More Than a Cabbie: Rising Above the Stereotype
The Life History of Sukhdev (Sukh) S. Sandhu
Life History Assignment
Wright State University
Sukh, a first generation immigrant from Northern India, and father of three young daughters, would describe himself as a hard working, responsible, conservative libertarian. As Senior Vice President of Investments for a local bank-brokerage firm and the owner of a martial arts school with several others across the country that bear his name in the eastern half of the United States, one would never suspect the adversity and stereotypes Sukh witnessed, struggled with, and overcame to become a successful father, husband, businessman, and entrepreneur.
While interviewing Sukh in his dining room with the pitter-patter of little feet running above our heads and cute little faces peering around the corner, I realized that your past may not define you, but you also can’t let it define you.
Born the youngest of four to Indian parents in England in the early 1970s when his father was earning his PhD at a prestigious university, the family soon packed up their belongings to travel to a variety of countries for his father’s sabbaticals.
In 1979, the family relocated to Boston, MA after Sukh’s father accepted a job teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After his father accepted two job offers at the University of Dayton and Wright Patterson Air Force Base to work in the research departments for The USAF and NASA’s fuel research department, Sukh’s mother and sisters moved from the village out of India to Boston while Sukh’s father, himself, and his brother moved to Dayton, OH. Prior to moving to Dayton, Sukh was roughly ten years old and had never met his sisters till they arrived in Boston; the family wasn’t financially stable enough to support the entire family under the cost of living in the United States. It wasn’t until several years later that the family would be reunited in Dayton.
Now located in Dayton, Sukh’s parents began sponsoring their siblings and their children to immigrant from India to the United States. After their arrival, Sukh explains that they got involved in the quickest entrepreneurial way they knew how: the restaurant business.
After opening their first Indian restaurant at the Dayton Mall, the business quickly flourished, adding up to a total of fifteen restaurants today in the Columbus, Dayton, Cincinnati, and Northern Kentucky area all owned by various family members.
However, upstanding family background and personal convictions couldn’t shield Sukh from the racism, prejudice, and stereotypes exhibited toward his family members and himself throughout his life.
As an adolescent, Sukh vividly remembers walking with his father and brother to his father’s work because they couldn’t afford a vehicle. They cut through a park in Dayton (in and around the mid 80’s) during a baseball game. Once the kids in the game saw them they started yelling racial slurs like “Q-tip head” and “Iranian.” Sukh’s father wore a turban in based upon the ethnicity of their religion and race of northern India, Sikhism. Sikh’s are considered the warrior caste of India, a monotheistic religion of peace through strength. “My brother, father, and I kept walking and I remember my father telling me not to look at them, but as we got near the gate, one of the kids came over and spat on my father,” Sukh recalls. Sukh says he and his brother “went ballistic, jumped the fence, and went to town.” However, ironically, Sukh’s father was more upset at his sons for fighting. “He basically wanted us to turn the other cheek, but that’s not in my makeup,” he said laughing. Needless to say, we got in fights a LOT! He said laughing.
Perhaps, taking the abuse isn’t in his makeup because prior to this event, Sukh faced extremely overt racism while growing up in Boston, getting beat up daily for not being like the other kids, “hence why I got into martial arts and own martial arts schools,” he jokes.
As if facing his own peers and battles wasn’t enough, Sukh witnessed and eventually caught on to the fact that even though his father was teaching at MIT with the highest level of intellectuals possible, he wasn’t making enough money. Sukh attributes racism and his father’s lack of promotions and respect in the work place to a part of why they were so poor and living in a two bedroom flat with five people and drug addicts in the lobby. However, Sukh acknowledges that they may have been better off if they took government assistance, but Sukh’s family’s values weren’t going to change to get a little extra income. Rather than accepting help, “we will figure out a way to save and figure out a way to work harder to get to where we need to be,” he said. That as our father’s moto. Along with hard work and education, Sukh adds that values passed down through generations include “respecting your elders, taking care of what has come before you so you have something for tomorrow, and leaving the world a better place for those that come after you.”
Despite the fact that the baseball diamond incident occurred in the Midwest, Sukh still asserts that racism is more subtle here than in Boston. He claims that in Boston, “you knew exactly where you stood. The Irish told you they didn’t like you to your face, Italians would tell you the same thing, so did the Blacks, so did the Latins. When we came to Ohio, it was the opposite. People were friendly and nice to you to your face but not necessarily behind your back.”
While attending Centerville high school, Sukh was one of the only ‘brown’ kids in the school. Other kids, while in Sukh’s company, would use offensive terms toward those that were different but immediately afterwards, would assure Sukh that he ‘isn’t like them.’ Regardless of how well the kids worked to reassure Sukh that he was ‘acceptable’ in their eyes, Sukh often found himself wondering what they would say about him when he wasn’t around.
After high school and college, the racism remained subtle in the workforce. At Sukh’s previous financial firm, as the only non-Caucasian at his level or above, he was constantly witnessing other employees getting promoted past him. “I couldn’t get to the next level even though I was the number one or two guy in terms of qualifications,” Sukh explains. This racism only made Sukh work harder, with his dad’s advice always in the back of his mind, to never use racism as a reason not to be successful.
Growing up, living, and traveling to all the parts of the globe he has been, he still ascertains that racism is everywhere. Everyone thinks it has just to do with “color” of skin, it thrives when there are different religions, social /economic statuses and individuals that others are envious of. There is no doubt that it “lives” in our great nation, however, Sukh believes there are even worse examples of this hatred of mankind in most other parts of the world.
There were even mixed feelings between both families when Sukh proposed to his wife. On his wife’s side of the family, they were apprehensive about the fact that Sukh was a Sikh and not a Catholic, when in reality Sikhism and Catholicism share very similar ideological views. Both religions believe that there is only one God, devote one day a week to a service in which they pray and sing hymns, participate in Baptisms into the faith, and condemn similar social issues, such as abortion (Leubscher). Sukh allowed himself to be educated by his wife’s uncle, a Catholic priest, and her practicing grandmother in hopes of easing the tension.
However, Sukh’s family’s opinion on the marriage, his mother in particular, couldn’t be solved with education alone, and he attributes the problem to ethnicity rather than religion. Sukh says his mother wanted him to marry “the typical Indian village woman” rather than a Caucasian woman from the United States. Despite his mother’s reactions, Sukh’s convictions remained intact, “I could either make my parents happy for the next twenty years of their life or I could make myself happy for the next sixty years of my life. I knew in my heart that if I found the right person, her caring, humbleness, sincerity, and character would shine through regardless of whether she was the same ethnicity.” Fortunately his wife won his mother over, “to the point where I sometimes think she cares about her more than she cares about me,” he jokes.
After the birth of their first child in 2009, followed by two more children in 2011 and 2014, Sukh and his wife decided to raise their children in an environment in which they are exposed to the culture of both of their parents while creating a culture of their own. “We engage them in all things Indian and all things that are American. It can only help them be better stewards when it comes to how to interact with all those that they meet. When you don’t have the ability to understand that someone is different from you, that’s when bigotry creeps in,” Sukh said.
Racism and family attitudes aside, Sukh finds that the way he identifies himself and the way society identifies himself has never aligned. Sukh is often referred as an Indian American, an identity he doesn’t consider himself being. “[It’s] nonsense. Why should I have to pick my ethnicity over my allegiance to my country? I am a first generation immigrant and now citizen of the United States of America. If you want to distinguish me, distinguish me as a brown American or black American. Terms like African American, Chinese American, Indian American or Italian American are ways of putting country second and ethnicity first.” Pride for your country and nationalism should matter more than ethnicity. The USA is called the “melting pot” for a reason.
Being from India, Sukh often has the inconvenience of explaining to others that his family actually originated from India, and are legitimate Indians, rather than being the “Indians” Columbus came upon when he discovered America. “It isn’t my fault Columbus was an idiot,” Sukh said jokingly. “He was trying to go to India, landed on America, and called everybody Indians. The people he encountered aren’t Indians; they are Native Americans. Even Native Americans call themselves Indians because [the term has] been engrained in their brains for generations. They are Native Americans; India is on the other side of the globe.”
As Sukh was providing these examples, I begin to wonder why society places such an importance on identifying others based on where they are from or the color of their skin. Perhaps for demographic data, but for what other reason? Placing labels, sometimes even incorrect labels, on others that they don’t identify with dehumanizes them. The victims have to struggle in dealing with the confusion of others along with their own confusion while struggling with whether or not to adjust their own identity with the identity others peg them to be.
Tying back to the confusion between Indians and Native Americans, when asked about stereotypes about Indians, Sukh told me it was easiest to understand through a joke comparing Indians and Native Americans, “dots (referring a bindi, a sometimes colored mark Indian women wear on their forehead for various occasions) (Sanskriti Magazine) not feathers, cabbies not horses, quickie marts not casinos. The stereotype is that Indians are either cab drivers or they own the local 7/11s. They are stingy, small framed, nerdy, and don’t know how to interact with others.” In reality, Sukh says, “India is a massive and diverse country.”
As if dealing with identification issues and stereotypes isn’t enough, Sukh claims that the swastika, made famous by Hitler’s symbol for the Nazi Party, is actually “Sanskrit meaning prosperity and peace.” Sure enough, “the word ‘swastika’ comes from the Sanskrit [word] svastika – ‘su’ meaning ‘good,’ ‘asti’ meaning ‘to be’” (Rosenberg). Indian cultures and other cultures have been using the swastika for the past 3,000 years to symbolize luck, power, and strength (Rosenberg).
It wasn’t until Hitler’s time and adoption of the swastika did the connotation change. Now, many do not know the original meaning of the swastika because it was such a well-known symbol of hatred and death in association with Hitler. To differentiate between whether the swastikas seen around the globe are for negative or positive causes, some are “varying its direction – trying to make the clockwise, Nazi version of the swastika mean hate and death while the counter-clockwise version would hold the ancient meaning of the symbol, life and good-luck” (Rosenberg). Imagine being accused of supporting Hitler when in reality the swastika has a deep cultural meaning to you.
Sukh closes the interview with a truth and piece of advice for those facing oppression because of who they are, “There is always going to be racism. If you’re different there is always going to be people that don’t like you,” he said. “People claim racism when they want something out of it. Beyond that, all they do is fit the stereotype of what it is. Stereotypes are around for a reason, so don’t be the stereotype. The way you rise above [racism] is by proving you can rise above it.”
"Bindi - Meaning and Significance of the ‘Dot’ on Forehead." Sanskriti Magazine. N.p.,
25 Nov. 2013. Web. 7 Mar. 2015.
Leubscher, William M. "Chicago’s Catholics & Sikhs: What Unites and Divides Us?"
Chicago Catholic Examiner. N.p., 12 Aug. 2012. Web. 7 Mar. 2015.
Rosenberg, Jennifer. "The History of the Swastika." N.p., n.d. Web.