I’ve always believed that the single most significant event in my life happened to me during the summer after fifth grade, when I was ten years old. One balmy Vancouver day, shortly after lunch, I was driven to a strip mall and did something that, up until that point, had been almost unthinkable. I got a haircut. Nowadays, haircuts are a fairly regular occurrence for me, but that day was different. That was my very first haircut. I didn’t really know what was going on during and felt a little bit awkward immediately afterwards, but walked out of that room feeling like a changed man.
Up until that day, I wore my knee-length hair in a small knotted bun that sat squarely at the top of my head, covered by a coloured cloth (a patka) in the style common for Sikh children. In other words, I had a turban (or the child’s version of one, anyways). The more I’ve reflected upon the course of my life, the more I’ve come to believe that almost all of it was a direct result of that day. The friends I’ve had, the schools I’ve gone to, the jobs I’ve worked, my field of study, the girls I’ve dated and even my own beliefs, are in one way or another a result of that haircut. In retrospect, that barber probably deserved a bigger tip.
To Cut or Not To Cut?
When I look back on it, I believe that I cut my hair for two reasons: one seems profound whereas the other is evidently juvenile. The former motive was my alienation from any sense of “Indianness” that I had previously possessed. Of course, I wouldn’t have described it as such at the time. An extended trip to India revealed that not only was I unable to speak the language, enjoy the food or understand the movies, but I was actually scorned by my extended family for my “Canadianness.” As a result, I thoroughly felt that I wasn’t, in any way, Indian. And my hair became a constant and annoying reminder of that fact.
The second reason, which at the time seemed infinitely more important than the first, was that I was—all of a sudden—very interested in girls. As a fifth-grader in the late-nineties, my conception of romance was primarily informed by Brian McKnight songs and Saved by the Bell. But I saw couples skating together hand in hand at the ice-rink, and I knew that I wanted in on it. As a notorious introvert bookworm with minimal social skills, a turban was probably the least of the hurdles standing in the way of getting a girlfriend. But at the time, I was certain that with only a few snips of the shears, I would effortlessly glide towards the heights of Zack Morris-like glory.
In the grand scheme of things, did the haircut really matter that much? I emphatically believe that it did. After I cut my hair, after I no longer had a turban, two things changed; the way that people looked at me and the ways in which I could look at myself. Much like skin colour, a turban signifies certain assumed characteristics to the outside world. But because a turban, unlike skin colour, is a matter of choice, most of the people who decide to keep one will possess some attributes in common, including a deep commitment to religion and a strong sense of Sikh identity—qualities I sorely lack. But I believe that in some ways, the cause and effect works both ways; while also being a sign of faith and identity, turbans, and other visible symbols of religious identity, also cultivate those very traits. Therefore, I believe that if I had kept a turban, not only would people have treated me differently, but I would have in essence treated myself differently.
In this alternate turban-verse, I still would have gone to the same junior high school. But I doubt that I would have played ball-hockey; helmets are a pain in the ass when you have a turban. Instead of hanging out with the group of mostly white girls and non-Punjabi Indian guys that I did, I think I would have felt more comfortable with the other Sikh kids. Chances are that instead of trading in my Dr Dre records for Abbey Road and Led Zeppelin IV, I would have stuck with rap—rock music was just a bit too white. Maybe in this turban-verse, I still would have decided to go to boarding school. But I have some doubts as to whether the stuffy, mostly lily-white boarding school I attended would be willing to bend their rules against facial hair for a Sikh student, even in the name of cultural diversity.
I doubt that the first girl I kiss in the turban-verse would be a white girl, nor would my first serious girlfriend be Brazilian. Instead of never having dated a Punjabi girl, I likely would have dated them exclusively.
My Sikh identity would have been much more cemented. Instead of the constant questioning of my racial and religious identity that I engaged in throughout my high school years which led me to obsess over issues of race (and indirectly guided me to my current major as a Political Science student focusing on genocide) I would have been drawn closer to religion and family life. And because of the increased importance of religion in my life, if I did take that course on existentialism in second year, I doubt that it would caused me to so thoroughly lose my faith, as it did in this universe. Only one thing would certainly remain constant across all possible universes—in all of them, I’m obsessively watching ‘Lost’.
When I think about all of the attributes and values that are essential to my character, including my love of music, a fascination with anything political or historical, an ambition to make a life for myself far away from the place I was raised, my pride in having left my parents house seven years ago, and the independent streak that led me to completely reject my family’s lifestyle, all of them disappear in this alternate reality. The friends I now have wouldn’t be my friends. Not that they wouldn’t have been friendly to me, or I to them, but things would have just been…different. All of this follows from a single alteration in my appearance, albeit one that comes loaded with meaning.
Turban 2: Electric Boogaloo
In about four months, my ten-year-old brother will finish the fifth grade. And just like I used to, he wears a turban. And just like I was, he’s a shy, sweet kid who’s come to a turning point in his life. Next year, he’ll be switching from the religious school he currently attends, and where most of the kids have uncut hair, to a public school.
What I fear is that if he keeps his hair uncut, people won’t necessarily see his personality: they’ll only see a Sikh. And in a province where only 28 per cent of people have a favourable view of Sikhism, that’s not a small burden. He’ll become the assumed spokesman for all that is Indian, and will be expected to act in certain ways—by Indians and non-Indians alike—that reflect that. Instead of being allowed to develop his own persona, he’ll have one assumed for him.
However, even as I’m writing this, I realize that there’s something insincere about what I’m saying. Although I do fear that if he keeps his hair, people will pigeonhole him for the rest of his life, I fear something else: that he’ll grow up to be, a person who I don’t have much in common with. I’m the eldest family member of my generation, the first to be born in Canada, and I have almost no rapport with any members of my family besides my mother. The thought that my only sibling could grow up to be a person I don’t necessarily get along with, well, worries me. Although I may nudge him one way, at the end of the day the decision will have to be his, regardless of what I say.