequality. It’s all too easy to feel isolated and powerless, stuck in a cycle of fear and frustration that refreshes right along with your news feed.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

In this summary, we’ll walk you through some time-tested Sikh wisdom that can transform your life – not in spite of life’s turmoil and tragedies, but actually through them. Along the way, we’ll discover how honoring humanity in others can bring peace, why seeing hope in dark times can bring happiness, and how sharing with others brings abundance.

You can’t change what happens, but you can change how you see it.

September 11, 2001 was the first time Simran Jeet Singh had ever seen his mother lock the front door.

Growing up as a native Texan in a Sikh family, Simran was used to two things by his senior year in high school. One, that his long hair and turban, dark skin and beard caused a lot of racist reactions. He most often deflected these with quick thinking and humor – sometimes even using them as a chance to educate people about Sikh culture. But growing up Sikh also meant that his family was committed to generosity and community. Their door had remained open his entire life, ready to welcome anyone in need at any hour of the day or night.

Earlier that day, they’d watched the news in horror – both as the twin towers fell and when the image of a bearded, brown-skinned, and turban-wearing Osama bin Laden was broadcast as the mastermind of the terrorist attacks. In one fateful moment, the image of a turbaned terrorist was cemented in hearts and minds around the globe. The outpouring of hatred and violence was almost immediate.

After a lifetime of navigating racism and ignorance in his hometown, the stakes were forever raised in that moment. For the first time, his family was receiving death threats. In the aftermath, a turbaned Sikh in Arizona was murdered in his workplace. Others were beaten and harassed, despite having absolutely nothing to do with the terrorist attacks or those who perpetrated them.

But something else was happening, too. Friends and neighbors were checking in on Simran’s family. They offered meals, comfort, and moral support. Communities around the country were connecting and sharing information, too – supporting each other as they found ways to respond to the violence.

His family found immediate cause for hope in this outpouring of love and support, and life slowly assumed a new normal. But for Simran, it was just the beginning of a longer journey toward wisdom.

He realized that despite dealing with racism every day of his life in Texas, it wasn’t enough to keep his loved ones safe. His reality was challenging, for sure. There were many times he struggled with anger over the injustice of it all. But embracing this reality fully meant diving deep into his core principles, facing his biases, and practicing a new way to be in the world.

Transforming his life through a few simple principles wasn’t easy, but the reward has meant living with joy and fulfillment – no matter what the circumstances are. In the next section, we’ll start to discover how you can do this, too.

Confront your bias to truly connect.

In the days following 9/11, it was clear that many people saw anyone wearing a turban as a threat. For Simran, this led to the inevitable feeling that he had been attacked twice: once as an American in the terrorist attack itself, and then again as a Sikh, whose peaceful religious principles of inclusivity, charity, and interdependence didn’t matter in the face of their turban-wearing tradition. Surely, he could just cut his hair, ditch the turban, do what he could to fit in?

As he went on to college and graduate school, this idea certainly tempted him often. Not a terribly spiritual person, his connection to these traditions was largely through family, shared history, and tradition. Instead, he took these thoughts as an opportunity to start reflecting on why this was such a tempting idea. And what he discovered quickly started to change his mind.

Up to now, his strategy in facing racism in south Texas was to ignore it whenever possible – and react with humor when he couldn’t. Becoming quick-witted and gracious had helped in the short term, but as he’d seen all too well after 9/11, this wasn’t enough. So instead of reacting outwardly with anger, he decided to look within.

He realized that when people had seen him as an outsider in south Texas and told him to “go back to where he came from,” they’d assumed there was another place in the world where he truly belonged. But as a Sikh, his ancestors had left India after centuries of persecution, pogroms, and public executions. They fled to America with the promise of belonging.

Pondering this, he started to think about how his own unconscious biases had been formed. Sure, he’d experienced other people’s unconscious biases all his life, but what about his? He began to wonder if other people’s beliefs and ways of thinking had been passed down, too. This made him curious about them instead of overwhelmingly angry. Wondering why someone would think a certain way – what experiences they might have had in life that confirmed this way of thinking – led him to a new openness in the face of even the most angry confrontation.

Over time, he came to see that this process opened him up to the world and helped him stop judging it himself. Asking why people thought the way they did, with openness and curiosity, led to many deep conversations and connections. Approaching their self-reflection with equal amounts of radical honesty, he found himself cherishing people not in spite of their differences, but because of them.

Having compassion for others led him to have more compassion for himself. Patience with his own process helped him have patience for others, too. If hate is a vicious cycle, love and acceptance can be a positive cycle. The more you practice confronting your internal judgments, the more you can suspend your judgments of those around you – and connect more deeply in the process.

And connection, as we’ll see in the next section, can make all the difference.

Finding the light in others brightens your world.

On the morning of August 5, 2012, members of a gurdwara, or Sikh temple, in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, were gathering to prepare a communal meal for later in the day. Shortly after 10:00 a.m., with the building full of mostly women and children, an armed gunman entered the temple and began shooting. By the time it was over, five members of the community were dead – including the founder of the gurdwara – and several more were seriously wounded. A police officer had been shot more than 15 times, and the gunman, an avowed white supremacist, was also dead from a self-inflicted gunshot. One shooting victim was left paralyzed and passed away from complications in 2020.

While Simran had long become accustomed to encountering hate as a daily part of his life, he had never before witnessed violence against his community play out so openly across the news. Knowing the gunman targeted this community because they wore traditional beards and turbans was surreal . . . and completely expected. As anyone who has faced systemic injustice will likely understand, even the most shocking events can become routine for some.

In the aftermath of this violence toward his community, Simran began to unravel another piece of inherited wisdom – and found it radically transformed everything.

First, he realized that his urge to call the gunman evil was strong. They were an avowed white supremacist, after all, and this release for Simran’s rage would feel good in the moment. But in the long term, this way of thinking wouldn’t change anything.

Instead, he rode the roller coaster of emotions until he found himself wanting to channel it in a more positive direction. He found comfort in the stories of the survivors, who dealt with the reality of the situation and found reasons for hope. He saw their capacity to see the good in others as they responded with resilience and optimism. He watched them embrace the richness of life around them while feeling their grief. When he felt strengthened by their example, he realized his next step was clear: he had to challenge himself to somehow see the humanity in the gunman – in spite of all that he had done.

Strengthened by this revelation, Singh committed himself to seeing the best in others – and to practice this in every difficult or confronting situation. He quickly saw that his old reactions led to anger and pessimism. Challenging himself to see the best in others changed how he saw things, making it easier to respond in the moment with compassion and hope.

This little change in attitude created big transformations, too, as we’ll see in the next section.

Sharing the light brightens the whole world.

In times of collective tragedy, finding comfort in the experience of helpers and survivors can inspire us to carry on. Doing the hard work of finding the humanity in those who have wronged us has the power to transform the meaning of the tragedy itself. It can serve as a humble reminder of our own humanity. Over time, finding the good in others changes how we see the world – with signs of hope popping up everywhere we look.

For Simran, this transformation was never more present, or challenging, than during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. Living with his wife and daughters in New York City meant being at the epicenter of the outbreak early on. Days were full of uncertainty, with no vaccines or testing to combat the spread. This time, it was his doctor wife who was on the front lines of the struggle, bringing her stories home after long days working in the hospital.

All of Simran’s previous experiences had led him to a place where he knew that seeing the good around him, and finding comfort in the struggle of helpers like his wife, could sustain him in the short term. But he found some unexpected struggles along the way that revealed even more transformative wisdom from the Sikh traditions he had embraced.

First, he knew that sharing with others, especially before partaking oneself, is an important way to show love. Looking for the good in others led him to countless stories of selfless New Yorkers who shared food, resources, and comfort with one another. Instead of depleting them, those who shared with others felt more joy and hope, even in the long days of lockdown. In looking for ways to share with others, they saw the abundance of their own lives with fresh eyes.

As time passed, though, knowing he couldn’t help out directly led to some uncomfortable feelings. Sitting with these, Simran realized that his activism had always centered around what he could do for others – in other words, on his actions. Owning up to the self-centeredness of his ideas about activism transformed his lockdown isolation into a wholehearted act of service. In a world that valued the ends over the means in activism, he was confronted by yet another way to think.

In taking into account his intention, his internal attitude about the lockdown transformed his seeming inaction to something else entirely. It was suddenly an opportunity to practice truly selfless service, to do what was best for his community and not himself. He began to see that other aspects of his “selfless” activism hadn’t been so selfless, which opened up yet more ways to be of service.

Instead of depleting him, each act of service as a supportive father, partner, and citizen increased his happiness and joy. With daily practice, all the circumstances of his life, viewed from this fresh angle, became rewarding and fulfilling opportunities to serve. He had more energy to support his wife, who had more energy for her work in saving lives. These ripples of service expanded outward, creating positive changes far beyond his own efforts.

Be an outsider to self-heal.

If the journey thus far has been shaped by extreme circumstances – terrorist attacks and a global pandemic – the transformative insights are extremely simple. Choosing optimism and looking for hope helps sustain us. Confronting our bias and seeing the humanity in others can connect us. Serving others shows love, and showing love brings fulfillment.

To put these simple kernels of wisdom into daily practice, it can help to imagine observing yourself like an outsider might. As Simran himself experienced, growing up as an outsider forces you to examine yourself and your life from another’s perspective. This, in and of itself, can bring insight.

So begin by imagining yourself as a true outsider: an alien from some far away planet. Observe and interpret your behavior like an alien scientist might. What would they see as you go about your everyday life?

When asked, you might say your family and friends were the most important things to you. But watching your day play out, the aliens may get a different impression. Sure, you spent an hour in the morning getting everyone ready and chatting over breakfast – but you likely spent the next eight hours with work colleagues and your computer. Maybe there was another hour commuting, catching up on messages or the news. And then you spent another hour preparing for the next workday, and so on.

Even if you spend a few hours with family or friends, your statement about your priorities may ring hollow to our alien observer. They might think your priority is clearly work – and over a course of the typical week, their impression would be confirmed more days than not.

When seen this way, there might be a big difference between the way your life feels on the inside and how it looks on the outside. Recognizing this contradiction is the first step toward reconciling it. It might be painful at first, but even just sitting with the discomfort can be healing.

That’s because you know yourself from the inside, and you understand that your efforts to prioritize often fall victim to circumstance. Instead of feeling embarrassed or ashamed of this, use it as an opportunity to have compassion for yourself. This kind of compassion is self-healing, because it relieves you of the burden of frustration and shame while honoring your own humanity.

To be human is often to fail, to fall short, or otherwise disappoint. To see this clearly is to find humility, which helps grow empathy for those who struggle. Humility also gives us the courage to keep trying – and to find hope and patience in our own struggles as well as others’.

Having the discipline to keep viewing yourself, your community, and your surroundings this way has the power to transform the world as you experience it. It helps you find light everywhere you look, even in the darkest times, and brings fulfillment to every step of the journey.

Summary

While you can’t change what happens to you or the circumstances of your life, you can choose how you experience them. Acknowledging internal judgments and biases will allow you to connect more deeply with others, changing how you think about the world and even what you see in it. Honoring the humanity in yourself and others can help you have patience, and relieve you from the burdens of anger and shame. Seeing everyone, and everything, as an interconnected whole takes daily practice and self-reflection – but the results are a life full of meaning, love, and joy . . . no matter what comes your way.

About the author

Simran Jeet Singh, Ph.D is Executive Director for the Religion & Society Program at the Aspen Institute and a visiting professor of history and religion at Union Theological Seminary. He is a Soros Equality Fellow with the Open Society Foundations, and in 2020 TIME magazine recognized him among sixteen people fighting for a more equal America. He is a columnist for the Religion News Service, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and on CNN. Singh is the author of the award-winning children’s book Fauja Singh Keeps Going. He lives in New York City with his family.

Simran Jeet Singh | Website
Simran Jeet Singh | Twitter @simran
Simran Jeet Singh | Facebook @SikhProf
Simran Jeet Singh | Instagram @sikhprof
Simran Jeet Singh | Linktree
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Table of Contents

Prologue
Introduction: Where I’m Coming From

Part I: Seeing With Fresh Eyes
Home?
Between Worlds
Turbans in Texas
Seeing Ourselves
Moving Out and Looing In
Growing Pains
More Run-ins
Life and Death
From Locked Out to Unlocking
Finding Answers
Moving Forward

Part II: Radical Connection
The Massacre
Activating
Insights
Insight1: How We Feel
Enhancing How We Feel
Insight 2: How We See
Refining How We See
A Fresh Perspective
Building Empathy
Insight 3: How We Connect
Advancing How We Connect
The Power of Connection

Part III: From Connection To Love
Expanding Our Love
Limitless Love
Love in Action
Love Is Connection
Cultivating Connection
Connecting Through Meditation
Love and Soccer
Live Is Selfless
Love Erases Self-Centeredness
Practicing Humility and Selflessness

Part IV: Cultivating Our Values
How We Prioritize
Resetting and Rebalancing
Why What We Do Matters
Identifying Our Values
How Our Values Can Save Us
Embodying Our Values
The Value of Creativity (karta purakh)
The Value of Fearlessness (nirbhau)
The Power of Discipline

Part V: Seva As A Spiritual Practice
Serving Others, Serving Ourselves
Seva as an Empathy Practice
Save as a Practice of Love
Challenging the Darkness
Seva as Mindfulness
Putting Seva into Practice
Seva as an Authenticity Practice
Seva as a Humility Practice
Practicing Seva
Epilogue

Acknowledgments
Glossary

Overview

An inspiring approach to a happier, more fulfilling life through Sikh teachings on love and service.

As a boy growing up in South Texas, Simran Jeet Singh and his brothers confronted racism daily: at school, in their neighborhood, playing sports, and later in college and beyond. Despite the prejudice and hate he faced, this self-described “turban-wearing, brown-skinned, beard-loving Sikh” refused to give in to negativity. Instead, Singh delved deep into the Sikh teachings that he grew up with and embraced the lessons to seek the good in every person and situation and to find positive ways to direct his energy. These Sikh tenets of love and service to others have empowered him to forge a life of connection and a commitment to justice that have made him a national figure in the areas of equity, inclusion, and social justice.

The Light We Give lays out how we can learn to integrate ethical living to achieve personal happiness and a happier life. It speaks to those who are inspired to take on positive change but don’t know where to begin. To those who crave the chance to be empathetic but are afraid of looking vulnerable. To those who seek the courage to confront hatred with love and compassion. Singh reaches beyond his comfort zone to practice this deeper form of living and explores how everyone can learn the insights and skills that have kept him engaged and led him to commit to activism without becoming consumed by anger, self-pity, or burnout.

Part memoir, part spiritual journey, The Light We Give is a transformative book of hope that shows how each of us can turn away from fear and uncertainty and move toward renewal and positive change.

Review/Endorsements/Praise/Award

“I love this book… It is rich in wisdom, religious and personal, and it is absolutely charming.” —Anne Lamott, author of Dusk, Night, Dawn and Help, Thanks, Wow

“In this lucid blend of memoir and self-help, Singh…reflects on being Sikh in the U.S. and shares life lessons gleaned from Sikhism…Singh’s fleet-footed storytelling seamlessly moves between personal stories, Sikh theology and history, and thoughtful musings on what it means to live by a Sikh philosophy, adding up to an exemplary meditation on the faith. This has a lot to offer.” — Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“The Light We Give is a refreshing look at how we can connect—and reconnect—with one another. Simran Jeet Singh’s moving story of growing up a turban-wearing Sikh American in South Texas draws from wisdom that all of us need as it charts a new way forward.” —R.C. Buford, CEO of the San Antonio Spurs

“Clever, informative, and very accessible, Singh’s first book for adults explores tenets of the Sikh faith and applies them to everyday life…he uses relatable humor and amusing anecdotes to connect with readers about his faith and show them how they, too, can apply it to their lives…Readers will come away from the book wanting to be better themselves and to work for positive change in the world.” —Booklist

“An accessible work that combines personal testimony of a fascinating and little-understood ethnic and religious minority in America…A worthwhile and readable introduction to Sikhi and a strong testament to peaceful living.” —Kirkus, STARRED REVIEW

“I’ve appreciated Simran’s writing for years now, and I really love this book. The Light We Give is a beautiful reflection of how so many Sikhs experience our world and what Sikh teachings have to offer all of us today. This is an essential book for people who care about kindness, justice, and living a good life.” —Jagmeet Singh, leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party

“Beautiful, profound, and above all transformative, The Light We Give is a book that will not only stay with you but change you. Through harrowing stories of personal experiences and a rarely seen exploration of the tenets of the Sikh faith, Simran Jeet Singh calls us to have empathy and love and to operate in them. This book couldn’t be more timely.” —Angie Thomas, author of The Hate U Give

“I love this book: The riveting story of Simran Jeet Singh’s life growing up as a Sikh kid in San Antonio with his brown skin and turban, written so beautifully, both somehow exciting and humble. It is rich in wisdom, religious and personal, and it is absolutely charming.” —Anne Lamott, author of Dusk, Night, Dawn, and Help, Thanks, Wow

“I found this book utterly fascinating. A compelling and enthralling introduction to Sikh traditions that will speak to people of every faith—and those who are looking for one. In its own unique way it is an important contribution to interfaith relations in our country. “ —James Martin, SJ, author ofLearning to Pray

“The Light We Give is an extraordinary book. With moral insight and an abiding commitment to make this world better one act at a time, Simran Singh pierces through the depressing noise of these dark days with a gentleness and care that soothes and inspires. Sikh wisdom and love leap from every page. After reading this book, I want to be better. I want to do better!” —Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., author ofBegin Again

Video and Podcast

Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview

It used to bother me a lot when people shared their racist views to my face. My anger would keep me from responding clearly—even responding at all. Even now, as a grown man, I still don’t always know the right answer, in part because I believe there’s no winning when it comes to racism, and in part because each situation requires its own measured response.

Yet I have developed different ways to meet each racist encounter, confident of who I am and unapologetic about how I look.

I have learned that deflecting ignorance and hate doesn’t help anyone, and that we won’t ever truly care for one another until we connect with one another. I have also learned that we can’t lecture our way into people’s hearts, and that opening ourselves up to strangers takes courageous vulnerability. The greatest payoff of sharing ourselves with one another is going beyond our individual experiences and seeing life from other viewpoints. Every day we can give the gift of empathy, to one another and to ourselves.

Sharing our stories is hard and uncomfortable, but as with my choice to wear my turban, I believe the rewards far outweigh the costs. It is in this spirit that I invite you into my own life. My sincere hope is that you might see and feel what it’s like to walk in my shoes, as a brown-skinned, turban-wearing, beard-loving, sports-playing dude, trying to create a life of happiness for himself and his family in modern America.

One: Home?

A few years ago, I was just outside my apartment building in New York City when I saw an elderly white woman trip and fall as she was crossing the street. I rushed over to help her and extended my hand. She reached up gratefully, but when she saw the turban on my head she jerked her arm back. Her face scrunched up, then opened back up to release a voice from deep within: “Go back to where you came from!”

I didn’t expect my offer to help would trigger such a reaction. When I was younger and heard similar comments, my body would tense up, unsure whether to lash out in anger or shrink back in fear. Though both responses are natural and justifiable in their own way, neither struck me as right in these situations.

Coming face-to-face with hate regularly over the years helped prepare me for this moment. I had come to understand that there are other ways to respond that go beyond fear and anger, a middle path to dealing with the painful moments we encounter that can help us receive hate without internalizing it. While she saw me as a foreigner who threatened her safety, I saw her as I’ve learned to see all people: a fellow human being trying to bring security, coherence, and joy into her life. Isn’t this concern for and interest in one another what makes us human?

Within seconds of the woman’s exclamation, I knew what I wanted to do. I called over onlookers to help get her off the street and out of danger, standing by her until she was safe before going on my way.

I chose to care for this stranger, even though she clearly didn’t care for me. In a moment when it would have been easier to feel hurt and to walk away, I decided instead to double down on her humanity—and my own.

***

I’m still amused when people tell me to go back to where I came from. It’s not that I don’t know what they mean, and it’s not that I don’t know what racism is. I grew up in Texas with a turban, beard, and brown skin, so I’ve been dealing with racism my whole life. I was born and raised in San Antonio and am an American. My family and I watched American movies growing up. Many of the athletes in the posters that hung on my bedroom walls were American, including David Robinson, Mia Hamm, and Muhammad Ali. I was even terrible at world geography as a kid—and what’s more American than that?

Yet when people tell me to go back to where I came from, I know what they mean: You look foreign and dangerous, and we’d feel better if you left.

When it’s safe and appropriate, I respond with a tactic that I’ve come to love over the years: humor.

Sometimes I have a little fun at their expense by putting on a thick Southern drawl: “Well, bless your heart!” I exclaim, drawing out each word as if it had at least two syllables. “My mama would love you. She keeps telling me to move home to Texas, too!”

I watch them squirm with confusion, and before they can figure out what’s going on, I reach up to my turban and give it an imaginary tug, as if tipping a ten-gallon cowboy hat.

Other times I might reply earnestly, as if unaware of their malice: “Thank you so much for your thoughtful advice. I really appreciate it.”

When people are being especially hateful, I prefer to ignore their nasty comments and continue on with my day, as if I didn’t have a care in the world and they didn’t exist. Nothing bothers them more than realizing their hate doesn’t bother me.

Some friends who don’t deal with racism have asked how I can find humor in these moments. I’m never quite sure how to answer that question. From my viewpoint, it’s hard to imagine enduring daily provocation without humor.

What I do know, and what many people from marginalized groups also know, is that it’s possible to remain calm in the face of hate. One can learn how by maintaining perspective—and with lots of practice.

It has also helped to recognize that people telling me to “go home” says more about them than it does about me. I’ve come to understand that their words reveal cultural ignorance, that underneath their statement is a pair of twin assumptions: that the United States is not a place for people who look like me, and that there is a place in this world where I truly belong.

***

My parents and ancestors hail from Punjab, a region in South Asia that spans northwestern India and modern-day Pakistan. We speak Punjabi, one of the ten most widely spoken languages in the world. And we eat Punjabi food—roti, daal, sabji, cholay—or at least many of us do. I personally prefer pizza to roti, to the embarrassment of pretty much everyone I know.

My family maintains a distinct appearance as part of our Sikh faith, which is known in the West as Sikhism and in Punjabi as Sikhi. “Sikhi” is the original Punjabi term for the tradition, pronounced with a long e at the end as in “queen.” Sikhism is the later English form popularized through colonialism.

In 1469 CE, a boy named Nanak was born to Hindu parents in the village of Talvandi (now Nankana Sahib, in his honor). From childhood, young Nanak noticed the unhappiness, divisions, and inequities all around him. As he matured, Nanak began to offer a new vision for finding joy and purpose that centered around the daily practices of spiritual growth (nam japna), ethical living (kirat karni), and selfless giving (vand chakna). Nanak saw all existence as interconnected, and he decided to establish a new community that would live by a set of core principles, including equality, humility, integrity, service, and love. For many Sikhs, including myself, wearing the turban is a public commitment to living by these values.

I started wearing a turban when I was three years old. Not because there’s something holy or special about that age. That’s just when my hair grew long enough to wrap into a bun on top of my head. Until then, my mom would braid my hair into pigtails every morning. Pigtails are a common look for Punjabi Sikh toddlers—we’re nothing if not trendsetters. Moreover, I think my mom secretly loved the pigtails because she really wanted at least one daughter.

Each morning, before school, my mom would line the four of us up at the kitchen counter. We would chatter over peanut butter toast and milk while she stood behind us, combing, braiding, and twisting our long, uncut hair until it was taut but not too tight. She’d then tie a small turban called a “patka” on each of us, adjusting it until it felt just right. If it came off in elementary school (which happened often enough during recess), my brothers and I would dash to one another’s classrooms to get help retying it. As we became teenagers, we learned to do this ourselves, and we also started wearing larger turbans (dastaars and pagris) that are more typically worn by adults. There’s a formal ceremony that Sikhs undergo when they begin wearing a larger turban (dastaar bandi), usually as adolescents or teens. My brothers and I never had one of these, and I don’t quite know why not. My recollection is that it wasn’t really on our radar and that our parents preferred that we ease into the new turbans without feeling the pressure of a formal ceremony.

I still wore the smaller patka when I played soccer in high school. It’s a bit tighter on the forehead and felt more practical for heading the ball. Having a turban helped me with my form, too. If I didn’t hit the ball squarely with my forehead, my turban would loosen and I’d have to fix it. I can only remember one time that my turban came off while playing soccer. It was the second half of a tense playoff game against Madison High School. I rocketed a header into the goal so hard my hair exploded out of my turban and flew down to my knees. I remember it vividly because the goal, as well as my hairy celebration, were all over the local news that night. But the news reports focused less on me and more on my brothers in the stands, who had painted their faces blue and gold, wore matching blue and gold turbans, and were leading the fans in raucous celebrations. Not that I’m still bitter or anything, but they got all the attention after my glorious goal.

People often ask about the colors and styles of turbans. While it’s true that it all comes down to personal preference, it’s also true that I enjoy pulling people’s legs. Sometimes I answer by saying that God will punish us if we don’t wear certain colors on certain days. Sometimes I tell people that the larger your turban, the more God likes you. Once I told a friend who accidentally touched a turban sitting in a laundry basket that she had defiled holy cloth and that I would have to take it back to Punjab to get it resanctified. I was kidding, of course, and I still feel a little bad about the joke. But the look of horror on her face was priceless.

In reality, Sikhs can choose whatever color or style turban they want. I tend to wear a circular style that’s a bit different from my father’s, partly because it’s more traditional, partly because it’s more comfortable, and partly because it’s a style that’s cool among younger Sikhs (and among people like me who wish they were cool and young).

I also believe it’s important to know one’s own limitations, and here’s one of mine: I’m definitely not stylish enough to pull off neon or floral, printed turbans. I tend to stick more with the muted colors-my go-to turbans are black, gray, and white, which, uncoincidentally, are the same colors as my beloved basketball team, the San Antonio Spurs.

Sometimes people ask me if wearing a turban is heavy or hot, especially while playing sports. I joke and say I wouldn’t know because I’ve never taken mine off (though of course I do, when I shower, sleep, or even just relax at home). The truth, though, is that I don’t really have a point of comparison. Yes, it can get sweltering, especially when I run marathons and half-marathons, but even then, I’ve been wearing a turban my whole life and it feels like an extension of my own body.

My turban has become an integral part of who I am, to the point that it’s hard to imagine going through life without one. My identity as a Sikh, like my turban, has been wrapped into my own sense of self.

***

Guru Nanak’s unique message attracted a community of followers, who would be known as Sikhs, pronounced with a short i and an aspirated k as in the word ‘sick.’ (While it’s also common to pronounce ‘Sikh’ with a long e sound, as in the word ‘seek,’ I prefer the former because that’s how it’s pronounced in the original Punjabi; the latter pronunciation was popularized through colonization.)

The word Sikh literally means “student,” and to be a Sikh is to strive to practice these teachings daily. Sikhs referred to their teacher as “guru,” a word derived from Sanskrit that means moving from darkness to light-an enlightener.

Guru Nanak’s following grew rapidly during his own life, and he appointed a successor, Guru Angad, who could continue growing the community and its institutions before appointing a successor of his own. There would be ten successive gurus in the line of Nanak, each of whom contributed to Sikhi’s expansion until 1708. Before his death, the tenth leader, Guru Gobind Singh, passed authority to two entities—the community of committed and initiated Sikhs, known as the Guru Khalsa Panth, and the scriptural text, Guru Granth Sahib, which contains the wisdom of the Sikh gurus and some of their spiritual peers.

The Sikh community continued to grow under this new leadership over the next three centuries. Today, there are nearly 30 million Sikhs globally, making Sikhi the world’s fifth largest religion.

Sikhs remain unknown to many people in the West, despite their sizable presence and despite having been in the United States for more than a century. A recent study conducted by the Stanford Innovation Lab found that 70 percent of Americans couldn’t identify a photo of a Sikh while looking at one. In 2016, I appeared on a segment of The Daily Show to talk with correspondent Hasan Minhaj about the racism Sikhs face (and to dazzle Hasan with my brilliant wit). The first disappointment was that the interview didn’t launch my stand-up career. The second disappointment came when Hasan asked several Americans to look at a card with four images—birds, binoculars, children playing peekaboo, and a turbaned Sikh man. He asked each of them to identify a Sikh. None of them could.

This is what it’s like to be a Sikh in modern America. People notice me wherever I go: walking down the street, playing frisbee in a park, and most definitely at the airport.